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Starnes&Shah find solace in sonic collaboration

Posted 12:00am on Thursday, Jul. 25, 2013

Dania Abu-Shaheen named her 2004 album Expatriate. In it, she explored the reconciliation of her childhood in Lebanon with her adult New York City life as an aspiring singer-songwriter. She met former Dallasite Zilpha Starnes in 2007, and the two have been in NYC harmonizing and making music ever since as Starnes&Shah.

Though the guitar-playing, singer-songwriter format allowed Abu-Shaheen to explore her multicultural storytelling style, “I would never go back to singing alone,” she says. “A huge connection happens when two or more people sing together.”

Starnes participated in theater at Lake Highlands High School and brings dramatic flair to the Starnes&Shah recordings. Singing harmonies allows her to “play around with emphasizing parts or giving parts a certain mood,” she says. Because her musical partner’s poetic lyrics can usually be interpreted as stories, Starnes uses her voice to “show some of those images, bring across some of those emotions,” she says.

Over the course of the past seven years, the duo has performed everything from folk ballads to driving rock songs and released three full-length albums. Their fourth, Shilling for Dreamtown, will hit the Internet in early November. Shilling will be another step in the band’s rock-aiming revolution, featuring complex vocal harmonies, Starnes’ synthesizer and supporting bass and drum players.

The duo took an unplanned break from recording when one of Abu-Shaheen’s family members suffered a medical crisis, which turned her life and music upside down. Initially, the two intended the record to be the “story of being an indie artist,” Abu-Shaheen says. In the midst of a family tragedy, making the music also became “a sort of therapy.”

“Of course [indie musicianship] is riddled with hardship and uncertainty, doubt and heartbreak,” she continued. “But there is a lot of joy in the album as well.”

Both women are around the 30 mark and work full-time office jobs in addition to making music. For them, sonic art provides the magic that allows the real world to keep ticking.

Though they still intend to press as hard as possible to move into professional music careers, they say they sat back and enjoyed the process of making Shilling for Dreamtown. On previous efforts, they tried to limit the recordings to how a live show sounded. This time, they let the restrictions go. “We kind of let it tell us what it wanted to sound like,” Abu-Shaheen says of the record, “And we were happy to oblige.”

Starnes&Shah has no manager, so the two use evenings and weekends to coordinate shows, recording sessions and the myriad other nuts and bolts that accompany working in the indie music world.

Though the practical details can be cumbersome, Starnes vows: “We can do this on our own. We can make it happen just because we want to be doing it.”

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