In 2016, John Shakespear fell in love, and his country changed forever. On Spend Your Youth, his first full-length record, the Nashville-based, Boston-bred songwriter captures the experience of coming of age in a time of national division and social unease. With a poet’s eye for detail and a persevering warmth that transcends national and political boundaries, Shakespear’s lushly orchestrated indie-folk songs question what it means to find personal happiness and identity in a fraught, complicated world.
From the record’s opening line—“1994, precious years we had between the wars”—to its echoing final words, Spend Your Youth walks the line between the personal and the political, chronicling love and loss in late empire. But the last thing Shakespear will ever be is an outsider, casting judgment down from above.
“I’m right there in the middle of it,” he says, “messing up, rethinking everything constantly, and questioning my own flaws and my place in the world.”
Coming of age means coming into awareness, but Shakespear has never been a stranger to questioning. As the child of an Argentine immigrant and a Boston-Irish mother, as a doubting boy in a Catholic choir school, and as an aspiring artist in the business-oriented world of the Ivy League, he has always been between identities and worlds. As a teenager, he found a home in music and writing, filling notebooks, starting bands, and flipping obsessively through his parents’ record collection—a vestige of their own coming-of-age stories in the ‘70s. Among those faded vinyls, he discovered artists like Joni Mitchell, Townes Van Zandt, and Nina Simone, and his identity as a songwriter began to take shape.
At Princeton, he joined a writing department filled with luminaries like Edmund White and Joyce Carol Oates, but felt alienated by the school’s country-club, careerist culture. “There was this sense I had then that art was not an option, not a viable way to be a person in the world,” Shakespear says, “but it was the only thing I wanted to do.” Luckily, his travels took him to his father’s native Buenos Aires, where he found a community of musicians and dove deeper into guitar-playing and songwriting, developing a lilting yet driving style that recalls players like Leonard Cohen and the Tallest Man on Earth.
It was there that he began to think about his family’s experience of immigration—about what America meant to them when they arrived, and what it means to him now. The cover of Spend Your Youth centers this history: in a photo his grandfather took in 1962, just after immigrating, Shakespear’s grandmother sits on a rock, staring out at the ocean, while the rest of the family sits apart from her, across the waves, looking offshore towards a new country and an uncertain future.
After college, John moved back to Cambridge, MA and developed a following in Boston’s diverse DIY music scene, both as a solo artist and a member of several bands, including local indie stalwart Atlas Lab. He got a job at local venue The Lizard Lounge and set up shop with his best friends and musical collaborators at Pink Noise Studios. “I had less and less money,” Shakespear says of those years, “and I felt more and more like myself every day.”
Tours took Shakespear all over New England and Canada, and he shared stages with acts such as Henry Jamison, Lewis del Mar, and Busty and the Bass. In 2015, he recorded his first solo EP No Wires with longtime collaborator Parker Crane and went on a national tour, driving a beat-up Honda Element from Boston to California. In Oakland, Crane and Shakespear recorded his second EP, Little Light, over the course of a single week in a windowless shipping container that once served as Tune-Yards’s practice space. These two EPs earned praise from outlets like Sound of Boston, Deli Magazine, and Honest Noise, and in 2016, John joined forces Sam Wilson (lead guitar), Alex LaRue (bass), John Helyar (violin), Nate Taylor (cello), and Greg Hum (drums) to form a full band.
In 2017, he uprooted his life and moved to Nashville with his girlfriend, all the while traveling back to New England to finish Spend Your Youth with producer Devon Dawson (credits on Local Natives), who brought on mixer Greg Giorgio (The National, Sharon Van Etten, The Head and the Heart) to help with several tracks. This period of transition infuses his new songs: the giddiness of a new relationship, the fears love can carry with it. On soaring, country-sweetened ballad “Light On,” Shakespear sings about the saving power of good love in a time of political discord: “If the empire comes crashing down, in a flash of light or a burst of sound or a world war, I’ll be at your door, I’ll run.” On driving indie-rocker “Darkened Room,” in turn, he’s haunted by the dream of losing love.
In Shakespear’s nuanced love songs, moments of sweetness are always cut with self-deprecation and vivid detail, as on “Cavalier,” where he quips, “There was a time I thought that you were holy just because you lived in Montreal; I thought that things were different there, based on no experience at all.”
Elsewhere, Shakespear turns a wry eye towards the millennial experience. On “Love of Mine,” he digs into the anxiety of the years he spent waiting tables in Boston while he played in local bands. “You’ve had a dream since you were seventeen, you’re dreaming it still at the bar while you clean glasses and silverware,” he sings to a past self. “Every good dream has a price.” Lead single “Swinging for the Fences” is an upbeat, beachy tune about struggling to reach the American dream, rolled up in the most American of metaphors: baseball.
As the album nears its close, lilting, finger-picked title track “Spend Your Youth” brings all its themes together and sets them to a shuffle beat, jaunting through several different aspects of growing up: the safe path (get a house in the suburbs for two”), the Kerouacian dreams of adolescence (“jumping trains, drinking gin in the rain”), and the comfort of finding somebody to share the ride with (“don’t ever forget how lucky you were when you met her”).
Shakespear’s reimagining of the Americana tradition reflects both the beauty and the darkness of modern-day America, but he never forgets to look for the light. On album closer “I Will Not Go Quietly,” Shakespear returns to his folk roots with a sparse, Dylanesque protest ballad that takes on feelings of hopelessness and the inequality in America’s criminal justice system. But he concludes with a hopeful, realistic call to action: “you must sing any way you know how.” He leaves us, at the end of the day, with hope.
American Songwriter - “John Shakespear Announces Spend Your Youth, Shares Wistful Title Track”