Strand of Oaks’ Timothy Showalter discusses coming to grips with life’s pressures on his new album, HEAL
Facing a series of seemingly never-ending trials over the last few years, Timothy Showalter dealt with the pressure in the most cathartic way he knows – writing a song.
Better known by his band name Strand of Oaks, the Philadelphia-based musician sings of a world full of bouts of depression and self doubt, marital infidelity, reclusiveness and alcoholism on his newest album, HEAL, which dropped in June on popular indie label Dead Oceans.
With HEAL, Showalter has created one of the most brutally honest rock albums of the last few years. Since its release, he’s received a host of critical acclaim – from Spin to NPR – and used its creation as a form of therapy full of words and thoughts usually hidden away in a psychiatrist’s office or, worse, inside his own head.
The new album’s opener “Goshen ’97“ looks at his upbringing in the conservative Mennonite town of Goshen, IN; “Shut In” deals with his growing sense of isolation from the world; and the title track, “Heal,” describes the pain of finding out his wife had cheated on him with a good friend.
There’s also “JM,” the stirring tribute to one of Showalter’s favorite musicians – Jason Molina of the band Songs: Ohio, who died in 2013 of organ failure from alcoholism. It features a jarring guitar solo by another famous “JM” musician – Dinosaur Jr. founder J. Mascis.
Adding to the emotion surrounding HEAL was a car accident the day after Christmas that nearly left Showalter and his wife dead less than a week before he was scheduled to do the final mixes for the album, potentially leaving his songs without the voice to bring them to life in concert.
Showalter comes to Central PA this month to help inaugurate the new Kable House Presents concert series at York’s Central Market on September 17, followed by two sold-out shows in Philadelphia. We caught up with Showalter as he prepared for a show in Columbus, OH, with his band of fellow Philly musicians Eliza Hardy Jones (keyboard), Deven Craig (bass) and Mike Sneering (drums).
Fly Magazine: Did the music of the Mennonite community play a role in your own development and appreciation for music?
Tim Showalter: It’s funny because I’m Mennonite by heritage, but we didn’t really go to church that much. I was always amazed by the harmonies; I can’t sing harmony that well, so unfortunately I didn’t get that gene. Mostly, I always had a fascination with music. I remember looking at pianos and guitars and organs when I was really little, and they just seemed like magic. I would think, “What does that do? I want to play all of that.” As early as I can remember, my mom played piano really well. It definitely was in the ether of whatever in my life I could get in to.
FM: When did you first pick up a guitar?
TS: I was probably 11 or 12, and I hated it. So when I was 13, I started playing synthesizer techno music. I always say to myself, “If I wouldn’t have heard a Neil Young record, I would be this super famous DJ.” I’d be talking to you from Ibiza [laughs]. But yet I just decided to start making records for a while that sounded like Harvest – which is great, but it’s just a different path.
FM: Was Harvest the first Neil Young album you heard?
TS: Growing up in such a small town, I didn’t have a lot of access to record stores. There weren’t a lot of outlets of knowledge, but I had a public library that had a pretty good music selection. Unfortunately, they didn’t have full catalogs of bands, so I think the first Neil Young album I heard was Ragged Glory. So I definitely got into Neil Young in his harder zone and kind of worked my way back through everything.
FM: Ragged Glory is an interesting era to get into Neil Young.
TS: Granted, I love that record. I still listen to it; it’s so raw. I actually haven’t thought about it, but I think my new record has a lot of that era – maybe opposed to his ’70s era – because there were some dangerous elements in that Ragged Glory era. It was like this could all fall apart at any minute, but it doesn’t, somehow.
FM: Have you ever gotten to meet Neil Young?
TS: No, I hope to. That would be the biggest check off my list – that and Lemmy [from Motörhead]. I’d really like to meet Lemmy, so hopefully I get to do both of those someday.
FM: What’s it been like for you to get out on the road and have people hear the new songs in a live setting?
TS: It’s the best. I do two things in my life that have any worth – make records and tour. Everything else I’m a complete disaster at when I approach my life. To finally get to play these shows and play these songs that have been incubating for so long is just the biggest release ever. A lot of people may assume the sets are kind of sad or depressing, but I want to make them epic – like we’re going to battle or something. The band that I play with certainly allows me to go wherever I want because they’re so talented. I can go to even more dangerous places because I know they’re keeping me safe. They’re so solid as a band that we can do these shows – whether it’s 20 people or 3,000 people in Chicago – and both feel just as good and just as epic.
FM: What was it about Jason Molina that made him so special – especially within the community of fellow musicians?
TS: You know how people say, “He’s a musician’s musician”? That’s what Jason Molina is. His work ethic, his consistency, his approach to music as to not only what you hear, but how he did it – he was a total blue-collar workhorse who never saw his due, in my opinion. So many people went on to win Grammys and sell tons and tons of records because they were listening to him.
FM: Your current breakout album, HEAL, and your friend and fellow Dead Oceans’ labelmate Matthew Houck of Phosphorescent’s breakout album of last year, Muchacho, both deal heavily with relationships gone awry. Before creating HEAL, did you have any discussions with Matt about his songwriting process for Muchacho?
TS: You know, I toured with that guy for almost two months and hung out every night, and we never talked about it. I probably should have talked about it. It’s interesting you bring that up, because I just played a show with Matthew a week ago, and we finally got to sit down and talk about both records after they were both completed. He’s kind of like a spirit brother of mine. It’s great having these people in your life not only to look up to, but they’re your friends. And man, Muchacho is an album I listen to weekly – or maybe even daily. I’ve probably heard “Song For Zula” in the thousands at this point. When you have friends that make music, you have such a bond in common with what you do that it’s kind of like being in the foxhole together.
FM: Did your near-death experience change your outlook on life?
TS: For me, the car accident I just got in took away the filters of bullshit. I live so much of my life in anxiety and fear or doubt, and when that happened it was like, “Well, it could just be over.” Everybody says that, but it really could be. It should have been over for me, and it wasn’t. So there’s this purpose of life that I need to have now. There’s no half-assing. It has to be done this way. And I can’t compromise. I think that’s why HEAL came out the way it did – life is too short to make compromises on this. I’m going to do exactly what I want to do, and it feels like it’s really paying off. I think people can sense I made the album I wanted to make. I feel pretty lucky right now.
Strand of Oaks plays the brand new Kable House Presents concert series at the Central Market York (34 W. Philadelphia St., York) on September 17. Opener: Christoper Denny. 7pm doors. $14. Click here for tickets.