The “family band” concept is one that can be either very cheesy or very chic. For sisters Sarah, Hannah, Eva and Liza Holbrook—collectively called SHEL, an acronym derived from their first names—thankfully, it’s the latter. In fact, given their diverse personalities and sense of style, their dynamic, fun live performances, and their homemade top hats, these siblings from Ft. Collins, Colorado are bringing their own cool vibe to the Americana folk scene.
Oh. And they can play. I mean, really play.
Their talent and hard work have not gone unnoticed. In the past couple of years, SHEL have released a well-received self-titled debut album, seen their songs feature on national ad campaigns and television shows like Jersey Girl and ABC Family’s The Fosters, and made appearances on CMT. And they are only getting started.
Lead vocalist and mandolin player Eva Holbrook recently took time during a break in the recording studio to talk with Music Is My Oxygen about the band’s background, life on the road and upcoming projects.
MIMO: Could you give us a brief history of how you four sisters became SHEL?
Eva: Well, a brief history starts with our dad. Both our parents were hippies and super into art, so I think it was really important for them to cultivate the opportunity for their children. Our dad is a singer/songwriter, so we grew up with a lot of music in the house. And at different points in our life–really around the same time, actually, it was around the age of ten, and we’re all pretty close in age–we all started showing an interest in music kind of spearheaded by the oldest, Hannah. And as soon as we did, our parents started paying for lessons, our grandparents pitched in to pay for lessons, and they just really inspired us, and encouraged us, and planted the idea that if we were willing to work really hard there was a chance we’d have a career in music.
That was a really thrilling idea for all of us, and it still is. So that was where everything began, and from there we’ve been playing together for about 12 years. Our youngest member is just going to be turning 21 next year, so for a while we weren’t really able to tour in clubs and stuff. So our touring history is pretty new. We just started the last three years touring around, and that’s been a lot of fun. We really, really enjoy traveling together and having an opportunity to play for folks. We put out our first full length album last year, and we’ve just been touring it this year, and having a blast getting ready for the next one coming up. It’s coming out sometime next year.
MIMO: Is that what you’re in the studio working on now?
Eva: We’re working on a couple of things right now. Hannah is going to be releasing an EP actually this month. She’s doing an EP of all original classical compositions, and it sounds amazing. She’s been practicing it above my bedroom on her baby grand piano, and it’s like being in some kind of epic sound track or something. It’s really turning out great. So they’re working on the last one of those today, and then it’ll be out in a couple of weeks, We’re heading back to New York City for CMJ, and I think she’s releasing it at that show. So we’re really excited about that.
We’ve also been working on some Christmas music. We’ll have a couple of Christmas songs to release for our fans as part of a compilation. And then we’re also doing a music video right now, Sarah’s just finishing the editing on the music video for our song, “Lost At Sea.” So we’re making plans for the next album, but we have a couple of solo EPs that we’ll be putting out in the meantime.
MIMO: You sound very busy. [laughter] So sister acts are not really that uncommon, but sister acts with four sisters are a little more rare. I’m just curious about the family dynamic in a band like this and working in close proximity with each other for so much of the time. What’s it like working so closely with family?
Eva: I think we’re spoiled. I think it would be a lot harder if we hadn’t grown up doing this, because when you reach your 20s, you’re very independent and you have your own ideas, and not growing up together would make it really hard for us to collaborate. I think because we’ve been doing it since we were really young, we just have a really cool understanding of one another and what each person needs and how they function, and I think that helps us to work together better. We fight like anybody, but we’ve had a lot of practice at resolving issues, and now we’re in business together. It’s like essential for our survival that we solve issues. So it’s kind of been, I think, our business relationship has helped our family relationship, and our family relationship has helped our business relationship. We don’t know anything else, so I couldn’t say, but I really love it.
MIMO: What would you say are the band’s most significant influences, I mean, just a few bands or artists that have influenced you collectively?
Eva: I think definitely the Beatles…Muse, we all love; Punch Brothers, we all love; and then it kind of goes off from there. Liza really likes techno. Hannah and I really like classical and romantic era music and Sarah likes a lot of indie folk.
MIMO: Tell us a little about the songwriting process. Do you have one or two that are primary songwriters, or do you all have something to contribute?
Eva: At the beginning I did most of the songwriting, but what we’ve started doing now is, since we spend so much time in the car, we started just writing together there. Some of my favorite songs have come from that. So regardless of whoever starts the song, I mean, Liza and I do a lot of songwriting together, but regardless of who starts it, it becomes a very collaborative process the moment it’s brought to the band. Then everybody really dives into the arrangement together, and it’s a very open discussion about how to support the lyrics or if the lyrics need to be changed. And we just kind of hash it out until we all feel really proud of the song.
MIMO: Well, have to ask the question that probably anybody remotely familiar with SHEL would want answered. What’s with the top hats?
Eva: We love the top hats. It’s just kind of a nod to the old world. Music is so modern today it’s frightening sometimes, just this disconnect from, I don’t know, anything from etiquette and modesty to a simpler life. And I think everybody is really different, and we create different things and need different things, and for us we’re just very intrigued by the old world and the antique world, I guess, and the antique ideals, even.
But for us they’re more of a crown for those willing to pioneer their own imagination. We definitely believe that everybody is full of creativity, whether they realize it or they’ve been encouraged in it or not, but it’s still there and that they can choose to access it at any point in time and start exercising their imagination, We believe it’s really important to enjoy this life here and to connect with other people and just to feel alive. It’s a very important part of existence. So that’s what we say.
MIMO: Do you all make the top hats?
Eva: We do. Usually, we sell them at shows if we have enough time to make them beforehand.
MIMO: You said you do have a new album you’re working on. When do you expect that to come out?
Eva: We’re not really sure. Our last album is just a little over a year old, and we’re always in the process of writing and recording for the next project because I think it’s just a habitual thing you have to get into once you start touring and pursuing your career, like making videos. You just never want that to fall to the wayside. So we’re just writing and recording as much as possible so we can go through it and pick the best of what works and then put out an album. But we haven’t talked about a release date yet.
SHEL’s debut album is currently available on iTunes, or from the band’s website. (You might even find a top hat or two for sale on the website, too.)