Sister Act: An Interview with SHEL

Paul Wallen | November 26th, 2013

SHELRugged cliffs, rocky coastline and grassy ruins frame a haunting, Celtic-tinged melody and soaring harmonies in a new video by folk revival band SHEL for their song “Lost at Sea,” from 2012’s self-titled debut album. Entirely self-directed, edited and filmed in Northern Ireland near the ruins of the Dunluce Castle and The Giant’s Causeway, familiar to Led Zeppelin fans from the album cover of 1973’s Houses of the Holy, the new video also reflects SHEL’s fierce spirit of independence.

Long before fusing the first letters of their first names together to form a band name, Sarah (violin/bass), Hannah (piano), Eva (lead vocals/mandolin/cello) and Liza (percussion) Holbrook grew up honing their multi-instrumental skills in wide open spaces just outside Fort Collins, Colorado. Home schooled by a singer-songwriter father and an artist mother, the sisters emerged with singular identities and a passion for making music together.

The Station Inn provided one of SHEL’s signature moments from a breakout performance at the Americana Music Fest in September. Liza became ill and missed our interview a couple days after that show at The Station Inn, but Sarah, Hannah and Eva beamed with pride in their youngest sibling while explaining exactly how they became a band of sisters called SHEL.

Tell me a little bit about how you grew up. Four sisters born within five years of each other, I’m guessing there had to be some sibling rivalry?

Hannah: Our dad’s a singer-songwriter, so we grew up with music in the house and we were all home-schooled. From an early age, our parents told us we were going to be best friends and we were basically like, “Okay. Cool.” We would go to our dad’s shows and then around the age of 10, for me, I started playing piano on a song or two of his. And these guys started playing their instruments the following year. We’d all get up on stage and back him up on a couple songs. Eventually, we started writing our own songs and putting a band together.

Eva: It wasn’t always smooth. Things are going to happen as you grow together and work toward a common goal. In the beginning, when we would have fights, our parents would resolve it and remind us that we were going to be best friends. They encouraged us to become comrades. And over time, we did, when we realized that what we make together is more important than our individual pride or preference. At the same time, we still make sure that everybody is well taken care of individually because that’s the only way that a collective can be healthy. We want to make sure that everybody finds fulfillment in the band musically. I think we reached a point when we started working on a more professional level where we realized that every person’s give was a huge component of the whole. That it wasn’t a threat, but the better each individual did, the better the whole would become. We even started to develop an appreciation we didn’t have before, when we were more insecure. Professionals would tell us things like, “Did you know your sister is a great drummer?” Hearing that was humbling and realizing that it was true was very freeing. I was like, “Yeah, she is … I’m glad she is!” So we started taking more of an interest in everybody’s individual abilities. Now it’s a joy, just a sheer joy. When one of us accomplishes something, we all delight in it. But it’s taken, what, 12 years to get to that point, of just continuous growth and working through things.

Did you ever get tired of practicing on your instruments or want to quit at any point while you were growing up?

Eva: For me, it was kind of a fluke that I ended up with a mandolin in the first place. I was really intrigued by it, but I hadn’t done anything that involved that kind of dedication before. And it was explained to me that it would take dedication in order to become passionate, but it’s hard to understand those words when you’re young. When I got my mandolin, I hadn’t developed any calluses yet and playing it hurt like anything. My first thought was, “I’m going to quit.” Then I started taking lessons and my second thought was, “I’m going to quit right away.” I hated lessons so much and I never practiced. I remember when the time came to decide, I only had one lesson left. My dad said, “I paid for this, so you better go practice.” I went to my room and I remembered just enough from the lesson I’d had before to play part of a piece … and I’ll never forget that feeling. Actually being able to play music changed my life. From that point on, I knew I wanted to do this for the rest of my life. Then the dedication just grew as I became inspired by other mandolinists like Chris Thile and Sam Bush.

What are some of the advantages and challenges of being in a band with your sisters?

Sarah: You have so much accountability with sisters. They know you better than anybody. If I’m not sure about something, I can talk to them about it and they’ll be completely honest with me. The challenge is that we’re so close, we can get into fights easier than you would with anybody else. Liza and I were roommates and we were having a little issue the other day. And I realized that if it had been one of my friends, I would have treated the situation differently. That’s the challenge with family, that it’s easy to take each other for granted.

Eva: But there’s also an openness that allows you to resolve things faster. I have issues with my friends that I don’t resolve because I’m not as comfortable around them. With my sisters, I can resolve it instantly.

Hannah: In our situation, we see each other pretty much every day. So if an issue comes up, we have to resolve it, which is actually really good because it makes us communicate and work past it.

Sarah: That’s the other thing with family, we have to resolve things. Because no matter what happens, even if the band broke up tomorrow, we still have to see each other at Christmas. We still have the same parents.

The music industry is so crowded these days that almost everything seems derivative of something else. And here you guys come with a very fresh, unique sound and presentation. Is that something you consciously set out to do or is it just reflection your background and personalities?

Eva: I think it’s because of our dad. He was not only honest with his feedback but he was incredibly encouraging. From the time we were little, he would say things like, “If you really wanted to, you could be like The Beatles.” Or, “You could be like the Marx Brothers.” Those were his examples of greatness, uniqueness, innovation and originality that he encouraged us toward. When you look at those kinds of examples and that becomes your goal, I think you do create entirely different music. What was amazing about those two specific examples was the way they embraced the individuality of each member of the group and how that’s really what shined. That’s what we want to create. It did just happen naturally because everybody has a really strong personality and unique gifts to contribute.

It’s pretty hard to be the first at anything at The Station Inn with its rich tradition, but Liza very well may have been the first performer to beatbox at The Station Inn. How do you feel about that?

Sarah: The beatboxing was so cool! I always look at the people who work there because they have experienced the most of what has happened at that particular venue. I wish that Liza could be here, but it was awesome when she started. I looked at the guy who was running the bar and his jaw was just dropped. So I went over and talked to him afterwards, and he was just going off about how cool that was with Liza. He said, “That’s the first time I’ve ever seen anything like that happen here.” And I said something like, “Yeah, that’s my little sister.” And he was like, “What, you’re all sisters?” And he freaked out again. He was so sweet. And the way the staff reacted to us afterward was really encouraging, because I respect their opinion more than anyone. But I can go on and on about Liza …

Hannah: She’s our favorite. (Laughs)

Sarah: She’s just such a natural talent. That girl just blows my mind.

Hannah: We have to talk about her because she’s not here right now.

I read that a major label exec once said you are “too musical for today’s music market.” Which seems like a ridiculous statement and a huge compliment all at once. But it brings up an interesting question: How hard is it to remain true to yourselves and your musical vision when there’s so much pressure to conform?

Eva: It’s easier now than it ever was before. When we heard that statement, it made us realize the urgency of what we’re doing. If that’s what they’re looking for, music that’s not musical, that rules out all the music we love. Queen, The Beatles, Supertramp, The Who …

Sarah: Sting!

Hannah: Mozart!

Eva: But it’s not even true. We’ve been listening to a lot of Muse, and there’s one piece where he’s playing Chopin. People love music! Label A&Rs are concerned about money and they think in those terms. But people who enjoy art and artists don’t think in those terms. So I don’t think there’s any pressure for us to conform, it just reinforces the urgency inside of us to provide an alternative if music is becoming unmusical. We want to keep up the tradition of musical music … and it’s sad to even have to say that!

Sarah: Isn’t that interesting what you just said about the tradition becoming the alternative. Because it used to be the opposite of that, it’s like we’re coming full circle now.

Hannah: I think most things do. But you look at music from the past, like the Baroque era with Bach or Chopin, music used to be so ridiculously musical. So it’s crazy to think that what we’re doing is too musical. It’s a little frightening.

What kind of lessons came out of the process of making your first two EPs?

Hannah: Being in the studio really improves your performance. We learned a lot about how to capture our sound in studio. Recreating the live sound is an art in and of itself. We were really lucky to work with Brent Maher and Charles Yingling on these projects, we really enjoyed that. I think the EPs helped us refine our work in a good way. At the same time, we listen back to some of the demos we made when we were greener and still think, “Oh, we were doing some cool things back then that we shouldn’t have moved away from, we should pull that back in.” So we’ve learned to look back on the work we’ve done and look forward to think of how we challenge ourselves to make something we’ll always be proud of.

Do you experiment a lot in your creative process and rehearsing to see what modern touches might be a good fit with your sound?

Hannah: Definitely. Usually how a song will come about is that Eva will bring us lyrics or a chord progression and then we arrange it together with everyone writing their own parts. So there’s constant experimentation and lots of feedback. If somebody has an idea, we’ll run with it and see if it feels right. We can try out ideas all day long until something just feels like, “Yeah. That’s it. That’s SHEL right there, that’s the perfect fit.”

Are you thinking of a new album yet or is there one in the works?

Sarah: We’re constantly working on a new album. I think we almost have enough material to get one done, or at least start on it. So we’re definitely thinking about it.

You’re very active on social media, why is that important to you?

Hannah: Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are some of the best platforms to keep people talking about you and informed about what you’re doing.

Eva: We realized recently how much it allows fans in other cities to communicate with us that we wouldn’t hear from otherwise. That’s been incredibly touching. We got a message the other day about someone coming to see us. And this is a big deal for us, we have to prepare for this show because it’s the last thing on his bucket list. He’s actually suffering from a terminal illness. And if we weren’t able to communicate with people through social media, we might not be able to hear about that in advance to prepare something for him. It helps us realize what we’re doing is making the impact that we want, which is to touch people and lift their spirits. That’s why we do what we do.

  1. Rick
    November 27, 2013 at 3:28 pm

    The sisters of SHEL are extremely talented but most of their home grown compositions are just too unconventional for me to be interested. In my case the sisters are a bit too creative for their own good.

    The polar opposite of SHEL are the siblings of The Willis Clan, who besides having a TV show on GAC now perform on the Opry on a fairly regular basis. The Willis bunch combines superb musicianship and vocals (and Irish dancing for that matter) with top notch conventional arrangements whether they be Irish folk songs, country, or pop music. Their daddy (the Drill Sergeant) raised them right! (lol)

  2. Joshua
    November 29, 2013 at 11:32 am

    The first time i had heard of Shel was on NYE 2012/13 in their apparent hometown of Ft Collins. This was at the Aggie Theater and some friends were going to see Elephant Revival, who i was indifferent on. Shel really outdid the headlining band in my opinion and I have been keeping close watch ever since. Their home grown compositions and their complete down-to-earth style drew me right in. The group ooze’s creativity. It inspires me that they are all sisters born with a musical connection. Such talent, such beauty needs expression. Instead of keeping a tight-lipped mysterious approach, its refreshing to know they pour everything they have out on the table. A song like LOST AT SEA is entirely different than a song like MOONSHINE HILL but within the same musical boundaries being an unplugged mostly folk/string band. I’ve since moved back to Baltimore and while the rest of the world may not be caught on yet, I do hope they can take over the world.

    @iloveshel

  3. Richard Budniak
    November 29, 2013 at 3:12 pm

    The first time I came across these girls in 2012 on you tube I knew they were something very special. I was very privileged to meet up with them in Glasgow earlier this year on their European tour and was blown away with their incredible musicianship but even more importantly-their absolute gorgeoussness; probably the most lovely people you will ever meet.Well done Andrew and Lynn.Having only met SHEL once I must confess we really miss them and hope they will come back to the UK before long. We love their silly antics (Eva the monkey)and (Eva packing) and the (Cocoa video.)I love seeing them perform across the USA and being interviewed by odd radio interviewers.I know I am in love with them but my partner Jan says she also loves them so no harm done there then. On a serious note I hope 2014 sees them move into the premier division. As a failed musician myself- although I still play with a Scottish Ceilidh band- I just hope that they realise that opportunities often only arise once or twice in a musician’s life and I did not take my chance when it arose.
    They should contact the management of professional bands such as Muse, The Corrs, The Eagles and Sting and aim for the massive festivals across Europe and the USA. You know it took years for Dire Straits to be recognised here in the UK and it’s certainly easier now with all the media stuff out there. Go for it girls. Incidentally, we saw “London Grammar” performing as Blondie’s warm up band the other week here in Carlisle- that should have been SHEL.

    Richard Budniak

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