Sarah Shook is punk rock, but not punk rock in the way that the Sex Pistols were punk rock. Shook is punk rock in the way that Johnny Cash was punk rock. The Chapel Hill native has a twang and is backed by the occasional pedal steel, so it’s easy to throw the music into “Americana.” That’s what we do these days when we don’t know how to define a sound and it comes from the South – Americana.
Before returning to Birmingham, Shook discussed that placement in the record store, the progressive bubbles within the South and learning how to write songs without listening to secular music as a child.
You’ve never been country or Americana to me; you’ve always been punk rock. Do you think geography is the primary reason you carry the former two tags?
A lot of chord progressions and rhythms would be considered country, but I tend to agree our spirit is and always has been more punk rock than country. And often I think my vocal delivery plays a hand in that.
On that topic, leaving the South would have been easy for you. But you stayed here and fought. Is it ever too overwhelming to fight the equality rights battles here? How do you persevere through those specific challenges?
I’m very fortunate to live in Chapel Hill which is pretty forward thinking. When you live in a progressive bubble there’s always a danger of forgetting that ignorance and misinformation is ubiquitous; it’s only a matter of time before you see it firsthand. I’ve been out for years. I’m grateful that I was in a position to safely do so but I sure as hell don’t forget the fact that many of my LGBTQ family can’t for the time being. Everyone’s story, circumstance and timeline is different, and it’s important to be supportive and inclusive of those who’s situations are different. Leaving to move to some queer mecca is not an option. We need to live out normal lives everywhere, even in areas where we’re seen as freaks. Because that’s the whole point. We’re normal people living normal lives just like everybody else.
You didn’t listen to secular music when you were young. What was the first rock record you heard?
Antics by Interpol. It was a life changing moment and it blew my teenaged mind. I still own that first copy I bought.
I believe you were writing songs as early as the age of 9. With no real context for what a lot of “songs” sounded like, how did you do that?
I figured out what notes worked when played together but yeah, I had no context or lingo to know I was making chords. And melodies always came easily and made sense to me. In lieu of secular music I listened to a lot of classical music and that sure didn’t hurt any.
When did you discover that you had something to say in your own songs?
Writing was never a political thing for me. We’re all bruised and broken from the same things in life; many of us pursue the same coping mechanisms, turning to drugs or alcohol. Writing is a way of exorcising my own demons in a way that hopefully, if anything, makes people feel like they have a space to be their true selves in a totally judgment free way. And ultimately the goal is always growth. I’m not the person I was two years ago and I don’t wanna be the person I am now in two years. If that makes sense.
You’ve discussed how you enjoy flipping gender roles within your songwriting. When you do so, are the results typically still from personal experience? Or do you take more creative liberties and make fully fictional characters?
Yes to all of the above. I’ve been in love with women, men and non-binary folx. The main thing I hope comes across with all the gender play is that these songs are for everyone, and you can totally apply your own details. No one gender has a monopoly on heartache, betrayal and sadness.
Sarah Shook and the Disarmers come to Saturn on Sunday, June 2. Doors open at 7 p.m., and the show begins at 8 p.m. Sylvia Rose Novak will open. Tickets are $12.