Student Profile: Emily Shackelton
While on a trip to London as a guest soloist for a Minnesota orchestra, Emily Shackelton found her muse: Fiona Apple's debut album Tidal.
For the aspiring singer, this was a turning point; Shackelton, then 14, began revising her dream of achieving pop-star status to becoming a songwriter instead.
"For the first time, the words really meant something and I started writing songs right away," recalls Shackelton. "I remember, I bought a notebook that day. I still have it. I just started writing."
From that day forward, the Biwabik, Minnesota native gravitated more and more to songwriting. "I performed a lot but I started falling in love with words more than performing itself," she says. "I just fell in love with the song and the way that the chords moved."
At first, Shackelton sought to write in the vein of Apple, "but I was never edgy or dark," she says. "I just had a very straightforward pop style."
It's taken her a while, but Shackelton is finally comfortable with the genre she tried so long to eschew. "Today, I'm really excited to just say, 'I'm a pop country writer,'" the songwriting major says. "But when I came to Berklee, everyone else was always trying to be so different, that I almost felt ashamed to just say, 'I want to be a country writer.'"
"So I tried for my first couple of years to write all the edgy, different songs, but once I was finally comfortable in my own skin, I feel like my writing has chosen me. Once I accepted that, now I feel my songs are different, that they have an edge that other people's songs don't because they're mine."
Along with finding her voice here at Berklee, Shackelton says she's been able to develop as a lyricist. "I grew up listening to Carole King, Carly Simon, James Taylor, and Stevie Wonder. So I feel like I had a really good sense of what the verse, chorus, and structure were, but I didn't know the technique of how to get to the next level. . . . The teachers here really challenged me to develop as a lyricist. I feel like I've had a really strong sense of melody and harmony and they've praised me for that, while also saying, 'Why aren't you putting your lyrics up to the same standards?'"
In particular, Shackelton credits professors Pat Pattison and Scarlet Keys for helping her develop her songwriting skills.
But for Shackelton, Berklee almost escaped her radar. Growing up in a small town in Minnesota that offered few artistic outlets, Shackelton had never heard of Berklee. It wasn't until April of her senior year in high school that she and a friend visited the campus; by then, she was already planning on attending Minnesota University. "We visited on a whim," she says. "I just fell in love with Berklee. I saw the Berklee Performance Center and thought, 'Oh my gosh, I'm going to perform here. I have to perform on this stage.'"
Shackelton and her friend applied and were accepted, but put on the wait list for the following spring semester. Ultimately, though, her friend—now her fiancé—was able to start that summer, and Shackelton in the fall.
Right away, Shackelton knew she had made the right decision. Beyond the songwriting skills she garnered, the college helped her expand her horizons. Her first semester, she was invited to join an r&b/soul ensemble with Skip Smith, focusing on the music of Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Chaka Khan, and Stevie Wonder. "Coming from a small town, I just wasn't used to diversity," she said. "It was like a cultural explosion being in that ensemble. It was the most amazing experience of my first year at Berklee. I made so many friends and I discovered life outside my little box. It really opened my eyes to different kinds of music, and performance-wise, it helped me come out of my shell."
Now, as she prepares to make her way in the real world, Shackelton has the tools she needs to pursue becoming a successful songwriter. "My dream is to have songs cut by well-known, successful recording artists," she says. "If I become an artist, that would be amazing, but my dream has changed since I was a little girl. Whereas I once wanted to be a performer, now writing is my true passion."
Already, Shackelton is making huge strides toward that goal. This past spring, she won first place and a $10,000 prize for her song "Goodbye" in BMI Foundation, Inc.'s 10th annual John Lennon Scholarship Competition.
After graduation, Shackelton is heading to Nashville, where she has landed an internship at Warner Chappell Music, the publishing arm of Warner Music Group. Meanwhile, she has already signed a publishing deal there for two songs.
She credits Berklee for much of her success. "I could have gone down to Nashville and not bothered going to Berklee but I wouldn't be half the writer I am now, having had all this practice."
Emily's Top Five Songwriters
- Dan Fogelberg
- Carole King
- Diane Warren
- Carly Simon
- Chantal Kreviazuk