SHEL with Megan Burtt
Sep 21, 2017
The billowing curtains of sound on Just Crazy Enough, the second full length album from virtuoso indie-folk band SHEL, will be both familiar and far-out to fans of the exciting sister quartet. The classically inspired mandolin, violin and piano are there, along with the band’s glowing vocal harmonies. But we also hear dense, ethereal textures that hover between the digital and the analog. Grooves are deeper, emboldened with electronic ambience and beat-boxing. The overall effect sheds light on their broad collection of influences, from the daring rock bands of the 60s to the contemplative composers of the 18th Century, and even the waves of modern electronica. Because or in spite of this effervescent mashup, Just Crazy Enough is a masterful move for SHEL. It’s the integral, front-to-back album statement the band has been preparing to make since they began making music.
Dynamic change and self-searching was inevitably going to be a big part of SHEL’s story in these early career years. Sisters Eva, Hannah, Sarah and Liza Holbrook are, after all, twenty-something women, born in a five-year span and raised in a bohemian, art-loving family in Fort Collins, CO. Each found an instrument to master early on, studying classical music while composing and arranging unique works for their anomalous instrumentation, violin, mandolin, piano and drums. They gained performing experience working with their songwriter father, and soon had festival promoters and media figures championing their fresh, intricately drawn sound.
SHEL is now touring and creating relentlessly in the hothouse environment of the 21st century music business. "We've always made our living playing music,' says Sarah Holbrook, "I dropped out of two different colleges, before it finally sank in that I was supposed to be playing music with my sisters full time. We signed with Republic Records early on, but escaped the 'artist protection program’ and we’re prouder than ever to be waving our indie banner."
They are united in their musical vision, yet doggedly possessive and respectful of their evolving individual identities, including the growing pains and struggles of young adulthood. “I remember having a distinct realization that we'd finally grown up, followed by the terrifying thought that we had more questions than answers about life.” Says Eva Holbrook about writing the album. “Sharing these songs has shown us we're not alone.”
SHEL music is many things sonically, but its coherence and distinctiveness comes from the sisters’ commitment to making every song an honest four-way collaboration. That said, every artist profits from outside perspective, and circumstances aligned in recent years to work with Eurythmics co-founder and world-renowned electronic music creator Dave Stewart, whose production credits include albums with Stevie Nicks, Joss Stone and Ringo Starr. SHEL arranged and recorded tracks in Nashville with long-time producer Brent Maher. Then Stewart, in his Los Angeles studio, sculpted sounds and beats to complement each track. The mandate was to uphold the soul of the songs, the acoustic musicality of the sisters as players, the subtlety of Eva’s lead vocals and the colors of the four-way harmonies.
The other priority for Just Crazy Enough was to capture the intensity of SHEL’s live performance. The answer lay in fully mining the sisters’ wide-ranging talents. Hannah Holbrook says, “We were all instrumentalists long before we learned to sing, and telling a story through melody and arrangement is the part of our work that we bond over most.”
Opener “Is The Doctor In Today” begins quiet with reflective lyrics, but swells with emotion and harmonies as a theme of searching is established. Liza’s drumming and percussion throughout the record is exciting and creative, from the irresistible groove in “You Could Be My Baby,” to her expert beat boxing on “Rooftop.” Hannah plays a hooky Moog synthesizer in “Let Me Do,” which glides around Eva’s voice with an organic inevitability. And after covering Zeppelin on their debut, SHEL risks sacrilege against the Rock Gods once again with their version of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” a 180 degree flip on the original, with whispered vocals and almost churchlike solemnity. Near the end of the album comes the unexpectedly vigorous and marching “Moonshine Hill,” featuring a shot of Sarah’s lively fiddle in a slice of pop music heaven. The album wraps with “Stronger Than My Fears,” which grows from intimate folk to unearthly beauty, evoking a heath on the Irish coast or the moon of a nearby planet.
The group’s passion for art of all kinds and irrepressible creativity has been central to their inventive music videos. All contribute to the engaging productions. “We're living our art every day” says Eva Holbrook, “turning our rooms into staging studios, filming on rooftops in Amsterdam, moving pianos into a river. But Sarah is the key to all of it. Her ability as a director, videographer and editor conveys our collective vision.”
Conspicuous in those visuals is an evolved esthetic that transforms thrift store fashion finds into an Alice-In-Wonderland British romanticism. The title of a workshop they offer on the road, “I’m A Weirdo…Are You a Weirdo Too?” tells you some of what you need to know about their self-awareness in a world of mass consumerism. SHEL’s album art features the band with and without makeup -- an expression of their views on individuality and natural beauty. “We love to wear makeup for fun,” says Liza Holbrook. “But we don't believe that makeup or expensive clothing are the things that make a woman beautiful."
In a new music scene that’s crowded, genre-twisting and attuned to mastery in live performance, SHEL is a must-know young band for anyone who wants to keep up with tomorrow’s greats. Their spellbinding live performances tap deep skills as instrumentalists and total trust to generate improbable power on stage. They share some contemporary musical DNA with Americana bands, Punch Brothers and Crooked Still, but just as surely with adventuresome artists such as tUnE-yArDs, St. Vincent and Alt-J. The future belongs to artists who go beyond mere genre blending by focusing on their inner music and the four powerful personalities of SHEL do just that.
“I’m not really a pop singer,” Megan Burtt says. “I just want to make music that’s accessible, while still being true to myself. When I started writing songs, I didn’t know the shapes the fingers were supposed to make on the guitar, so I made up my own chords. I think that’s why I have a unique way of hearing and composing.”
The music on The Bargain is bright and uplifting and, while it does have the inviting sheen of pop, Burtt’s distinctive melodies, poignant, soul-searching vocals and profoundly insightful lyrics deliver a message informed by sorrow and uncertainty. A few years back, Burtt fell prey to a potentially life threatening condition, but her faith in the healing power of music and her determination to become a performing artist brought her out of the shadows.
“These songs are about my struggle to recover my health,” she explains. “The word ‘bargain’ is provocative because we’re constantly bargaining, deciding how and when we should show up in our lives. Every day, decision, connection and relationship feels like an exchange of something for something else, things we may not be aware of until we’re dancing with mortality.”
That dance is the subtext of the music on The Bargain. Louis Cato (Bobby McFerrin, Marcus Miller, Snarky Puppy, Mariah Carey) a talented multi-instrumentalist, and long time member of Burtt’s backing band, produced the album, creating perfect settings for her gently passionate vocals.
The Bargain opens with the confident anthem “Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet.” Adam Tressler’s stirring guitar and propulsive bass line support Burtt’s stacked harmonies and a vocal that’s delicately balanced between vulnerability and self-assurance. Drummer James Williams provides a funky New Orleans flavored back beat for “Real Thing,” a song that portrays the struggle between the pull of carnal desire and the need for spiritual release. “I’m asking if it’s possible to love if you’re not letting people see the real you,” Burtt explains.
Tressler’s icy slide guitar and Williams’ tom toms lay down a sultry, swampy groove for “It’s My Time.” The ominous bluesy tune is full of subtle twists and turns that keep the tension high as Burtt’s unsettling, behind the beat vocal conjures up love’s redemptive force, even as she caresses the void at the edge of the grave. The title track locks into a four-on-the-floor rhythm with Cato’s spacey, stuttering keyboard pulse and distorted guitar fills giving the music a propulsive drive. Burtt’s defiant vocal conjures the picture of a woman rising from the ashes triumphant.
Cato and Burtt crafted the arrangements on The Bargain with a fine ear for sonic nuance and melodic detail. Their refined blend of rock, funk, jazz and blues pulls the music into interesting shapes, full of unexpected delights, songs that are accessible, while remaining true to Burtt’s inimitable lyrical vision.
Megan Burtt was born and bred in Denver, CO. “I’ve always written songs,” she says. “I took piano lessons when I was young, but when I picked up my dad’s old classical guitar, things took off.” Inspired by Joni Mitchell’s Blue, Burtt taught herself to play, dreaming of a musical career. “I didn’t know any girls who played music, but Blue, Bonnie Raitt’s Nick of Time and the women on the MTV videos I saw, let me know it was possible.”
After high school, she moved to Boston to attend the Berklee School of Music. There she made two EPs she calls her “practice records.” “As soon as I met other musicians, I put together a band and started playing. We took every gig we could get. I loved being on stage with such talented players. It developed my ear, made my guitar playing more solid and made me a confident bandleader and performer.”
When she graduated from Berklee, Burtt moved to Mississippi to investigate the roots of American blues music. While there, she contracted a potentially fatal disease, but she never stopped singing or performing, and eventually found her way to full recovery. She played music in Vietnam for a couple of months, then returned to the States to record It Ain’t Love, a 12 song collection she made with the friends that still make up the backbone of her recording band– Louis Cato, guitarist Adam Tressler and James Williams. One of the songs on the album, “Waiting for June,” won Best Song at the 2010 Rocky Mountain Folk Festival and the 2011 Kerrville New Folk Competition.
In 2013, Burtt began writing and preproduction on the songs that would become The Bargain and continued annual holiday tours of the Pennsylvania prison system with her band. “The maximum security inmates we play for are some of my favorite audiences. It’s incredible to perform for people who are truly grateful you’re there.”
After two years of careful production, The Bargain arrives to show off Cato’s creative production and Burtt’s bold vocals. “It’s more honest and evolved than my first album,” Burtt says. “I’m beyond excited to start sharing these songs with my fans. I’m tying a bow around this album, knowing that I put everything I had to give into it.”