USC alum unveils debut holiday album

According to USC Thornton School of Music alumna Shani Shousterman, inspiration for a song can come from anywhere, even from a random conversation overheard at Starbucks.

Schoolhouse stylings · During her time at USC’s Thornton School of Music, Shani Shousterman worked under professors Chris Sampson and Tim Kobza to develop her signature singer-songwriter voice. – | Photo courtesy of Rob Garcia

This unique outlook on songwriting has led Shousterman to write one-of-a-kind songs that will be featured in her album titled Merry Go Round, which will debut on Dec. 23 in a performance on the main stage at Universal CityWalk. On this night, Shousterman will perform on a stage formerly graced by many well-known acts, including Cee-lo Green, Carly Rae Jepsen and Colbie Caillat.

“The CD release is going to be on the big stage, which I’m very excited about because that’s going to be an awesome show,” Shousterman said. “I can’t wait.”

Merry Go Round, Shousterman’s first studio album, was funded through a combination of and donations from fans that Shousterman has gained as a result of being a street performer on the walkways of Universal CityWalk.

“I have this permanent residency at CityWalk to perform and be part of the entertainment as people walk by,” Shousterman said. “I auditioned for that opportunity and got accepted about half a year ago. I play there about once or twice a week. It’s been an amazing opportunity that has opened a lot of doors for me, just to get my music to people who wouldn’t otherwise hear it.”

Shousterman started out as a pianist when she was seven years old, focusing on classical music at an early age. When she got to high school, however, she played jazz, and during her senior year, she took a choir class, which was her first formal vocal experience.

“At the end of high school, we had senior solos where all the seniors could do any sort of musical performance they wanted,” Shousterman said.  “And I decided to write a song and that launched me into the passion that I have now, which is as a singer-songwriter.”

Shousterman entered USC as a jazz piano performance major in 2006, but after the first year, she took songwriting and vocal training so she could mold her own major into what she wanted it to be. It was during this time that she took a class with Chris Sampson, USC’s popular music associate dean and Shousterman’s songwriting mentor and teacher.

“I had this burning desire to be a songwriter and took Chris’ class and knew that without a doubt I wanted to pursue that path,” Shousterman said. “Chris has been there for me for all four years of college and beyond.”

Sampson first met Shani when she was a student in his songwriting class at Thornton. At the time, she was a jazz piano major who had enrolled in his songwriting class as an elective.

“After that, Shani fell in love with songwriting and changed her major to a BA in music, which allowed her to register for all my songwriting courses and study with me through private lessons,” Sampson said. “She was one of the most dedicated students I’ve ever had.”

According to Sampson, Shani never arrived to a lesson unprepared. She was incredibly busy during her time at USC, but every week she would come in with a new song for them to work on.

“Shani was always open to direction. She definitely had her own ideas about how she wanted her songs to sound, but she was always genuinely wanted to make them better,” Sampson said. “This made for a great teaching dynamic with her, as there was lots of back and forth between the two of us, always with the goal of making her songs the best possible.”

Now, Shousterman gets inspiration for the songs she writes from a variety of sources, including strangers and friends.

“Sometimes I will get an idea about the topic of a song through living life like from a conversation that random people are having at Starbucks,” Shousterman said. “My friends will have something that happens in their life, or I’ll have something happen in my life … and I’ll jot down little notes and that will develop into something. And sometimes I’ll come up with the music first, so it depends on my mood or on what’s inspiring me.”

Sampson describes her lyrics as “truly beautiful.”

“She has a knack for finding a unique insight into our world and getting to the emotion of it with her writing,” he said. “Then, she has outstanding musicianship to be able to set the lyrics in a way that enhance their meaning.”

In addition to working with Sampson, Shousterman also has close relations with Tim Kobza, a USC guitar professor and the producer of her album.

“I met Shani in a class that I was teaching at USC,” Kobza said. “She actually took guitar lessons from me and then she took a course that was more of like a songwriting production class. She’s a really hard worker, and she’s a talented artist and singer-songwriter. Working with her was always great. She’s easy to work with because she’s good at what she does and so she takes direction well and she’s constantly trying to better her work.”

Merry Go Round began as a collection of songs starting at the beginning of Shousterman’s songwriting career and it’s a progression from then until now. It has taken about two years to create this album, which features eight songs and a full band.

“Producing her album was an interesting process because a singer-songwriter will come and sing songs to you and then from there you’re kind of in a collaborative process,” Kobza said. “It becomes a collaboration between two people to try to bring the most out of the songs sort of along the lines of the vision the artist has and that’s the challenge of being a producer is to try to find a way to get the vision across successfully.”

In the producing industry, the end result takes prime focus. Through an intricate process of examining an artist’s songs, Kobza and other producers  work to improve or clean up tracks so that they are ready to be a marketable product in the form of a recorded song.

“We would just get together and she would bring the raw ideas and we would hone them into a place where they were ready to be recorded,” Kobza said. “That’s the early process. Then later in the process it’s about getting a good band performance and getting a great performance from her as well and to make sure her songs are represented in that way.”

Grammy Award-winning mixer Tremaine Williams immediately clicked with Shousterman because they shared a similar taste in music and he decided to mix the album Merry Go Round.

“Shani plays, sings and writes. There just aren’t a ton of artist who can do all three and be good at it,” Williams said. “As the mixing engineer I probably listen to the songs more than anyone else. The cool thing about Shani’s material is that I genuinely enjoy it and even though the project is done, I still listen to the songs. That says a lot.”

In addition to writing her own album that began at USC, Shousterman contributed to the university by creating an a capella group on campus and playing the saxophone in the Trojan Marching Band.

“There’s no other marching band as cool as the USC marching band. Besides wearing awesome helmets with feathers and a cape, which is super cool, I got to get involved in the sports life and I got to learn a new instrument,” Shousterman said. “It was a one of a kind experience that I am so happy I took advantage of. It was a sense of community. I felt like I was part of something.”

Shousterman thoroughly enjoyed her undergraduate and graduate time at USC and advises students to meet lots of people, to network, and to create relationships.

“This industry is based on relationships. Listen to your teachers and people who are in the industry because they have some pretty valuable information,” Shousterman said. “You never know what your classmate is going to end up doing, so keep connected with the people you are studying with. The best thing you can have in this industry is a community filled with people that you trust and know.”