Sarah Shook is back and ready for more with a brand new band (The Disarmers) and a brand new album (Sidelong, out now on Bloodshot Records). For our newest NoiseTrade One-on-One, we interviewed Shook to get the story behind her band’s sound, her unique vocal delivery, and her thoughts on the importance of activism.
NoiseTrade: Sidelong finds you putting your own spin on classic country and traditional honky tonk music. How did you first get exposed to these genres and what do you like most about writing within their wide open spaces?
Sarah Shook: Between 2008 and 2009, I was hanging out with a crew in Chatham County who listened to a lot of traditional country, vintage surf, and dub reggae. A former boyfriend from around that time had a damn impressive country record collection – not hundreds of records but a solid handful of really great country artists and songwriters. I loved how usually within the first few opening measures of a song one could tell if it was Hank Williams or Charley Pride or Melvin Endsley coming through the speakers. Their bands had completely and totally unique sounds – instrumentally, tonally, and general feel. It was a stark contrast to the almost indecipherable garbage coming out of Nashville today.
NT: You add a nice twangy warble to many of your lines. Did any particular artists or songs inspire that charming vocal touch?
Shook: It kind of just happened during a show. I recall it was a really wretched, raw portion of the song lyrically and it’s been lurking around ever since.
NT: There is an undeniable punk swagger to your songs and your vocal delivery as well. Do you find inspiration in the sonics of any punk bands or do you just share in the same independent spirit?
Shook: With the punk bands I listen to, I don’t really find inspiration from a musical perspective, but we share the same attitudes and worldviews for sure. I love the Adolescents, the Slits, the Damned, X-Ray Spex, Stiff Little Fingers, Germs, the Saints, and the Sex Pistols. The sort of fearless, indomitable spirit of punk is woven deep in my songs. I can take a damn beating from life, but I’m not going to stay down for long.
NT: When I first heard Sidelong, “The Nail” got the most repeat spins from me. What’s the story behind the writing and recording of that song? How has the live response been to it?
Shook: I was trying to extricate myself from a relationship that was in total ruins and I couldn’t let go. I didn’t want to give up on something. I wanted to work and to last and be healthy. On the flip side, I felt like my partner wasn’t doing much in the way of patching things up or getting outta Dodge either. It was a catch-22 at its worst.
The live response is pretty fun for that one. A lot of people sing the chorus along with me and it makes me feel like I’m not the only dealing with this sort of thing. I can only hope it makes my listeners feel the same.
NT: For your NoiseTrade sampler, you’re also including 3 songs from your previous album Seven. What differences will listeners hear between the two albums and what differences do you hear between them?
Shook: Most notably, Seven has no drums. We were going for that Hank Sr. feel where the upright bass and rhythm guitar are the rhythm section. Towards the final days of that band, Sarah Shook & the Devil, I had been thinking about taking the band in a different direction – purveying a harder, darker sound that was traditional country laced with dirty rock ‘n’ roll and a punk rock attitude. Sidelong captures the sound I was looking for and then some. It’s raucous, strained, and tense at times, and certainly dark as hell.
NT: You’re very involved in civil rights activism, especially in your home state of North Carolina. Tells us why it’s important to you to be so hands on and what specific areas you are currently involved in.
Shook: My activism partner, Erika Libero, and I are based out of the Carrboro/Chapel Hill area of North Carolina. We’re living in some pretty pivotal points in time and it’s encouraging to see so many people shaking off years of apathy and taking action – whether it’s organizing benefit shows, marching in the streets, or simply reaching out in personal conversations on social media. It’s not enough to be a progressive-minded person, what you do or don’t do with your personal worldview plays an enormous role in changing the tides when it comes to crucial issues facing the whole of the community.
To say that issues that affect minorities, members of the LBTQ community, and women, are at a tipping point in our society, and that these issues need to be addressed swiftly and from a place of calm, persistent education, is a gross understatement. Every day of your life counts. The decisions you make, the conversations you have, the team of people you build around you, it affects society and it creates ripple effects in our communities. We have the power and the opportunity to do good and we need to make the most of those opportunities every damn time we possibly can.