Interview: Sarah Shook & the Disarmers Come Armed With Country Melodies, Biting Wit on ‘Years’
You don't need a dark sense of humor to appreciate Sarah Shook & the Disarmers' music, but it helps. When Shook writes, she tells The Boot, "that sort of self-deprecating [tone] -- sad songs that are still kind of managing to be playful -- that just kind of comes out." It's just who she is.
"I don't take myself seriously at all," she adds with a laugh.
Out Friday (April 6), Sarah Shook & the Disarmers' sophomore album, Years, features 10 tracks that express the duality of that biting wit: Shook calls the second song, "New Ways to Fail," "a nice window into the more playful side of the band," while the penultimate track, "Heartache in Hell," is "the real soul-crusher of the lot."
Years is equal parts Hank Williams and Elliott Smith -- neither of which Shook was allowed to listen to in her younger years. Growing up in a "pretty strict, religious household" in Rochester, N.Y., Shook's musical education was limited to classical (she name-drops Vivaldi as her "go-to composer") and worship music.
"We weren't even allowed to listen to what would be considered contemporary christian music," Shook notes. "Like, Jars of Clay was too racy for my parents."
Shook has been writing music since she was 9 years old. She taught herself to play guitar at 16 and, she recalls, began writing songs that would have fit within the three-chords-and-the-truth style of classic country music ... even if she hadn't been exposed to that world just yet.
Her first job and her first car "and the little bit of freedom that comes with it" turned Shook on to indie rock artists including Smith, the Decemberists and Belle and Sebastian in her late teens. Then, in her early 20s, she found country: the "true greats," like Johnny Cash, Wanda Jackson and others. It was Williams' drummer-less style that inspired the sound of Shook's first band, Sarah Shook and the Devil, formed in 2010; ready to make music that is "a little bit harder" and "a little bit darker" as Sarah Shook & the Disarmers, she brought drums into the mix.
Shook and the Disarmers self-released their debut disc, Sidelong, in 2015 (Bloodshot Records, the band's now-label home, re-released it in 2017). Shook admits the recording process for that disc "caused me a lot of anxiety," and she spent those days, in her own words, "wasted." Before going into the pre-production phase on Years, she listened back to Sidelong a couple times and decided to stay sober while creating the new record.
"I decided that I wanted to be emotionally and mentally more present," she explains. "It does make a noticeable difference, and I think it was the right call."
Still, a sophomore album comes with its own sort of pressure and anxiety: the fear of the "sophomore slump." Shook and her band took the time in pre-production to create arrangements that are "as flawless as possible and were effective and packed the most punch," and embraced the high-pressure situation when they tracked live.
"I think some of the best things come from high-pressure, high-intensity situations like that," Shook admits. "I think that's kind of a palpable thing that comes through in the music.
Sarah Shook & the Disarmers' tour calendar includes upcoming dates throughout the United States, and in Sweden and Norway. Visit Disarmers.com for more information.
More New Albums Coming in 2018