Women in Music 2018

Sheppard Talks Favorite Songwriters, Dancing & Hurdles Facing Australian Bands

Peter Brew Bevan
Sheppard

They have performed on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, Live with Kelly and Michael and Ellen, and their music has been heard on America's Got Talent, the NBC sitcom Champions and season 14 of American Idol. Their single "Geronimo" was No. 1 for 10 weeks in their native Australia and broke out around the world, including a No. 53 ranking on the Billboard Hot 100 and top 10 status on Billboard's Adult Pop Songs chart. Yet, by their own admission, the Brisbane-based band known as Sheppard is not yet a household name in the U.S. But that could change with the release of their new album, Watching the Sky.

The six-person outfit was formed in Brisbane in 2009. Three of the members are siblings – George, Amy and Emma. Their first album, Bombs Away, topped the Australian ARIA chart and peaked at No. 31 on the Billboard 200. In 2014, the band was named best group at the ARIA Awards.

Ahead of their Billboard Hot 100 Music Festival appearance, we spoke with George Sheppard about his favorite current songwriters, the challenges facing Aussie bands, and more.

Growing up, what music did you listen to and who were your musical influences?

We grew up in Papua, New Guinea, so we didn't have access to a whole lot of new music, but thanks to our dad's record collection, we got a good music education early on. Fleetwood Mac, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Cat Stevens, Elton John, the Jackson 5, Earth Wind & Fire, America, Harry Belafonte, all the classics! You name it, he had it. He would actually use music to wake us up for school in the morning – he'd blast it through the house and sing at the top of his lungs. At the time we were pretty annoyed by it, but looking back it was certainly better than an alarm clock.

With three siblings in the band, I have to ask, was your family musical?

We've always been a relatively musical family and we were always encouraged to get up and perform. We took part in school concerts and musicals and would always get asked to sing at birthday parties and karaoke nights. I even professionally recorded a Christmas carol once with a school friend in sixth grade to try and win a competition to sing at the annual televised "Carols in the Domain" event they hold every year in Sydney. Didn't hear back from that one unfortunately, but we got to play it last year with Sheppard so it was a nice moment for me. 

What are the challenges of breaking out beyond Australia, and how have you met those challenges?

The biggest challenge we've found is that Australia is geographically so far away from the main music markets of the U.S. and the U.K., so anytime you want to do a tour to promote yourself over there, it costs so much money for flights, accommodation, etc. I think that's the biggest hurdle. Luckily, we've enjoyed some success so we've been able to fund a few of those trips.

American TV shows have really embraced your music, both for live performances and syncs. What kind of reactions do you get in America? How much time have you spent in the U.S. and how much time do you plan to spend?

America has always been a huge supporter of Sheppard. You guys really get into your pop music, and you have such energetic, welcoming crowds. We've spent quite a bit of time in the U.S. in the past. We've done a bunch of tours all around the country and we're definitely planning more. We're looking forward to heading back for the Billboard Hot 100 Festival in August, so we'll see you then.

Your songs have the best hooks – do you have a specific song writing method?

Thanks! It's different every time, but I think we mostly come up with music first. It's so much more fun to come up with melodies and hooks when the music is already there. But there are no rules. We've found songs begin from the strangest of places. Our song "Riding the Wave" actually started with a random mouth trumpet idea I had one day.

Who are the songwriters you most admire? Do you have a favorite song?

In terms of modern songwriters, my two favorites are Chris Martin and Ed Sheeran. Chris Martin manages to consistently hit this universally emotional target with his music, which I can truly appreciate, and Ed Sheeran is truly impressive by how prolific he is. He writes so many songs, and is responsible for a lot of top 40 hits that I don't think many people would have any idea he wrote. Favorites from both of those guys: "Fix You" and "Castle on the Hill."

What challenges lie ahead?

I think the biggest challenge for us is connecting the songs to our band. People seem to really love our music, and most people know the songs by now, but if you ask them if they know who the band Sheppard is they don't seem to have heard of us. I think that's why doing live shows is so important. Not only do they give you a chance to get out there and meet your loyal fans, but it gives people a chance to connect the band to the music they love. 

I notice a lot of dancing in your videos. Do you have dance training or does this come naturally? Do you work with the same choreographer?

(Laughing) We aren't professional dancers. Not even close. We actually haven't had any training whatsoever and I think it's pretty clear when you watch the videos (more laughing). But we have fun bumbling our way through it. Depending on the song, the video clip just calls for dancing. Songs about celebration usually ask for a bit of a boogie. We've only done two video clips where we've worked with a choreographer from Adelaide and both times we used the same woman. Her name is Larissa McGowan, and she's excellent. We first worked with her on "Edge of the Night," which was actually our favorite video clip we've ever done because of the "one take" aspect to it. Larissa worked closely with the director, Nick Waterman, to choreograph the whole thing and it turned out so well that we had to use her again for "Coming Home."