By Sean Titone
Photo: Jillian Clark
April 2, 2018
Sarah Shook needs this shit like she needs another hole in her head.
So she says on the twangy, weary kiss-off “New Ways to Fail” from her excellent new album Years, out April 7 on famed, Chicago-based label Bloodshot Records, home to alt-country vets like Old 97’s, Neko Case, and Ryan Adams. The lyric is a nice summation of the Chapel Hill-based musician’s ethos. She’s been through some shit, she’s over it, she’s ready to move on, and you best get out of her way.
A self-described “vegan, bisexual, atheist mom in a country band from the South,” Shook was home-schooled and raised in an oppressively religious family in upstate New York before settling down in North Carolina. Her first taste of secular music during her late teenage years opened her eyes to a brand new world, and she hasn’t looked back since. In our recent phone conversation, she talked about how music saved her.
“It was escape. I think that’s a common theme in a lot of art, regardless of the medium, especially in a sheltered environment where your access to the outside world is so severely restricted. It’s wild to be where I am right now and look back. You know, I was home-schooled the first 17 years of my life. I was home, in my room, not allowed to talk to boys and crazy shit like that. And that literally could not be more opposite than what I’m doing now. Because it’s just like, now, I’m an adult and I control my own narrative and do what I want. And I’ve been very fortunate in a lot of ways. That keeps me humble for sure.”
After nearly a decade of gigging locally in and around North Carolina in various bands, Shook finally wrote and recorded Sidelong, her critically acclaimed debut album with her band The Disarmers, which was released in 2017 on Bloodshot. It’s a collection of scrappy, revved-up, whiskey-fueled, sh*t-kicking country songs that are buoyed by Shook’s unflinchingly candid and powerful, yet vulnerable voice. While it helped put her on the map, garnering attention from Rolling Stone, Noisey/Vice and The Fader, the recording of Sidelong was a trying time for Shook.
“I was just an absolute ball of anxiety. It just seemed like such a daunting task and I was absolutely wasted for the entire four days of tracking, like falling down drunk wasted. One of the other things that was really trying was I had come down with extreme tonsillitis like seven days before we went into the studio and I had to go to the ER. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t drink. It was really bad. So I wrote the doctor a note and said I have to record an album in seven days. What do I do? And the doctor was like don’t talk for five days. Don’t use your voice. So I went from not speaking at all to going into the studio and tracking live. Physically and mentally, it was a very strange and kind of dark place.”
With Years, she vowed to approach the recording process with a new outlook. Shook tells me “when we started pre-production for Years, I went back and I listened to Sidelong and I was like, I want to do this differently this time. I want to be sober, and I want to be sober because I want to be more emotionally and mentally present. I want to have more control over my voice and I want to do everything with great intention. I’ve listened to both albums back to back and I feel like the difference is just huge. It was the right call for sure.”
Listening to Years, it’s clear that her new approach paid off in spades. It’s an album that still has the country punk bona fides of her previous work, but there’s a clear evolution, musically and lyrically. A pop sensibility runs through songs like “Good as Gold” and “Lesson,” creating catchy, melodic earworms that are hard to shake after just one listen. Taken as a whole, Years is Americana gold with punk rock in its veins and an outlaw spirit. Recorded live in the studio, Shook and The Disarmers walk a fine line between a retro sound and modern rock ‘n’ roll, with dueling electric guitars and a dancing pedal steel that is a highlight on upbeat songs like “Damned If I Do, Damned If I Don’t” and “What It Takes.”
Lyrically, the songs on Years document a recent rough patch in Shook’s life that she hopes will resonate with audiences and provide solace for those who need it. “I was in the midst of a pretty unhealthy and miserable relationship at the time that I wrote these songs,” Shook says. “And I feel like I was sort of looking ahead and realizing that this was something that wasn’t going to last. So it’s kind of like the breakup album that I wrote before I ended the relationship. Some of the songs are from my point of view and some are from my ex’s point of view. There’s definitely some empathy in there where I’m trying to understand where he’s coming from, but there’s definitely a lot of heartache that went into writing this album.”
She continues, ”I’ve spent a very long time, years in fact – that’s why the album is named Years – I’ve spent about 11 years of my life in emotionally and verbally abusive relationships. Being on the other side of that, and recognizing a pattern and being determined to not repeat the same mistakes and talking to other folks, it’s amazing to me how common it is. It’s reality for a lot of folks, and a lot of folks are living that life every day, especially with women, where it can be just unsafe to leave. If anything, I hope this album speaks to people who are in the midst of turmoil from such a relationship or are on the other side of it and are going through the grieving process and healing process. I hope it gives them some hope and makes them feel less alone.”
By all accounts, Years will be the album that launches Shook and the Disarmers to the next level. It’s an extremely polished, vibrant collection of songs. And, for Shook, after enduring something as painful as the breakup that led her to write this album, her ability to come out on top, stronger and wiser, should be an inspiration to many.
“I feel like when you’re in a relationship like that, you have to sort of hide away a part of you that’s very secret and very protected. And once you’re free and getting your shit figured out, you reconnect with that side of you. That’s a really beautiful and powerful thing to get back in touch with.”
Shook has a versatile voice that can sound both broken down and defiant, sometimes within the same song. That defiance and resilience comes from her determination to find light in the darkness and remain true to herself.
“It’s like, you tried your damndest and you did your worst, but I’m still me and I’m still here. I’m still kickin’.“