North Carolina songwriter wrestles with success, alcohol and the end of a relationship
It was a big deal that Sarah Shook & the Disarmers' first record, 2017's Sidelong, even got made. Shook was racked with anxiety over the entire prospect of recording and releasing an album, but not because she feared failure. The thought of a successful record stressed her out more.
“I never wanted to be successful, to be perfectly honest. Not because I'm self-sabotaging, but because fame changes the way people interact with you and perceive you. It's really dehumanizing,” Shook said recently by phone. “I think the general principle of fame and celebrity is flawed. The way the industry is set up, there's no way to get ahead without someone else falling behind. That can be really frustrating, because I see a lot of artists, especially women, who are incredibly talented songwriters and great performers, and they're not getting the press they should be getting. And so to be in a position where we're taking off and getting lots of good press, that would be something that makes most people happy, but I'm always going to be thinking of other people and how that affects them, as well.”
To counteract the anxiety, Shook drank her way through the recording sessions for Sidelong, a collection of appropriately whiskey-soaked country songs punctuated by pedal steel and Shook's no-frills, North Carolina warble. But when she began the pre-production process for the Disarmers' follow-up, Years, released in April on Bloodshot Records, Shook listened back to Sidelong and noticed something.
“There were things vocally I felt like I could have done a lot better had I been sober,” she said. “So I decided that when we went in to track Years, I wouldn't drink and I would just be a lot more present. I think that change is palpable vocally, and just in the general vibe of the delivery.”
Sobriety also helped Shook and her band nail their takes while tracking the new songs live in the studio. “It's a high-pressure situation, and if one person messes up, you gotta start over from the top,” said Shook, who also admitted that singing a song like “The Bottle Never Lets Me Down” while sober was a little strange, though it didn't feel any less real or relevant.
“I've been drinking for a really long time, and actually in this past week I've been talking to some close friends about getting a better handle on it and not going crazy every single night. Maybe every other night or every third night,” she said, laughing. “[Alcohol] definitely is something that really helps me as far as songwriting. Usually if I'm writing a song I'm alone, and I've had a whiskey or two, and it just helps me relax enough to allow my subconscious to piece a lot of things together.”
Years finds Shook piecing together a relationship she hadn't found her way out of quite yet. “It was kind of the breakup record I wrote before I actually jumped ship,” she said. “In the context of the songs, it's so clear that the thing to do is to leave. But that's a really human thing. We get stuck in these relationships and … people feel like they can't leave. There's this fear of being alone, fear of the unknown.”
“New Ways to Fail” depicts a time when Shook couldn't even get up in the morning, much less go through the painful steps of ending a relationship. “I'm too damn tired to feed the dog or get outta bed/Too damn tired to walk away, too tired to make it through another day/Just gonna lie here and complain instead,” she sings.
“Every word of that was true. I was literally waking up, opening my eyes and being like, ‘Oh, my God. I can't do today. I just can't do it,'” she said. “I intended to use words to paint a picture for what depression does to someone.”
In “Good as Gold,” Shook tries desperately to hold onto herself as the relationship is held together by the thinnest of threads (“I'm afraid of losing/Losing everything to you,” she sings). “That's part of many toxic relationships, especially if they're long term. You really lose touch with yourself and who you are. You get so immersed in the drama and trying to keep the other person happy,” she said. “When you end that relationship and you're on the other side of it, you have this whole ordeal you have to go through where you're rediscovering yourself, and when you're rediscovering yourself, you're gonna find stuff you don't like that you wanna change.”
At times on Years, Shook takes on the role of the other person in the relationship, embracing the catharsis of singing as someone who's glaring at you from across the room, while also acknowledging that you played a part in this whole mess. “I think it's important to examine your own role in the demise of any relationship,” she said. “There's two sides to every story.”
After all the hand-wringing and songwriting and the eventual end of the relationship, Shook did some soul-searching. “I was a serial monogamist for 11 years, and after I ended the relationship that I wrote Years about, I did a lot of reconfiguring and research: Why do we do this to ourselves? Is there another way to do this?” she said. “The main thing I took away from all of that was just that friendships are every bit as enjoyable and rewarding as romantic relationships. Surround yourself with good people that are encouraging and can cheer you on.”