By Emily Clingman
I first met with the Holbrook sisters (otherwise known as SHEL) three years ago. Just barely emerging from their teens, these talented young women were getting their feet wet in the music industry. Under the encouragement of their father and long-time local musician Andrew Holbrook, SHEL honed in on their inherited musical talents and formed a family-style folk band.
This was no quirky variety show act (not that they’ve ever been accused of that). Instead, the sisters crafted hauntingly beautiful songs, rich with complex harmonies and melodies and displaying stunning riffs on mandolins, violins, drums and other instruments. They were quickly signed to a label and started touring around the country, almost immediately gaining national popularity.
I recently caught up with the band a few days before they were headed to Nashville to record their first full-length album. They are now working independently, and are gearing up for a full schedule of appearances on the folk festival circuit, including Lilith Fair and Michigan’s Bliss Fest. They’ve blossomed into professional adults who are fully in control of their career and bursting with more talent than ever.
Named after the first initial of their first names, Sarah, 21 (violin and vocals), Hannah, 24 (keys and vocals), Eva, 23 (mandolin and lead vocals) and Liza, 18 (drums), have never been more excited about their prospects as musicians.
“We’re about to find out what it’s like to work independently,” Eva said. “There’s a real sense of ownership that is actually quite empowering.”
SHEL’s home base is here in Fort Collins, in their family home. They produce everything in-house, from music recordings and video productions to graphic design and day-to-day operations. They gather together most mornings for a daily band meeting and often pull all-nighters together, finishing projects and communicating with engineers and producers by email or phone.
“It’s nice because we’re friends, for one,” Hannah said. “Mom (Lynn Holbrook) helps us with management, which can get kind of overwhelming at times, and Dad still plays with us and drives the van, which he is brilliant at. It’s such a beast!”
The sisters feed off of each other’s talent and energy and are considerate of each other, even to a comical level. Liza recently gave earplugs to Hannah as a gift because her drums have a tendency to overpower the practice space they share.
“We can practice whenever we want to or implement new ideas on the spot because we live together,” Hannah said. “Most bands don’t have that luxury.”
Inspired by a vast array of musical styles and artists, ranging from The Beatles to Led Zeppelin and Fleetwood Mac, and writings by George McDonald and C.S. Lewis, the four sisters bring endless ideas and compositions to the recording table. They also draw from their individual inner inspirations. Hannah’s creations often stem from her experience with personal relationships. Sarah is inspired by visual art. Liza gets jazzed by other music: Techno has been her recent obsession. Eva has been partial to classical music lately.
If you have ever seen SHEL perform, you have surely been mesmerized by Eva’s beautiful mandolin solo, “Tuscany,” or stunned by the band’s cover of Led Zeppelin’s song, “Evermore.” It’s insane how cool it is. Look it up online if you haven’t witnessed their live performances.
These women are petite and gorgeous in person, but pack a powerful stage presence punch. They’ve played with Los Lobos and rubbed shoulders with Emmy Lou Harris, whose most important piece of advice for them was to wear a lot of black, as it makes wardrobe easy to manage.
From New York City to Los Angeles, SHEL has entertained crowds of 300 to more than 1,000. The sisters all agree that it’s exciting to play for big audiences, but that it can also be somewhat nerve-wracking, especially if they know that the headline artists might be watching. Liza said she still gets anxious when they are trying out new material in front of a crowd. You would never guess it, however, as they are all naturals onstage.
When asked whom they would like to play with in the future, Sarah said, “Who wouldn’t we like to play with?”
They mentioned that Australian artist Gotye would be awesome, or The Punch Brothers, Silversun Pickups, Muse, Bob Dylan, Coldplay or Dave Matthews, to name a few.
They aren’t sure where they will be in five years. It’s hard to plan.
“You can’t really control your career,” Sarah said. “You can only control how hard you work and how dedicated you are.”
Eva added, “You have to be true to yourself and maintain your integrity. That’s the true measure of success.”
SHEL will be performing locally at the Mishawaka Amphitheater on April 7. Go to iloveshel.com for information about the band and news about their recent antics.