Shel – Sisters doing it for themselves

Who are SHEL?

The Holbrook sisters are the ultimate multitaskers. Sarah, Hannah, Eva and Liza – aka SHEL – are each talented musicians (amongst them they can play keyboards, guitar, mandolin, drums, violin and banjo) and singers in their own right. The sisters also keep their indie pop/rock show on the road by pitching in with other tasks. Sarah makes the band’s videos, Hannah handles social media and finances, Liza does the graphics and website and Eva writes the songs. They also design their own original costumes and take their own official photos. They also design their own original costumes and take their own official photos.

This hands-on approach means SHEL are in firm control of their image and music – it’s not for them to have their look and sound manipulated by a suited music exec. The result is music which is brimming with freshness and energy. The sisters had an unconventional but idyllic upbringing. They were raised in Colorado on a trailer park converted into a farm and home-schooled by their artist mother and professional songwriter father. It was a household which fostered creativity and it wasn’t long before the sisters starting dreaming of making a mark with their music. They began producing tracks with an intriguing mix of acoustic instruments, beatboxing, synth and captivating harmonies. The result was SHEL’s eponymous debut album released in 2012. They followed this up in May this year with Just Crazy Enough, a playful fusion of indie, folk and pop which Eurythmics founder Dave Stewart helped produce. The band has also toured the US extensively, while their songs have featured in films, TV shows and adverts. When they are not on tour they divide their time between Colorado and Nashville. SHEL’s Eva Holbrook spoke to Bronwyn Bidwell about making music with her sisters.

iSing: Families can be “complicated”. What is it like being in a band with your three sisters?

Eva Holbrook: Well we are constantly learning how to manage it. I suppose we have a lot of experience about how to get on as we were home-schooled together. We do know how to push each other’s buttons but equally I think we also have a pretty good idea of how to resolve conflict, and how to move on if we have disagreed over something.

iSing: What made you decide to form a band together in the first place?

EH: I think it was something we had all aspired to for a long time. I can remember my dad gave us a pep talk, saying that if we could learn to get along and work together we could really make it happen. We all loved the Marx Brothers and the Beatles, we all had a similar mindset in that respect, so everyone just got on board. The aim was to come together but still express our individuality.

iSing: How does the songwriting and production process work?

EH: Usually we all go away and work on our ideas and then we come together to see where we can take them. We all have different roles. I’m primarily the songwriter, Hannah does the arranging, Sarah does electric guitars and Liza does percussions and drums. She’s the one who comes up with some crazy beat we all have to try and follow. It works like that in other areas too. Sarah is brilliant at making videos. I have some really weird story ideas and she is able to turn them into something really compelling. Liza made our website and does all the graphic design stuff for our album covers and merchandise. Hannah deals with social media and finances. I tend to kind of be in charge of the overall vision.

SHEL – You Could Be My Baby 

iSing: Your latest album, Just Crazy Enough, was recorded in Nashville with Brent Maher and then Eurythmics co-founder Dave Stewart added some electronic touches in LA. How did you come to work with Dave?

EH: It was a great experience. Our manager is friends with Dave’s publicist and one day they were talking about us – and the fact that I like to wear a top hat a lot of the time – and his publicist said “they look so kooky I bet Dave would like them”. And he did! So we went to LA to meet him, and we were so nervous and awestruck, but he was such a kind man. He is really interested in helping the next generation of artists. We talked about collaborating with him on the album but we were a bit unsure about how it would work out. Our recordings are usually very acoustic, we were unsure how it would work with an analogue drum machine. But we were thrilled with the result.

iSing: You produced the album independently, why was that? Would you like to be signed with a big label?

EH: In the US we are independent although we have a deal in Germany with Membran. In terms of signing with a major label, it is something we would be open to, if we could find the right partner. In some ways it would be great to have more resources and a bigger team. But it is really important that we maintain our creative independence. A couple of years ago we did sign with a big label but it didn’t work out and we decided to part ways by mutual agreement – it was a bit like a relationship break-up, it just wasn’t working for either party. Initially, before we signed with them, some people made us some very big promises but the reality was they didn’t quite know what to do with us and sent us some material saying “you could sound like this”. But we didn’t want to sound like everybody else. I think A & R are usually just chasing what is already out there. At the end of the day you have to focus on what you’re creating and just tune out to the rest of it. In the end, it was actually a positive experience, because we realised what was important to us and we learnt an important lesson.

iSing: What did that experience teach you about the music business?

EH: If we were in that position again, I think I would ask more questions about what the other party was offering, I would want to know what they were going to bring to the table and hear more about their ideas. But I suppose in a way you need to be at a point of leverage before you can do that.

iSing: What advice would you give young artists looking to build a career in the music industry?

EH: It is much harder than I expected. When we started I expected it to be this really creative experience all the time. But the reality is you won’t be happy every day. There will be times when you will struggle, but other people are relying on you, you just have to be tough with yourself and say “this day is going to be hard, let’s get through it”. You can’t just wait until you feel inspired, you sort of have to trick yourself into doing it on the days when you just don’t want to do it. I wish I had accepted that earlier, I would have made things much easier for myself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

iSing: On the subject of business, SHEL have been guests at NAMM for the past couple of years. What do you get out of going to an event like that?

EH: I love going to NAMM, we meet all kinds of people and catch up with our sponsors. We work with DPA microphones, Weber who supply me with mandolins and Kurzweil Keyboards, who support Hannah. It’s great to meet the people who make the instruments we love. It’s also a good chance to network, there is a real buzz there.

iSing: You have been touring a lot lately, how do you look after your voice when you are on the road?

EH: I have had some great singing teachers and their advice has been pretty much the same – keep hydrated and sleep as much as you can. I like to warm up my voice but sometimes it is difficult to do this really loud warm up if you are in a hotel. When we were on tour in Europe I met this amazing singer and she said if she couldn’t warm up properly she hummed for about 45 minutes. So I gave it a try and it really worked.

iSing: You recently challenged your fans via social media to filter their wardrobe down to eight key items of clothing as a way of getting them to think about sustainability? How have people responded to that challenge?

EH: It came about after we saw a documentary called The True Cost, which is about “fast fashion” and how that kind of clothing is created and how much ends up as landfill. For me, it wasn’t that difficult as I have been living out of a suitcase for about three years. Personally I have really enjoyed it, but it has also been a great way to connect with people on social media. For me, I really only buy anything from vintage or thrift stores and only wear black, white and red. And I never just buy anything, I think about what I need before I go shopping, and if I don’t need it, I won’t buy it.

SHEL – Enter Sandman 

Website: shelmusic.com


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Bronwyn Bidwell is an Australian journalist and editor based in London. She enjoys writing about music, books, history and popular culture.