Sarah Shook emerges from the pandemic with a pair of albums and a focused mind

Now two years sober, the musician, who will be joined in concert by her band the Disarmers, is intent on writing songs about shared hardship ‘that can bring even the most polarized people together’

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Sarah Shook

When the pandemic broke in March 2020, Sarah Shook said it was a shock to the system to have her primary means of making a living immediately evaporate. 

“My band (the Disarmers) and I were in Pete Anderson's studio in Los Angeles tracking our third album when I first heard the news that the novel coronavirus was spreading,” Shook said recently via email. “Becoming unemployed overnight with no end in sight is stressful, to say the least, and I was in the early stages of recovery to boot.”

Unable to tour, the alt-country belter said that she hunkered down at home, taking frequent walks outside, binging TV shows and reading. She also started seeing an online therapist who helped her navigate the tumultuous time, during which the musician focused on replacing bad habits with healthy habits, eventually beginning work on a forthcoming solo record.

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Amid all of this, Shook’s former label, Bloodshot Records, reissued her debut EP, Seven, from 2013, a collection of rowdy, hell-raising songs to which the musician no longer relates, describing herself as a completely different person from the one who recorded those tunes.

“[I was] still very young emotionally and generally inexperienced,” said Shook, who will join the Disarmers in concert at Rumba Cafe on Wednesday, Aug. 11. “I'd only been living away from my parents for a few years then. I had a lot of internalized sexism and misogyny I wasn't aware of yet, and I was numbing my past with frequent binge drinking.”

Shook said this “extreme Christian conservative upbringing” also shaped her early anti-vaccine attitudes, which she has since outgrown but which she has watched unfold on a national scale with a degree of terror in more recent months. “The anti-vaccine misinformation out there is insane, and it's pretty sad to see people get swept up in the paranoia,” she said. “I used to be an anti-vaxxer because of the way I was raised, so I know all the arguments and all the ‘facts,’ and none of it is based in reality.”

Shook and her bandmates, all of whom have been vaccinated, are now vocal proponents of the need to reach higher vaccination rates, believing this to be essential to reestablishing a healthy, functional concert industry.

This is just one in a number of evolutions Shook has undergone through the years. "I'm a long, long way from who I was” even as recently as 2013, Shook said. “I just celebrated my two-year sober anniversary on July 15, and sobriety for me has been much more than just ‘not drinking.' It's been about achieving a level of clarity to best face my past and deal with decades of buried trauma. It's not the most fun work, but it became life or death, so I'm happy to do it and grateful to still be here.”

Shook’s evolution can be heard in her words, as well as on her records, with the singer describing a “clear and definitive arc of growth” between Seven and Years, from 2018, a progression likely to continue on a pair of albums intended for release in 2022. These include the new Disarmers record, titled Nightroamer and slated for release on Thirty Tigers in the first quarter of 2022, and Shook’s first solo record, which she recorded in the second half of 2020 and is now in the final mixing stages.

While Shook termed the solo record something of a departure (“It isn’t even [a little] country”), she said it will likely share at least some DNA with Disarmers efforts in terms of the storytelling and the types of characters whose lives she continues to explore in her songs.

“I know that the things I've experienced in my life have happened to so many other people,” Shook said. “And I want to write straightforward, undiluted songs about shared hardships and unlikely victories that can bring even the most polarized people together.”