William Shatner has not only been an enduring star of TV, stage and screen, but has boldly ventured into musical and spoken-word territories. His first recording project, The Transformed Man (1968), featured amusing and somewhat campy recitations of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” and Lennon-McCartney’s “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” In 1978 Shatner performed a similarly tongue-in-cheek rendition of Elton John’s “Rocket Man” at the Science Fiction Film Awards. This pop culture icon has also collaborated with keyboardist Ben Folds on the reflective album Has Been (2004) and recorded Seeking Major Tom in 2011.
Shatner’s latest album, for Cleopatra Records, is called Ponder the Mystery and it is his first foray into the world of progressive rock. The music was written and co-produced by Yes and Circa multi-instrumentalists Billy Sherwood and Tony Kaye. By Shatner’s own estimation, it is one of his most personal and creative works to date. The artists that signed on to appear on the record are a who’s who of classic prog, rock, fusion and even country. Mick Jones, Steve Vai, Al DiMeola, Rick Wakeman, Robbie Krieger, Vince Gill, Edgar Froese, Edgar Winter and George Duke are just a few of the contributors.
Music Connection: Can you talk about the origin of this project? How did you arrive at the storyline? It seems very personal.
Shatner: When the label asked me to do it and they asked me what would I do, I sort of flashed on a concept where I imagined a man on a beach in despair. And through the process of twilight and sunset and the evening, the night and the sounds of the night, he gets his joy of life back. And from that one-line scenario I was able to hang my hook on certain songs that apply to that—despair, feeling down and out, sunset, the colors of sunset, how they affect life. And then the sounds of the night and finally a joyful song in which he gets his mojo back.
MC: Did you feel progressive rock was the best vehicle for your statement?
Shatner: Well, I wish I could say that I consciously went to progressive rock. But, in fact, it seems my natural tendency is to be in a genre that could be characterized as progressive rock. I’ve likened progressive rock music to science fiction—the exploration of boundaries to go in new directions and try to discover, I suppose, things that are already there and bring them out. That’s what I think science fiction does and that’s what I’m beginning to see that progressive rock music does.
MC: That makes a lot of sense. Just the nature of it being progressive allows you to go wherever you wanna go with it.
Shatner: Well, exactly! And this being a concept album, if you will, it harkens back to the great history of concept albums.
MC: That’s something that’s been lost in modern music. We’d like to see that trend come back.
Shatner: You wanna sit down and listen to this whole album. There’s a progression here. This is music that has a beginning, middle and end.
MC: Can you talk about the writing process for this album? Did you sit down in sessions with Billy Sherwood and Tony Kaye?
Shatner: No. I sat down and wrote what I thought was a song and, essentially, poetry. I tried to give it some depth so that there are echoes in the songs of other meanings. If you look at the words carefully, there are undertones of other meanings of life and death and that kind of thing. And then I presented them to Billy, who then made them into a song both in cutting and pasting, if you will, the lyrics and writing the melodies and arrangements. So he is truly the genius behind this.
MC: That’s very gracious of you to say.
Shatner: Well, it’s fact! In many cases the words are good. In some cases I’d love to have some of them back and rework them. But he has made these songs just lovely and I am very proud of this album.
MC: What were you were listening to in preparation for this record?
Shatner: I’d like to say I played The Wall or something like that. But I listen to a lot of music. I love music of all kinds. But I don’t know individuals! I hear something but I couldn’t tell you who I listened to until someone tells me about it. But I don’t know…I’m not conversant, as I’m not with actors. I don’t know who’s on these shows. The leading actors I know, but I’m not up on the names or reputations
MC: Is there a vocal regimen you use before a recording session?
Shatner: No. I’m very busy and so I’m constantly saying words in front of people or in front of a microphone. You wanna be careful that you’re not self-conscious about your voice. So many people who use their voice for their living become conscious of their voice rather than the intention of what their saying—whether it’s music or dramatic—so you’ve gotta be careful of that as well. But head tones, chest tones, I know about those things and I’m aware of them.
MC: What would you like audiences to get from Ponder the Mystery?
Shatner: I want them to be entertained and moved emotionally so that they wanna come back to the next performance. My hope is that it’s that kind of music and that kind of mystique that people will say, “I’ve gotta go back and hear that again.
MC: What music artists would you like to work with in the future?
Shatner: I’d like to work with anybody that’s considered great in music. For that matter I’d like to work with anybody great in any field. I’m so curious about what makes somebody great and where their talents lie. I would love to work with anybody who’s talented in anything.
MC: Finally, do you have any other musical projects planned right now?
Shatner: No. Let me see how this one goes and then, if I’m asked, we’ll tackle something else.
Contact Billy James, [email protected]