In my previous Friday Night Music posts, I’ve just been sharing artists I like, with no overarching theme. But this is Daylight Atheism, after all, and it’s about time I featured an explicitly atheist musician!
I’ll be the first to say that I don’t usually like what you might call “message music”, but Shelley Segal is the exception. I heard her sing on Freethought Radio earlier this year, and I was instantly a devotee. I bought her 2011 record An Atheist Album right away, and I’ve been listening to it ever since. The featured song in this post, “Saved”, is probably my favorite, but there are many others that are just as good. I’ve also enjoyed her newest album, a jazz collaboration called Little March.
I got a chance to talk with Shelley at Skepticon VI last month. I can testify that she’s an incredibly approachable, warm and friendly person – and did I mention she flew all the way from Australia to Springfield, Missouri to perform for free? – and she graciously agreed to answer some of my questions.
I understand you were raised in Judaism. Can you tell us a little about what your upbringing was like and what eventually convinced you to leave the faith?
I was raised in what my family would call a ‘traditional’ household. We had a moderate level of observance, not orthodox. We kept to the dietary laws of only eating kosher animals and not mixing milk and meat products. We had Sabbath dinners on Friday night. My brother and I both attended a Jewish school. I learned to speak Hebrew and was part of a Jewish Zionist youth group called Habonim Dror. Our Jewish identity was a big part of our lives and something that was very important and meaningful to me as a child and a young adult. I prayed almost every night and would write songs to ‘god.’ We celebrated the festivals and at one point started to go to Shule (synagogue) every week. Eventually my father became the president of the shule.
The shule we attended was orthodox. I had to wear skirts or dresses and I had to sit upstairs with the women. I wasn’t allowed to be part of the service like my father and brother were. They would get to sing from the Bimah (stage) and for my brother’s Bar-Mitzvah service, he led the congregation and read from the Torah (the scrolls containing the Old Testament). For my Bat-mitzvah I gave a speech as women could not lead the service or read from the Torah.
There were several things that helped to challenge my religious ideology. When I was 17 I started seeing a non-Jewish boy. This was unacceptable to my father and made me question laws that would interfere with a sincere love and happiness. What ultimately made me question my deepest held beliefs was travelling. Seeing so many different world-views made it easier to see my own as just one of many, equally deserving of criticism. Seeing much suffering also challenged my idea of a kind and just creator.
Above, I focused on the religious elements of my upbringing. More importantly to me, I grew up in a very loving and encouraging atmosphere. I think it was the self-belief that my parents instilled in me, that allowed me to question and eventually trust my own judgement. It is that same loving environment they provide, which allows to me explain to them my thoughts and ideas and help them to question and grow as well.
What inspired you to write the song “Saved”?
I wrote ‘Saved’ after I had a discussion with a street-preacher. He had approached me in my neighbourhood, and began to tell me about Jesus and the age of the earth. A man interrupted my day to tell me how I should live my life. Some religious people want to do this. They want to dictate what I and everybody else should worship or consider sacred. What we should do with our own body parts. Who we should love. Who we can commit to. The song came from a place of frustration, but also an assertion, ‘I will not be told’ and ‘I am going to question.’
With all the conventions and events you’ve performed at, is there one that’s your personal favorite? Do you have any memorable stories or experiences from being on the road?
That is a difficult question as every show has been memorable. From hearing incredible speakers to meeting people after the shows and hearing their stories. I also love being on the road. It’s hectic and a lot of fun. I love meeting all different secular/atheist/free-thinking/humanist groups and learning how they work. I feel like I’m getting to experience the American secular movement in all its intricacies. One performance that stands out was playing at the ‘Reason Rally.’ It was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. I had the opportunity to play to over 25,000 people who were all passionate about the same issues as me. It was incredibly motivating and empowering. Another performance that was very special was in Lowell, MA. It was my first ever house concert. It basically became like a group discussion where I would play a song and then everyone would share stories about their experiences. It was very special and I have since been back to play for that community another 2 times :)
What’s your next album going to be?
I have recently recorded an album of standards with the incredibly talented Dan Barker. We are still in the mixing process but hopefully it will be ready soon.
Next February I will be releasing a new solo album. The album is a folk-pop style, with the same band as ‘An Atheist Album.’
I am also working on a side-project with my partner called ‘Snow Pear’ which will be ready some time next year.
So I’m not even sure what’s going to be ready first but am really excited about all of these projects.