On third album “Nightroamer,” Sarah Shook’s raw, observant songwriting shines through Cosmic Country.
Sarah Shook & The Disarmers: Nightroamer | Thirty Tigers; Friday February 18
At the age of 17, tThe artist who leads the Chapel Hill-based neo-country band Sarah Shook & The Disarmers has been banned from listening to any music except for worship music and classical composition.
After graduating from homeschooling – a few years before moving to Garner with their family at the age of 19 – Sarah Shook took her first job as a cashier in a small town in western New York. Shook’s co-workers all went to school together, making Shook the “new kid on the block”. Between shifts, they discussed new artists and exchanged musical recommendations. Naive, but extremely curious, Shook began to free himself from the clutches of fundamentalism.
“When they found out I wasn’t allowed to listen to music, they were rightly horrified,” Shook laughs. “So they kind of took me under their collective musical wing, and they started sneaking CDs from me to smuggle them into my own house.”
Back home, Shook would wait for the light under their parents’ bedroom door to go out across the hall to remove the contraband. Under the covers, Shook entered a new dimension thanks to headphones. From Belle and Sébastien to Gorillaz, they got entangled in the maze of secular tales and synth-pop sounds.
“I can’t describe to you the emotional roller coaster that has been,” Shook says. “I had never heard music that sounded like this before.”
In the two decades since, this wonder-struck teen has channeled his infatuation into a genre-defining career as an outlaw artist who celebrates being an outlier, with unapologetic songs about mental health issues that many would keep close to their chests. Shook doesn’t claim to have the answers, but they feel a certain responsibility to share their notes in case they contain something others might have missed.
Today, despite its late bloomer, the 36-year-old artist is taking the release of Disarmers’ third album in stride. Due February 18 via Thirty Tigers, night owl sees the quintet dig deep into their country roots while branching outward into an extension of honky-tonk rock with budding pop-punk production. Eric Peterson (lead guitar), Aaron Oliva (bass), Jack Foster (drums) and Adam Kurtz (pedal) stand proud and poised behind Shook’s commanding vocals and guitar guidance.
With the veteran hand of Grammy-winning producer Pete Anderson (Dwight Yoakam, kd lang), night owl challenges all previous notions of the group’s gender labels. Pushing back the foundational elements found in Oblique (2015) and Year (2018) that defined the band’s undeniably country sound, Sarah Shook & The Disarmers prove limitless.
Seasoned dynamics introduce new pop sensibilities while maintaining a melody-centric structure to showcase Shook’s songwriting.
“When I write a song, I think about the song. I don’t think about gender or its place in our sound,” says Shook. “Writing songs, for me, is a very singular activity. And that’s partly because sometimes I write songs that end up not being for The Disarmers. And sometimes I write songs that are like, “Nobody but The Disarmers can play this song.” Learning to make these distinctions was part of the process.
Shook’s songwriting is best defined by a raw lyricism that matches their outspoken approach to mental health. Fueled by their own struggles with depression and social anxiety from an early age, Shook’s songwriting became something of a superpower. Conveying deeply personal experiences and emotions, says Shook, “comes naturally.”
As a child, Shook remembers the difficulty of talking about his feelings. They started writing songs when they were eight or nine years old, and as a teenager Shook realized the practice was a “magical way to somehow connect with my emotions”.
“I’ve never had any hesitation or negative emotion in sharing the songs I write,” Shook continues. “I feel like it’s a safe thing for me to do, to use the song format to talk about my experiences, thoughts, ideas and opinions on things.”
Shook – who came out as bisexual at 19 and has since also come out as non-binary – recognizes this superpower as a rarity. Observant, but not self-critical, their lyrics empower anyone struggling with love, loss, recovery, addiction, or mental health. At night owlunrestrained expressions of their own experiences of abusive relationships (“Somebody Else”) and personal growth (“No Mistakes”) cut the stigma and build bridges to their most isolated listeners.
Beyond their experience, Shook recognizes that everyone’s struggle is individual and everyone’s pain is valid. “It Changes Nothing” is Shook’s intimate offering to those who feel most alone. Using empathy, the guitar-led tune is a simple acknowledgment of the burden of battling addiction and depression. The high, lonely sound of the most country track on the record serves as a tender “I see you” moment.
“It’s really, really hard to deal with depression and anxiety,” says Shook. “And when you add the fact that people are also ashamed of it, it doesn’t make it any easier. I feel like having candid conversations about mental health is something that doesn’t take a lot of effort. Just saying a few simple things can help someone feel like they’re not a monster of depression. It can help people feel less alone and give them a little more space to do things. face the real problem instead of the shame that surrounds it. And help them know that depression is actually really normal; unfortunately, it is a very common experience.
The band derived all 10 tracks on night owl from a stock of songs that Shook wrote on the heels of Year and began rehearsing in late 2019. Two of the songs that made the final list weren’t what Shook originally envisioned for The Disarmers. At the end of the last rehearsal before heading to Los Angeles to record in February 2020, the band were looking to let off steam and asked Shook what else he had going for him. Shook introduced them to “I Got This” and “Been Lovin’ You Too Long”.
“So we played them, and they were like, ‘Yeah, that should go on the record,'” Shook recalled. “It’s great to play music with people who don’t care – like I don’t – about meeting some kind of criteria or being typecast as a country band.”
“Been Lovin’ You Too Long” takes Sheryl Crow’s country-gone-angst approach to the next level with punk-rock drumming. Backing drums on “I Got This” infuse cosmic pop into the self-inflating song for a pleasant change of pace.
“We have a lot more elements in our sound than just country,” Shook continues. “Obviously we love country; we wouldn’t be playing it otherwise. But that’s just part of us; that’s not all we have to offer.
Exploration is at the heart of Shook’s creative process. Arriving late to the listening game, Shook admits, “I feel like I’m always catching up.”
But catching up is also doing it your way. While a typical way of consuming music for most people might be to meet an artist and browse their discography, Shook’s approach is biased: With the exception of Elliott Smith, they say, they often find a song they love and “obsess over it for like a month and then move on.”
Shook is not influenced by any particular artist, they say. Instead, their lyrics are born out of emotion, and it’s that emotion that shapes the sound of the final product.
“I can’t speak for my bandmates, but I have no desire to imitate a sound or seek a style,” says Shook. “The songs that I write come from personal experience, and the music that comes out of them is a very singular thing with its own sound. And I love that about it – I don’t think I would have it any other way.
The band has finished recording night owl just days before the world shut down in March 2020. Shook and the band agreed that given their level of performance there was no point releasing an album without a supporting tour, so they sat down. And waited. By mid-2021, it became apparent that touring was still not sustainable. They waited again.
This pattern of waiting was infuriating for Shook, who had become accustomed to spending 150 days of the year on the road to support the 2018s. Year. But the calm of family life proved fruitful as they evolved from the person who wrote night owl.
“In a way, I feel quite removed from those songs, in terms of the personal growth that I’ve accomplished over the past two years,” Shook said. “Once I realized we weren’t going to tour, I got into engineering better mental and physical health for myself. And that was a really cool thing.
In the two years since wrapping, Shook settled into sobriety and searched for more effective coping mechanisms. One of them, of course, is songwriting. Shooks says four album plans are in the works with The Disarmers, and a separate set of songs from that era will soon serve as their new “indie-rock-pop” solo album, titled Nightmare.
“I think a lot of the songs on night owl were written at a time when I was starting to become more introspective,” they say. “There was, like, self-awareness that was sort of in seedling form – in its early stages. And then being able to be home for a few years gave me the opportunity to really build on that.
After two years of letting the album rest, night owl became a milestone in Shook’s evolution as a person, partner, bandmate, and storyteller.
“When you can look back and feel like that version of yourself is unrecognizable, it shows growth and that you’ve come a really long way – and that’s great.”
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