Interview with Hannah Holbrook of SHEL

Image above used with permission.  © Taylor Ballantyne.


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Last year, after becoming infatuated with learning the mandolin, I stumbled upon a young woman’s Youtube video in which she played Bach on an octave mandolin. Her name was Eva Holbrook, a member of the all-sister four-piece called SHEL from Fort Collins, Colorado. Shortly thereafter, I discovered that the group was playing at a venue just up the road in Washington D.C. I didn’t need to think very hard about attending, as I’d already been impressed by each of them via their homemade music videos which were posted online. Though the venue itself was questionable, they still put on an astounding show and all of them were very down to Earth when I approached them after the performance. We tossed around the idea of doing an interview and, after a few scheduling issues, I was finally able to ask the eldest Holbrook, Hannah, a few questions about the band and her new solo piano EP, Late Bloomer.

 Interview with Hannah Holbrook of SHEL on February 18, 2014.

All of you are accomplished players, but I know Liza was originally learning the harp before discovering her love for percussion. Did the rest of you immediately know the instruments you wanted to play, or was it more of a trial and error of love?

We all tried to start with guitar, but it didn’t really stick. Sarah and Eva play it now, along with bass and Eva plays cello. I picked piano and fell in love. I can’t seem to put that kind of time and energy into any other instrument.

Originally you four were a back-up band for your father’s music. You’ve also played with your brother, Isaac. Was it because of this upbringing that it was obvious you’d form a band with each other, or did some of you test the waters with other musicians before “coming back home”?

We had and still do have solo projects and little side projects here and there, but SHEL is a full time gig and we’ve been thinking about it that way for about 10 years.

Who came up with the idea to use each of your initials to form the band name? Were there any other band names thrown out there before “SHEL” was settled on?

I’m not sure who to give credit on this one. We were sitting around the kitchen table brainstorming a band name and someone, maybe mom, took all our initials and wrote them out in random order on a sheet of paper. We had HESL (in order of age), we had SEHL… meh… we had LESH… we had SHEL. Well, that makes the most sense.

All of you are, deservingly, endorsed by various instrument companies. How did you arrive at using the brands who sponsor you?

I think it all starts with word of mouth. I had been hearing about Kurzweil keyboards from a very young age. I tried out some other brands when I first started, but, being a pianist and a purist, I wasn’t satisfied with the fake piano patches. Nothing sounded remotely real until I tried out a Kurzweil 12 years ago at the recommendation of my father. I’ve been hooked ever since.

As you told me you’d be going by plane during this interview, I was wondering about instrument travel. I’ve heard horror stories about musicians who have their instruments mishandled by airline staff. Do you have any horror stories of your own in this matter, or tips for those musicians who are worried about keeping the tools of their trade safe?

No horror stories. We fly SouthWest 😉

And my advise for the worried traveler is pretty obvious: if your instrument is to big for the overhead bin, a flight case is always a good idea, or do what I often do as a keyboard player, back-line/rent your instrument and have it delivered to the venue.

How does the writing process work in SHEL? You mentioned on social media that you’re starting to write more songs together, so I take it that the dynamic is evolving?

Historically, Eva would write a song and bring the chords and lyrics to us. Then we’d each arrange our parts and go out and perform it. Now we all find ourselves sitting down and writing out the chords and lyrics together. It’s a different sound, a different style, and it’s been great learning to collaborate together with way.

You recently released a solo EP of piano compositions called Late Bloomer. The title is interesting because you’re the oldest sister. Can you tell us more about that release? What separates that music from the rest of SHEL’s writing?

This is a collection of pieces I’ve been working on for a couple years. Some of them I started in college, a couple of them I actually just finished days before recording. I played one of the compositions for one of my former piano teachers and she said: “Wow, Hannah! I didn’t know you had that in you. You really are a late bloomer.” She used to tell me that from time to time in high school… and when she said it that last time, I thought it was a fitting title for an EP that I would have liked to have released a few years ago, but I wasn’t quite ready. This is a very different style from SHEL’s writing. It’s influenced primarily by classical, jazz, and contemporary composers like Mozart, Rachmaninov, Chopin, Gershwin, and Ennio Morricone. The solo piano element also sets it apart.

SHEL - Hannah Holbrook - Late Bloomer

Whose idea was it to include “The Battle Of Evermore” by Led Zeppelin on the full-length album? Obviously it’s one of the greatest mandolin rock songs ever, so it makes sense, but was there a particular moment where you all decided it needed to be on the record?

Our dad kept telling us to learn it. Then a couple fans told us. Finally, Scott Borchetta with Big Machine suggested it. After we learned it, it felt like a natural fit.

What do you find yourselves doing as of late, alone or together, in between concerts to keep yourselves entertained?

There isn’t a lot of downtime these days. Music is very much our lives during the day and at night. But occasionally, we’ll sneak out for a movie. If the weather is nice – a hike, a run, some Ultimate Frisbee. And if we get a day off, we’ll be spending it with family or close friends catching up.

Why does Liza punch people when she sees a Dunkin Doughnuts?

It’s kinda like that Punch Buggy game where you punch someone when you see a Volkswagen Beetle.

As always, each of us is faced with the large, blank canvas of the future. What’s next for the ladies of SHEL?

We’re working on our second full length album right now. We’ll be in Nashville writing and recording that until June, then we’ll hit the road!

I want to take a moment to thank each of you, Hannah, for taking the time to answer these questions. To close, what one piece of advice would you give to yourself if you could go back and speak to yourself ten years ago?

I would have told myself to keep writing what I loved and not worry quite so much about trying to write what other people might want to hear. When you have something on your heart, it’s worth putting it out there.


For more on Hannah and SHEL, visit:
SHEL Official Website
Buy SHEL’s debut album: iTunes | Amazon | From The Band
Buy Hannah Holbrook’s Late Bloomer EP: iTunes | Amazon | From Hannah
SHEL on Facebook
SHEL on Twitter
SHEL on Youtube

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