“I would never have thought I would have a third child,” said singer-songwriter Sheli Monacchio. “If you asked me a few years back that wasn’t even in the cards. He’s what I consider to be a gift from the universe.”
Sheli Monacchio’s first two children (Aaron and Melissa) were both adults when Sheli and her husband, fellow singer-songwriter Keith Monacchio, had their son Jacob. He turns six on May 30th and officially joins the musical family with his debut on a track from Maternal Instinct, Sheli’s first release since 2011.
Sheli Monacchio was in the studio and trying to come up with the album title when she noticed that song after song involved motherhood in some degree. One song was about Sheli as a mother, another was about someone who didn’t have a mother, and one was written the night her own mother passed away. She then wrote and recorded the wonderful title track to tie all of the songs together. Fittingly, the record will be released on Mother’s Day weekend and she will celebrate its release with a show on May 10th at the Manasquan Methodist Church (23 Church Street) in Manasquan. Barbara Paskin and Michael Askin (who plays on a few songs on the album) will perform sets as well.
Maternal Instinct isn’t just her first release in eight years, it’s also a return back to the style New Jersey audiences are used to for Monacchio. While she tried a full band rock album with her last release, Kansas, this record is back to a simpler acoustic style. It’s the style music fans who saw her perform for years as Sheli Aarden generally picture for her. It’s also one that makes more sense as she has often performed solo or as a duo since first becoming a fixture on the New Jersey “coffee house” circuit in 2004.
“Kansas was so different,” explained Monacchio. “Somebody hears the record and they come out and see this one person by herself… sometimes they’re like, ‘Where is the band?’ Acoustic is my comfort zone. Even to just have one or two people performing with me is my comfort zone, and that’s kind of what we did here.”
Technically her very last record was one released with her husband on their wedding day. Entitled, Wedding Album, the two took a project that could have been seen as cheesy and produced an absolutely beautiful record. It was released as The Monacchio’s and the two did plenty of shows together, while balancing their own solo careers, but everything changed with the arrival of Jacob. Keith had just released The Dust-Up album and was playing shows in support of his record, while Sheli was determined to spend as much time at home with Jacob as she could. She had been a stay at home mom for her first two children, but was facing a different dynamic this go around as life included a job as well. She knew there wasn’t room to work full-time, raise a baby, and play music, so one had to go.
“The hardest part of how motherhood changed me was my persona of being a singer-songwriter got put on the back burner,” said Monacchio. “It was also the best gift of my life to become a mother for the third time because that little boy is just a gift to everybody who meets him.”
Sheli and Keith came up with a plan to make sure each could continue to make records and perform shows on a rotating basis. This is Sheli’s time. Next year, will likely be Keith’s turn to put out a new record. Somewhere down the line there’s a good chance they will bring back The Monacchio’s for a new EP.
Maternal Instinct includes the help of musicians like Tommy Strazza, Michael Askin, Gorgo Beach, and a pair of members of Keith’s former band The Commons - Sean Glonek (who also produced the record) and Tom Kale. Closer to home the record includes performances by Sheli’s brother Chris Orlando, her husband, her son Jacob, and her daughter Melissa Anthony.
“Recording with my daughter is my favorite thing to do in the whole entire world,” said Monacchio. “Not just recording, but playing live with her. The fact that our schedules are so different means every time we have that time together is very special. Melissa and I started playing music together when she was about ten years old. She played a little egg shaker along with the music while she was starting to play guitar. We came up together with our knowledge of playing music. She’s one of my favorite people and to put that along with my favorite thing to do (write songs and play music) is just a magical experience.”
Songs on Maternal Instinct take advantage of Sheli’s soothing vocals (a bit like a country artist who could cross into pop music territory) and features wonderful jangling acoustic guitars. It’s a nice blend that’s not too country for a rock and roll fan and not too folk or rock for a country music lover. She lists her influences as artists like Patty Griffin, Lucinda Williams, and Brandi Carlile. Sheli would be a great addition to a bill featuring any of them.
Many of the songs have a personal connection to them, but Maternal Instinct is far from her most personal album. Kansas was basically a confessional record about the ups and downs of love, divorce, parenting, and the pursuit of finding one’s self. But the truly personal distinction likely goes to her debut, Digging For Daylight. This was an album that contained songs written while she was going through a divorce. At the time she was still very raw as an artist. In fact, she was still learning how to sing and play the guitar at the same time, while she poured out her feelings on that record.
“I was figuring out who I was,” she recalled. “The album’s name was because I was a lost soul at the time. It was a personal album, but I just wasn’t comfortable as a songwriter to put the personal thoughts into lyrics the way that I can now. Those songs were very personal in a very sad way. I feel like this record is my personal journey from Digging For Daylight dig that I was in and now, here I am today; yes, it’s still a personal journey, but it’s a much more positive one. It’s a journey that I have been proud to be on, and proud to change the negative things in my life and come to where I am today.”
She credits her ability to move from writing in a more general way to a more personal style as something learned from her favorite artists. One influence in particular is her husband who has written some of the most soul searching, personal songs of any New Jersey artist in the last 20 years. All of her songwriting influences inspire her to be a better songwriter. She wants to give listeners the feeling Sheli gets when she listens to them - where every song hits home and means something to the listener.
“They always influence my music to be as true as possible,” said Monacchio. “With my first record, it was very personal but it wasn’t daring at all. Now, I’m not afraid to say what I want to say. Actually Keith helped me with that. Keith was like, ‘If you want to say something, you say it - don’t worry about what other people are going to think.’ He’s encouraged me and taught me that as a songwriter you have to be bold and honest and raw. And, if you’re not, it’s going to appear that you’re not.”
Maternal Instinct contains a mix of songs that were recently written and those that have been sitting on the shelf for a while, just waiting for the right album. Sheli says she writes when inspiration comes or as she puts it, “when the universe tells you it’s time to write and you make time.” With a full-time job, raising Jacob, and running a non-profit organization (Caring Connections of New Jersey and Pennsylvania), time is a luxury for her.
Some of the best tracks include “Stars Of The Show” which features guitar work by Sean Glonek that will remind fans of The Commons of his distinctive playing. In my opinion, Glonek’s guitar was as important to The Commons’ music as the lead vocals by Keith Monacchio. It’s as if The Edge performed on an album by someone other than U2 - odds are he would make the song sound like a U2 song. His guitar work is that identifiable.
Another great Jersey guitarist, Tommy Strazza, has some excellent guitar riffs on “Milk Carton” - a song that mentions religious figures, but is not about religion at all. It’s a song that references Sheli’s mother (Rosemary) and her father (Joseph) and is simply about being lost.
“They told me that we see in black and white beliefs, but now it’s all in color and that’s become my faith. I crossed the line where religion collides with blind spirituality. My picture never made it on a milk carton and I’ve been lost since 1983… this is me.” — “Milk Carton”
I also like “Never Let Go” - a song written when her daughter got married. Sheli calls it sharing what she’s learned; some life lessons about marriage. It’s a beautiful song about the true value of having a partner for life. It reminds us that as long as you have one another you will make it.
“We’ve got nothing but time on our hands. Your hands dig in the dirt and mine dig in the sand. And these hands hold on to yours so we’ll be fine. Just promise me you’ll never let go of mine.” — “Never Let Go”
The record contains ten tracks - nine originals and a cover of “You Are My Sunshine” which contains an extra verse written by Monacchio. Sheli works for an elder law attorney doing life care planning and often goes out into the community to promote their services. Part of this involves singing bedside to patients who can’t get out of bed. She goes from one room to the next. One of the songs she sings is “You Are My Sunshine.”
“I don’t care where people are from or how old they are, when we sing it they all sing along,” said Monacchio. “My grandmother sang it to my mother. My mother sang it to me. I sang it to my older kids and I sing it to Jacob. I found it a real piece of the motherhood scene that should be on this record. I actually wrote a third verse to add to it. It’s about dementia. It’s like when I lose my memory remind me that you love me and I love you.”
“Now listen close dear, when I forget to love and my memory fades away. Look in my eyes dear, tell me you love me and remind me every day” - “You Are My Sunshine”
The most personal song by far is “No Such Thing.” This was written on the night her mother died in 2007 and has waited the longest to appear on an album.
“I still get chills every time I talk about this song,” said Monacchio. “Once in a while I’d play it out, but it was never recorded because it wasn’t quite right and wasn’t quite ready. It was written at the most raw time in my life - literally the day she passed away. That evening, I sat and smoked packs of cigarettes and drank wine, and wrote that song. It was a cathartic experience, but it wasn’t the kind that you release right after it was written. It had to sit for many years. Twelve years later it’s being released.”
The title track has a dreamy pop vibe and sweet harmonies between Sheli and her daughter, that reminds me a bit of a song Brian Wilson might have written. Tommy Strazza adds a wonderful acoustic guitar solo to this one as well. Of all of the songs, this is the one that best represents the journey from Digging For Daylight to today. It’s a song that references her life as a mother from her first child to Jacob - it’s personal, but is happy and content rather than sad and lost. And it truly ties the album together.
“Well, I got the chance to do it over again and I still make mistakes because there wasn’t a handbook given to me, but I know I’ve got what it takes. Some mamas have no maternal instinct. Still they manage to rise above it all. And even though the odds are stacked against them, they realize they cannot do it all. Those mamas hold their heads up proud and tall and they forgive themselves every time they fall.” — “Maternal Instinct”
Her daughter was not on the Kansas record due to timing and with Sheli trying something different with a full band approach and rock sound. But she’s not only glad to have her on this release, she’s the glue behind it.
“It’s not only going back to the roots of the kind of music I perform, but I could not have done this record without her because it wouldn’t have been the same and wouldn’t have been the same experience for me,” added Monacchio. “It also wouldn’t have been the same outcome.”
All photos by Brenda Wirth
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.