The Grand Rapids artist who made a splash as an animator has reinvented himself as a uniquely entertaining songwriter embarking on a bold new adventure. He plays SpeakEZ Lounge on Wednesday. (Story, podcast, video)THE ARTIST: Joe Shields
THE MUSIC: Indie-folk, Americana
WHERE YOU CAN SEE HIM: 8 p.m. Wednesday at SpeakEZ Lounge in Grand Rapids, opening for The Autumnatic
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Joe Cartoon has given way to Joe Shields.
That means it’s mostly about the music these days, even if there’s still plenty of room for clever wordplay and creativity.
After what Grand Rapids animator Joe Shields concedes was an “extremely rocking” time as Joe Cartoon, creator of a wildly popular and irreverent cartoon series that became a true trailblazer on the Internet some 16 years ago, the artist has turned his attention to music.
And if recent history is any indication, there’s a chance the 55-year-old West Michigan singer and guitarist might be just as successful in this new venture.
Shields earlier this year was named one of just six winners of the prestigious Kerrville New Folk competition in Texas, chosen from 32 finalists and more than 600 entries submitted by emerging songwriters from across the globe.
“No one was more surprised than me,” says Shields, who released his debut album, “Rocks & Toads,” in 2014, combining his songs with videos by 12 different animators. “They called my name and I could not believe it. … I was very honored. It’s validation for what I’m trying to do.”
Shields stopped by this week’s edition of Local Spins Live at News Talk 1340 AM (WJRW) to perform one of his Kerrville award-winning songs, “Love Can’t Win,” and talk about his music. Listen to the podcast here, with a video of his performance below.
PODCAST: Local Spins Live with Joe Shields
For a guy who only bought a guitar eight years ago, it’s a remarkable story of reinvention.
Before there was even YouTube, Shields unfurled his Adobe Flash cartoon series via an award-winning independent website, generating viral, widespread attention for crude-humored cartoons such as “Frog in a Blender” and “Gerbil in a Microwave” – something which also proved to be exceptionally lucrative.
According to Wikipedia, “Frog in a Blender” alone has been downloaded at least 110 million times. (Check out Joe Cartoon videos online at joecartoon.com, including the fresh cartoons, “Donald Trump in a Blender” and “Hillary Clinton in a Blender.”)
“We were sitting on that dot-com wave. We were sitting on our surfboards and rode that until it blew up and it was gone. It was fun while it lasted,” Shields recalls, noting he even moved to Hollywood at one point in hopes of finding television success for Joe Cartoon.
“It was an adventure. Life’s a roller-coaster. It’s up and down, and you’ve just got to know when to pull your hands in.”
The “down” part of that Joe Cartoon success was accompanied by medical problems involving Shields’ adrenal gland. As a result, he said, he lost his creative energy.
But that began to return when he picked up a guitar and started writings songs.
As a longtime friend of fisherman, Troll for Trout frontman and Mackinaw Harvest Music studio owner Michael Crittenden, Shields found himself rubbing elbows with some of Grand Rapids’ leading singer-songwriters – Ralston Bowles, Josh Rose, Drew Nelson, Brant Satala, J. Oscar Bittinger and others.
“I was very inspired by all these guys around here,” says Shields, noting that cartooning as an art form is “mostly funny” and rarely taken seriously.
Musicians, on the other hand, “have that ability to reach into your soul, grab it, punch it a bunch of times and then give it back to you and let you have that thing. It’s a very powerful art form and I really admired that. In that sense, they were a big inspiration to me.”
To be sure, Shields’ unusual sense of humor – with sly twists on words – still rears its head in his songs, giving his music a wry and distinctive milieu.
For Shields, one of the biggest adjustments in making the transition from cartoonist to singer-songwriter has come in publicly performing the songs that he’s penned.
“The biggest fear people have is talking in public, right? Now, hand a guy a guitar and tell him to sing a song he wrote. You’ve gotta be kidding, right? So, if you’re a cartoonist,” he says, “you have this innate ability to go, ‘You know I’m going to throw this out there but I’m hiding behind a cartoon character because if it fails, it’s a cartoon.’ ”
But there’s no hiding as a performer of original songs. And while Shields concedes this can be nerve-wracking, he’s plunging ahead full bore with his burgeoning new career. In addition to playing Grand Rapids’ SpeakEZ Lounge on Wednesday night, he’ll embark on an eight-date November tour across Texas with the other Kerrville New Folk winners.
“I just really feel fortunate to be able to do this. This is really fun,” Shields says, though he jokes that he’ll probably feel like a chaperone on tour with the much younger Kerrville award winners. “I’m not going to stop doing it. I don’t know where it goes, but I’m down. I love doing it.”
VIDEO: Joe Shields, “Love Can’t Win” (Local Spins Live)
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