Cooley got his first musical experience when his father, a guitar player, let him play along on the drum set in the garage. His dad noticed his musicality and set his son up with a guitar. Soon, 10-year-old Cooley was writing songs, playing guitar, and learning how to play bass and piano.
In just a few years, Cooley released his first recording, Introducing Shane Cooley, and from 2001 to 2010 he released many more recordings and six studio albums. He stayed involved in a few bands as well. Though his musical career was going very well, Cooley knew he wanted to attend college and get a degree. After winning his high school’s William and Mary Leadership Award, he was able to visit the College of William and Mary for a weekend and was “pretty much sold.” He loved the campus, explaining that it was “so beautiful” and that he “figured there would be a lot of places for [him] to sort of hide away and write some music.”
Cooley was accepted to the College, and excited to attend. He was a little concerned though—most college freshmen don’t start school with an established career to worry about. Though he knew it would be difficult, he reminded himself that it was a smart thing to get an education as well as continue his musical endeavors. Cooley chose to pursue an English major, knowing it would help him with lyric writing.
While at William and Mary, Cooley formed the William and Mary Musicians Union, which was an organization that made it easier for student musicians to find practice space and set up shows. He also coordinated an effort to raise money for the media center in the library.
During his sophomore year, Cooley released what he calls his first breakthrough album: Whirlpool. This CD got him on the map, and since then he’s been doing follow-up EPs, waiting for the right time to make a full-length album. He notes that doing so is difficult now because people are “so obsessed with digital downloading,” which makes singles much more attractive than entire records.
The busy student-musician also found time to perform at the 2010 South By Southwest Music and Film Interactive (SXSW), a well-known music festival held annually in Austin, Texas. He earned his spot there through the USA Songwriting Contest. Cooley explained that performing at SXSW was “a blast,” and that he met a lot of musicians and got to spend time with some of his favorite bands.
Cooley went on a West Coast tour with singer-songwriter Adam Smith. Not long after, Cooley hit the road again, this time on the Home Sweet Home tour, which he calls the “highlight of his career” thus far. He traveled and sometimes performed with three other artists: The Melillo Brothers, Adam Web and Adam Smith. The idea of the tour was to play in each of the groups’ home states, taking advantage of the support and hometown enthusiasm. After 17 shows in 18 days, Cooley emerged with new friendships, experience, and the realization that every time he is on tour he feels like he is in “the exact right place” he needs to be in — as he put it, “I thrive on it.”
The Home Sweet Home Tour’s great success provided some great opportunities to Cooley and his tour mates, such as being asked to serve as panelists at the Millennium Music Conference and the Singer-Songwriter Cape May conference. Cooley recently performed at the Virginia Beach Public Library on behalf of the Tidewater Friends of Folk Music, and is excited to come home and share what he has been working on. He will be performing at the National in Richmond on Oct. 16.
He is also reconnecting with the members of the Home Sweet Home Tour and preparing for another one. Cooley likes working with the group because he says they are “working as a team … a small label almost. We are pooling connections and fighting for this on our own.”
Though Cooley’s career has been successful for quite a few years, his identity as a musician is really starting to solidify. In terms of songwriting, Cooley notes that the process isn’t the same as it was when he was younger; he explains, “When I was younger I would write songs left and right. Now I’m starting to sort of take my time and make myself stop writing a song and come back to it later.”
His sound has changed too—his music is often generally classified as folk, but Cooley remarks that elements of rock and country have come into and out of his songs in the last few years as well.
William and Mary also played a part in Cooley’s musical upbringing. It was more than just a venue at which he could write — the campus atmosphere just “got a lot of songs out of [him],” and he explains that the people he met over the years and the experiences he had are things he will never forget.
He may have a crazy, hectic lifestyle, but Cooley asserts he is living his dream and “going for it with all [his] heart.” He says he “doesn’t see any end to it,” but it must be nice to know he has home sweet home to come back to.