Homegrown Folk Revival
By Bradley Weinholtz
Nestled in the Rocky Mountains foothills and surrounded by forest lies the town of Fort Collins, Colorado. Rich with history and infused with a vibrant cultural scene, it’s home to Colorado State University and somewhat ironically was one of the towns that inspired the design of Disneyland’s Main Street, U.S.A. It’s also home to SHEL—the four Holbrook sisters—whose songs offer a bewitching brew of Celtic, folk, and rock elements. The precision of classical training coupled with unerring instincts for weaving together rootsy folk and more forceful rock threads into haunting songs positions this quartet for big things.
SHEL’s instrumental chops are as tight as their harmonies are delicate. Complex arrangements flow effortlessly, morphing from mournful vocals and slender melodic lines into tougher rhythmic territory that testifies to the siblings’ big ears and eclectic influences.
The Holbrook sisters who comprise SHEL are Hanna-piano, Sarah-violin, Liza-drums, and Eva-mandolin. Their four distinct personalities combine to create spellbinding music. Photo: Andrew Scarlatti
Home-schooled by their artist mother and professional songwriter father Andrew Holbrook, Sarah, Hannah, Eva, and Liza were raised in an environment that encouraged creative freedom. They’re a close-knit bunch with just five years separating the oldest and youngest sister.
Music was a central part of that home-schooling curriculum and each sister gravitated towards her own musical identity. Hannah fell in love with the piano, Sarah embraced the violin, Eva mastered the mandolin, and Liza honed in on harp then discovered a passion for polyrhythms, switching to drums and hand percussion.
They started performing songs with their father around 2005. Before long, Eva stepped up to sing lead vocals and soon Andrew Holbrook with SHEL had transformed into SHEL with Andrew Holbrook—and then, just SHEL.
The wintry woods surrounding the Harpeth River in Franklin, Tennessee proved to be an
ideal monochromatic setting for SHEL’s video “Stained.”
SHEL then connected with Grammy-winning producer Brent Maher. Taking an unhurried and experimental approach, SHEL recorded two EPs before releasing their self-titled, 13-song debut album in late 2012.
Their influences are eclectic, ranging from Chopin, Mozart, and Bach to The Beatles, Dylan, Led Zeppelin, and Fleetwood Mac. Each sister brings her own distinct persona to the group, generating an endless stream of ideas that are reflected in SHEL’s sophisticated and often complex arrangements
The Holbrook sisters recognize that their polished musicality is just one part of forging a career. They creatively harness social media, stage presence, and carefully thought out costuming in shaping a recognizable identity. SHEL’s videos evoke a broad range of moods and are shot in carefully chosen settings that help underscore their musical textures and lyrical intentions.
SHEL’s growing library of official videos is buttressed by homegrown clips that offer peeks into life at the Holbrook homestead. Their charming “New Top Hats Commercial” video, a silent short featuring Eva’s handmade hats shows a willingness to poke fun at themselves. A live rendition of Led Zeppelin’s “Battle of Evermore” places the band’s stagecraft, command of dynamics, and rock influences front and center.
Don’t let their sometime ethereal sounds fool you: these four young women have their feet firmly planted on the ground. Aside from a deep understanding of performing, writing, and playing music, SHEL draws on a deep reservoir of skills in fashioning their career. They write, produce, and edit their videos as well as handling every aspect of the SHEL website and social media presence including photos and copy. And then there are those top hats handcrafted by Eva that speak to her very hip thrift-store fashion sensibility.
The story of unrequited love portrayed in “Freckles” is heartfelt.
SHEL is on a mission to be heard and seen. They’ve performed on public radio, at SXSW, Nashville’s Music City Roots, Lilith Fair, NAMM, and have a busy touring schedule. Their music has been featured in national TV spots for Splenda and Glade, the CBS series Jersey Girl and ABC’s The Fosters. We caught up with SHEL between gigs to ask a few questions.
The HUB: Many of your songs include rock-infused drums. In arranging and recording, how do you balance that driving quality with your more subtle acoustic instrumental and vocal elements?
Eva: I would say the key is probably Liza, she's an extremely dynamic drummer. In live performances it feels very natural, but in the studio it's been a fascinating learning curve for us as a group, as well as our co-producer and engineer. We're constantly experimenting with our recordings. Some are treated like dynamic symphonic music, others favor the edge Liza brings with her tribal side.
The HUB: Other than being musically gifted each one of you has unique talents. How do you incorporate those gifts into the SHEL experience?
Sarah: I went to school for graphic design and videography. It's been a real thrill to be able to incorporate both of those skill sets in the band. It's wild how much money you save when pretty much everything is DIY!
Eva: I'm fascinated by costuming, and surrealism, so I do a bit of the band’s conceptual styling. I make hats in my spare time for our fans as well.
Liza: I've always loved messing around with Photoshop, so I do the band’s graphics. I'm constantly learning something new and implementing it in what I create for the the group.
Hannah: I love networking and I have a bit of a head for finances, which has really come in handy.
The HUB: Your music's been described as "chamber-grass." Do you think that nails it, or is that too neat a rubric?
Eva: I would say it's an element that we embrace on different songs. I'm flattered when people use that genre to describe our work, but I don't consider it a summary.
Sarah: I've always thought of it more like folky pop-rock.
Filmed near the ruins of Ireland’s Dunluce Castle “Lost At Sea" takes us on a magical journey into the past.
The HUB: You've covered Led Zeppelin; who else among classic rock acts, or in any other genres for that matter, are influences?
Eva: We're actually big classic rock fans. I'm very interested in production, so it makes up a large part of my musical diet. The Beatles, The Who, Supertramp, Harry Nilsson, Yes, ELP, CSN, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Elton John, and The Eagles, to name a few.
Liza: I'm always looking for new interesting music to listen to and draw from. My ever-fluctuating musical influences include… Silversun Pickups, Band of Horses, The Dave Matthews Band, Sting, Jimi Hendrix, Broods, Parov Stelar, Kaskade, Jose Gonzales, Fitz and The Tantrums, Katie Herzig, Heart, Stevie Wonder, and Lana Del Rey.
The HUB: Your songs have turned up in commercials and on TV shows, most recently on The Fosters. How do you go about approaching that market?
Hannah: “When The Sky Fell” had a TV/film feel to it, though I didn't think about that when I was writing it. It was actually very personal, but our publisher heard it and saw the potential. We produced it with the possibility of a TV sync in mind. Later it was picked up for an episode of ABC Family's The Fosters.
Sarah: Often times we're actually approached. Someone will contact us and either want a song that we have or ask us to write something for them.
The HUB: Is the song “Freckles” based on a real experience? If so can you elaborate?
Eva: It is; it's a sort of analogy for the first time I really fell in love with someone. It wasn't a mutual matter, and it took me some time to process and deal with the reality of unrequited love. I always think of analogies when I'm processing severe emotions, and this song is a result of a story that surfaced in an attempt to express how helpless I felt while caught up in the kindness of someone who was romantically not interested, but gave me no excuse to dislike him. He actually was really a farm hand.
The HUB: When you go into the studio, are your arrangements largely planned or do you take a more organic trial-and-error approach?
Eva: Both now. Some tracks we perform for months before we start recording, others we write a day or two before, and then just go hack at them in the studio.
The HUB: Reading your individual bios, you emerge as very distinct personalities. Is that a help or hindrance in moving SHEL forward, and what's your process for dealing with artistic standoffs among you?
Sarah: If we were all a little more similar two things would happen… one, we'd get along splendidly and two, It would be so boring! It helps in both respects. If we got along all the time, no one would grow, and if making music was boring we wouldn't have any reason to keep it going.
Eva: In dealing with standoffs, I think we're all continually learning to do what's best for the song, so there's a lot of trial and voting. We have to try every member’s ideas. The answer is almost always obvious, and when it's not, we run it by our folks or our publisher usually, or we sleep on it.
The HUB: Your recent videos have been shot in some very cool locations. What is the current process for making your videos and where have some of them been filmed?
Sarah: We don't really have a process. It's very organic, like most things we do. When we get an idea we try and execute it as quickly as possible before the inspiration is gone! We've shot most of the videos in Colorado and Nashville, but recently we shot one in Northern Ireland! That was a hoot.
The HUB: How do you take time for songwriting in the midst of a busy touring schedule? What's your typical songwriting process?
Liza: Sometimes the only chance we have to write together is when we're in the van driving to the next show. Eva will sometimes sit in the front while I'm driving and we'll both try and hash out a song over the loud hum of the interstate. It's one of my favorite ways to write.
Eva: We try very hard not to have a typical process. I've decided to start writing poems while on tour and then mailing them to myself so that I have letters to open when I come home, and so that I can look at the creation of a song in less limited terms than I do when writing with an instrument.
The HUB: What's the most embarrassing onstage moment you've had?
Hannah: The time I attempted to jump onto a three-foot stage at the beginning of a show and totally biffed it in a dress. Painful AND embarrassing.
Sarah: There have been so many-- it's hard to pick just one.
The HUB: Is there a favorite gig that stands out?
Eva: There was a show last year where I passed my hat on to a wonderful artist named Scott. It was an incredibly special moment that I'll never forget.
The HUB: Performing or recording: which do you prefer?
Sarah: Performing! All day, every day!
Eva: Both. One for the instant gratification of sharing, and the other for the toil and adventure.
Liza: Performing. The energy of playing on stage and connecting with so many other people all at once is incredible.
The HUB: In an ideal scenario, where do you see SHEL 10 years from now?
Eva: On an under-produced sold-out stadium tour focused on raising funds for underprivileged communities across America.
Liza: Still enjoying life on the road but being able to bring along more family and friends.
The HUB: Who's on your iPods?
Sarah: Brooke Waggoner, Oren Lavie, The Republic Tigers, Sia, Brandi Carlile, Broken Bells, The Beatles, Lord Huron, Led Zeppelin, Gillian Welch, Ruth Moody, DeVochtKa and your mom.
Hannah: Beck, Sting, Josh Garrels, Melody Gardot, Miles Davis, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Radiohead, The Goo Goo Dolls, Gabe Dixon.
Eva: Birdy, Lord Huron, Ellie Goulding, Bach, Chopin, Aaron Copland, Muse, Peter Gabriel, Punch Brothers, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles.
Liza: Billie Holiday, Adele, Bon Iver, City and Colour, David Gray, Ellie Goulding, Passenger, The Temper Trap, Skylar Grey, Paul Simon, and Feist.
“The Man Who Was the Circus” shot and edited by SHEL for their debut album.
The Gear List
DPA d:vote 4099 instrument mic
L.R. Baggs Para DI 5 Band EQ Direct Box
DPA d:facto vocal mic
Weber Beartooth A-style mandolin
Weber Bitterroot A-style octave mandolin
Weber Gallatin F-style soprano mandolin
OME open-back banjo
Aria Pro II electric guitar
Boss GT8 guitar FX processor
Shure SM58 vocal mic
4 piece Player Date C&C Kit
Ludwig Supraphonic Snare
Zildjian A Custom Rezo Cymbals, crash, ride, crash ride, and high hat, Zildjian A Custom Dark crash
Remo Advent Djembe
Pitchslap 3-Way Cajon
DPA d:vote 4099 instrument mic
Shure SM58 vocal mic
For additional information on SHEL and to see their upcoming gig schedule click here.
To hear more SHEL Music click here.
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