Sarah Shook & The Disarmers: Nightroamer | Thirty Tigers; Friday, February 18

At the age of 17, the artist at the helm of the Chapel Hill-based neo-country outfit Sarah Shook & The Disarmers was prohibited from listening to music with the exception of worship music and classical composition.

After graduating from homeschooling—a few years before moving to Garner with their family at the age of 19—Sarah Shook took their first job as a cashier in small-town western New York. Shook’s coworkers all attended school together, making Shook the “new kid.” Between shifts, they would discuss new artists and swap music recommendations. Naive, yet abundantly curious, Shook began to wriggle out from the grips of fundamentalism.

“When they found out that I wasn’t allowed to listen to music, they were appropriately horrified,” Shook laughs. “So they kind of took me under their collective musical wing, and they started sneaking me CDs to smuggle into my own house.”

Back home, Shook would wait until the light under their parents’ bedroom door went out across the hall to pull out the contraband. Beneath the covers, Shook entered a new dimension through headphones. From Belle and Sebastian to Gorillaz, they engorged themselves in the labyrinth of secular storytelling and synth-pop sounds.

“I cannot describe to you the emotional roller coaster that was,” Shook says. “I’d never heard music that sounded like that before.”

In the two decades since, that awestruck teenager has channeled their infatuation into a genre-defining career as an outlaw artist who celebrates being an outlier, with unabashed songs about mental health struggles that many would keep close to the chest. Shook does not claim to have the answers, but they do feel a certain responsibility to share their notes in case they contain something others might have missed.

Today, despite being a late bloomer, the 36-year-old artist is taking the third Disarmers album release in stride. Due February 18 via Thirty Tigers, Nightroamer sees the quintet digging deep into their country roots while branching outward in an extension of honky-tonk rock with budding pop-punk production. Standing proud and poised behind Shook’s commanding vocals and guitar guidance are Eric Peterson (lead guitar), Aaron Oliva (bass), Jack Foster (drums), and Adam Kurtz (pedal steel).

With the veteran hand of Grammy-winning producer Pete Anderson (Dwight Yoakam, k.d. lang), Nightroamer challenges any previously held notions of the band’s genre labels. Pushing past the foundational elements found in Sidelong (2015) and Years (2018) that defined the band’s undeniably country sound, Sarah Shook & The Disarmers prove illimitable.

The seasoned dynamic introduces newfangled pop sensibilities while maintaining a melody-centric structure to highlight Shook’s songwriting.

“When I write a song, I’m thinking about the song. I’m not thinking about genre, or where it fits in with our sound,” Shook explains. “Writing songs, for me, is a very singular activity. And part of that is because sometimes I write songs that end up not being for The Disarmers. And sometimes I write songs that are like, ‘Nobody but The Disarmers can play this song.’ Learning how to make those distinctions has been part of the process.”

Shook’s songwriting is best defined by a raw lyricism that matches their candid approach to mental health. Fueled by their own struggles with depression and social anxiety from a young age, Shook’s songwriting became a kind of superpower. Conveying deeply personal experiences and emotion, Shook says, “comes naturally.”

As a child, Shook remembers the difficulty of talking about their feelings. They began writing songs at the age of eight or nine and by the time they were a teenager, Shook realized the practice to be a “magical avenue to sort of connect with my emotions.”

“I’ve never had any hesitation or negative emotion about sharing the songs that I write,” Shook continues. “I feel like it’s a safe thing for me to do, to use song format to talk about my experiences, and my thoughts and ideas and opinions on things.”

Shook—who came out as bisexual at age 19 and has since also come out as nonbinary—recognizes this superpower as a rarity. Observant, but not self-critical, their lyrics empower anyone struggling with love, loss, recovery, addiction, or mental health. On Nightroamer, unrestrained expressions of their own experiences with abusive relationships (“Somebody Else”) and personal growth (“No Mistakes”) cut through stigma and build bridges to their most isolated listeners.

Beyond their experience, Shook recognizes that everyone’s struggle is individual and everyone’s pain is valid. “It Doesn’t Change Anything” is Shook’s intimate offering to those feeling the most alone. Employing empathy, the guitar-led tune is a simple acknowledgment of the burden of battling addiction and depression. The high and lonesome sound of the record’s most country-tinged track serves as a tender “I see you” moment.

“It’s really, really hard to battle depression and anxiety,” Shook says. “And when you throw in the fact that people are also feeling shame about it, it just doesn’t make it any easier. I feel like having candid conversations around mental health is something that doesn’t take a lot of effort. Just saying some simple things can help someone feel like they’re not a freak for having depression. It can help people feel less alone and give them a little bit more space to actually deal with the real issue instead of the shame surrounding it. And help them know that depression is actually really normal; unfortunately, it’s a very common experience.”

The band derived the 10 tracks on Nightroamer from a stockpile of songs Shook wrote on the heels of Years and began rehearsing in late 2019.Two of the songs that made the final list were not what Shook had originally envisioned for The Disarmers. At the end of the last rehearsal before heading to Los Angeles to record in February 2020, the band was looking to blow off some steam and asked Shook what else they had for them. Shook presented them with “I Got This” and “Been Lovin’ You Too Long.”

“So we played them, and they were like, ‘Yeah, these should go on the record,’” Shook recalls. “It’s awesome to play music with people who are not concerned—like I am not concerned—with fitting some kind of criteria, or being pigeonholed as a country band.”

“Been Lovin’ You Too Long” takes Sheryl Crow’s country-gone-angst approach to the next level with punk-rock percussion. Backing drums on “I Got This” infuse cosmic pop into the self-pump-up song for a pleasant change of pace.

“We have a lot more elements to our sound than just country,” Shook continues. “Obviously, we love country; we wouldn’t be playing it if not. But it’s just a part of us; it’s not all that we have to offer.”

Exploration is at the heart of Shook’s creative process. Getting in late to the listening game, Shook admits, “I feel like I’m still catching up.”

But catching up also means doing it their own way. If a typical way of consuming music for most people might be to encounter an artist and whirl through their discography, Shook’s approach is sideways: with the exception of Elliott Smith, they say, they often find a song they like and “obsess over it for like a month, and then move on.”

Shook isn’t influenced by any one artist, they say. Instead, their lyrics bloom from emotion, and it’s that emotion that shapes the sound of the final product.

“I can’t speak for my bandmates, but I have no desire to imitate a sound or go after a style,” Shook explains. “The songs that I write come from personal experience, and the music that comes out is a very singular thing with its own sound. And I like that about it—I don’t think I’d have it any other way.”

The band finished recording Nightroamer just days before the world shut down in March 2020. Shook and the band agreed that given their performance tier there was no point in releasing an album without a supporting tour—so they sat. And waited. By mid-2021, it became evident that touring still wasn’t sustainable. They waited some more.

This holding pattern was maddening for Shook, who had grown accustomed to spending 150 days of the year on the road supporting 2018’s Years. But the stillness of homelife proved fruitful as they evolved from the person who wrote Nightroamer.

“In some ways, I feel pretty distant from those songs—just as far as how much personal growth I’ve accomplished in the last couple years,” Shook says. “Once I realized we weren’t going to tour I threw myself into engineering better mental health and physical health for myself. And that has been a really cool thing.”

In the two years since wrapping, Shook settled into sobriety and sought more effective coping mechanisms. One of those, of course, is songwriting. Shooks says album four plans are underway with The Disarmers, and a separate set of songs from that time will soon serve as their new “indie-rock-pop” solo album, titled Nightmare.

“I think a lot of the songs on Nightroamer were written at a time when I was starting to become more introspective,” they say.  “There was, like, a self-awareness that was sort of in seedling form—in its infancy. And then being able to be home for a couple of years provided me the opportunity to really lean into that.”

After two years of letting the album sit, Nightroamer became a mile marker of Shook’s evolution as a person, partner, bandmate, and storyteller.

“When you can look back and feel almost like that version of yourself is unrecognizable, it shows growth, and that you’ve come a really long way—and that’s awesome.” 

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