An Interview With Shelley Segal

This interview with Shelley Segal is part of my blogathon for the Secular Student Alliance. Her album is An Atheist Album Please support the cause of freethinking in high schools and colleges. See links to the many diverse conversations from the blogathon, updated throughout the day, at the blogathon conversation table of contents.

Daniel Fincke: So I am going to start in a somewhat random place, but with good reason: I have been interviewing people consecutively (and simultaneously) for the last 21 and a half hours. So I reserve the right to be delirious.

You have a song that you introduce by explaining that you don’t believe in marriage. Yet, the song talks about how your word is unbreakable instead.

Now I can understand the rejection of marriage out of a disbelief in committing oneself for a lifetime in advance of all possible emotional changes and personal growth. But if you’re essentially going to talk (or sing!) in the equivalent of vow terms, then how are you rejecting marriage? Or why, exactly? What is wrong with the institution in that case?

Shelley Segal: Great question! That is really the main issue I have with marriage, as a life commitment. I don’t think it’s something I can honestly promise or give to someone, as I don’t know who I’ll be or what I will want in 40 years. I feel as though it is brought about out of fear and a desire for security.

With my partner, we have an agreement between us, that we follow the terms that we set between us, until one of us doesn’t want to anymore.
And that is the word that I will keep. What I have a agreed to, until I say otherwise. Not to say I don’t appreciate the happiness that marriage brings to other people, who feel it is what they want out of life. I have worked as a wedding singer for 13 years and still get teary at the nicer ones.

I can appreciate the depth of the commitment that people make and the satisfaction they can acheive through making it work.

Daniel Fincke: So “your word” is the provisional, “yeah, for now, might change”. That does not sound like much of promise at all! That sounds like just an ordinary relationship.

Shelley Segal: My parents have been married for 30 years and I still catch them making out under the staircase.

Daniel Fincke: Now that’s sweet.

Shelley Segal: Well yes, but isn’t that a promise? Isn’t a relationship an agreement between people?

Daniel Fincke: yeah, but promises are supposed to be less provisional than that, no?

Shelley Segal: I think being able to take change into account can strengthen a relationship. If you are open to new situations but keep communicating to eachother. ‘I promise to be with you, under the circumstances upon which we have agreed, until I no longer feel the same way.’ I wouldn’t want someone to be with me if they didn’t want to anymore.

Daniel Fincke: Sure, I agree with that wholeheartedly
So now let’s talk about your album. Did you set out to make “an atheist album” or was that just what you found you had when it was done?

Shelley Segal: Oh, one last point on marriage if I may. I think it was in Mexico that they were considering 10 year marriage contracts
That sounded cool to me.

Daniel Fincke: Wow. Yeah.

Shelley Segal: Maybe shorter though. That way people can receive the same government benefits.

Daniel Fincke: I have a hard time believing that.

Shelley Segal: Well, I thought it was a good step forward, especially considering our extending lifespans. Marriage is looking to be a lot longer of a commitment.

Daniel Fincke: hahahaha Yes

Shelley Segal: ok, so album… Well, I usually write songs about whatever is happening to me at a particular time. I was starting to get involved in secularism/atheist activism a bit over 2 years ago and that’s when I started writing songs that had an atheist/secular theme
I wrote ‘Saved’ and ‘Gratitude.’ Then I became a co-host (only twice) for the first Atheist radio program in Australia, the ‘Atheist Age’ and I sang those two songs on the air. 

After Christopher Hitchens got sick I wrote ‘Apocalyptic Love Song’ and I had some other ideas. By this time I was in London getting to work with a producer and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have a whole album discussing all my views on related issues?’ Get out all the things I wanted to say. So the idea for the whole album came about halfway through.

Daniel Fincke: And it’s opened a ton of doors, right? For an indie artist from Australia with her first album you have probably set a record for trips to the United States in the first 7 months of your album’s release!

Shelley Segal: I can’t believe you’ve been doing this for 21 hours!! I hope you have someone on coffee delivery.

Daniel Fincke: I thrive on good conversation apparently!

Shelley Segal: Absolutely! I have had such a great response from the freethought/atheist/humanist/secular community. Everyone has been very supportive and encouraging.

Daniel Fincke: How did you get invited to the Reason Rally?

Shelley Segal: I just got back from my 3rd visit. I am loving the community
Dave Silverman wrote to me. (That was pretty exciting) I think a lot of people online had been talking to him. Aron Ra, Open Air Atheist (James Stilwell) and Darrel Ray were putting in good words for me.

Daniel Fincke: And was your experience of the rally and the American Atheist conference like?

Shelley Segal: pfffff…..No words. It was so incredible!

Daniel Fincke: Yeah, made you proud to be an American, right?

Shelley Segal: hahaha I met the National Atheist Party and was wearing their T-shirt. I said, ‘I support you but I can’t vote’. The whole experience made me partly want to move to the states and join in and also to rush home and make sure we don’t end up in the same situation.

Daniel Fincke: How are things there for secularists and atheists?

Shelley Segal: I think we do keep track of what’s happening in America, but not to the extent that we would hear about secular issues in the mainstream press.

It is very different here for atheists. We don’t face the same discrimination. Our culture is very secular and most people are apathetic towards religion. The prime minister is openly atheist and it’s not really an issue. However, the religious lobby is responding to this situation and is trying to get it’s way on a lot of policy issues. I think that the general consensus that religion is not a problem here allows them to make undetected progress.

Daniel Fincke: So do Australians even understand the need for an album like yours in that kind of context? What’s been the local reception?

Shelley Segal: Probably not I don’t think many Australians think about the issues. Whilst it was incredibly validating to sing my songs to an audience that is supportive and engaged with the issues I also enjoy bringing the topic up with people who aren’t considering it. I like forcing people to consider the fact that religious ideas might have more of an effect than they realise.

The local reception has been good. A lot of people have told me that they like me having something to talk about. I have a religious friend who loves my album and says I’m ‘spiritual despite myself’. There is an atheist/secular movement at home who have also been incredibly supportive.

Daniel Fincke: How do you avoid didacticism writing when writing about something like your beliefs and values in specific terms?

Shelley Segal: It is hard not to come across in that way and I have received some criticism for that. However, I tried to write the songs in the same way that I write all my other songs, based on personal experience. I believe that if you are sharing your honest feelings, thoughts and reflections then that will come across. That it can be seen as a genuine expression, rather than a lesson. I like to know what it is that I want to say in all my songs, regardless of their topic. That is what I like about song-writing. The ability to convey a message though singing and performance.

Daniel Fincke: I think most of the album avoids it. I think there is enough indirection in the song, “Eve”, since it is written in an ironic, sarcastic voice and sung with an edge. And even though “Saved” is straightforward, it’s not lessonish but its confrontational and that defiance is what raises it above strict preaching to me.

Shelley Segal: Cool. I don’t know if you’ve heard of this Aussie guy but I think he is incredible.

This is a solo version but the band recording could pass as indie.

I like pretty much everything. As long as it’s good I especially like singer-songwriters, lyrics are a big thing for me as that’s what got me into music. I lOVE Ani Difranco. At the moment I am getting into Kate Bush and then also expanding into more instrumental based stuff which is probably my boyfriends influence. Stuff like Zappa and Pink Floyd. Although their lyrics are amazing as well.

Daniel Fincke: Ani DiFranco has this song, starts out really quiet and poignant. And I put it on a cd of cool songs for my friend and he’s in the car mellowing out to it. And finally she hits the chorus and it’s “Fuck you and your untouchable face” and he was like, “hello!” He never lets me forget that.

Shelley Segal: haha. I love that song. I think she is really the queen of expressing her views and beliefs in the most artistic and beautiful (and funky) way. I remember after doing ‘the atheist mixtape’ on the AHA’s podcast that Roy Zimmerman also cited her as one of his biggest influences.

Daniel Fincke: Okay, listening to this and your interests, you would love St. Vincent. Do you listen to her?

Shelley Segal: Album shopping time!

Daniel Fincke: Yay!

Shelley Segal: Ani has a song called marrow too.

Daniel Fincke: So you listen to really experimental people, do you try to do stuff that is weird and dissonant and varied in instrumentation?

Shelley Segal: I do try to keep pushing myself to grow. I think you naturally get bored of playing that same chords and hearing the same sounds and it’s a matter of bringing in dissonances subtly at times and seeing how far you can push it at others.

Quite a few people found ‘I don’t believe in fairies’ harder to listen to and I’m sure that has to do with the chords.
My next project that I’m working on (won’t be out till another 2 albums’ time) is probably going to have the weirdest stuff I’ve written yet.

Daniel Fincke: How constrained or liberated do you feel not having a permanent band?

Shelley Segal: Exactly, it’s both. It’s so great being able to fly around and be self sufficient in providing a night of music. But sometimes it would be nice to have that extra energy with you on stage. It’s not practical at this point (if it ever would be) to fly a band around with me and there’s not enough time in each place to put one together. I do love the freedom though, of being able to slow down and speed up as I please. Really let each performance be different.

Daniel Fincke: But even as a writer, do you miss the collaboration of others who think in terms of other instruments primarily? Like wasn’t the idea to give “Saved” a ska feel your producer’s?

Shelley Segal: Yes. I do miss that collaboration. I write other parts but I would rarely write a bass line that would be better than what a bass player would write. However, I feel that with just vocals and a guitar, my voice and the lyrics have a bit more room to breathe. And for me, my music is so much about the lyrics. That is changing now as my guitar playing is improving and I am excited to see where that will go in the future.

On occasion at home I get to jam my songs with my boyfriend and our friend Fabian (who both accompanied me at my launch-along with Dan Barker ) and I get to have that enjoyment of playing with other musicians. Also my dad accompanies me on the violin at home, which is my favourite thing in the world. He played with me at the Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne, even though he is the president of a Synagogue.

Daniel Fincke: Alright, I want to post you at 5am, so let’s wrap this up. I’m going to name people and things and you give me one word that pops to your head. Ready?

Shelley Segal: ok ready

Daniel Fincke: Adele

Shelley Segal: awesome

Daniel Fincke: Jt Eberhard

Shelley Segal: bandana

Daniel Fincke: PZ Myers

Shelley Segal: beard hahaha

Daniel Fincke: Canada

Shelley Segal: maple

Daniel Fincke: Kermit the Frog

Shelley Segal: green

Daniel Fincke: banana

Shelley Segal: hahaha what’s his name… ray comfort

Daniel Fincke: You got it! Okay, you win. That was all a test. Thanks so much for joining me on the blogathon, Shelley!

Shelley Segal: Thanks heaps for having me. Was great chatting. Next time I’ll hear more about you hopefully.

Daniel Fincke: Oh right! Any time!

Shelley Segal: I’m also looking forward to reading the rest although it seems like it will be a lot of material.

Daniel Fincke: It’s a ton. Go read all of them.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Bjarte Foshaug

    I don’t think agreeing with the lyrics is a sufficient reason to buy a record, but An Atheist Album really is awesome. Since I bought the album from iTunes in mid april, I have hardly listened to anything else. I’ll be interested to hear whatever Shelley puts out in the future, even if it’s not about atheism :)


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