Country Singer Sarah Shook Talks 'Sidelong' and HB2
Sarah Shook is an emerging country artist out of central North Carolina. She’s playing Friday 4/29 in Asheville at the Grey Eagle. She’s also one of many artists taking part in a concert in mid-May against North Carolina’s controversial House Bill 2. Ahead of her Asheville visit she spoke with Jeremy Loeb.
Jeremy Loeb: So Sarah, the first and the only time that I saw you perform, it was just by chance. I was in Carrboro, where I was living at the time… a place called the Station. You got up on stage and you started singing these really great country and honky-tonk songs. You were slipping in your own material, slipping in Hank Williams, and all the while there was just something about the way that you delivered the songs… maybe it was the setting and the sound and of course your performance. There was just something really authentic about it. You sing the songs like you’ve lived them. Has performing music always come naturally to you?
Sarah Shook: It has not always come naturally to me. As a matter of fact, I am by nature very introverted. When I first told my mom that I was starting a band and going to be playing in public, there was about a minute pause of silence on the other end of the phone. And I said, “Are you still there?” And she said, “You’re going to get up on stage in front of people?” She just couldn’t believe it. But it is something that I’ve certainly warmed up to and taken a great liking to and find very cathartic.
JL: It’s been five years since then. Has performing gotten any different for you during that time?
SS: Absolutely. As with pretty much all areas of my life, I try to evolve constantly. Probably about five or six years ago I was still using a music stand, and it was kind of a crutch, so to speak. It was an excuse to not have to look at the audience or really put myself out there and be vulnerable. And over time that’s changed. I made myself get rid of the music stand and I’m actually at a place right now where I enjoy interacting with the audience during a show.
JL: Well I was really excited to find out about “Sidelong.” Living here in Asheville, it’s harder for me to keep up with what’s going on in the Triangle music scene now. And it was actually when I heard (WUNC Morning Edition host) Eric Hodge’s piece with you that I found out that you had put out this new album. Now I’m kind of shamelessly following in his footsteps and doing the exact same thing. But you know, you’ve got to follow in the footsteps of your heroes.
SS: That’s right. Someone’s got to be Clark. Somebody’s got to be Lewis.
JL: Well speaking of, you accomplished something pretty amazing I think with the album. These are original songs, of course, but they certainly kind of harken back to some country legends in sound and style, so they sound like something that you’ve heard before but they also sound fresh and new at the same time. How does that come about when you’re putting together an album like “Sidelong?”
SS: Interestingly enough, I would say it’s more about the genre itself. Country music is very much like punk music, in that punk is a way of life. It is who you are. It’s your worldview. And so punk music comes out of your life, your environment. And country music is very much the same way, in that it’s not just a genre. It’s a way of life. It’s who you are. It’s growing up poor. It’s understanding, you know, your mom having to pick between a loaf of bread or a jug of milk. And that’s also what makes it a lot easier, when you have grown up that way, to kind of spot the posers and be like “yep this person’s puttin’ on the hats and the boots because it’s popular right now.” It just makes it a lot easier to separate the men from the boys, so to speak.
JL: So it’s a hard thing to fake that sort of authenticity, is what you’re saying?
SS: I think so. Certainly as someone who grew up pretty damn poor. Yes, it’s easy to be like, “yeah you’re a country band and you’re a country singer and you’re wearing a thousand dollar Nudie Suit” (laughs)
JL: Your album, it starts out with a ton of energy. That song about a lover waiting at home for a partner to return, and sort of, the agony of that wait. How much of this album was autobiographical?
SS: Almost all of it, with the exception of “Solitary Confinement,” which is a song that I wrote for a dear friend of mine who was going through a particularly brutal breakup, and “No Name.” I mean, obviously, I would love to be this crazy soul, you know, pirate of the desert running around on a horse being completely unaccountable, but that’s never going to happen. The Wild West is over.
JL: “No Name,” that reminded me of that last album you had “Seven” the album you put out with Sarah Shook and the Devil. You revisited Shotgun Betty in that song. And it’s like kind of a sequel almost to that song, and that “Outlaw” song you had on there. Where do these songs come from?
SS: There are songs that I write that are very much me writing from my own experience, and it’s very clear. And then there’s another much less frequent kind of song that I write, that’s sort of channeling. There’s a song also on “Seven” from Sarah Shook and the Devil called “All This Time” and it’s very much written from the point of view of a man who’s been left, which for whatever reason I seem to have an ability to write about that and feel it genuinely.
JL: Yeah, that one song… and I don’t remember the name… but it was on “Seven” and he was talking about dancing with a woman…
SS: Oh “Follow You Home.”
JL: “Follow You Home,” yeah that one. Yeah, obviously written from a male perspective. I had wondered when I heard that song and didn’t know the writing credits on that whether or not you were singing someone else’s song or you had written it from a male perspective.
SS: Yeah. Well it’s interesting because there are songs that I write about, that I have written about women from a man’s point of view and there are songs that I’ve written just from a superfluous point of view. Because, to me I think that gender fluidity is really important and it’s too easy to get pigeonholed into this place that’s like “well I’m a woman so I should be writing about men” and you don’t have to do that. You don’t have to go by what society tells you you should.
JL: So you’re coming to Asheville tonight. I want to ask you about this anti-House Bill 2 concert. HB2, what’s become known to the world as North Carolina’s “bathroom bill.” It limits LGBT protections and mandates which bathroom transgender people can use. And many artists have boycotted the state over this bill. Others have made their concerts basically rallies or fundraisers in opposition. And you’ll be one of the many artists performing the Stand Against HB2 show at the Haw River Ballroom in Saxapahaw on May 15th, with all the proceeds going to Equality North Carolina. That’s the statewide gay rights group. Why did you sign on for that show?
SS: The passing of House Bill 2 had immediate, very strong reactions from the community. I live in Pittsboro in Chatham County and also in Orange and Durham counties. It was an instantaneous fire that was ignited. The movements here and there, musicians that are doing everything that they can, no matter how small it might seem. It’s like “this seems small but it’s the only thing I can do so I’m going to do it.” And as far as the boycotts, I feel like there’s been a lot of criticism of artists for boycotting. This is how I feel about it: I feel like the entire point of the opposition of HB2 is all about the right to choose, and the power of choice. And I feel like there isn’t one right or wrong way for artists to go about showing their solidarity for the LGBTQ community here. And if an artist feels like their convictions dictate that they should boycott, then they should. That’s right for them. And if a band feels like “Let’s make this a rally.” Let’s make especially this show a statement about which side of the line we stand on.
JL: And I guess for you that decision is made a little easier, because you are a North Carolina artist, obviously. And so you’re not going to just stop playing music altogether.
SS: Exactly. And it’s like, I see people kind of on the outside looking in being like, “On one hand it’s like they need help and on the other hand it’s like they’re doing pretty well on their own.” Mike Allen is largely organizing the anti-HB2 concert at the Haw River Ballroom on May 15th and he has pulled together an extraordinary line-up, an absolutely extraordinary line-up. That concert is already sold out in fact. And we’re trying to arrange right now for people who are going to be leaving the concert to head home to turn in their wristbands so we can re-sell them and raise as much money for Equality NC as we can.
JL: Well, let me get back to the album. It seems like you went through some sort of band turmoil, so to speak, when the Devil broke up. I’m not really sure. But then you landed on your feet with the Disarmers, which is great news for us fans, of course. We get to hear more of your music. And the band you’ve assembled, it’s really fantastic. It sounds like a really tight-sounding group of musicians. Is Sarah Shook and the Disarmers built to last?
SS: Absolutely. In the Devil, Eric Peterson was my guitarist. And Phil Sullivan played lap steel. Eric has stuck with me all this time. I started playing music with Eric.. I think our first show was Halloween of 2010? I think we’re coming up on six years of playing music together, which is pretty awesome. And Phil has just recently re-joined the band on pedal steel. So we have ¾ of the original line-up with the addition of John Howie Jr. on drums and Aaron Oliva on upright bass. And it’s just a solid group of people. Works well together. We can be in the van for hours and no trouble, no issues… just a solid group of citizens.
JL: Yeah and I know some of these guys… I know John Howie plays his own music, of course, as well. And he was also listed on that HB2 concert with his own group. Do the other guys have other projects as well?
SS: Eric Peterson also plays in Swang Brothers. And Phil just takes projects here and there, sometimes doing session work, sometimes just playing a one-off show. And right now I would love to start another project but right now I’m just working on upping my guitar playing skills, and I’m teaching myself upright and electric bass. So that’s keeping me busy.
JL: Oh ok. Are you writing songs for a new album?
SS: Yes. I actually am just a few songs shy of what will be our next full-length album, which I’m pretty excited about, especially with the addition of Phil on pedal steel. It’s a real game-changer.
JL: That’s great. Do you have any kind of timeline as far as when we might expect that?
SS: My aim is to release that in spring of 2017. And again, as with “Sidelong” the entire record will be recorded live. And basically it’s all pre-production. It’s learning the songs, practicing relentlessly, practicing until you’re sick of them.
JL: Oh wow. I didn’t know you recorded “Sidelong” live.
SS: Yes. We recorded that live. The vocals, we recorded with scratch vocals. I had been in the hospital, in the ER, two times in the last five days before we began recording with tonsillitis. And the doctors basically said if you are intending at all to record, just don’t talk for five days. So I went from not saying a word out of fear for not being able to talk for five days, and then went in, did scratch vocals, and my voice was so on the edge of just losing it that I just belted it out and tried to hit the first take every time. Most of those are first takes.
JL: Well the album, “Sidelong,” it received rave reviews. The Independent Weekly, which is a pretty respected paper in Durham, ranked your album “Sidelong” #2. It’s a really good music scene there in the Triangle, so that says a lot, I think. And it seems like you’ve either accomplished or are on the brink of something bigger. I’m not quite sure. What do you think?
SS: To be perfectly honest I had a lot of anxiety over the release of this album. And that kind of ties back into me being more on the introverted side. When you’re like anti-fame and anti-celebrity but you’re playing music, you know, you’ve got to find some kind of middle ground where you can sleep at night, you know, it’s not driving you crazy constantly. I got to a place where I thought about the things that are important to me and the issues that I care about strongly. And I just realized the bigger this thing gets, the louder of a voice I have and the larger of a platform I have to affect change. And the world needs some changin’ right now, in a bad way. So from my point of view, any success we have is success on a much larger scheme of things than just our band.
JL: Well the album sounds great and we really look forward to seeing you tonight in Asheville at the Grey Eagle. Thanks a lot for speaking with me Sarah.
SS: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.