Frontwoman Shannon Shaw is driving around with her mom prepping for tour and doing a string of phone interviews, the latter an obligation for a successful artist.
“She asked me just the other day when I knew I could sing, since I didn’t growing up,” Shaw says. “I didn’t. It just came out one day.”
It’s hard to believe that the singer who wouldn’t pick up an instrument until her late 20s is responsible for the clams’ fourth album, “Gone by the Dawn” (Hardy Art), which is packed with songs about heartbreak and doom. Shaw says it’s the first time she’s been “publically emotional and honest” on a record.
The trio’s sound strays slightly from its trademark retro psych-surf into Timi Yuro-inspired blue-eyed soul. What remains consistent is the warped lens through which all must pass: As usual, most songs sound like the soundtrack to a John Waters’ film or colorful, booze-infused dreams.
“I actually thought people might not like it,” she says. The vulnerability is resonating with fans and critics alike as indicated by sold-out shows and knock-out reviews. “I didn’t realize it was special at the time. It was just coming out. Couldn’t put the toothpaste back in the tube, you know?”
The irresistible band of Oakland weirdos met at the California College of the Arts and put out their first album, “I Wanna Go Home,” in 2009. Shaw also was part of queer-core outfit Hunx and His Punx.
“Some people are surprised to hear they started at the same time,” she says. “Hunx was just more popular. Clams have been a slow clap.”
While Shaw appeared confident onstage in both bands, she says she was struggling in a new city with few friends. Enter a traumatic breakup and you have fuel for quite a few records.
While vacuuming one day, she moved a bass that was given to her by a teenage boyfriend 10 years prior. “I had no idea why in the world he gave it to me in the first place, but I kept it around,” she says of the bass she still plays today.
She learned a Nine Inch Nails song and things took off from there. The trio steadily drew attention for its throwback sound and appropriate doses of camp. Shaw, who was raised Mormon and worked six years at the mental institution where the Cramps filmed “Live at Napa State,” had plenty to draw on in terms of lyrical inspiration. Early on, their shows were heralded as some of the most high-energy you could find.
The singer says she still grapples with stage fright and extreme anxiety, but never lets that detract from her shows. Instead she embraces it.
“I go to a different place when I perform, but it’s not distant. I send myself back to where I was when I wrote the songs, tapping into the emotion and bringing that to the audience,” she says. “Genuine is something I appreciate. I remember seeing some of my favorites as a teenager and being shocked they were so disconnected from where they were with the songs, like not caring anymore.”
Shaw is still floored by sell-out shows and has a hand in each gig, seeking out a local band to open in each city. “I’m still touched by a packed room,” she says.
The band’s general adorableness and humility has pushed Shaw to role-model status, particularly for young women. It’s something that’s a little strange for the bassist and singer, but she’ll accept it, noting, “I don’t feel super confident or make great choices all the time.”
As if to keep things in check, Shaw’s mother kindly insists that her daughter share a fun fact about the family: “My mom wants to tell you that my Uncle Richard was in Captain Beefheart.”
“I’m happy to share my experience if it will help someone out,” Shaw says. “I hope it makes people who don’t consider themselves something they want to be — they just try it anyway. You kinda gotta make things happen for yourself.” S
Shannon and the Clams play Oct. 12 at Strange Matter with Las Rosas and Christi. $10-$12. Doors open at 8 p.m. 929 W. Grace St.