"I started hanging around other songwriters and doing a great deal of reading to learn the craft," he recalls. "I could always sing and play guitar, but I didn't get focused on songwriting until this time. Before I knew it my life had changed and it all came together."
Three years later, the Acoustic/Electronica artist and poet is releasing his debut disc, Migrations, a subdued, largely ethereal collection of acoustic songs with a fragile, delicate core and dreamy imagery. Shields even invokes his old theatrical experience by adopting the method-acting approach to his songwriting.
"I don't write songs about specific things in the traditional sense," he says. "I write about a collection of feelings and experiences that are strung together by a similar mood."
While he takes his initial cues from iconic Folk singers like Nick Drake, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, Shields' insists he is no staid coffeehouse performer. He claims the London Electronica scene influences his work as much as organic Folk and Roots music.
On Migrations, he uses technology to his advantage, forging a union between his pastoral poetry and modern break beat rhythmic approach.
"I was amazed by groups like Massive Attack, Portishead, DJ Shadow and the atmosphere they could create with their songs, (and) I wanted to hear that with a classic song structure," he says. "The technology was not readily available until a few years ago when I could afford a drum machine and later laptop programs. It just worked together nicely and gave me what I was looking for."
Migrations is that amalgamation, expanding upon the hushed Folk intimacy of Shields' solo acoustic guitar performances by adding synthesizers, spare strings and experimental found sounds. The technology on the disc arrived compliments of Michael Bond, co-founder of the Cincinnati/Chicago music collective/label datawaslost. Shields enlisted Bond to assist after hearing his work with his own band, Coltrane Motion, and the DWL stable of artists he produced. The two clicked immediately on the anticipated project.
"I didn't want it to be another singer/songwriter record and, when I met Bond at (former Corryville music venue/restaurant) Cody's, we talked through the details and I was recording three weeks later. We were on the same page from the beginning," he says.
The homegrown project, which will be released on DWL, was recorded at Bond's Clifton apartment during an eight-month period. Pre-production was purposely kept at a minimum while the duo attempted to capture the spontaneous nature of Shield's live shows. "There was a structure to what we wanted to do but no blueprint, so we created a great deal of things in the moment," Shields notes.
Shields recalls that this immediacy and friendly location of the recording project also provided instant feedback courtesy of another DWL's founder and studio resident, Tim Heyl, who, "would pop in every so often and say 'that sucks, do it over again' and then leave," Shields jokes. "It was very cool."
Shields has already released Migrations in Nashville and Chicago with plans to tour the Midwest throughout the summer and potential dates in the U.K. in July. While he and his technology will go it alone for most of the journey, he's still on the lookout for a touring backing band. For his CD release at York Street on Friday, Shields says he was fortunate enough to convince fellow songwriters Andrew Geonetta, Jeff Perholtz, Jason Wells and Brian Ferry to back him.
"It is very hard to find people who are into the same things I am," he says. "I have had my eyes (on) the right pieces, but they have not found me just yet."
TRISTEN SHIELDS releases Migrations at the York Street Café in Newport on Friday. Brian Ferry, The Newbees and .andrew. open. For more information, check out tristenshields.com and datawaslost.net.