By Brent Hill
April 13, 2015
Tim Showalter (aka Strand of Oaks) only has 24 hours at his apartment in Philadelphia after returning from Alaska before he flies to New Orleans and then heads off to Australia, So, he’s doing the most rock and roll thing he can think of when I call… his 2014 taxes. “This is the worst day of my whole year,” he laughs. “It’s like I have a rabid lion in my bedroom and I just need it to leave. That’s what doing taxes is like for me. It’s going to hurt, but it has to get done.”
There is something comforting in knowing that even a guy like Tim Showalter, who is playing just about every major music festival this summer, including Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza, still wrestles with the same world we all do.
“I’m just such a space case,” he says. “Give me a guitar and put me on stage and I will try my best to entertain people. But me living in the normal world is not a good combo.”
It is this kind of candid, self-deprecating response that has endeared him and his music to fans and critics over the past 18 months. In June 2014 he released his 4th full-length album, HEAL, an appropriate title considering Showalter wrote and recorded the album in the fallout of consecutive tragedies including marital distress, a house fire, and a car crash. He experienced a momentous series of “bad days” that would have sent most struggling musicians running back to their day job; a second grade teacher in his case.
But as Showalter has said in several interviews, HEAL is an album that needed to happen. It is a confessional album even by today’s put-it-all-out-there standards. Confessional to the point of cathartic. That’s the difference. In addition, Showalter’s “coffeehouse” sound evolved so that it could capture all the emotions that scratch and claw inside his lyrics.
The acoustic guitar that was the centerpiece of his other albums just wasn’t enough anymore. On HEAL, casual strumming is replaced by a soaring electric guitar seeking asylum in the nooks and crannies of crashing drum beats. In the song “Same Emotions,” 80’s style synths seeth to meet repeated lines like, “I wasn’t feeling all alone again.” With a bold new sound to match the breadth and bite of his lyrics, Showalter found himself with a legion of new fans.
“2014 feels like it just rolled right into 2015,” says Showalter. “And that’s a good thing. The shows have just been getting better and better — more people have been coming out. I’m touring with a full band now. I even got to spend a little bit of time at home…which is really important.”
Speaking of home, when asked about some lowlights from the year so far (things he’s struggling with), Tim doesn’t hesitate. He spews out a list that would catch even the most seasoned interviewer off guard. “Well, let’s see,” he sighs, “Alcoholism, weight, marriage, health, friendships, life in general.” He recognizes just how daunting that list sounds, and he takes a deep breath. After a few seconds he continues. “It feels like music is the only thing that makes sense when it comes to life these days. I’m trying to do better at life, trying to get my shit together.”
Sometimes getting your shit together requires a little solitude. That’s why for two weeks in February Showalter went to the beach to work on songs for his new album. Before you picture the burly rocker (with his long hair, tattoos and beard) in a skull and crossbones speedo sipping mai-tais under a palm tree and waiting for inspiration to strike, understand Showalter actually went to the Jersey Shore. The Jersey Shore, in February!
“Aw man, it was awesome!” he says. “I lived in a condo for like 400 bucks. It was -10 degrees outside. I was the only person in town besides the guys in the beer store and the dude who delivered my food, mostly pizza. I rode a bike in a snowstorm. And I was able to write some new songs.”
Let’s hope those new songs born in the bitter cold of a desolate Jersey Shore continue in the same honest vein that defines HEAL. “I want people to know me,” Showalter says. “To know what I believe in. To know how much I care about what I do. I don’t want there to be any mystery about me. It makes my job easier if there’s no mystery, because then I can just hang with people.”
“I’ve met all kinds of people who are supposed to be famous,” he continues. “But the best ones are the ones that are just normal.” Perhaps it is oversimplifying to say that Showalter’s music seeks to explain the nature of normal. But self-doubt is normal. Failure is normal. And Showalter’s songs are baptised in self-doubt and festooned in failure.
There is something extraordinary about accepting how ordinary we really are: we fail, we get back up, and we laugh about it. Showalter understands this better than any other songwriter out there right now.
After all, failure is far more normal and far more necessary. It is the one thing we have all undoubtedly experienced, yet we rarely share our stumbles on our Facebook or Instagram feeds, much less put them all to music for the world to hear.
No, we would rather bury our failures beneath photos of food and family vacations and present a life that is false than show the world who we really are: just normal people screwing shit up, learning from it and trying to do better. That’s why music like Strand of Oaks is so important. It makes us feel normal, part of something real. Part of something bigger than ourselves.
In the song “Dogs of War” off of Strand of Oaks’ 2009 album Leave Ruin, Showalter writes, “we have beaten these dogs of war/found victory as we lay on this floor,” reminding us that in the aftermath of pain and struggle, we find our true selves, prostrate and vulnerable. And if we just look beside us we will find someone who feels exactly the same way. Showalter’s music encourages us to see what is right in front of us: the “We.”
Showalter will be the first to admit that there is nothing unique or special about who he is and what he does. He is as humble as he is talented. He is a performer with a penchant for honest lyrics that speak to everyone — lyrics laced with autobiographical details so rich it feels like you are sitting in that Indiana basement Showalter speaks of in “Goshen 97,” tape recorder positioned in front of you as you pour out your 15-year-old heart to anyone and no one. We all have our own version of “Goshen 97.” Most of us just haven’t written it yet.
Showalter sings the kind of songs that seep deep into our soul. That speak to us on a level that is both poignant and brutal. He says the things we know to be true but don’t want to admit. When he croons, “Comfort doesn’t mean you’re better off” on “Plymouth,” we know this is true. Yet we deny it with our actions.
2015 should be a good year for Showalter. Maybe this year he can finally sit back and be comfortable with his success. Maybe this year he’ll just pay someone to do his taxes. Or maybe he’ll decide to screw them up himself like the rest of us.
Catch Strand of Oaks on Friday April 17th with Jason Isbell at USNWC.