For many of us, the music we listened to growing up helped lay the groundwork for our personal identities and tastes as we moved away from childhood into independence as adults. But imagine if, instead of a gradual progression of sounds over several years, you largely dove into music in one major swoop. How might that impact your love of the art and approach as a musician?
Singer/guitarist Sarah Shook has some idea. Raised in a strict, conservative family in upstate New York where only classical and religious music was allowed, she wasn’t exposed to secular music until her late teens when a friend introduced her to indie rock. Life forever altered, she began learning guitar and, after relocating with her family to North Carolina, solidified a deep passion for country music.
Shook married young, but it didn’t last. At age 22 she found herself a divorced, single mother, and over the next several years worked multiple jobs to support herself and her son while playing area gigs on the side with her band, Sarah Shook and the Devil. The Devil broke up in 2013, and eventually Sarah Shook and the Disarmers arose in its ashes. With the new band came a new focus, and a debut album, Sidelong. The album’s stripped-down country/rock sounds, along with Shook’s outsider demeanor, and candid lyrical style proved infectious, and quickly commanded attention in their hometown and beyond, including a record contract with the esteemed Bloodshot Records, who will release Sidelong on nationally on April 28 (a new full album is already slated for 2018).
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While her music and attitude are reminiscent of various outlaw country legends, Shook is no revivalist. Her songs may draw on classic country themes such as boozing, romance (in all its ups and downs), and hard living, but her perspective is unmistakably grounded in the present.
In an interview with Rolling Stone (who named her “One of 10 Country Artists You Need to Know”) she said, “This genre of music attracts a certain kind of person sometimes who is very close-minded and I want to tell those people, ‘Look, you’re welcome to be a fan. But full disclosure, I’m a fucking civil rights activist, and I’m a bisexual, and I’m an atheist, and I’m a vegan,’ you know what I mean? That’s a whole lot of non-redneck shit right there.” It could easily be argued that she carries the torch of the artists that came before her by speaking up for the underdog and rallying against the status quo, even receiving the 2016 Indy Arts Award with collaborator Erika Libero for their work in promoting inclusion for women and LBGTQ in the Chapel Hill area with a Safe Space initiative and a 2-day festival, Manifest.
Today, She Shreds premieres Sarah Shook and the Disarmer’s latest track, “The Nail,” a deceptively cheery-sounding drinking song touching on the all too relatable experience of toxic, but exciting, relationships, and wondering who will be the first to pull the plug. Check it out now, along with a Q&A with Shook about her musical path, balancing her career and family life, and combining her passions for activism and music. Sidelong is available for preorder now.
She Shreds: As someone who grew up in a household where secular music was forbidden, what was your first impressions once you were able to immerse yourself in it?
Sarah Shook: My first exposure to secular music blew me away. The classical and “worship” music I grew up on was very structured and rigid, it was less art and more technical proficiency. Then suddenly music wasn’t just the methodic pairing of notes and chords in a predictably pleasing order, it was brash and loud and weird, and most strikingly the expression of the self was tangible, like the art was shining through the prism of the artist. I was floored. I was obsessed.
How did you find your passion for country music? It seems like it could be either ironic or natural (or a combination!) to gravitate to a genre often associated with religious imagery and roots after leaving the church in your personal life.
A former partner introduced me to traditional country music around 2009 and it felt like coming home without realizing I’d been gone in the first place. I loved the self-deprecating, self-denigrating lyrics and the sort of “nobody is tougher on me than I am” approach. Growing up poor sure didn’t hurt my affinity for country music either. A classic country decision like “I can buy myself a meal or I can have another couple shots at the bar,” I was living that life in real time, well before my introduction to country music.
As far as the religious aspect is concerned, I can’t deny that I got a kick outta naming my first band “Sarah Shook & the Devil.” I felt like our name was fair enough warning that we weren’t about to bust out any hymns.
At what point in your journey did you pick up guitar? Which model do you play now?
I taught myself basic piano when I was 8 or 9 so I could put music to the lyrics I was writing, but by the time I was 16 I was ready for a more portable instrument. A friend of mine let me borrow her Oscar Schmidt guitar and I bought one of those giant posters with chord shapes and finger positions. I plastered that thing up on my bedroom wall and practiced chords and played around with strum patterns until I could finally write a complete song, lyrics, chords, melody, on guitar, and I haven’t written anything on a piano since. I still have that old Oscar Schmidt, my friend was kind enough to let me keep it.
Currently I play a hollow body archtop Gretsch Synchromatic; it’s a 2011 reissue of a model that Gretsch debuted in 1939. I’ve been spending some time at home with my Harmony Rebel hollow body electric and am pretty stoked to find ways to add it into the mix, both in live settings and in the studio.
You tend to keep the two sides of your life—family vs. music—separate. How do you find this balance? Where do they overlap? Do you feel that it comes out in your music on Sidelong? If so, how?
Finding myself a divorced, single mother at 22 was not a card I anticipated pulling from the deck. I worked two to three jobs at a time, four days a week so that the three days I had with my son, Jonah, I could spend with him with no distractions or obligations. Although I was still writing songs and playing shows here and there, my priority was providing for my child and raising him in a solid, supportive, loving environment.
When Bloodshot Records approached the Disarmers about a record deal that involved a lot of heavy touring, Jonah (who is now ten years old) was the first person I consulted. Up until that point my music had rarely interfered with my time with him and this was a potential game changer. I gave him the gist of the deal and his reply was, in so many words, “Go for it. The bigger you get the bigger the platform you have to effect change.”
While it certainly helps to have such a level-headed kid, it’s still really hard to be away from him for long stretches of time. Other than that, I don’t think there’s a lot of crossover between my music and family life but every once in awhile something slips through. There’s a line in our song “Nothin’ Feels Right But Doin’ Wrong” that says, “one more day without sun,” and it took me a long time to catch on to my subconscious pulling a fast one on me with the double meaning: “one more day without son”.
Tell me a little more about “The Nail.” Did anyone in particular inspire it? Is it a more of a break up song, or a celebration of dating someone you have fun with but know is a bad match for you in the long run?
A former boyfriend, yes. It was inspired by a kind of a culmination of things surrounding that relationship, there was finger pointing, drunken arguments, righteous indignation, frustration with my inability to end something that was trapping us both in the same vicious cycles over and over again. I think there was a lot of underlying anguish and feelings of powerlessness to get us back on track as well. We both knew things had gone too far. But neither of us wanted to admit it. I think a lot of folks can relate to those sentiments, unfortunately.
You are involved in creating safe space for LGBTQ people in your community in Chapel Hill. Can you tell me more about your work, and the cultural climate regarding these issues in your city?
Yes! My activism partner, Erika Libero, and I have been working together on various projects for awhile now. When we first started meeting and brainstorming ideas to meet needs in the community we started a brief punch list of things we wanted to do. One of those ideas was to design, print, and distribute “Safe Space” stickers to businesses in the Triangle and to talk to business owners about what it means to provide a safe space for members of the LGBTQ community. A month or two after that meeting, North Carolina’s infamous House Bill 2 passed and we were like, “Oh shit! We need to make this happen right now!” We started a crowdfunding campaign, met our goal, and within a week or so we were hitting the streets, stickers in hand.
Another of our projects was Manifest, a two night music festival spread between three venues in Chapel Hill, NC. We wanted to throw a fest that gave women, trans folk, and other members of the LGBTQ community the kind of visibility and representation that cis white male musicians and artists have here on a regular, pretty much nightly basis. It was a huge, positive push towards equality and it was welcomed with open arms by the community. It’s been exciting to see local venues take on a more actively inclusive approach to booking since then. I feel like we’ve made some positive waves and I’m looking forward to our next project together, whatever that may be. You can follow on Facebook at “Project Safe Space NC”and shoot us a message if you’d like us to send you some free stickers.