Beguiling, enigmatic, a cloud takes shape, then morphs, a blown bubble hovers, so close, floating off your fingertip. Rock band Shill is hard to pin down yet accessible. Multi-layered and loaded with nuance, the songs reach out and take hold. Passion, energy and groove define the sound. Singer/songwriter Jonathan Perrow, the band’s founder, meticulously crafts each song, teasing out universal passions and universal truths that profoundly connect with the listener.
We’ve all been there, and that’s the point.
“The ticket is we are all human beings, searching and striving, and music connects us to those things,” says Perrow, a self-described wanderer who landed in New Orleans for many years.
“In There Somewhere,” the band’s first CD, showcases his way with words and ability to transcend simple categorization. The songs are getting accolades from important arbiters of independent songwriting. “Whistle Away,” a sweeping composition that sums up what the band is about, placed in the top 12 in Mike Pinder’s 2009 international Bandwars Competition, and Billboard’s 16th Annual Songwriting gave the tune accolades for its “energy-driven melodic theme” and well-thought lyrics. Pinder also gave “AIWIGBY,” “Play,” and “Pick a fight” awards for “notable songwriting achievement.”
For Perrow, music surfaced early. “I always knew I wanted to play rock and roll, from the time I could walk and talk,” he says
Even before that, he banged on the family piano in Connecticut. His mom taught him how to play. Viola and clarinet lessons came later, then his dad’s acoustic guitar, which Perrow doggedly tried to make sound like an electric guitar, then his first electric guitar, when he was 10.
Rock continued in high school, where Perrow was friends with Trey Anastasio, now of Phish fame, and Adam Durritz of the Counting Crows, with whom he wrote songs.
It is fitting that Perrow has a double degree in English Literature and Computer Science from Columbia University – he’s never satisfied doing just one thing. He’s traveled widely, pursued careers in journalism and real estate, and then New Orleans for many years after performing on the streets of Paris.
For years, he rehabbed houses, an apt metaphor at times for songwriting. Some projects are quick. Others require hours and hours of peeling back the layers – whether old plumbing or tired wallpaper – to find cool stuff.
With a music studio in his house, Perrow spends hours composing and editing, working and reworking. Although some songs happen in minutes, others take months.
“I am most motivated by making concise statements in music, walking the edge between the words and the spiritual,” he says.
Even the band’s name suggests more is going on that meets the ear.
One definition of a “shill” is a person who poses as a satisfied customer or an enthusiastic gambler to con bystanders into participating in a swindle. A more charitable view sees a shill as a covert advertiser, or someone who offers praise but is motivated by self-interest or profit. Essentially, a shill is a decoy.
“It’s all about how the song feels. What it means to you… A shill can be a positive thing in that it sneaks good stuff – true stuff – into your head, under your radar.”
Like the music, the black-and-white CD packaging, which Perrow designed, has hidden images and multiple layers of meaning if you stare at it long enough.
The music also has discipline, an elusive trait for many others out there somewhere. Perrow started writing songs for “in there somewhere” and future albums about 10 years ago when he felt his songwriting was worthy of attention; like most writers, he caries a notebook with him always, should inspiration strike.
For many years, Perrow was a copy editor for Lagniappe, the arts and entertainment weekly at The Times-Picayune, the daily newspaper in New Orleans.
“Editing for so long – it’s one of the things that’s been the most helpful to my songwriting,” he says. “You have to be brutal, you have to be willing to throw things away. You come to understand how statements are made, what to leave in, what to leave out.”
Shill listeners benefit, and almost always become fans. If a concept warrants poetry, Perrow delivers. If a song works best stripped down, it is. “I try to eliminate everything that prevents you from experiencing the emotion in your own way” he says. “As a writer, you use the personal — but you don’t barf it out on the page. You distill it and edit it and strip it down until its universality is revealed.”
“Shill has all kinds of hooks for anybody.”
Take “Blackout.” With both rap and jam band undertones, the song has a solid funk groove and a street sensibility. A night of over-indulgence? Anger that spills into blinding rage? Or a reference to the time Perrow was shot during a morning run in New Orleans, five times at close range, and left to die?
That might make sense, but like Shill, that explanation would be too simple. Perrow, in fact, wrote “Blackout” well before the shooting. Eerie foreshadowing? Perhaps. Or perhaps a song that simply resonates.
He was training for a marathon at 7 a.m., running down the middle of the street only a few blocks from his Bourbon Street apartment, when a pair of robbers demanded cash. “I don’t have any money, I’m running,” he told them. “Keep running,” one said. At the time, the response made sense, but a few steps later one assailant yelled “Die, bitch!” and fired, shattering Perrow’s right hip and severing his femoral artery. The gunman stood over Perrow and fired four more times, not missing. Perrow had no blood pressure and no pulse when he arrived at the emergency room.
The shooting solidified a journey that had already begun toward spending more time on his music. “I used to be afraid of dying and I am not anymore and I’d say that helps write songs,” Perrow says. “It eliminated some of that fear.”
Rehab was long, measured in years. He can move his left hand and fingers but cannot feel them, adding another layer of complication to playing the guitar.
“Once I was able to play again I had some things to prove to myself. “A year after the incident, I laid down this scorching guitar solo thing. I just let it go,” he says. “That was when I knew I had it back.”