Instant and Total Catharsis: A Q&A with Sarah Shook

Photo by Jillian Clark

Earlier this month Sarah Shook and The Disarmers released their sophomore album, Years, on Bloodshot. The album details the vagaries and tribulations of the musician’s life, and finds the singer facing those challenges head-on with a piss-and-vinegar mindset. We recently caught up with Shook and asked her about her approach to songwriting.

How would you describe your new album?  

Real. It feels super good putting something real out there into a sea of banality. Posers have been parading the same old tropes around since forever and I think people are truly hungry for real, straight from the heart, based on real life experience, true blue songs.

Did growing up in North Carolina have an effect on your songwriting?

I was born in western New York, spent a good deal of my younger years moving around, and finally settled in central North Carolina when I was 19.  

What got you to pick up the guitar?

I taught myself piano at 9 because I started writing lyrics and wanted to write music and lyrics in tandem.  Around 16 years old I decided I wanted a more portable instrument. A friend loaned me an Oscar Schmidt acoustic guitar, I got one of them giant posters with all the chord shapes and finger positions on it, and went to town.  Never looked back.

Who are your songwriting heroes?  

Alex Maas (the Black Angels, MIEN), Santi White (Santigold), Angel Olsen, Joe Casey (Protomartyr), Mitski, Jason Molina, Elliott Smith, .

What was the first song you ever wrote? Tell us about it.  

I sure wish I could remember even just a portion of it; mostly I recall how much better I felt immediately after I was done writing it.  Like the feeling you get after a long cry, followed by a long exhale. Instant and total catharsis.

How do you go about writing songs?  

I feel like I’m more of a collector than a writer.  I collect experiences, the crazier the better, the weirder the better, I go about my life doing my thing, and at some point when I’m alone, usually after a whiskey or two, my subconscious aligns everything perfectly and it all spills out at the same time in about 15-20 minutes, lyrics, melody, chord progression, arrangement.  It’s still cathartic as hell, every single time.

There are exceptions to this of course. “Sidelong” for example: I wrote the verses and the bridge and was happy with them but still felt like it was incomplete so I shelved it.  I completely forgot about that song and one day I was sitting on my porch and the chorus hit me and damned if it wasn’t completed perfectly, years on down the road.

What is your approach to writing lyrics?

They come to me. Or out of me? I don’t write with any agenda, I don’t have an idea that I have to work on or work with, the lyrics just line up and come out cohesively.

What sort of things inspire you to write? 

Addiction. Depression. Resilience. Defiance. Irreverence. Injustice. Real shit I’ve lived through. Struggles I watch others facing. 

Are there any words you love or hate?

I cannot abide the word “squat” haha.  

Who do you consider an underrated songwriter?

Jess Price of Campdogzz.

What do you consider to be the perfect song (written by somebody else), and why?

Lost My Shape” by David Bazan. There’s a video on YouTube of him performing this song with a string quartet and it’s out of this world beautiful. The pacing, the words, the melody, absolutely gorgeous. And the strain on his voice during the final strains of the song … perfection. In every way.