Analogue Music | Sarah Shook & The Disarmers

Sarah Shook & The Disarmers

By Matt Conner

What you hear is what you get.

More than the outlaw attitude or outspoken approach, Sarah Shook's authenticity is what sold critics around the world on her band's first album, Sidelong. Together with The Disarmers, Sarah enjoyed a rapid ascent from unknown independent to critical darling all on the back of a self-funded LP, one that led her to incessant touring and an identifiable presence. 

It's clear she's grown fairly comfortable with her influence, and she's using it to not only promote her sophomore album, Years, but to also shake up an industry she describes as "dude city," one filled with pretenders. From the snark to the smoke, Sarah insists she's "100 percent" herself and hopes to serve as a champion for other women to find their footing as well.

If only those "douchebags" would get out of the way, the ones for whom denim and whiskey are strategic associations. 

Analogue: This album represents a stake in the ground, where you announce your presence despite the trials and tribulations. Has music been that lifeline for you for awhile? 

Sarah Shook: Absolutely. I started writing songs and teaching myself piano when I was about nine-years-old. It was definitely a form of escapism, and definitely a form of catharsis. I was living a life that was very structured and very strict, with a lot of rules in this very kind of patriarchal environment. Music was something that I could control. I could sort of write my own narrative, so to speak. 

So starting out that young, for a very long time, music was something that I enjoyed doing. It was very healthy for me to be writing songs and playing music, but it was really just for me. It wasn’t until several years down the road that I actually started performing publicly and had all kinds of crazy grown-up, adult life experiences. At that point, it was just like, 'Yes!' Music saved my life, literally. It’s been saving my sanity for years and years, but now it’s at the point that if I had not been playing music for all these years, I would be dead. Long dead. So in that respect, yeah, music has totally saved my life.

"If I had not been playing music for all these years, I would be dead. Long dead."

Analogue: Is that in the way that allows you to process experiences? Or is it that it distracts you from more destructive tendency? Or is it a connection thing to other people?

Sarah: It’s definitely something that is an avenue to sort of heal. I’m really self-destructive by nature, and I’ve always been a very self-destructive person, and that’s just a part of my mental makeup. Being aware of that is certainly important and helpful, but yeah, having music as part of my life and giving me sort of a sense of purpose is helpful. It's also definitely a responsibility. We’re at a stage in the game where it’s not just me. This whole thing is so much bigger than I am now. I have a responsibility to my bandmates. If I fuck up, that’s going to fuck up their livelihood and fuck up their schedule. 

Taking it to the next level and evolving a bit more, maturing a bit more, it’s a process. It’s kind of mind-boggling how quickly all of this happened. Last year we toured pretty heavily, certainly for us, but this year is just insanity. I was looking at our schedule the other day, and I didn’t realize that we had two tours that were back-to-back. We’re going to be gone for 50 days. It’s like an 18-day Northeast and Midwest tour, and then we have like a day to get home from that and then another day to get from home to Scandinavia for 32 days. It’s just insane. 

It’s great, you know, and these are all good signs. All this good stuff’s happening, but it’s rigorous. And I’m over here like, 'Oh my god, I’ve got to exercise more and drink less and stop smoking and get my shit together and be an adult.'

Sarah Shook (Credit: Jillian Clark)

Analogue: You said music is the thing that saved you. Any good thing can turn into a negative if there’s too much of it. Could music be the thing that becomes this overwhelming thing. Could the pendulum swing like that for you?

Sarah: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, especially being self-aware, it’s helpful. I will sober up and be like, 'Okay, I’ve got to physically and mentally prepare for this tour, that we’re going to be out for like two weeks.' And then as soon as we get on the road, 'Well, sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll, boys, here we go. Shots all around. More shots.' It’s very much like the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak. I’ve been striking a pretty good balance so far, but just kind of continuing to work on myself and be more and more self-aware, as always. 

Analogue: When you’re making Years, is the response and enthusiasm to the last album in your head?

Sarah: Yeah, I think that the whole sophomore album slump worry is an issue that musicians and bands sort of fret over to varying degrees, but I sort of went through that anxiety prior to the recording and mixing of the album. Once I heard it, I was just like, 'Well, good god. There it is.' It’s great. I have absolutely no complaints. I’m really, really happy with it. I think that it’s clearly a more evolved sound. I think that my songwriting has evolved, and I feel really good about it. I’m really happy with it.

Analogue: What was your own response to that? Were you ready for it?

Sarah: I don’t think any of us were ready for it. We were totally blown away, to be perfectly honest. When we self-released Sidelong, we funded it from within the band. We did not have a manager or a publicist or a label. We did not have a booking agent. It was literally just the band doing everything. AWe recorded this album, and put it out, and it was just like endless accolades. As many times as that album has been reviewed on a national and international and hopefully intergalactic scope, I don’t know, I think we got like one mediocre review. It wasn’t even a bad review. It was just like, 'Eh.' 

So yeah, it was insane. We were completely blown away. It was this huge typhoon or cyclone of really, really great press where people, most importantly to me, were writing about it saying, 'Holy shit, I feel so connected to this. This is so relevant to me and my life as I feel like these songs are something I could have written that one time I broke up with so-and-so, or whatever.' People felt so connected to it, and I think that is what set it apart and made it special in a lot of ways. 

Everything I write, and every time I’m on a stage singing, I’m not following a formula or looking for some kind of pattern for success like a lot of these douchebags are, where it’s like, 'Oh, if I sing about whiskey, we’re a country band.' It’s like, no, motherfucker, this is my life. What you’re looking at and being, 'Oh, if we try this, this is going to work. Let’s put on some cool denim jackets.' No, man. I live this shit every damn day of my life. So yeah, all that to say, all of my music, all of my songs, every time I’m on a stage, everything that’s coming out of my mouth is straight as an arrow from my heart. There is no bullshit and there is no pretense there. It is 100 percent me all the time. 

Analogue: You mentioned your evolution as a songwriter? Can you quantify that?

Sarah: I’ve listened to Sidelong and Years back-to-back a couple of times. I feel like my vocal control and my use of dynamics and cadence is way more in the forefront on Years. I feel like the band is tighter, and obviously that’s because we’ve been playing together for much longer than when we made Sidelong

I’m really hoping to see women in this genre experience a lot more visibility ... because frankly, right now, it’s dude city up in here.

As far as songwriting goes, I think I have like one song on Sidelong that’s from the perspective of an ex-partner, and that was sort of like my first foray into what I would call empathetic songwriting, where you’re writing from another person’s point of view, that’s directly involved with you and probably the person that’s causing you the most misery. You're still trying to do the right thing and be the bigger man and put yourself in their shoes, and ask, 'Is it really me?' No, I’m fine, this person actually just is a dick. Okay, cool. So yeah there are quite a few songs on Years that are more of the new wave of empathetic songwriting, which is interesting.

Analogue: What do you mean by that, the new wave?

Sarah: I think that that’s something that we can expect to see more of, especially within the context of the more traditional outlaw country artists that we see kind of emerging left and right. It’s a pretty cool time to be part of the country music world and watch all that happen.

Analogue: Do you pay much attention to your own contemporaries there?   

Sarah: I really don’t give a shit what they’re doing, honestly. I mean, the one exception to that, I would say, is I am interested to see how rabid people get about certain male traditional country artists—much in the same way as in the pop music world. There’s absolutely no difference there. I’m really hoping to see women in this genre experience a lot more visibility. I’d like to see them get a lot more press. I’d like it to be a lot more balanced than it is right now, because frankly, right now, it’s dude city up in here.