Videos by American Songwriter
Even in the happiest of times, Timothy Showalter – who records under the moniker Strand of Oaks – often finds himself amongst a haze of anxiety.
It’s an unusual mindset for the Pennsylvania by way of Indiana musician, considering the success he’s had as a person and a musician. But especially with the recent arrival of his latest release, Dark Shores, Showalter maintains a guarded appreciation for life.
“A lot of times with this record it seemed more serious because I find that when I get comfortable with something and love something, I fear that I’m going to lose it,” says Showalter. “It’s not that I want something, it’s more the anxiety that comes with the thought of ‘Is this going to be here forever?’”
Part of his anxiety might have to do with turning 30 but he’s not about to wallow away all his time and energy on this thought, and is constantly writing new songs.
“Things aren’t going to last forever and it’s a sad realization sometimes. You can take it in a productive way and learn to appreciate it while it’s happening or you can get really depressed about it, and I tend to both sometimes.”
Acceptance and perseverance are just two of the words that have deep meaning for Showalter, and they frequently find their way into his lyrics. “It’s important to accept mortality and the fact that life is full of good and bad parts,” he says.
“Honestly I feel like the struggles are what makes people real,” says Showalter. “I don’t grow much as a person when things are going absolutely well. I grow more when I’m struggling and there are reasons to get better from mistakes.”
This mindset can often produce fairly sad songs. “I’ll eventually write a Jimmy Buffet song,” Showalter joked during his recent show at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. But there’s always a silver lining of hope in his songs, he says. “They’re sad, sad songs, but they come with hope, I just want people to understand that these aren’t the end of the world. They might be songs about the end of the world but it isn’t the end of the world. There’s perseverance and you can get through this stuff.”
Entering “Dark Shores”
Sometimes struggles come from unexpected places, but Showalter finds his way through it by writing songs. That is prevalent on Dark Shores, an album produced by singer-songwriter John Vanderslice and recording engineer Ian Pellicci.
Following a steady stream of touring behind his last album Pope Killdragon, Showalter found himself with a lot of free time. With not much to do at home and his wife Sue working, he found his mind wandering and exploring a lot of thoughts.
“My mind kept going to where things were in my life. Right then I felt pretty lonely, I had a pretty long spell of sadness that I’m not sure where it came from and that’s the hard thing when sadness comes and it’s not based around an event or situation. It’s this mysterious sense of loneliness that came over me.”
From that idea the song for the title track took root and provided a perfect catalyst for a new album.
“Dark Shores felt like a great jumping off point from where to write the rest of the record. It felt ominous and a little dangerous and also I really like the water. But it also feels like space a little bit. I felt Dark Shores could mean ocean or the void and emptiness of space.”
Between “Dark Shores” and the final song he wrote, “Diamond Drill,” the idea for an album full of bizarre stories took shape. For Showalter, it’s fascinating to look at the lyrics and melodies between the two songs and see the full scope of the record.
So far, he feels that the album’s been well received.
“It’s always gratifying to put so much work into something and set it afloat into the mystery of public opinion. When people come back and like it, it really feels like you’re doing something right.”
Flipping Reality Upside Down (Through Lyrics)
Part of that success for not just Dark Shores but his three albums is the vivid and sometimes surreal details in his lyrics.
“When I first started writing songs it was very mysterious. I would write a melody or guitar part and it felt like it was coming from this quagmire that it would mysteriously happen,” says Showalter. “I like a bit of the spiritual or the strange that comes from the recesses of your mind, that’s where the true art comes for me.”
For many, like fellow songwriter Joe Pug, it’s easy to be drawn to Showalter’s lyrics. Pug formed a close friendship with Showalter over a lengthy tour last year, traveling in the same tour van. From the beginning Pug knew that Showalter was who he wanted to tour with.
“Besides Tim’s voice, which affects what’s so great about his music, there’s also his craftsmanship that goes into his songs,” says Pug. “Effortlessly he’s able to write about his subject without literally writing about it. He has a really natural gift for allegory. So he talks about something but he’s not literally talking about it at the time.”
Ryan Matteson, creator of the popular Muzzle of Bees blog and Strand of Oaks manager (and who also released the Pope Killdragon vinyl on his Ten Atoms record label), shares the same sentiment.
“Tim’s songwriting is always involving and is very much a product of his surroundings and everyday life, but it’s filtered through themes like outer space, television personalities and apocalyptic romance and survival,” says Matteson. “It’s pretty amazing when you think of the creativity and imagination that goes into his songwriting.”
While his debut Leave in Ruin was more autobiographical for Showalter, Pope Killdragon and Dark Shores present a more altered reality. His lyrics tell stories that may be based on true events but he takes liberties with the details. Characters murder John Belushi’s drug dealer, get abducted by aliens, go bowling with mythical giants, and commune with John F. Kennedy’s illegitimate son.
“I don’t even know if it’s subconscious, that’s just the way my mind works,” says Showalter. “I have feelings and whatever is happening in my mind which is very real to me and very day-to-day problems and joys and issues that I’ve faced. I’ll filter through this perspective that I have that seems very natural to me and when I write the lyrics I know exactly what I’m talking about.”
“But sometimes they come off as John Belushi doing a drug deal or me getting chased by robots or aliens abducting me. It’s more interesting for me to write songs that way than to just say exactly what’s happening.”
There’s plenty of his “strange imagination” in Dark Shores. This includes “Satellite Moon,” which weaves that imagination “into very real things that were going on in my life and wondering about marriage and how to keep a marriage going.” But in his altered reality the struggles going into that took shape in the form of an astronaut farmer.
“I imagine this astronaut on the moon and in the future and he’s trying his best to keep his family together and his life together and his job together. He was just failing at it but kept convincing people to stay on with him and keep things going and not giving up. That to me, while it comes from a strange place theme-wise, is really more biographical than anything I’ve ever written.”
Another good example of the extent of Showalter’s creativity on Dark Shores is “Maureen’s”. Showalter describes the song as a cinematic continuation of Pope Killdragon and perhaps a sequel to the song “Bonfire” off that album. “Maureen’s” is special to Showalter as it was the name of an ice-cream stand where he went on his first few dates with his wife in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.
While “Bonfire” features a couple that is trying to find a way to make their lives work in the bleakest of apocalypse, “Maureen’s” feels like it takes place a couple years later when they’re still living in the wasteland of the world but their lives aren’t as good anymore. But the twist is that instead of problems from the apocalypse it’s more the normal daily things that wear on a person so much that your relationship feels light years away.
“It’s the thought of going back to when the relationship started when it was so fresh and lacking of struggle, and the acceptance of that struggle, that this is the reason you chose to be in this relationship. The song still feels hopeful in a weird way because all you can do sometimes is to accept your situation and try your best to keep it going.”
Shift to a New Darker Shore
Accepting one’s situation became important for Showalter as he continued to write the lyrics for the songs on Darker Shores. Initially when he started working on the album he recorded some of the instruments with Ben Vehorn, who had helped produce Pope Killdragon.
With the success of Pope Killdragon and its synthesizer heavy prog-folk sound, Showalter wanted to go for a similar sound – one that would mix an epic Tangerine Dream-like synthesizer soundscape with the disorienting lyricism of a singer like Kate Bush.
“They were very synthesizer heavy and all these things that were epic and had this broad scope of soundscapes. I was really getting ready to make that record, but then when the lyrics came out and finishing the songs I felt that wasn’t what it called for.”
The lyrics called for a scaled back approach. The unexpected arrival of John Vanderslice (as well as Ian Pellicci) to produce the album certainly gave Showalter a boost of confidence that he could achieve this.
“I don’t know how to explain but the songs became more important than I wanted them to be. They became more important than making this giant synthesizer record,” says Showalter. “We decided to go with what I feel is a more intimate but also sonically full approach to these songs where the voice was truly the centerpiece.”
Through a series of conversations, Vanderslice and Showalter figured out the sonic direction of the album. Ian Pellicci, a co-producer and engineer for the album, also helped plenty in getting the songs right.
“We talked about touchstones for the album – this is a dangerous thing when it’s taken as gospel, but it’s very useful to provide a rough frame around the production – and we decided that early ’70s era Neil Young was right where we wanted to start,” says Vanderslice. “Those records are very hi-fi and very unfussy at the same time. They are unprocessed and rough. We tried to keep it to 2nd or 3rd takes and retain the frayed edges of real players in a room.”
Vanderslice, who knows the importance of vocals, wanted to get them sounding right. “I do believe that if you get the singing right, get it recorded properly and out front, that everything else follows,” he says.
Working at Tiny Telephone made that even more possible as Showalter says the gear there is only to make the record better rather than being everything but the kitchen sink. The biggest reason he pursued recording there came from hearing albums recorded there like Sunset Tree by The Mountain Goats.
“The songs are amazing but the way it sounds is so perfect,” says Showalter, “I thought even years back that if I could make an album that sounded like that it would be a dream come true.”
Showalter, who had toured Pope Killdragon as both a solo act and a four-piece band, was joined in the studio by the rest of the band. According to Showalter, Dark Shores is the first time he’s been able to capture his voice close to how it is live.
“I sing very loud live and a lot of people see discrepancies between the record and seeing me live,” says Showalter. “I always wanted to get to that place where my voice was captured how I heard it but never came out.”
Though it wasn’t easy to step away from the heavy synthesizer sound, Showalter realized that the songs could stand on their own and didn’t need additional elements to “boost them or add weight to them.” “For me, it is a constant issue because a lot of times as a recording musician you get insecure about things; you question your voice, question your songwriting and guitar playing and whatever,” says Showalter. “He really helped me understand that it doesn’t really need more, and to let it stand on itself and let the songs be what they’re intended to be as – stories and things that mean a lot to your life and hopefully mean a lot to other people’s lives.”
For Matteson, the songs certainly succeed.
“I think he did a great job of deconstructing his songs into their simplest form and getting the most out of his amazing voice and leaving space for the songs to be really powerful,” says Matteson.
Picking the right version of the song wasn’t always easy, though, for Showalter. Last year Showalter had recorded an early version of the song “Spacestation” for a session for Shaking Through, which had the heavy synthesizer and drama he initially intended for “Dark Shores”. While he likes both versions of the song – one with plenty of synthesizers and drama and the other more restrained – it’s all about making tough choices and picking the song appropriate to the album’s sound.
“I could really see this record living in two different places,” says Showalter. “It’ll always be dear to my heart but it really was a sacrifice for the greater good. It’s a struggle like everything else. Sometimes it sucks to admit to yourself that you’ve got to change and make this record. I really stand by both versions and love them both equally but know the album version needs to be on the record.”
Working with Heroes
Showalter never expected he’d get the chance to work with John Vanderslice let alone have one of his personal musical heroes work diligently with him on his songs.
“I couldn’t believe that the guy that made some of my favorite records ever was presenting his opinion on my songs and really investing himself and not going through the motions and being involved with it as much as I am,” says Showalter. “Much as I was there writing the songs John was there to arrange them and help me get them to the final product.”
This opportunity had Showalter ready to send demos of his work but Vanderslice’s adamant stance about not listening to demos made things a bit worrisome. Once he flew out to work at Tiny Telephone and played the songs on guitar he quickly realized Vanderslice knew what he was doing. Showalter would play once through and they’d set up whatever microphones and instruments were needed.
“The process was very natural and there wasn’t a lot of planning,” says Showalter. “I think John doesn’t need to plan as he’s so good at what he does. He doesn’t need to sit there and plan something for months. He knows how to set something up here and knows exactly how to present it.”
It helped that the two shared similar music tastes, including David Bowie’s album Low.
“We really bonded over the production of that,” says Showalter. “It’s a bizarre record but also very listenable. That’s what attracted it to me – something that is pop-based that’s not a challenge to listen to but if you choose for it to be a challenge it will be. If you dig deeper in the record it will reveal more and more layers after the initial impression of it.”
Over the past few years Showalter has gotten plenty of opportunities to play and hang out with his musical inspirations including Eric Bachmann from Crooked Fingers and recently The Tallest Man on Earth.
“I could never get used to it. Every night I was seeing someone who affected my life for years. I’m having a beer with my hero; I’m joking with my hero. That’s what I think is attractive about this world – you can approach heroes you love and talk with them and connect with them and learn how they do what they do.”