By James Dillon III
Shaun Fleming has built a career from creative versatility. As a voice actor for television and film, a musical theatre actor, and as a touring drummer in the band Foxygen, their talents are many. But With People, the fourth album from their solo music project, Diane Coffee, recounts an emotional deep-dive quite unlike anything the multitalented Fleming has done prior.
As was the case for so many folks, the early days of the COVID lockdown resulted in some forced introspection. For Fleming, now in their mid-30s, this meant exploring themselves and some of their prior relationships through writing new songs. The tunes that comprise With People are products of memory, from grade school on up, and it’s a mixed bag; some are pleasant, while others are painful. Turning them into narratives presented a challenge, however, especially at a time when being ‘with people’—quite literally—was ill advised.
“Lockdown was inspiring in a way,” Fleming explained during a recent chat. “It made me dig deep with the content I was writing about. With this album, I was able to reflect on my past, where I was, and the people who led me to where I was.”
“The closest I could be to these people was to write songs about them,” he continued. “It felt like therapy, to be able to relive these intense moments.”
Longtime Diane Coffee fans can surely hear this new emphasis on narrative when listening to With People, which was produced by Foxygen’s Jonathan Rado. Fleming named the project after a cross-reference to Diana Ross and the band Lagawagon’s song, “Mr. Coffee.” It’s a metaphor about contagious energy, not unlike the electric pulse moving through a concert crowd. And while the trademark Diane Coffee energy is certainly part of With People, the collection’s feel is distinctive. Fleming went to some great lengths to keep the album’s emotive nature fresh, traveling back to their hometown of Agoura Hills, CA, in the week prior to the recording sessions. By visiting specific spots and taking photos, some of which were then hung up around the studio during recording, Fleming remained steeped in the project’s emotional stew.
The intensity translates well. You can definitely hear it in “Our Love/The Run,” where each refrain of “I’m not a child” hits with increasing power. And then there’s the poignancy of “Bullied.”
“It’s the first time I talk about my queerness,” Fleming said. “I always knew I felt different. But until now, I haven’t felt ready to talk about it through song and on stage. Now I feel stronger.”
Their willingness to explore this memory in particular resulted in one of the album’s standout tracks, in which Fleming takes a complicated schoolyard trauma and turns it into an ode to queer adolescence imbued with playful whimsy.
It’s one thing to write from a more vulnerable space, but standing up and facing people to perform personally revealing narratives is another. Especially when it’s not quite what your audience has come to expect. Despite the daunting possibilities, Fleming seems to have risen to the occasion. Being out on a limb seems to be paying off.
“It has forced me to be more vulnerable than I already was,” they admitted. “It’s a medicine I need to take, but not in one gulp. It’s empowering to be able to speak! Don’t be afraid to speak your truth. That’s most important.”
There are other vulnerabilities in With People, including a bit of genre exploration, (“With country and folk, there’s such a focus on storytelling, and that’s a craft I wanted to hone. That’s what I wanted for this record.”), but perhaps the biggest risk is from the plain fact of touring during COVID.
“It’s scary performing with COVID,” Fleming said. “We don’t want to get anyone sick or have to cancel the tour. That would be heartbreaking.”
Fleming is just playing the hand we’ve all been dealt, weighing out the near-constant cost-benefit analysis of getting ill against the yearning to live one’s life. In this case, taking With People on the road was, perhaps, a necessary evil: Fleming tested positive for COVID about a month into the tour and cancelled the remaining dates, but at the time we spoke, it sounded like they felt the gamble had been well worth it. Thankfully, they’ve since recovered from their illness.
“I needed to play live again,” Fleming said when the tour had been underway for only a couple weeks. “It felt like the first time I ever played. I felt fumble-y. Like I didn’t know what I was doing. It was exhilarating. It felt fresh and new.”
James Dillon III is an artist living in Portland, Maine. A self-styled Renaissance Queer, they use photography, writing, and performance art to explore, celebrate, and challenge the world around them.