Photo by John Gessner
The video for 2017’s “Nothin’ Feel Right But Doin’ Wrong” opens with a trucker-hat wearing, bare-tattooed-arms-exposed Sarah Shook playing guitar on a front porch with a full ashtray and a bottle of Jack at her feet. Without even hearing a lick of music, the visual is a perfect description of a picture is worth a thousand words. Shook and her band, the Disarmers, are punk in spirit as they deliver 10 twangy, outlaw-country-inspired songs about drinkin’ and broken relationships on their second album for Bloodshot Records, Years, which was released in early April.
Before embarking on what will be the longest run of dates she’s ever done, Sarah answered questions I sent via email.
I feel like every artist is always trying to outdo their previous efforts but, in my opinion, it’s not like a sport where you train harder for whatever you do next to have a “better” outcome. When you were writing and recording, did you go into it saying, “I want this to be the best thing I’ve ever done” or do you think of it more like writing the next chapter in a book, a continuation of the story you started to tell?
We definitely didn’t think of it as training harder, but I’d say a big part of the evolution of our sound is largely due to us touring harder and exponentially increasing the number of shows played per year. Not in a sport-y way but in an organic, this-comes-naturally-with-time kinda way. When we released our first album “Sidelong” we were a relatively young band. Bein’ on the road as much as we’ve been, the chops get more hardcore for sure. And yes, absolutely a continuation of a story! We evolve as humans, our lives change, the story has to evolve and change in keeping with the times.
I hope this doesn’t come across the wrong way – I have 3 daughters and am the only male in my house, even the dog is female – and maybe it’s more of awareness/awakening on my part than what is really going on in the music world, but it seems to me like the past few years there has been some great female artists that – because of the world we live in – could be part of an Americana-type Spotify playlist of like-minded artists. Perhaps there have always been women doing what you’re doing and I didn’t become aware of it until I “discovered” Lydia Loveless and started expanding my own horizons and discovering artists like yourself, Lilly Hiatt, Margo Price, Amanda Shires, etc. Do you think this is a relatively recent thing or is it something you even bother thinking about?
Women have been making badass music as long as there has been women and music. Since forever. The iconic bass line of the Beach Boys’ “Good Vibrations”? We have Carol Kaye to thank for that. Those instantly recognizable riffs on “Crazy On You” and “Barracuda” by Heart’s Nancy Wilson are unforgettable. And country music is no exception. “Jolene” by Dolly Parton just to name one example, total country classic. Women are working within the context of an industry that has been men-centric since its inception and it’s a world that requires focused and strategic navigation. Why did it take decades before we inducted Sister Rosetta Tharpe, (THE KING of rock n’ roll, sorry not sorry Elvis) into the Rock N Roll Hall Of Fame? Because she was a black woman. And because she was a black woman she didn’t get the level of press and sensationalization her white male counterparts received. This job comes with unique challenges and obstacles, and women are learning how to use the system against the system.
The definition of “rock star” has changed so much from when I was an impressionable teen when there were a number of major labels, when MTV showed videos 24/7, when independently-owned radio stations that helped shape the culture. I get the sense that even moderately successful (in terms of record sales, press attention, etc) struggle to make ends meet. I see the day-to-day struggles of musicians paying rent when they aren’t in an active touring cycle. Are you able to make a living off what you do or do you have to pick up a job when not recording or touring? Is this everything you dreamed it would be or did you have “rock star” fantasies and “rock star” realities?
I literally quit my “day job” two weeks ago. We ship out tomorrow for our first ever 50 day long tour and it just isn’t possible to hold down any sort of normal job with the schedule we’ll be keeping for the next year and beyond. The touring demand is mighty and I don’t expect that to wane any time soon. A lot folks see the surface level rock stardom and the glamour and think it’s just this dazzling beacon of awesome. And many many aspects of this job are totally rad, no contest there. But there is blood, sweat, tears, and pain that goes into living the life of a touring musician. Nobody sees that part but I think it’s important that folks know every single one of us has to make sacrifices, sometimes heart wrenching sacrifices, to do this work and do it well. And we do it because we love music, and we love kickin’ ass on a stage, and we love partying and meeting our fans after a sweaty ass sold out show. But there is always loss lurking behind the curtain. I’m about to not see my son for 50 days. And that’s real. And it’s fucking tough. As. Hell.
You must have people coming up to you after shows telling you how your songs connect with them, how your music has changed/saved their lives, etc. Did you ever think when you were starting out that you’d get this type of reaction to your music? How do you feel when people come up to you and say these kinds of things? I have to imagine sometimes it gets a little bit heavy and maybe even a little uncomfortable.
When I first started writing songs and I wrote them for myself. They were a taste of catharsis, it was a beautiful form of escapism. They came from me, from personal experience, from my failures and victories and everything in between. When I started playing shows and talking with folx who say these things, it was incredibly powerful. I realized that my personal pain and struggles were shared pain and shared struggles. Connecting the dots and watching everything come into focus, realizing how truly and deeply connected we all are by our experiences, was flooring. We’re truly not alone in the things we go through, even though it feels that way most of the time.
If you don’t mind switching gears, would like to know a little bit about the teenage Sarah Shook. What were you like as a kid? Have you always had a creative sense and has it always been music or did you come upon music as you got older? What type of things did you do as a kid/teenager – like, a typical summer day when you weren’t in school, were you an outdoors-type kid? Were you always kicking a soccer ball around the yard? Were you camped out in front of the TV? Did you spend most of your time in your room learning to play guitar?
I was the quiet kid. I would spend hours upon hours in my room alone writing and drawing, climbing a good tree to read a good book was always on deck. One of my favorite things to do was simply to lie on my bed and look at the ceiling and THINK about shit. My younger years, up until I was about 10, I was painfully shy. It was brutal. I would barely speak to anyone other than my family. When I was 22 and I called my mom to tell her I had just booked my first show she didn’t believe me at first. She was just totally blown away by the very idea of me getting up in front of people and performing.
Do you remember the first song you ever wrote that you shared with others? I don’t know if that’s the same as the first song you ever wrote period but what is the first song that you said, “I want to play this for my friends or my family and see what they think”? Was anybody surprised that you had that talent or – I guess going back to the previous question – were you always creative and people knew you had this in you?
I didn’t really share much of my songwriting until I was 17 and I met my best friend, Sean Fitzgerald. I felt totally safe and ok showing him the latest stuff I’d written and it felt like having an ally in the best way. My first song… I definitely don’t recall. I wish I did, that would be somethin’ else.
What about the first show you ever played where your name was listed on a calendar, on a marquee, on a poster that was hung up in a club? Maybe this is the same answer as the previous question but do you remember the first show you played where a majority of the audience wasn’t made up of friends and family? Was it a scary feeling? Did you get off stage feeling like you had accomplished something big or was it just an experience that you were happy to get through?
My old band, Sarah Shook & the Devil, started a residency called the Americana Revue at a bar here in central North Carolina. We played the second Thursday of every month and handpicked each bill. It became pretty popular, especially towards the end, it was wild to play to a room full of so many folx we didn’t know. At that time I was still pretty painfully shy about performing and I had a rickety old music stand that I used as a crutch. I knew all the words to every song, knew all the chords, but I’d stick that old thing in front of my face so I didn’t have to look at people haha. I’ve come a long damn way since them days I tell you what.
If you had a DVR in your head that could record 2 hours of content that you could access and playback whenever you wanted, what 2 hours from 2017 would you like to be able to replay?
The answer to that question is NSFW haha.