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Posted January 29, 2020 by Jeff in Tunes
 
 

Finding a Healthy Balance: Sarah Shook and the Disarmers

Sarah Shook and the Disarmers Photo by John Gessner
Sarah Shook and the Disarmers Photo by John Gessner

With their first two albums, 2015’s Sidelong and 2018’s Years, Sarah Shook and the Disarmers have established themselves as an Americana act to be reckoned with. Thanks to Shook’s confessional lyrics and the back-and-forth guitar licks delivered by Eric Peterson and Phil Sullivan, the band has crafted some compelling tunes. Shook self-defines as a vegan, bisexual and atheist mom, but she was raised in a strict, religious family. In this recent phone interview from her North Carolina home, she talks about her upbringing and about the trials and tribulations of learning to write and perform sober. 

You were raised in a pretty strict family. You weren’t allowed to listen to secular music. How were you able to break out of that environment?

Well, I think getting my first car and my first job was the conduit for that. I got this beat up old Mazda Protégé. It didn’t have a CD player. I think it might have had a tape deck. It definitely had a radio, and my parents couldn’t be in the car with me all the time. That was my first foray into exploring new music. It was pretty jarring honestly. I was 17 or 18 at the time. I wasn’t allowed to listen to a lot of music with drums. Hearing some rock ’n’ roll rhythm section where the bass was amped to 11 and the drums were crashing was awesome and exhilarating for me. Most people would think it’s ho-hum because they grew up with that, and it would seem normal to them.

You had taught yourself to play piano and guitar? 

Yeah. We had a really old upright piano in the hallway of our childhood home. I taught myself to play that. When I was 8 or 9, I started writing songs. Being homeschooled and sheltered, I’m sure all the lyrical content was about Jesus and God. We’ve come a long way. When I was 16, a friend from our church lent me a guitar. I spent a lot time outdoors as a teenager. And though I liked piano, I wanted to go outside and to write a song on an instrument. To have a standard six-string acoustic was great. That was what I needed. This was before the free YouTube tutorials and the million ways you can teach yourself guitar now. I had one of the giant old school posters on my wall that had all the chords. I would sit on the floor with my guitar, and that’s how I learned to play.

What motivated you to want to write your own songs?

I’ve always been a creative person. As a kid, that was a way to pass the time. I spent so much time at home. I recently discovered that there are these forums online for recovering homeschoolers. One of the points a woman made is that when you’re homeschooled, you have no memory markers because every day is essentially the same. It’s not like, “Remember the day that Josh dropped his tray?” Nothing stands out. So writing songs and teaching myself piano was a way to keep myself entertained without getting myself in trouble. It wasn’t until my teen years when I learned a thing or two about relationships and how things can go so wrong so fast that songwriting became more of a form of catharsis or self-therapy. It was a way for me to take the things that had happened and sit down with them and try to be objective and fair about the conclusions that I drew. Any time a relationship fails, it’s not just one person’s fault. I think it can definitely be way more one person’s fault than another person’s, but it’s an important thing in life to analyze your moments and figure out the part you had to play in the dissolution of a relationship. 

You were born in upstate New York but then wound up in North Carolina later in life. What was that transition like?

It was really rough at the time. My family had befriended another family of homeschoolers, and all of the kids got really, really, really close. That was jarring for me. I was ten at the time when it happened. We didn’t have a piano in the new place, and I didn’t know how to play guitar yet. It was 13 months in Raleigh and then we moved to Pennsylvania and then to New York and then back to North Carolina. I think some kids roll with the punches better when it comes to being uprooted and tossed into a completely new environment. It was hard for me. I wanted roots and a place to put down roots. It wouldn’t be until years later when I moved out of my parents’ house and could choose where I lived that that became a reality. 

How’d your first band, Sarah Shook and the Devil, come together?

I was dating this guy who was really into old school country music and had a small but really good collection of all the country greats on vinyl. Early on, we were sitting on the porch drinking PBRs. He put on Johnny Cash. Immediately, I was like ‘What is this?” It was the kind of music that I had been writing in terms of the song structure and the kinds of chords. He said, “This is country music.” It was so wild to know that there was a name for this genre. It was awesome. He was an upright bassist. From that Johnny Cash vinyl moment, we started playing songs together. After a while, we wanted someone to play something else with us, so we got our friend Phil Sullivan to play lap steel with us. He was with us for a little while. It was the middle of winter, and he wanted to take a break. Then, we asked Eric Peterson to sit in with us on electric guitar. Once Phil heard that Eric was playing with us, he wanted back in the band. Of course, because Eric is phenomenal. Eric and Phil are still with me today in the Disarmers. Phil has graduated to pedal steel. We’re knee-deep in pre-production for the next record.

The Disarmers formed in 2013. Talk about making that first album, Sidelong. It was your guitarist Eric Peterson that really pushed to record that, right?

I always felt like music was something I did for fun. Songwriting was catharsis. Playing with my bandmates at local bars was a good way to socialize. I don’t care about fame or celebrity at all. I’m actively against that. When Eric pushed for that, my kneejerk reaction was that I didn’t realize he wanted more out of this than what we were doing. Even at that point, he was with for us for so long that I had to listen to him. I knew we needed to get a record out and if we wanted to tour more, I knew we had to talk logistics. It all came together over a period of time. I’ll never forget going to shows and taking three vehicles because we didn’t have a band van . . . all that growing pains stuff.

It’s about keeping a good attitude. That sets the stage for how you do later on in your career when you actually have a van.

Sarah Shook

Talk about making Years. Did you set out to do anything differently with the album?

I was much more comfortable with the idea of making something creatively that would bring me more attention than I wanted. I don’t really like attention. I realize this is part of our jobs. This is what I do for a living. A lot of people work so hard and so long to get to that position and never do. I wanted to keep a healthy balance in perspective. Years was a little more bit healthy for me because I decided that when I went in to do the tracking that I would be sober and wait to start pounding whiskey until I got home and started thinking of all the mistakes I had probably made. That alone was really helpful. I’m excited that I’m completely sober now. That’s helped me get my head on straight in terms of where we’re going as a band and what our version of success means to us.

Your first two records are great and the songs seem really cathartic. Do you feel like it’s going to be difficult to follow them up?

The thing that’s hardest for me is figuring out how to write songs sober. It was very different when I would sit down to write songs with a whiskey or two. I was uninhibited. My subconscious would put things together in a way that made linear sense. I’m trying to get to that point of mental relaxation. 

Sarah Shook and the Disarmers photo by John Gessner


Jeff

 
Jeff started writing about rock ’n’ roll some 20 years ago when he stood in the pouring rain to hitch hike his way to see R.E.M. on their Life’s Rich Pageant tour. Since that time, he's written for various daily newspapers, alt-weeklies, magazines and websites. Feel free to comment on his posts or suggest music, film and art to him at jeff@whopperjaw.net.