I’m unapologetically inclined to hybrid county music, really, anything Frankenstein’d from punk parts and honky tonk hallmarks that embraces the twang I believe exists at my molecular base and the angst I choose to continually feed. You can use dozens of colors and shapes to label it, but whether you’re drawn to alt-country, Red Dirt, cowpunk, insurgent, folk rock, country rock, roots rock, rockabilly, or the ever-ubiquitously accepting Americana, chances are you dig it because it’s not standard-issue and it stirs something significant inside you.
Sarah Shook & The Disarmers shirk category, defy cliche, and generally make music that sounds like all of the above and like nothing that’s come before. For fans of hillbilly heartache, 2017’s Sidelong came across equal parts barroom lament and pistol-whipping, while the sequel, Years (2018), maintained Shook’s now-signature tremolo with richer melodies and attitude hewn from North Carolina pine. The Disarmer’s hat trick was certainly delayed in part due to COVID-19 and the pandemic, but also a strange limbo was imposed when the band’s label, Bloodshot Records, faced sexual harassment allegations and revelations over unpaid royalties, heralding the longtime Chicago imprint’s sale and leaving its catalog tarred in uncertainty.
Thankfully, it was announced last summer that Shook & The Disarmers had signed with Thirty Tigers, an entity that allows artists to maintain independence with all the resources and benefits of a major label. Nightroamer marks a turning point sonically, professionally, and personally, for Shook, a performer candid about her grapples with mental health, and who openly makes an ally of sobriety in the studio for the first time. Recorded in Los Angeles with producer Pete Anderson (Dwight Yoakam, The Mavericks), the Disarmers mark their evolution with brief New Wave-ish segues into indie rock rhythms without ever losing their accent. But I assure you, there’s no reason for alarm. Reserve any fear for some other outfit because Shook and the boys are still scraping bone.
I was thrilled to talk to Sarah about the new tones, songwriting habits, healthy relationships, and her upcoming solo project sans The Disarmers.
AI- I wanna start with the video for “No Mistakes”, which is so much fun in a lot of ways– the group of line dancers out there with you! And then of course, underneath that, you’ve got the message about healthy relationships. I think there was a statement that you made to the tune of, “I don’t have the answers. I’m just asking the questions that we’re all asking.” You’ve asked a lot of those questions across your albums. What’s new this time around for Nightroamer as far as those questions?
SS- I’m sure that I’m not alone in that a lot of us have been in either a single bad relationship or a series of relationships that haven’t been healthy. I think that a big part of the issue is that as kids and teenagers, nobody’s really talking to us about how to have healthy relationships, really. I know it’s kind of like a buzzword or a catchphrase now, but nobody really teaches us boundaries. And a boundary isn’t just something as simple as, “Don’t touch me unless I say it’s okay,” which is obviously a good boundary to have, but there’s also emotional boundaries. I have certainly had my share of relationships where I didn’t really understand how to stick up for myself or how to assert any sort of, “Hey, this is okay, and this is not okay.” To put it in more layman’s terms, I guess, we really just don’t know how to treat each other very well. And a lot of us are not really interested in learning how to be better people to other people! We’re just sort of caught up in the minutia of our own lives and what’s happening to us and how it makes us feel. I just think that it’s really important to acknowledge that as much pain and uncomfortableness and suffering as there is in the relationships that we have, there is a different way to live. There is a different way to have relationships where you can have people who feel fulfilled and the relationship is a source of comfort rather than strife.
I’ve spoken to several artists since the pandemic began and as it’s endured, and one of the things, one of the topics that has come up is being in a relationship during that lockdown period. Boy Golden out of Canada had talked about how you really learn more about yourself and someone else when there’s nowhere to go. You can get up and go to the other room, but that’s it! I talk to different artists, and it’s like “This is the first time you’ve been home in five years– was that an adjustment?” And they’re like, “Oh! Oh yeah, it was!” What about for you? Because the beginning of that video, you come home and there’s that pause, like an emotional caesura, that transition of coming in the door of home and then, “Alright, I am no longer in the spotlight. I’m no longer on the road. It’s just me at home.” What did you find in those early days? And even now?
Being on tour and being home is two different modes for sure. My partner, Ian, has even said, “I can tell every time you get home from tour, it takes you a couple days to relax and get back into, ‘Oh yeah, I’m home now!'” (Laughs) I feel like part of the thing with tour is since you’re constantly, literally, and figuratively moving, and everything is just forward motion, go, go, go– you’re in the van, you’re heading to the venue, you’re at the venue, you’re loading in, everything is just constant motion– and then you get home and there’s like this moment where you set your bags down at the front door and you’re like, “Oh my God, I don’t have anything to do! What am I supposed to do with myself?”
It does, it definitely takes a couple days to get back into what I actually really love– I love being home! I love really boring shit, like cooking and cleaning. It’s very soothing to my brain. I love cooking, I love making my house tidier and more organized. But certainly, in the early days of the pandemic, there was so much uncertainty about how much impact it would actually have in general much less specifically in the music industry and in touring. I felt from the word go that it was going to be something that was very disruptive on all levels. I have some mental health issues and some sensory issues that I’m still figuring out exactly how and why I have them and learning coping mechanisms– healthy coping mechanisms– but towards the early days of the pandemic, one of the things that my brain needs a lot of is silence.
For that reason, I don’t really listen to a lot of music because I feel like I do my best thinking, and certainly, when I’m in a creative mode, I need silence. So being home with someone who is constantly rustling around and walking and making noise, to most people those things wouldn’t have any sort of effect– but in my brain it’s disruptive. It’s hard to keep a train of thought going because it’s like a series of constant, tiny interruptions. I started talk therapy pretty early on in the pandemic. Talk therapy is great, and that has helped me a lot, learning about myself and learning how to deal with things like the sensory issues and whatnot. Also, I would say in suggesting talk therapy to anyone that’s interested in it, it’s something that you should be doing in conjunction with other things. I did not take a passive approach to talk therapy, so I didn’t go to my therapist to be like, “Hey, fix me,” it was like, “Hey, tell me what work I can do to get better with this stuff.”
What’s talk therapy?
It’s talking to a licensed therapist.
So exactly what it sounds like?
You’ve always been open about your challenges with depression and mental health. I see your posts on social media about these things and making that mental health a priority, which is something I think [many people] don’t deal with until it becomes a problem. So many of us wait until there is an actual problem before we step up and decide to do something about it. For you, it seems like this has been an ongoing opportunity to make real change– sobriety, quitting smoking, you’re vegan. Tell me how all of that comes together to make a better version of Sarah Shook.
I was homeschooled and raised in a pretty… Not as extreme as some other homeschooling families, but I was definitely sheltered, and to a degree, I was isolated. There were a lot of things that I felt like I couldn’t talk to my family about, which obviously only goes to make the isolation feel even more isolating. Basically, I felt like I didn’t have the support that I needed and I wasn’t given the information that I needed to form healthy coping mechanisms. So by the time I got into my 20s, I had no experience dating. I literally got married to a guy I met on the internet three weeks after I met him, and then got pregnant with my son, Jonah, and got divorced. I was a divorced single mom by the time I was 22! And the fun doesn’t end there! Enter a decade of drug abuse and alcohol abuse and basically running from myself because I didn’t know how to face myself and I didn’t know how to deal with the more painful aspects of my history. That is something also that I’m not alone in.
Humans in this day and age, we go through a lot of really hard stuff and some of that stuff is really traumatizing. That can be stuff that happens at school when you’re a kid, or it can be one of your parents or both your parents or a bullying sibling… There’s just so many things that happen to us where it’s like we’re constantly taking a beating and we’re never taking a pause to get away from the source of the pain and grapple with it and face it and deal with it. It’s just like layer after layer after layer of trauma and hurt and not having the tools that we need to have a life that is satisfying to us and that we feel content in and confident that, “Okay, this is what being a person should feel like.”
When you went to go make Nightroamer, there was talk about how this was the first album that you’d gone in to make sober. Was that a big change for you as a writer or did some of these songs predate that decision?
Some of the songs predate it, for sure, and some were written after. Honestly, my biggest concern going into sobriety was, “What if I can’t write anymore?” Because I had always relied on having a whiskey or two or four to start the writing process. It’s like I needed something to help me become uninhibited enough that my subconscious could kind of take over and write the song. I’m not a disciplined, sit-down-from-noon-to-three-every-day-to-write… I don’t have a writing time blocked out ever. I just write songs when they come to me. I definitely had a very long what we would call a dry spell before I started writing again, and it’s still something that I’m becoming accustomed to. Obviously, the gains of sobriety are well worth the longer stretches of time between writing songs. There are a couple songs on Nightroamer that are really, really old. There’s one in particular where I had the chorus written for years– years and years– and the verses just never came! So I shelved it…
Which one was that?
It’s called “Believer”.
What about the title track? Because that one feels like it could’ve belonged on Sidelong.
I wrote “Nightroamer” when one of our drummers and I were driving the van and trailer to Denver from North Carolina, and then the rest of the band was gonna fly out and meet us there. One of our stops, we stayed a night in Hays, Kansas, and I was really trying to quit drinking at the time. I had a bottle of whiskey in my backpack and I was kind of keeping it there as a, “If it’s an emergency, I can drink this. If I start having DTs, I can drink this.” But I really didn’t wanna drink. It was really late, it was probably like midnight, and I decided to go for a walk just to put physical distance between me and the whiskey. I ended up walking for a couple miles and found a cemetery. It was quiet, it was summertime, it was really hot, there were insects chirping and making all kinds of noise, and I just sat down and wrote the whole song. And then when I got back to the hotel room, I grabbed my guitar and got all the chords and the melody down the way I wanted it.
That had to be extremely comforting.
Yeah, absolutely! I’d never written a song on a walk before (laughs)!
How did things come together with Pete Anderson? That seems like a natural match– Sarah Shook & The Disarmers and Pete Anderson.
I know that our manager had demos that I made for the band as references like, “Hey guys, here are some of the new jams we’re gonna be doing,” and our manager was sorta shopping the demos around to different producers. I know our guitarist, Eric Peterson, is a huge, huge Pete Anderson fan. I really didn’t know much about him– only because as I said before, I was homeschooled and I’m still playing so much catch-up on everything music-related! At the time, I knew that he was [Dwight Yoakam’s] guitarist, but I didn’t know that he was also producing records for him, so it was interesting because once he signed up for the job and we started working together, it was like, “Oh, okay. I’m learning all of this stuff about this person in real-time.” I’m grateful for that ’cause it was kind of a unique way to get to know somebody.
I was excited to see that the band was gonna be releasing an album with Thirty Tigers. That also seems like a natural match, an ideal place. I don’t want to go too deep into, the Bloodshot [Records] story because I know that you’ve spoken a lot about that already. With Thirty Tigers, you get an opportunity to go different directions– was that the intention with the album from the beginning? ‘Cause you hit all the highlights, all the Sarah Shook & The Disarmers sounds– there’s hillbilly, punk, honky tonk– but there’s a little bit of power pop in there that maybe you flirted with in the past. This time around, it seems more pronounced. Was that all calculated from the beginning?
Honestly, I don’t calculate much. I basically write songs and bring ’em to the band, and then we work [them] up. Eric works up his solos. I don’t write people’s parts for them. I basically bring the lyrics, the chord progression, the melody, and an arrangement, and then the whole band works together to finalize the arrangement and decide, “Oh, we can put like a little musical interlude here, this should be the outro.” Things like that are a collaborative effort. So it wasn’t that I was intentionally going in a direction. I definitely wanted Nightroamer to feel more expansive and more self-reflective. I wanted it to feel like it had enough room to be as pensive, for lack of a better word, as it is. There’s a lot of thinking going on during the time that I wrote most of the songs on the record, and I wanted that to reflect in the music.
I also write songs sometimes that aren’t for The Disarmers, and this is one of the issues I ran into with Nightroamer because it’s a relatively new situation. It’s like, “I don’t know if this is a Disarmers song or if this is a song that I should be focusing on in my solo project,” so there are songs on Nightroamer that I did not intend to be on there. Just playing around at rehearsal one night, the guys were like, Well, what else you got?” And I’m like, “Okay, well, let’s do this.” “I Got This” was one of those songs…
I have a specific note about that song! It sounds much different. I would not have pegged that for a Disarmer’s album…
(Laughs) Yeah! “I Got This” and “Been Lovin’ You” are two songs that I did not intend to be on the record– but the boys loved ’em! We played around with them in a rehearsal one night, and then when we finally got out to L.A. at Pete’s studio, it was just like, “Yeah, we definitely have to put these two on there.” And I’m like, “Okay! Alright!” (Laughs)
Have you been playing these out? What’s been the reaction from folks that are coming to see the show?
We’ve been playin’ “Nightroamer” pretty much ever since I wrote it. It’s been a few years of playing that, not at every show, but here and there. And then I don’t know? The pandemic makes it a little bit tricky to recall different tours. Anything that involves time for the last two years is just wrecked!
Yeah, no kiddin’!
We’ve played “If It’s Poison” live, which that’s my favorite song on the record. It’s really, really fun to play live! There’s so many opportunities to put some really good, solid energy into that one. “Nightroamer”, “If It’s Poison”, and “Please Be A Stranger”, I think we’ve done all three of those live.
I was talkin’ to Joe Garner, The Kernal— I don’t know if you know ol’ Kern? We were talkin’ about his album coming out and that there was so much time between when he made it and when it’s being released because of the pandemic. And during that time period, he really felt like he was at a creative halt like he couldn’t go forward because he couldn’t get out the music that had been made for that particular time. It was really putting a strain on his creativity and, I guess, evolution to a degree. For you, is that what made the Sarah Shook solo project come to fruition, Cruel Liars? I don’t wanna dig too much into it ’cause I wanna be able to have that conversation when you release it, but was that what put you on that track?
Absolutely, yeah! You hit the nail on the head there, as they say! I realized that our entire timeline of release and touring around the release, everything was just gone. In moments like that, it is tempting to be a little self-indulgent and let yourself get down about it, and I was mindful of the fact that that’s where that was heading. I was like, “I’m not going to let myself get into a depression about this. There’s two things I can do. I can either shut down and do nothing and spend the winter in my pajamas bemoaning the fact that nothing’s happening, or I can get dressed every morning and sit down at my computer and make a record. Who knows what’s gonna happen with it, but I’m doing something that is moving me forward in a good direction.”
Do you mind sharing just a hint of what people can look forward to with Cruel Liars? Is that still the working title?
That is the title. It was originally intended to be indie rock and because of the pandemic, I had to do all of the instrumentation myself. The Disarmers bass player, Aaron Oliva, [did] some additional bass tracks, but I did everything else. I didn’t have the ability to work with a drummer, so I ended up having to use all of these different presets and tracks to make my own beats. It ended up being this much more pop indie rock record than I intended, which actually, I’m really happy with the way it turned out. So as opposed to it being the sort of four-on-the-floor drums and screaming guitars, it’s moodier, more reverb-driven guitar, and definitely more poppy sounding. There’s no way to replicate actual drums, so it definitely sounds like these are drum sounds made on GarageBand (laughs)!
Well, I won’t press you anymore about it because like I said, I do hope that we can talk about it when you get ready to release it next fall. I do want to duck back just a little bit to Sarah Shook & The Devil and the re-release of Seven on vinyl. I got a copy of that and as you know, it’s very dark, very hillbilly. I really, really liked it. But you were not necessarily as enthusiastic about it coming back out as some of us were.
In a way, that was a very different time in my life. And it is a time that in some ways, I really miss. Music and songwriting for me have always been a cathartic process. I don’t sit down and write songs that I think people will like, or that I think will have commercial success. I write about actual, real shit that happens to me and the ensuing events surrounding that. When I first started playing out, that was all I wanted. I wanted music to be about hanging out with my bandmates and playing at the bar for free beer or some terrible setup (laughs) like that! You know, “Oh, it’s a tip jar and two free PBRs? Great deal! We’ll take it!” (Laughs)
It’s also amazing to me how, how somebody will be glad to go buy you half a dozen shots, but try to get ’em to buy a CD or a t-shirt and it’s like, “Oh, no, no, no!”
(Laughs) Yep! But I never wanted music to become a business and I never wanted to experience music as a business. I always was very wary of the music industry in general– and yet here I am in it (laughs)! And in some ways, it’s wonderful! And in some ways, it’s every bit as nightmarish as I thought (laughs)! I’m grateful to be here, it’s just definitely someplace that I never really thought that I would be. So it was bittersweet. Reissuing Seven on vinyl was bittersweet. I really do like the fact that if you listen to every album that we’ve put out in sequence, you can hear growth. You can hear us getting our footing and figuring out what our sound is, and I just think that’s a really cool thing.
Do you think that’s ever gonna stop? Tryin’ to figure out what your sound is?
No, I don’t. I think that at this point, we have a pretty good grip on what our sound is, but this group of people is a very open-minded and very naturally curious bunch of people. Talking about putting “I Got This” and then “Lovin’ You” on the record is great examples of that. They’re not sitting around like, “Oh, well, is our demographic and our general fanbase gonna like this?” Nobody cares about that. We just wanna make music that we enjoy making that makes us happy that we can look at each other while we’re performing and grin and be like, “Yep, this is what it’s all about!”