This spring, Sarah Shook & the Disarmers released their debut LP ‘Sidelong’ with Bloodshot Records. Musically, the band takes threads from Americana, neo-traditional country, folk, rock & roll, and fabricates a sound that’s familiar enough to be accessible on a broad scale, while it manages to stay young, intriguing, even dangerous. When Sarah sings, her voice is distinct and creates an impact that drives home those essential feelings of grief, anger, love, loss, hurt, inversion, self-awareness, introspection. The band’s schedule is crazy at the moment but Sarah stopped to answer some questions, which you’ll find below. I’m stoked that she did because ‘Sidelong’ is one of my favorite albums of the year to this point. It’s always cool to be able to get some inside information from the artists who make the difference in our lives, for whatever the reason may be.
It’s always cool to see what gets an artist to where they are in that moment when they hit their greatness. Without trying to do as much, Sarah’s earliest influences and inspirations might confuse those with a limited stream of understanding, who would otherwise pigeon-hole any artist’s origins. She’s not your garden variety ‘country’ artist, stuck drawing from a shallow well of inspiration. Her future is something that has boundless potential. So this is as good a time as any to hop on board the inevitable bandwagon.
Sarah Shook & the Disarmers are actually out on the road this summer in support of ‘Sidelong’, and they’ve got a stop at the Nelsonville Music Festival on Friday, June 2 on the boxcar stage at around 2:30PM.
What kind of musical styles and genres did you grow up hearing and listening to? Were there any outside influences who turned you on to different kinds of music, early on?
I was raised in a strict, conservative, Christian household so my music options consisted of “worship” music and classical music. We had this cassette tape series with all the great composers, Bach, Beethoven, etc. but Vivaldi was my dude, man. I loved the hell outta some Vivaldi.
It wasn’t until my late teens that I got to dip a toe into contemporary music, Belle And Sebastian, the Decemberists, and Elliott Smith. In my early 20s I got way into old school country and my love of all the punk greats, Adverts, Sex Pistols, the Damned, Adolescents, the Saints, and so on, came about within the last couple years.
What recording(s) and/or artists really spoke loudly to you when you were just discovering things? Were there any artists or albums that really grabbed your attention right away that might’ve directly or indirectly inspired you to explore your creative potential?
I loved Elliott Smith from the word go. He has a big place in my heart. He was a remarkable songwriter and was incredibly gifted with writing melodies and chord progressions that were beautiful and unpredictable without seeming chaotic or confusing. Plus I just fucking love me a sad song and his are poetically tragic on an almost Greek level.
How long have you been actively making music? When did you decide to really hone in and start intentionally writing and creating your own music?
I wrote my first song when I was about 9 and played around with it, taught myself to play enough piano to write a complete song with lyrics, melody, chord progression, arrangement, the whole deal.
When I was 16 I decided I wanted to learn how to play guitar and I taught myself that instrument as well. That was a big game changer, I wrote a handful of songs in my late teens. When I moved to North Carolina I had no friends there, didn’t know anyone, so I worked on guitar and writing a bunch.
Fast forward through an escape marriage and divorce, I was independent for the first time in my life and my writing became much more focused, intentional, and consistent. It’s totally cathartic to write a song during the hard times and there were plenty to be had as a 23 year old newly single mom.
You’d already released at least one record called ‘Seven’, right? Would you mind giving a little background for those just finding your work? Tell us how you came up and arrived up to the present with ‘Sidelong’?
My first band, Sarah Shook & the Devil, played together for a solid 3+ year run. “Seven” is a 7 song EP we put out in July of 2013. My guitarist, Eric Peterson, and my pedal steel player (then lap steel player), Phil Sullivan, We’re both in the Devil, we go back a long damn time.
The Devil broke up in October 2013 but Peterson stuck with me, we kept meeting, figurin’, and plotting out how to proceed. We started a band called the Dirty Hands that was fun but short lived. A few months down the road the Disarmers started taking shape. We brought in John Howie Jr. on drums and found an upright bassist. The songs really started coming together and the sound was exactly what I wanted in comparison to the Devil, it was harder, darker, a little more of a rock n’ roll, sweaty breed of country.
I’d been approaching the Disarmers like it was still the Devil, only playing a handful of local shows, getting wasted at every single one, and was basically in it to party. The chief engineer at Manifold in Chatham County, NC, had been after me for awhile, wanting to talk making a full length album and I was droppin’ the ball on that big time.
So Peterson basically said, “Look, if we’re just gonna be a local band with no album, no merch, and no tours on the books, fine, but you need to just tell me that so I can adjust my expectations.” Wanna talk about lighting a fire under somebody’s ass, boy howdy! I hopped to. I met with Ian that same week, we set recording dates for Easter weekend April 2015, and we did the damn thing. And it’s been goin’ great.
Have you always been comfortable performing for audiences or did you begin with some apprehension? Was it everything you thought it’d be, or afraid it was going to be?
Ha ha! I recall calling my mom to tell her I had booked my first show back when I was performing solo. There was dead silence on the other end of the phone and I finally said, “Mom? Are ya there?” And finally she sputters, “You’re… going to perform? On a stage?! In front of PEOPLE?” I was a painfully shy kid, I mean painfully. I’m totally introverted by nature. I got past that mostly, and I was determined that trait wouldn’t keep me from performing.
The first shows I played I had a music stand and I had to close my eyes, still too awkward to even look at the audience. I finally said, “Fuck it!” Tossed the music stand, and brushed off any remaining qualms. At this point in my life, there are very few things I love more than striding out onto a stage with my band and being totally caught up in the music and the words.
Are you situated in a place, geographically, that you can look to for lyrical inspiration? Or musical inspiration, for that matter? How does your day-to-day living environment help to provide you with things to take in and influence your work?
I live out in the woods in Chatham County, North Carolina, surrounded by forest, creeks, rivers, trails, you name it. That’s the only environment I need to stay on the safe side of sane.
How did you and the Disarmers all become involved? The vibes in the songs sound like there’s a groove and synergy that far exceeds that of the typical ‘artist and their backing band’. Had you guys been friends or acquaintances before the band? What brought the band together?
Hard to believe Peterson and I are comin’ up on seven dang years of playing together, Lord! Cumulatively, the two of us have been playing with Phil Sullivan for about four or five years now, and at various points Howie and Peterson played in different bands together in their teens and twenties.
Phil and I were part of a crew out in Chatham that partied a lot back in the day. I’ve certainly known him longer than I’ve known anyone else in the band, I think we’ve been friends for comin’ up on a decade now. He and Peterson both worked at Carr Amps in Pittsboro, NC, together or a long damn time, so there’s some history and relationship there, as well.
When Peterson and I started lookin’ for a drummer, Howie offered to try out and needless to say he got the job. One of those “totally meant to be” musical moments.
What the things that you find yourself writing about most? Generally on ‘Sidelong’ you’ve got some loneliness in longing, some sadness and pain of heartbreak and loss, intermittent bits of self deprecation. But you’ve also covered some fortitude of inner strength and some blatant defiance.
The main deal is, sometimes I’m fucking depressed as all get out. Sometimes I’m provocative and sarcastic. Sometimes I’m feelin’ pretty fucking good and I wanna say so. The entire mood, motive, energy, of “Sidelong” is the unapologetic owning of whatever one is going through and the feelings they’re experiencing. Not gonna back down from my feelings, not gonna back down from life, not gonna back down from anything. And you don’t have to either.
To be fully human one must experience the full spectrum of human emotion… it’s just as important to understand sadness and what purpose it serves as it is to understand elation, although the latter might be more pleasant.
Do you ever find yourself with heavier really focusing on more socio-political issues in your songwriting than you might’ve thought you’d be, especially where the apparent fucked up state of U.S. society appears to be resting at this point? Unfortunately, many women still find themselves fighting against the despicable currents of sexism, ridiculous notions about orientation, lame archaic preconceptions?
I think the songs I write often have a way of challenging gender roles and societal expectations of women in this very non-assuming, non-combative way. As someone who often feels like the observer when I’m writing a song, not the writer, it’s incredibly fascinating to watch my subconscious order everything neatly, saying only what needs to be said and nothing more.
Obviously, as it is said, ‘art and beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, but your musical approach is certainly coming from a more ‘classic’ or ‘traditional’ artistic perspective. Is carrying any kind of tradition of high importance for you? Musically? Even personally?
To hell with tradition. The last thing I need is another set of rules and regulations I’m expected to adhere to. I make music that comes from the well of who I am, not what anyone else has done before me.
Are there any parting words for your fans and your inevitable growing following?
Y’all means all. Be kind and love ’til it hurts.