With a little help from his friends in My Morning Jacket, Timothy Showalter reboots Strand of Oaks with a full heart and a new lease on life
In 2017, Timothy Showalter released Hard Love, his fifth album under the moniker Strand of Oaks and his second release for indie giant Dead Oceans. First single “Radio Kids” — a nostalgic, upbeat rocker — made some waves, but soon enough, it seemed like everyone had moved on.
“I was super proud of Hard Love. I really love that record. … And the day it landed, it felt like it was gone,” Showalter said recently by phone. “And I was like, ‘Now I have to tour on this for a year.’”
Throughout that album cycle and afterward, Showalter started to wonder: Would anyone even care if Strand of Oaks didn’t exist?
“If you would've talked to a 20-year-old me, I would have had a bunch of friends, a bunch of hobbies, reading a bunch of different kinds of books, and by the time Hard Love came out, I was only Strand of Oaks. That was all of me, and I wasn't quite sure how to come to terms with that,” said Showalter, now 37. “It definitely affected my mental health, because I was like, ‘If Strand of Oaks seems like a failure… then inherently I was a failure, and my existence is a failure.’”
“I’ve seen two giants in my life, David Berman and Neal Casal, go,” Showalter continued, referencing two beloved musicians who recently died by suicide. “I understand a lot of that struggle. There's a lot of loneliness involved. ... It's sugarcoating it to say I don't understand why guys like Berman did that. I know that feeling of, ‘This is the most logical solution right now,’ and I had to fight it pretty fucking hard.”
But music came to Showalter’s rescue in the form of a message from Carl Broemel, guitarist for My Morning Jacket, who let Showalter know that he and MMJ keys player Bo Koster would be free to make a new Strand of Oaks record with him in Louisville. Showalter accepted Broemel’s life raft, and soon enough, My Morning Jacket drummer Patrick Callahan and bassist Tom Blankenship also came on board.Get news and entertainment from Columbusland: Sign up for our daily newsletter
To prepare for the sessions, Showalter went on a songwriting tear and began putting all of his recent fears and insecurities into the music. “I don’t feel it anymore,” he sings as an audible sigh on the very first line of “Weird Ways,” the song that eventually became the lead-off track for Strand of Oaks’ sixth album, Eraserland, released earlier this year. (The band will make a stop at Ace of Cups on Monday, Sept. 23.)
The recording process itself restored Showalter’s faith not just in music but in life, in no small part because of the camaraderie he experienced with his bandmates as they put songs to tape together in a room, embracing the sound bleed in the service of documenting the magic that can happen when a group of friends play music together in real time.
“I made so many records basically by myself, and it was nice to be like, ‘There's not only friends here, but my heroes,’” Showalter said. “Everybody I made that record with, I would do anything for them, and I know they’d do the same for me. … The beginning of Eraserland was heavy, but once the process started, it was the best thing I've ever done.”
“If you believe you can be loved, you’ll outlive your past/And you hope it never ends,” Showalter sings on Eraserland’s closing track, “Forever Chords” — a direct reference to the blissful studio experience and all the baggage that led up to it. “I was like, ‘Man, if I could just live at this studio forever… I don't want this to end,'” he said. “If I would've done ‘Forever Chords’ by myself, it would have been the same song, but it wouldn't have had the life force that it does.”
“Forever Chords” is a nine-minute journey with only two guitar chords, the band swelling and retreating throughout in an exercise of catharsis and restraint. “Having My Morning Jacket as your band is like driving a Ferrari. But instead of driving the Ferrari at 150 miles an hour, we just cruised,” he said. “All of those guys could have played so much more, but they understood the culture of the record better than I did.”
During recording sessions, Showalter often felt the presence of someone who was never even there: My Morning Jacket singer Jim James. “It was difficult to not think, ‘Why am I standing here? The best singer that's come out in 30 years should be standing here,’” Showalter said. “Jim had such a quiet spirit throughout the whole record. When I found out that the [MMJ] guys were going to do the record, the first thing I did was text Jim and ask, ‘Is this all right? Is this OK?’ And he called me up, and he's like, ‘Dude, I love you. And I love them.’ He gave such a nice blessing.”
After making Eraserland, Showalter continued to make changes in his life. After living in Philadelphia for years, the Indiana-raised musician recently bought a house with his wife in Austin, Texas. And in February, on a whim after a hangover, he cut alcohol out of his life. “I thought, ‘I’m not going to drink tomorrow,’ so I just didn't drink the next day. And then six months passed,” he said. “It was hard at first to play shows, but now I feel like a superhero.”
Perhaps no song on Eraserland sums up Showalter’s past, present and future like the title track, which finds him inhabiting the same character from his breakthrough 2010 album, Pope Killdragon. “I am the Eraserland/I can start again,” he sings.
“I think about inherited karma a lot, and I'm like, ‘Why am I so fearful and anxious?’ Well, probably because every generation in my family were farmers up until 50 years ago, and we were all scared of some failure. ... But I don't have to be a 30th generation farmer that’s anxious and horrified of life all the time because the crops are gonna die,” Showalter said. “I wrote that last ['Eraserland'] lyric on the spot. I didn't want to be like, ‘I am living in Eraserland.’ I was like, ‘No, I want to write, “I am the Eraserland”’ — almost like a biblical statement. It's grabbing the power back.”