Token Skeptic Interview – Shelley Segal

Quick update for folks in Melbourne!

Shelley Segal is doing a gig tomorrow at Miss Libertines at 34 Franklin St in the city. It’s from 2-7pm, with five bands for $5 and it’s all going towards organising a fundraiser on March the 10th that is raising money for a women’s shelter. Head down to hear the music and support a good cause!

Shelley Segal is a singer-song writer from Melbourne, Australia. Growing up in a musical family, Shelley began singing at age three. She started writing songs and performing from the age of eleven.

Shelley plays guitar and piano. She teaches vocals, music theory and song-writing and has been performing live, around Melbourne and internationally, for the last ten years. Initially having been brought up as a Jew, Shelley rejected her religion and became an atheist at eighteen. Over the last few years, Shelley has become involved in the secular movement and it is a cause that she sees as indispensable. In response to her views, this year Shelley has recorded and released, ‘An Atheist Album.’ The seven songs on the album are her thoughts on religion and related themes, through the prism of her secular humanism.

Shelley will be performing at the forthcoming Reason Rally on March 24th, the Global Atheist Convention during the 13-15th April and the Annual American Humanists Conferencefrom the 7-10th June.

Firstly, your promotional materials say “Raised Jewish, Segal rejected her religion and became an atheist at eighteen. Over the last few years, she has become quite involved in the secular movement” – what promoted these moves away from religion and becoming involved in secularism? Why “reject” in particular?

I believed in the biblical account of creation, without much though or consideration, until I learnt about evolution in year 11 biology class. The crack in my world-view deepened over the next two years, and with the help of a non-believing partner, I began to analyse my beliefs. Even as a budding atheist I still thought religion was an overall positive force. It was only after being able to see my religion from an outside perspective that I rejected it.

I say ‘rejected’ because it was the first time I felt I had the critical capacities to consider whether I wanted it to be a part of my life or not. Whereas earlier in life, it wasn’t a choice, it was the truth. It was what I understood as the foundational explanation of my life and the world around me. Becoming an atheist was the beginning of my rejecting my religion. At first it was just the core beliefs that I found to be inadequate. Upon further investigation, I found many aspects of it to be divisive, prejudiced, homophobic and sexist. I felt a moral urge to reject these aspects that, in my opinion, are inextricably bound to the fundamentals of the religion.

Seeing the power and influence that many religious institutions have in society, often going uncriticised and seen unquestioningly as a moral authority, was what motivated me to become involved in the secular movement. It was the outspoken critique of religion by prominent authors and thinkers, especially Christopher Hitchens, that gave me the courage to do so.

Did you always intend to be a musician?

I’ve always been singing and being a musician has always been the plan. My father is a musician as well, so I have always been at gigs and rehearsals and I have been surrounded by live music since I was a small child. We had a lot of traditional Jewish music, contrasted with Top 40 music (my dad is a pop fiend). As a child I was blown away by the voices my dad showed me; Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. For my ninth birthday I asked for Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill. That album changed my life and the way I saw music entirely. I felt the power of her lyrics and I realised how music can be a communicative tool that can tell stories and share points of view.

Your music is clearly influenced by folk, blues and rock – I’m reminded of Ani diFranco in particular – what led you to choose the particular styles for the songs in this album?

I love Ani! I think that my major influences of the singer-songwriter story-teller come across in my music regardless of the style. I don’t consciously choose the style of a song before I write it. It comes out in the way that I play it when I write it. The elements of the song, the rhythms, the chords or the melodies really dictate the style that the song will take. I began singing with my father’s function band when I was 11. Weddings would involve such a diverse range of styles; pop, rock, reggae and folk or jazz for background. We also played a lot of traditional Jewish music. So the songs that I write reflect those varied influences.

Saved‘ actually started with more of a rock feel. While we were jamming in the studio, the producer suggested we ‘ska it up’ which really worked for the song, so we went with it. ‘Afterlife‘ has a chord progression that is very common to many Jewish songs and even includes a re-written version of Hebrew prayer at the end. I’m not even sure which genre ‘I Don’t Believe in Fairies‘ can be listed as! I really enjoy writing and performing in differing styles that, I hope, keep an accessibility to them, allowing enjoyment for listeners of all genres.

How did you decide to call it An Atheist Album (iTunes link) - is it meant to be a confronting title or a reflection of the times, or just the culture you’ve become involved with?

More of the latter, but I do realise that it will be confronting to some. There are several reasons, other than the alliteration! :) It’s a themed album, with all of the songs being related to my atheism so the title is explanatory. It is an album consisting of atheist themes made by an atheist. I also wanted to reclaim that word, for myself and for the atheist community. I think the word can be viewed negatively by a lot of people. I think attaching it to something creative, to art and to expression can be an example to critics of what it can actually inspire.

Additionally, were there people who you worked with who hesitated about the content of the album (or even just the title)? If so, how did you deal with it?

The team I worked with on the album were all very supportive regardless of their beliefs. I remember having a discussion with the engineer on the last day of recording, that was continuing out the door, as the band had to rush to a gig. Heated but still good-natured. Also, my producer is religious but he felt that this album would encourage people, who hadn’t really questioned what they believed in or why they believed it, to think. Which we both felt would be a very positive outcome.

The only problem was that my studio band, who do a lot of work in the US, were concerned that having their names on the album would potentially harm their employment there. So we gave them pseudonyms: Mark, Matthew, Luke and Mary :) We also jokingly called the band ‘Shelley and the Disciples’! The main hesitation came from some family and friends who were very concerned that singing about atheism would ruin my career. I disagreed. I think that if you sing about what means something to you, that will come across in your music and can be powerful. I’ve met a lot of people in the industry who, while disagreeing with my world-view, tell me it helps that I have something to say. I am also grateful to live in a country where I can freely create something that discusses these issues. I am taking advantage of that freedom and hopefully adding my voice to a movement that seeks to protect it.

Finally, not only are you featuring at the Global Atheist Convention, but you’re at the forthcoming Reason Rally in the USA! What can your audiences expect?

I am so excited and honoured to be a part of both of these events. Audiences can expect to hear me singing my guts out with an honest, energetic and passionate performance :) When I sing songs from An Atheist Album, I get a rush from sharing my thoughts and protests out loud. I feel empowered. I can’t imagine how incredible it will feel to share this experience with an audience who have similar views on the matter and can relate to what I am saying.

Shelley’s official site can be found at www.shelleysegal.com.

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About Kylie Sturgess

Kylie Sturgess is a Philosophy teacher, media and psychology student, blogger at Patheos and podcaster at Token Skeptic. She has conducted over a hundred interviews including artists, scientists, politicians and activists, worldwide.
She’s the author of the ‘Curiouser and Curiouser‘ column at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry website and travels internationally lecturing on feminism, skepticism, and science.


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