Just outside of Fort Collins, four sisters fill a family home with sounds only siblings could make. Combining Classical structure with Folk lyrics, Country catchiness, Bluegrass beauty and an intense passion, SHEL (Sarah, Hannah, Eva, Liza) is band full of depth and delight. Only one album deep into what is sure to be a lengthy career, SHEL has already found success without necessarily looking for it. Their music is as natural as the setting they create it in, and forming the band seemed more their fate than a decision. Just home from their most successful tour to date, Eva Hollbrook took some time to tell Listen Up Denver! the story behind SHEL.
Listen Up Denver!: How was tour?
Eva Hollbrook: It was really good. We’ve been home for almost a week now. We went up to New York City and played a couple great shows out there for the CMJ Music Marathon, and did some shows on the way back home, then went and did the Moab Folk Festival.
LUD!: So tell me about this music fest you played in New York, I have never heard of it, but it looks like a lot of fun.
EH: It’s kinda like the SxSW of New York City. They open up all these great little venues. We played a place called Brooklyn Bowl, which is a huge old warehouse and is also a bowling alley and a theatre. That was really fun. Then we did one of the smaller clubs, Rockwood Music Hall, and that was great too.
LUD!: So now that you’re back from tour, what are you up to?
EH: We are working on a lot of things right now. We decided that for this album we were going to make a music video for every song. The one for “Freckles” we just finished is being played on CMT in rotation with Mumford and Sons and Civil Wars and stuff like that. So we are working on the videos for all the songs on the album, and we are also writing and trying to prepare for the second album.
LUD!: When you record, you use a home studio right?
EH: It’s an interesting situation. We do as much of it at home as possible which ends up being a majority of it. It doesn’t take a whole lot. We’ve got one good mic and a very basic Pro-Tools setup with a good interface. We do one instrument at a time, then we’ll export the tracks and upload them to an FTP server, and they’ll download them over in Nashville. We are working with a producer out there, and they’ll run it through a Titan board from the 70s. It’s a very beautiful English board.
LUD!: So that’s an analog board then?
EH: It is. It’s got that very dark warm sound to it. So they run the tracks through there, and do any compression, EQ, etc. Then depending on the situation, I will either fly out to Nashville to mix, or they will start a mix, and then send us an MP3 via email. Then in the course of a day, we will discuss the mixes over email, or make adjustments over the phone.
LUD!: That process must give you a lot of creative freedom. You can record and work on the songs whenever you need to.
EH: It’s a great asset. I really love to be able to work at that kind of pace, and with so much flexibility.
LUD!: Do you and your sisters all live together?
EH: We do actually. We live in a house with our folks, north of Fort Collins, in the country. It’s really nice, we can make as much noise as we want at any time.
LUD!: And your father also plays music as well, right?
EH: Yeah. He was a singer-songwriter the whole time I was growing up.
LUD!: When did you know music was going to be the main focus of your life?
EH: I always loved it. I remember growing up and listening to The Beatles and just loving them; I really had a deep connection with music. Then, when I was about 10, my dad picked up a Kentucky mandolin for really cheap and he said that he’d buy it if someone would learn it. I don’t even know why I did it, but I just kinda raised my hand because it was a cute little instrument.
LUD!: The mandolin is pretty adorable.
EH: It really is. You can take it anywhere. I love that about it and you can do so much with it which I didn’t realize at the time. For whatever reason, I ended up playing it and I really hated it at first. Because, you know, the action is super high, and the strings are really sharp on your fingers especially when you just have tiny little ten year old fingers with no callouses. But I made it through somehow and I remember the first time I learned to play an actual piece on it. Something kind of clicked in my brain and I knew exactly what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I wanted to play music and I wanted to play that instrument…and just get better and better.
LUD!: So do you have any formal or classical music training?
EH: Well, my dad looked for a teacher for me right away and I wound up with a really great teacher, Ellen Audley, who used to be the mandolinist for The Mother Folkers. She’s extraordinary and a great teacher. I studied with her for about five years but I don’t feel like I’ve ever really studied music though; not in the classical sense. I learned the technique necessary to play classical music, and I can read music, well, barely. Enough to get through the Bach cello suites or whatever, but I am not what you or anybody would call a “classical musician.” I just learned enough to do what I need to do I guess.
LUD!: It’s humble for you to say it like that. I totally get it. To be a serious student of classical music is a whole other level. It’s like the difference between a cook and a chef.
EH: [Laughs] Definitely! That’s the perfect analogy.
LUD!: So I can see you not wanting to identify as a classically trained musician because you don’t want to demean anyone else’s education or hard work. That said, the way you play is intricate and very detailed. I think most people would assume you have classical training and have spent a lot of time studying music in a more formal sense.
EH: Well, my older sister Hannah, who plays piano, she studied music theory at CSU for a while. I don’t know what we would do without her. She is so foundational within the group. Her understanding of harmonies, her understanding of music theory and chordal structure is like a language that I don’t even speak. Fortunately, she can see what I’m doing and tell everybody else what is going on. I don’t even know what the chords are, and I’m not even thinking about the notes that are being played. I work through feeling more than thinking about it. Luckily Hannah thinks and feels, [Laughs] so we do all right.
LUD!: That’s great. So was forming a band as sisters a hard decision?
EH: Not at all, it was very natural. I feel like we all just grew into it.
LUD!: A lot of people may not be able to work with family, or be around their siblings so much. But considering you live together, I am assuming you get along pretty well.
EH: We do. It’s cool, because we are actually best friends in that sense. We know each other very well, and we know which buttons not to push. It’s strange, and I never realized it till recently, but working together professionally can be really good for your relationship because you can’t go on stage without resolving an issue that might have gone on that day as it will affect your performance. You can’t hold a grudge against somebody because you really need each other to survive. You are all working together with a common goal, and you’re all working together to bring home the bread, so you have to be honest with each other and communicate, and work through issues in order to function. Whereas in a normal family situation you could just move out or say goodbye, but in this case we all need each other, so it’s really good for our relationship.
LUD!: You and your sisters must bring a lot of different musical tastes and influences to the table but it seems like you all love Led Zeppelin based on the cover of “The Battle of Evermore” on your album.
EH: Love Zeppelin. That’s really the only cover we do. We are all also big Tolkien fans.
LUD!: You did a cover of “Going To California” on your own as well. Such a great song.
EH: I love that song. I don’t know what it is about that song, or what it was about Zeppelin in general. The expression in the melody was so extraordinary. While it’s a completely different sound, it reminds me of the same brilliance that I recognized in The Beatles. There is something about the melody and expression that is extraordinary.
LUD!: So true. I have seen you play live before, and the performance is a big part of your show. Meaning, you don’t just play your music, you interact with each other on the stage, you really pay attention to your dress, it’s as much Vaudeville as it is Vivaldi. Are you all just natural entertainers?
EH: We just want to put on an engaging performance. When I get on stage, I think of what type of performance I would want to be seeing and I try to function from that place. Our mom is a visual artist so we kind of inherited a bit of that. I feel that the more all the senses are engaged, the more incredible the performance will be.
LUD!: Everyone has a distinct personality that comes out on stage and it seems like everyone has very distinct roles within the band as well. Can you tell me a bit about those subjects?
EH: I am so glad to hear you say that. I feel the same way. I love that. It’s very different from when we were little kids and we all wore the same color clothes or whatever. It didn’t seem like we were individuals. And yes, everybody has a role. Sarah has the leading, outgoing personality that make people feel comfortable. I’m sort of like the plate, like if you considered the whole band a dish, I’m kind of like the plate that just provides the platform for everyone to do what they are brilliant at. Hannah is definitely the musical foundation. She understands everything that goes on and she knows the direction it is headed…we can ask her anything. Liza is like the heartbeat. For me, that’s where I see the life flowing from in the band. Her beat and her approach to rhythm is very unique. It’s interesting, because she’s the youngest, but it doesn’t feel like it to some degree.
LUD!: She has a lot of presence, that’s for sure.
EH: She really does.
LUD!: I remember her beat boxing as well, so she definitely has the rhythm in her.
EH: Right. It would take me twice as much time and effort to do what she does. I don’t know how she does it.
LUD!: Music obviously comes naturally to you and your sisters, but what would you be doing if you weren’t in SHEL.
EH: Ahh…I would be a farmer. I seriously want to do that someday. Small scale sustainable farming. I would get really deep into that and then probably try to start an organization to help other people who are interested in farming get started. Ideally provide the resources they need, as well as the land they need to start providing food for their community. That would be my other passion.
LUD!: You have obviously put some thought into this. Where would you do it?
EH: I don’t know. I have been looking around. I would love to do it in Colorado, I just wished it rained here more and water wasn’t such an issue. But out near where we live, I think it’s the corner of 287 and Taft, as you head out to Laporte, there’s a farm that I think a bunch of young folks have taken over. They are doing great. It is so beautiful and orderly and as I was looking at it, it really encouraged me, because I know you can probably do that type of farming in Colorado. So I would probably try to do it here, but if not here, maybe Virginia.
LUD!: So, since you just got off the road together, what were you listening to on tour? Either individually or as a group?
EH: As a band we have been listening to Rufus Wainright. He is quite brilliant. I like Harry Nilsson. Liza is really into techno, there is a DJ she really likes, called Kaskade I think. She also likes Skrillex.
LUD!: Oh Boy.
EH: Yeah, she is really getting into Dubstep these days. Sarah has been listening to Nick Drake a lot. Hannah listens to a lot of Jazz. As a group we also like The Beatles, The Who, Led Zeppelin….Classic Rock is the one thing we can put on and always agree on.
LUD!: It sounds like everyone brings a lot of different perspectives to the music. Is your songwriting process collaborative.
EH: Very. I usually write a majority of the lyrics, and everyone has input. Hannah will play a theme and we will build on it.
LUD!: So do you see yourself playing with your sisters for quite a while.
EH: As time has gone on we have all become more committed and passionate about the band so I hope this does not end anytime soon. We are all just really enjoying it. I feel like everyone really has a chance to express themselves and use their gift.