This weekend: SHEL at Swallow HillBy Jackie Lomibao | December 17th, 2010 | 2 comments
In the rural reaches of Larimer County, a little yellow house sits on a small hill; unassuming and discreet, it’s almost part of the hilly landscape around it. Washboard county roads are the quickest way there, past cows and horses, donkeys and a few llamas. Not exactly off the grid but certainly off the beaten path, the house is home to four sisters (and mom and dad) whose band, SHEL, could and should conquer its sect of the music world any day now.
SHEL is Sarah (violin), Hannah (piano), Eva (mandolin, lead vocals) and Liza (drums/percussion). They are all classically trained musicians, ranging in age from 17 to 22. Hanging out with the girls in the home where the family practices sustainable farming, I saw why SHEL was, in the words of 20-year-old, Sarah, “necessarily inspired.”
The sisters got their start at early ages, backing up their father, playing mostly bluegrass. They released a Christmas album in 2001 and did short tours around Colorado and Nebraska in 2005. By 2007, they decided it was time to “get serious” and shortly after, met famed producer and Judds founder Brent Maher (one-time engineer to Elvis Presley and producer/engineer for artists including Wynonna, Nickel Creek and Jo Dee Messina). In early 2009, they signed a publishing deal in the songwriting mecca of Nashville.
Pianist and eldest sister Hannah left college at the age of 20 and hasn’t looked back. Slightly more reserved than her sisters and reflective, she recalls how, after the publishing deal, it started to heat up for the band. “Now things could really take off with the band, so I was okay with not going to school anymore,” she said. “Like, here’s something bigger.”
It quickly got “bigger” for SHEL when Big Machine Records President/CEO, Scott Borchetta (think Taylor Swift) signed them to his joint Republic Nashville imprint earlier this year.
Despite changes moving at lightspeed, the sisters remain easy-going, purposeful and unaffected. Says Hannah of their lyrics and overall demeanor, “Sometimes I think we have a responsibility to relate to people; relate to our audience. (We don’t want) to reach only a certain group. We want to reach as many people as we can.”
On responsibility, Sarah, whose smile comes easy and often, talked about the issues surrounding a sometimes younger fan base. “A lot of younger girls look up to us and just the responsibility that we have to them…like you see in the tabloids all the time (people like) Lindsay Lohan doing drugs and I never want to be that.”
It might be tempting to compare the band to Taylor Swift because of the members’ ages and wholesome outlook, but musically they are nowhere close to fitting neatly into a specific genre. “It’s hard for our people in Nashville to spread the word about us, because they’ll be like ‘Uh, I don’t know what genre to put them in, but you have to hear them,’” said Hannah.
“It is what it is,” added Eva pragmatically. “To try to write to fit a genre would feel like being smothered.”
With curiously profound insight, 17-year-old polyrhythmic drummer (meaning she can manage two independent beats simultaneously), Liza shared this inspired nugget: “(Categorizing the music) would be so unnatural and disruptive to what we do. We fit where we fit, which is nowhere, but we fit there for a reason, apparently.”
Despite the challenge of pigeonholing SHEL’s music, the girls found a place on Lilith Fair’s stop in Denver last summer, a spot on “eTown” with Los Lobos and an appearance with the wildly popular kid/tween/teen/adult/retro “Yo Gabba Gabba Live” show.
“I came away (from those experiences) feeling very grateful,” says Eva after a long pause. “You’re playing the opening stage and you don’t get the green room with the air conditioning…having that understanding that we’re still working, making our way…I don’t think we’re entitled to the same luxuries as people who have been doing it for years and years.”
I wondered about the blessings and curses of sisters living and working together. Sarah nailed it: “Not enough bathrooms.”
Check out SHEL tonight (Friday) at Swallow Hill.
Jackie Lomibao is a Lakewood-based writer and regular contributor to Reverb.