Paging Alexandra Patsavas: Have you met Shel (due at the Bluebird tonight with Elephant Revival) yet? If not, you should definitely make their acquaintance. The music these lovely ladies make genuinely sounds like it was painstakingly crafted in a lab specifically to be played in an episode of Grey's Anatomy. It wasn't, of course, and there's way more to this band than that, but by god, you'd be excused for thinking as much. Seriously. Just listen to "Ruby Slippers." One listen and I think you'll fall in love.
I did. In fact, I was hopelessly smitten the very first time I heard the girls. And I wasn't alone. By then, another respected soundtrack supervisor Chris Douridas was already under their spell. And our little club gained some prominent members when Scott Borchetta, the man responsible for introducing the world to Taylor Swift, signed the gals to Republic Nashville, the imprint he launched with Monte Lipman.
That was in February 2010. We waited patiently for Republic Nashville to work its magic and subsequently catapult the Holbrook sisters to widespread notoriety. But then day after day after day fell off the calendar and we heard nothing. It was radio silence. Nothing. Now we would've grown concerned had it not been for the fact that we caught the ladies at Daniels Hall at Swallow Hill earlier this year and they sounded better than ever, giving us with no indication whatsoever that the train had come off the tracks.
But then, next thing we knew, a new record arrived in the mail one afternoon, a five-song EP called When the Dragon Came Down. Curiously, the name and logo stamped on the back of the disc was Mad King Records / Morraine Records, not Republic Nashville. I was a bit befuddled, so I hurried over to Republic Nashville's site, where I was greeted by Martina McBride, and rising country stars, the Band Perry and Sunny Sweeney -- but there was no sign of Shel. Even more intrigued at this point, I reached out to Eva Holbrook, and she gave me the whole story. In a nutshell, Eva and her sisters -- Hannah, Sarah and Liza -- have indeed parted ways with Republic Nashville, and the new EP is being issued by Morraine Records. Naturally, though, there's more to the whole thing than that.
According to Eva, before the Republic Nashville deal was in place, she and her sisters had signed a production contract with Brent Maher and a publishing contract with his daughter Diana Maher from the Moraine Music Group in Nashville in the spring of 2009. "There are still a few small 'incubator' companies who are interested in developing talent," Holbrook explains. "Moraine Music Group is one of them."
Upon finishing their first EP with Brent, Moraine began sharing the recordings with some industry types and setting up showcases. It was at one of those showcases where the Holbrook sisters met Borchetta. "He stayed for the whole set and wanted to chat afterwards," Eva remembers. "He was very enthusiastic about working with us, but our team was skeptical. His entire label was country. We weren't even remotely country. But Scott told us about the new label he was launching with Monte Lipman at Universal Republic. He thought that between the two of them they could launch the band. He said he was very excited to work with us because our career wouldn't be driven by radio singles, but by touring. It would be something different and exciting for him. So we shook hands with Scott over Skype that December."
Borchetta expressed similar sentiments about the band in a Washington Post profile, published in March of last year. By the following month, a team was in place, and a plan was set in motion to have a full-length album release preceded by a single that would be sent to triple A stations, followed by a big tour. Before joining the Republic Nashville roster, Shel had already completed work on a fourteen-track album.
But then things inexplicably stalled. "When it came down to it no one seemed to know how to move forward," Eva recalls. "It turned out Scott was too busy to even think about the band." To make matters worse, the band's booking agent wasn't really interested in setting up shows without a concrete plan from the label, and at the same time, the group's management was undergoing changes of its own.
"It seemed like everything had happened so fast, only to come to a gigantic stand still," Eva observes. "There were a few planning meetings on our behalf, at which, the words 'more accessible' were thrown our direction. That was when we all really began to worry."
The worries really began to take root when everyone from management to the label began asking for a hit single to get things started. By December of last year, it started to become clear that nobody was really in a hurry to get the ball rolling for Shel. Tiring of waiting, the sisters started making a plan to move on.
"It's an interesting business," Eva points out. "We've met a few more enthusiastic A&R folks from major labels since then, but we're a lot more wary. Especially when unfiltered feedback reaches our ears: 'LOVE the band, but they're just too musical for today's market. Are they open to A&R feedback?'. Since all the groups we love are disgustingly musical, from The Beatles and Supertramp to Punch Brothers and Muse, we took this response as a good sign.
"It was really a great learning experience," she adds. "This year has been the best year we've ever had. We're back in the captain's chair, and we have a much clearer idea of where we want to go."
This point is abundantly clear from speaking with Eva. Shel is back to doing things itself with the help of Brent and Dianna. "They've stuck with us through thick and thin," says Eva. "We love collaborating with Brent; he's really helped us grow and encouraged us to keep the sound as musical as we like. Dianna has been standing up for us and encouraging us through all of this. We certainly couldn't have made it through last year alone. Their support and our parents support has helped us maintain our integrity and keep things in perspective."
The ladies have also aligned themselves with Street Level, a local booking agency, who landed the gals gigs at a ton of festivals this past summer including Bliss Fest in Michigan, Cornerstone in Illinois, Bohemian Nights and Four Corners Fest, among others. And the gals are hard at work on a new album, a video for "The Man Who Was the Circus," a track from Dragon, in addition to designing their own merch and making plans for another release next year.
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"We've all decided that it's not worth it to make something we aren't proud to call our own," declares Eva. "And from our small experience I have this sinking feeling that industry influence on artists is hindering and discouraging their brilliance more than it's helping them sell it.
"I don't think there's any real or lasting success achieved by compliance if your goal is innovation," Eva continues, "unless the people that you're working with are ready for a challenge and a wild ride, and unless they're ready to really risk because they believe in making something brilliant. As for the artist, I think that the ambition to be famous is not enough to carry you through all of the hurdles it will take to get there. It's a matter of passion. You have to love what you do to the degree where you're content to take the long way.
"Making music is our passion," she concludes. "But the experience is only complete when we're able to share it with people, whether it's a club with a few hundred folks or in a living room during a party. When people experience and enjoy our music with us. . . it's the biggest reward we can ask for."
Funny that it came down to accessibility, really. Listen to "Ruby Slippers" and tell me you couldn't hear this in an episode of Grey's Anatomy or some other show. Seriously. I think you'll agree: It really doesn't get anymore accessible than this.