Frank Simes, former Musical Director for The Who has also recorded with the likes of Mick Jagger, Don Henley and Stevie Nicks, says it all about his longtime friend, collaborator and fellow veteran musician Drake “Munkihaid” Shining: “Not only is Drake one of the most impressive and highly skilled keyboardists I’ve ever worked with on stage as well as in the studio, he has a producer’s ear for nuance, details, and thematic thought. Not to mention, he has an unstoppable sense of rhythm, groove, feel, color, and dynamics. In addition, he has a soulful and rich voice as a singer. He and I share a sense of the oblique strategy when it comes to music.”
That expansive array of musical forces and 45 years of experience recording and performing as a sideman in a multitude of genres comes to light in an exciting new way with the release of This Is Life Now, Munkihaid’s debut album created in collaboration with lyricist and co-producer, Eva-Marie Fredric and Frank Simes (who produced and mixed the 11-track collection). It was mastered by 20-time Grammy winner Howie Weinberg, whose credits include Nirvana’s Nevermind and Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill.
The following is an interview with Drake “Munkihaid” Shining and Eva-Marie Fredric.
Before we talk about this incredible album, please tell me about your individual careers up till now, and also any previous collaborative history together.
Drake: I’ve been a sideman for the most part and played with all kinds of artists at various levels, from headliners like Etta James, Deep Purple and Al Green to my current longtime gig as Musical Director/Keyboardist/Vocalist playing soul and blues with the Sugaray Rayford Band. The reason I’ve never been a big namedropper is that my philosophy is, ‘What have you done for me lately.’ My outlook on art and I what I do is that everything I’ve done in the past is a prelude for the present. For all the studio work and touring I’ve done, I wonder how many projects I’ve played on that are on a tape gathering dust in a vault somewhere. All of these experiences, though, have allowed me to now create an album that’s stylistically eclectic and highly personal.
Eva-Marie: I’ve been a published writer/poet/freelance journalist/photographer, (I had an entertainment column), have event-produced and the side jobs continue. My theatrical training was with the renowned Method Instructor, Jean Shelton where I studied and performed in the Bay Area. My day job was with famed investigative team, Palladino & Sutherland before moving to LA. I was fortunate to have friends/mentors like Andy Kaufman, Jason Miller and Hubert Selby, Jr. I got my start here writing for Evening at the Improv as both writer and performer. I play a mom in Hell in the Horror Film Val. We shot the day before shelter-in-place and premiered during the pandemic in Westwood. I’m in a rap video in Joyner Lucas’ I Don’t Die with Chris Brown, and ALA’s, Saved by the Scan where I climb a mountain of cigarettes. I wrote, produced and starred (as E.M. Fredric) in an award winning short, Shorty & Morty and also directed the sister short, Shorty & Morty: Hollywood @ Steak. It’s about the world’s most extraordinary homeless couple that crashes a puppet addict meeting in Krazytown. Hollywood serves as America’s distraction and at heart, Shorty & Morty is a love story.
But it's so much deeper than that. It holds up a mirror to an oblivious and uncaring society and its phony sense of acceptability and normalcy. It tells us that if we look deeply enough we will see that even as we try to be "normal," we are really all "ordinaries." No different than today. I grew up listening to classical, (my grandmother was an opera singer) rock (two brothers were musicians) and the current classics my parents loved. I’ve worked in many performance genres but I had never written songs that were produced before this album, with one exception, Christmas on the Row, (about the homeless), which I share lyric credits with singer/songwriter, Richard T. Bear.
I think everyone wants to know. You already have a super cool name Drake “RD” Shining. What does “Munkihaid” mean and how did you get that artist name?
Drake: Years ago I was sitting with a friend of mine and he was looking at an image of Koko, the famous gorilla who used sign language and who had an affinity for cats. My friend turned to me and said, you know, she looks like you with your big old monkey head. So “Munkihaid” became a nickname I have always had and thought it would be perfect to use now as my artist persona. When I go to Europe, people have to pronounce it phonetically. In the U.S., it almost sounds like you’re using a Southern accent. (Munkey-hay-ed)
Tell me about the origins of this project. After 45 years as a musician, why was now the perfect time to record a solo album? Had you thought of it at other points along the way?
Drake: I’ve been thinking about it for 40 years! But life tends to get in the way, and when you’re a sideman you have a certain mindset where it’s difficult to think of yourself as a featured artist. I’m grateful for those who have continued to encourage me. The pandemic had something to do with how it got started.
Eva-Marie: During lockdown, an extremely talented musician encouraged me to write lyrics because he loved my writing. That inspired, Free My Soul, the first track on the album. The song is about the ghosts in our lives that encourage us to move forward and let go. I posted lyrics on Facebook and asked my songster friends if they would compose music to my words. Nothing. I see Drake, who I’ve been close friends with for years and asked him why he didn’t answer. He looked at me with a shrug and said, “Why didn’t you just ask me?” And so it began. I think we both surprised one another at how quickly and with the ease that we connected artistically.
Drake: Eva-Marie and I had been in some of the same creative circles for several years and had a close friendship where we always encouraged each other’s artistic pursuits. I took her lyrics for Free My Soul and did minor edits with her to make them more vocal friendly. She wanted the song composed as a Christmas gift for a friend as a source of uplift during a difficult time. This was in November 2020 so we were under a time constraint to meet that holiday deadline. I wrote and arranged it and enlisted Frank Simes to produce it and it came out wonderfully. Everything evolved from that song.
When you decided to create an album, what was your original vision for it? Does This is Life Now fulfill that original vision for what it would be or did it evolve into something different?
Drake: Free My Soul came out so well and Eva-Marie told me she had nine more sets of lyrics written, so it just made sense to create more songs.
Eva-Marie: When I heard the song after Frank mixed and put his guitar on it, I just wanted to explode, I was so excited. The album cover photo, is from a shot I snapped of Drake standing in front of a huge rock decorated by natural bird crap (in Morro Bay) with a seagull perched on top. I showed it to him and said, this is your album cover. Once we decided to work on his debut album, we wanted it to be intimate and personal. The songs reflect love, loss, desire, dreams, a lot of humor, being bullied or misunderstood, lies we may or may not believe, unrequited love and mortality.
Drake: Each of the songs is a story unto itself. Composing the music to them was a challenge because the process of writing music to existing lyrics was backwards compared to the way I usually compose. I approached this similarly to how I would score a film, as if each lyric was a blank canvas, with no preconceptions. I just let the lyrics guide the music.
Eva-Marie: He would surprise me with what he came up with, like turning Rosie into a blues song with blues great, Walter Trout on lead guitar. I gave him some pretty heavy themes to work with, most particularly the tune that turned out to be the final song, Jump the Train, which tackles three separate but train-related tragedies I had personally known about. In the first few verses most think it’s just another suicide song, then by the end it reveals that most don’t care about what you do – it’s about hitting their next destination.
Drake: These kinds of stories drew me in. I had never been much for fluffy “moon June spoon” type love songs. It was more interesting to write music to such challenging lyrics.
Why is This is Life Now the perfect title for the whole project?
Drake: It’s the second track on the album and I realized that thread kind of runs through all the material. She had written the song with that title and as we were creating these songs, it continued to present itself as the title for the project because each of these stories is a little piece of life, and more specifically about life as it is now.
What role did the pandemic and quarantine play in the process? Would you consider the album a silver lining in a difficult time?
Eva-Marie: Yes. I went from live/taped auditions to reading projects on zoom and rewriting a few scripts I had set aside. The world as we knew it stopped. It became the perfect storm to learn new ways to connect and create. A sixth grade teacher once told my class her father had just died and she proceeded to explain how every year he would talk about building his picket fence. He never did. With a deep sadness she said, “Make sure you build your fence.” This album is one of my picket fences.
Drake: As someone who makes his living as a touring musician, I was thrown for a loop by how quickly everything shut down. I was in the Pacific Northwest, Ground Zero for COVID in the U.S, when it happened and it quickly became apparent that musicians were the first people to lose their jobs and would probably be the last to get them back. That sort of frustration really lends itself to the need for a creative outlet. The down time gave me and Eva-Marie an opportunity to collaborate that would not have happened otherwise. Although, we talked about writing songs together. We’ve been airing both locally and in France.
Do they songs collectively form a specific narrative or are they more like snapshots about many different aspects of life and love?
Drake: As a live musician and MD, I had been writing set lists for decades, so I know all about ebb and flow when it comes to creating a meaningful emotional presentation. There’s a bit of that on This is Life Now, a thread that runs through everything from the powerful opening song with the wonderful message then into This is Life Now with a message of its own and then into the raw, hard-hitting Rosie and beyond. If you look at them, they are arranged like a chronicle of personal and past relationships and deep abiding friendships that transcend life itself – all topped with a silly romantic relationship on Luna (Eva-Marie is Luna) and Velvet Stiletto, where a man who is enamored by a mysterious woman. What I Don’t Say is particularly interesting because the music changes at the end and becomes darker as the lyrics shift from fantasy to reality. There are a lot of fun man-woman stories like Denise and Get Outta the Shower. The one song where I wrote both music and lyrics is (You Can’t) Talk to Me, which is a commentary about how deceptive our modern world can be.
Eva-Marie: Get Out of the Shower came from a scene I wrote about two guys watching a ballgame together as they discuss each other’s problems with their significant others. The married one tells his buddy not to make the same mistake he did by buying his wife a gift that he now regrets. Drake knew the story and said, “Why don’t we do a song about that?” I had fun being the woman in that one, too.
Frank Simes, Eva-Marie Fredric, Drake "Munkihaid" Shining
I know from what Eva-Marie told me earlier that Rosie is a very significant song as well. It’s pretty hard hitting talking about a beloved person’s illness and death. Who was Rosie and how did the song come about?
Eva-Marie: Roosevelt Weeks was an incredible friend who helped so many people in their recovery from alcoholism. He was always there for others while raising his son, Ellison, who lived with him from fifth grade until Rosie passed away. When Rosie was diagnosed with stage four cancer, people told him (disturbingly so) that he could wish it away with positive thinking, or asked him to not talk about it. This was his life! As a cancer survivor myself, I connected powerfully with him. My son lost his father when he was an infant and Ellison would lose his as he became a man. Rosie fought to stay alive while coming to terms with his own mortality. The feedback we’ve gotten is that so many have experienced this journey personally or have lost someone. In essence, we’re all living in Stage four.
Drake: The overriding message of Rosie is that love and friendship are the only things that endure. As soon as the CD’s came out it was extremely important to Eva-Marie to find his son. It was an honor to meet Rosie’s son Ellison close to the 20th anniversary of his father’s passing. It was a wonderful gift to hear his and his family’s positive reactions and to answer his questions about the song’s process. It was a powerful meeting and what was important to Eva-Marie was giving a memory that will live on in generations to come for his son and family.
What is the significance of the CD cover – the front, the back and the insert, and the symbolism of the bird poop?
Eva-Marie: As I mentioned earlier, I took the photo of Drake in front of the rock, all the time hoping the seagull would stay put. The bird poop coming down the rock towards his head is real, though the clouds were designed later by my son, Dylan Bocanegra, (Assistant Art Director on Star Trek Picard for 2 ½ seasons). Dylan added to the photographs on the front, back and inside of us both, turning my original shots into beautiful artwork unto themselves – while adding to the theme.
Drake: If you look at the angle at which I am gazing up on the back cover, you will see that I’m looking at the incoming seagulls like, oh my God, here comes more life. I’m looking beyond towards Eva-Marie, who is a ghostly Eva-Marie Fredric and Rosie's son Ellison Weeks
presence up above the seagulls. It’s an Easter
egg you have to look for and signifies our
friendship and collaborative efforts.
Eva-Marie: The insert photo of me in the cape is originally from a full-length shot taken by romantic realism photographer. David Palmer. Dylan cropped it, added my shot of Drake pointing and laughing at the transference of life’s challenges passed onto me.
Drake: The bird sh*t represents life, because there are times when it just shits on everybody, no matter who you are or where you come from. It’s the perfect allegory for life in the 21st post-COVID world.
Do you have plans for a follow up to This Is Life Now?
Drake: There is definitely more to come. Eva-Marie’s already got a stack of lyrics and we’ve begun the next album. This Is Life Now being both an introduction for both of us as songwriters, and as collaborators, we’re thinking, okay, let’s see where we can go from here and see what we can do. The compositions are perfect for use in both television and film. One of the overriding takeaways from the recording process is the wonderful friendships that grew out of it. I have been friends with Frank for decades and Eva-Marie for years, and it was wonderful to bring them together and see them develop a close friendship as well. It became our mutual desire to leave something behind with the clear message, do what you love and get it done. Be fearless.
This Is Life Now is available now on Amazon, Spotify and all streaming platforms.
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Season 4: The Bear Facts guests Drake “Munkihaid” Shining & Eva-Marie Fredric about This Is Life Now: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ctUsTDRoZBc