Homeschooled first by their mother while dad made a living as a musician, the Holbrooks were just normal kids who happened to share common interests in famous fab foursomes like the Beatles and the Marx Brothers.
Considering they ranged in age from 4 to 10 in the late 1990s, long after John, Paul, George and Ringo had broken up and Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo had departed, that was an excellent but extremely unusual cast of role models for Sarah, Hannah, Eva and Liza to get behind.
Yet if it wasn't for that deep appreciation of such supergroup dynamics that combined artistry with timing and chemistry, the four classically trained sisters from Fort Collins, Colorado -- who also were raised on Chopin, Bach and Vivaldi -- might never have come together as a musical entity now known collectively as SHEL.
SHEL at a Lilith tour news conference in 2010 (from left): Liza, Hannah,
Eva and Sarah Holbrook.
Five years after emerging as a promising sister act on the national scene, when they were on the bill for Sarah McLachlan's Lilith tour stop in the Denver area, the women of SHEL (an acronym of the first initials of their first names) are hoping fervent followers are willing to take this next daring step with them.
Modifying their look, creating an edgier sound and needing a change in scenery are signs that Lilith is so five years ago as Hannah, the big sister at 27, Eva (26), Sarah (24) and Liza (21) take a decidedly more mature approach.
During a May 20 phone interview from their Franklin, Tennessee, residence, two members of SHEL were asked how much has changed since that 2010 experience when they were onstage with McLachlan, Emmylou Harris and other talented women for the grand finale cover of Patti Smith's "Because the Night."
Sarah and Eva Holbrook laughed and said simultaneously, "A lot."
Calling herself an introvert, Eva didn't shy away from adding, "I feel like coming here was really the beginning of looking at songwriting like an art form. Instead of just an introspective outlet, but looking at it the way a painter looks at a subject. I always think of Van Gogh's Sunflowers. You know, he picked that subject and chose to express it in his own way, with his own emotion and his own ideas. And I think songwriting is really no different than that. And when you hang out with great songwriters, and just kind of ask them about what inspires them and what their work ethic is, at least I found it very similar.
"You can pick any subject and you can bring your emotion and your experience to that and turn it into something unique and really express it. So that's been one of my favorite things about being here, for sure, is the growth that we've kind of gone through."
Moving to the Nashville area at the beginning of 2015, they have joined forces with co-manager Dave Stewart, the creative genius behind Eurythmics, to work on a yet-untitled new album (they're "floating around" several names), that could be released as early as September or as late as 2016.
The four Holbrook sisters are SHEL (from left): Eva, Hannah, Sarah, Liza.
That might depend on how busy they'll be this summer, which will include SHEL's first live-in residency at The Hospital Club in London, numerous tour stops in Colorado in July and August and video premieres such as their latest today (May 26) for The Huffington Post.
"You Could Be My Baby," which first appeared on 2014's Native: Americana Spotlight compilation, is "definitely the single" for the album, they said.
Almost everything else regarding the record, which is about halfway done, remains shrouded in mystery, though they both expressed excitement in the direction it's heading.
On their second full-length album, SHEL will share co-producing chores with Stewart and six-time Grammy winner Brent Maher, a Nashville fixture who once worked with Elvis Presley. Their friend Kevin Dailey of Civil Twilight once again will play the bass.
Eva, the lead vocalist who plays guitar, banjo, cello and mandolin, called Maher and Paul Kennerley her "two mentors" who were the inspiration behind "You Could Be My Baby," which she wrote.
"They both happen to be just the most extraordinary gentlemen in their 60s and I go and pick their brains about songwriting and sit in their living rooms and listen to vinyl," Eva said. "And Paul would have me over for tea and we would just talk about songwriting. And he would say things like, 'Half the writer's work is done in the study.'
Singing a line from "Twenty Flight Rock," she added, "He turned me on to things like (Eddie Cochran) and would be like, 'Go home, study and listen to it.' Because I was just in love with that music. So he'd make me all these compilations to listen to and things like that and I'd go home and just jam on it a bit. And then study it and study what it felt like made the song great. And just sort of as a result of listening to that music, I think the song kind of came out."
The video of the song, a live performance that was shot one recent afternoon in the Blue Room in Nashville, where the song was originally recorded, was overseen by videographer and editor Sarah Holbrook -- with a little sisterly advice.
"I got in there and I kind of had this idea for it," said Sarah, whose most remarkable contribution to the group might be her beautiful violin playing. "And Eva was like, 'Well, what if Liza (a drummer and beatboxer) was standing on the piano and I was sitting on the piano?' And I was kind of like, 'You've got to be crazy. There's no room in here for that.' And then we tried it out and just thought it looked so cool."
Harsh lighting is featured, along with vintage instruments from the studio like a 1920 Grinnell Brothers upright piano that Hannah plays and the Gretsch 1930s resonator used by Eva, who has kept her trademark top hat after the others abandoned the ones they wore for the cover of their 2012 self-titled debut (at left) released by Moraine Music Group.
"The top hats were my first attempt at kind of styling the band because I've done quite a bit of that," said Eva, who has less time to design them but still makes them available for sale. "But we found everybody (in the group) wasn't as excited about them. Everybody needs to be their own individual. ...
"I have this very romantic attachment to them because I'm in love with this sort of Victorian fashion in general. They seem to suit my personality a bit more than everybody else."
Since trendsetting is part of SHEL's nature (Sarah wanted to make sure everyone knows she recently cut her hair short), they have always been willing to explore new ground sonically. And with Stewart at the controls, expect even more twists to those sounds that cover classical, pop, folk, roots and jazz genres.
"He's been doing some programming underneath the tracks, which is amazing," Eva said. "He has such a unique and masterful approach that ... everything from beats to synthesizers. And it's just fun, really fantastic-sounding work. He puts it in there to sort of augment what we've already done. ... It's the most excited I've been about a music project so far."
Added Sarah: "I feel like it's opening up our minds as to how you can approach a song."
Through SHEL'S publicist, Stewart returned the compliments regarding his latest collaborators:
"I have never come across such talented siblings that play and work together as one cohesive unit. SHEL are all exceptionally gifted musicians, singers and outstanding individuals. They blow my mind with their creativity, they are the best example of DIY I've ever come across with their songwriting, sound production, homemade videos and original costume designs. I can truly say these 'sisters are doing it for themselves.' "
While admittedly having an affinity for Ann and Nancy Wilson, the rocking siblings behind Heart whom SHEL saw and met backstage last year at a show in Nashville ("we were tongue-tied"), the Holbrooks were mainly attracted to male bands like Led Zeppelin (check out their cool cover of "The Battle of Evermore"), the Rolling Stones and the Who. Besides, they are placing more emphasis on preserving their individuality while not trying "to lean on the whole sister thing."
"It's amazing at shows, people who've never heard of us before, I'll mention (the fact that they are sisters) at the end of the show and everybody's like, 'What?' " Sarah said. "Because I think we're so different in the way that we dress and the way that we act, it takes a minute for people to latch on that we're related."
Although the popularity of sister-driven acts such as Haim, Tegan and Sara, the Pierces and the Vespers is undeniable, Eva hastened to add, "And because it's still a novelty, it's a bit of a distraction at this point from just the idea of four individuals making music."
Eva (left) and Sarah Holbrook perform with SHEL at the Soiled Dove
in Denver on Nov. 18, 2012.
Sarah and Eva contend that staying intact has never been a problem for a group that's performed together for about 14 years, with the past five on a professional basis.
Sarah uses that experience with Heart as an impetus for SHEL to stick together.
"It was really sweet just to meet other sisters and see that they're still like totally happy with each other," she said. "They're still friends. Because the question that comes up a lot for us is like if we're gonna be able to keep this going. That's never been a question.
"It's just wild to have people ask it so much, you know, that you start thinking, 'Can we keep it going?' Of course, we've kept it going this long. Nothing's gonna change and just seeing Heart and talking to them and seeing that they love each other and want to keep doing this was really inspiring."
Arguments involving SHEL only happen "if somebody's getting stepped on," they said, and the biggest challenges occur when an outsider, whether it's a tour manager or merch girl, goes on the road with them and "it just throws a kink in it sometimes."
Basically, they both admitted, traveling with other women can be difficult because, "Let's face it, girls can be really high maintenance sometimes. And we're really high maintenance."
However, they say not one member has ever threatened to leave the band. It must have had a lot to do with their upbringing.
Lynn Holbrook, whose quilting ability during retirement has turned into a passionate hobby, homeschooled her four daughters and their older brother until she began working at Hewlett-Packard. Then their dad Andrew took over, with an added emphasis for the girls on music education after 10-year-old Hannah began taking piano lessons courtesy of her grandmother.
"Our parents, it was really important for them to cultivate anything artistic that we were passionate about," Eva said. "Or whatever the passion was. For our oldest sister (Margot, currently a biology professor at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction), when she was a child and she showed an interest in animals, they moved out of town in Fort Collins to buy some land so that she could start 4-H. And so they were really determined that if we showed a passion for anything, they would support us in any way that they could."
Maybe those pep talks from dad at the dinner table while they were squabbling youngsters still stick with Sarah, Hannah, Eva and Liza.
Eva remembered those words from their philosopher/father, who spends a lot of time down on the farm these days raising chickens, growing vegetables and cutting hay:
"If you girls could just get along, someday you could be like the Marx Brothers or the Beatles. And if you just work really hard, I think you'd have fun together."
"At the time, we really didn't get along that well at all," Eva said. "But it allowed us to because we began to gain this common vision. We're like, 'Oh, yeah, we could do that if we could learn how to work together.' And so today that's still our common goal."
In the spirit of the Three Musketeers, "All 4 1" would make a great vanity Tennessee license plate. Or, better yet, one SHEL of an album title.
SHEL's video for "You Could Be My Baby":(live):
Publicity photo by Taylor Ballantyne. Lilith and concert photos by Michael Bialas.
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