Philadelphia’s Tim Showalter, better known as Strand of Oaks, nearly got me killed. Stunned by his new album, HEAL, I would listen to it each morning and every night as I drove a long, zigzagged road to town and back. My car accelerated as I rode the highs of his moving composition and absorbed the lows of every syllable. It gave me the added dose of self-confidence that I could drive far beyond the speed limit because HEAL has the power to hijack the mind and convince it that it’s unstoppable.
It’s hard to believe that four years ago Showalter was dead inside: “Have you ever had a year of your life just happen, and you don’t even remember that year?” he asks. His voice went soft with a tender affection. “On the outside I was touring the world, playing shows, and meeting people,” he resumes in a normal voice. “But really I was dead inside. I wasn’t feeling passion, and I really just wasn’t feeling.” If it sounds austere in theory, it is. Showalter is bracketed by doubt, but he’s ready to fight through life’s rocky conundrums, just by loving and making music.
With music as part of his healing process, HEAL is the defibrillator that jolted him back to life. It’s astounding how his sound — from soft folk layering to chest-thumping rock — has mimicked his personal reflection. With every new note, dexterous guitar solo, and punching piano, it shows how the open and raw concept of Strand of Oaks best manifests itself. In the end, as if ripping off a plaster, he wrote his fourth full-length, the follow-up to 2012’s Dark Shores, in just a few days.
All this self-regard only goes to show what a genuinely wonderful person the “real” Tim Showalter is. He listens. He connects. He makes jokes (ones that make tears shoot from your eyeballs). Come, sit beside me, and let me tell you how he just made the best album of his career. After all, he did just drive through hell to get here.
Where are you at the moment?
Just chilling out on my porch. The birds are out. It’s a beautiful day, but I get lonely when I’m not touring because it gives me a sense of purpose. People turn into friends in a weird co-dependent way. It’s like, “I need you! I know I need you, too!”
I also think that in today’s all-new-all-the-time music culture, your emotional straightforwardness is really something that resonates. We like to think we’re used to that kind of accessibility, but it’s rare.
And that’s the type of performers that I connect with. I like slick music that you can get dressed to, but you know there’s a time for all of that. When I see performers, I want to know it’s life or death for them, and if they don’t do this, they don’t exist.
That’s how I felt when I watched Sigur Rós.
Are you kidding me?! We just became best friends! I don’t ever cry, and I saw Sigur Rós, and I got 10 years’ worth of crying out. There was a purge. My friends were like, “What’s the matter with you?” I was like, “This is so fucking beautiful!”
Seriously, my tears were splattering on everybody.
[Laughs] I know if there is any kind of higher spiritual power, I feel like they are tapped into that source. These people are not of this earth. They were compiled out of cosmic dust or something, and this is what happens when angels make love. They birth Icelandic babies.
Can you imagine if they were hearing this conversation? They’d be like, “Those two people are definitely high.”
I’m definitely sober right now, which is a rare thing!
I was definitely high when I saw them, so let’s just get that out the way.
Oh, I was stoned out of my fucking mind. I thought someone needed to tie ropes to my ankles ’cause I was like, “I’m floating away right now. Someone needs to keep me on the ground.” That’s that rare thing, when you realize this is what’s fighting all of the isolation that we’re feeling toward the Internet. This is what connecting with something really means.
This new album opened something in me that I had been ignoring for a really long time. How did it feel to make an album so brutally honest?
It’s so weird releasing something into the world. I just wasn’t sure. I think people are either gonna love this or think I am the craziest asshole ever to grace the earth, but you saying that it unlocked something — that’s what the whole record is about. It’s about being honest with how I was, and it’s so funny that we talked about Sigur Rós. it’s such a good metaphor. I hadn’t released these feelings before.
Is this the most creatively free that you’ve ever felt?
This record is the first record that clicked for me. It used to feel like I was standing in this room where my feelings were, and I locked the door, and in the other room is where all my songs lived, and this is the first time where it all mixed together with no walls. Being so honest with the lyrics allowed me to be more honest with the music that I truly wanted to make. People say that your first record is meant to be your first life wrapped up into your first album, but I think it took me three records to get to that point.
Would it have surprised you if someone told you 10 years ago that you would be writing songs about healing and getting better?
I wouldn’t have believed you because I thought there was nothing that needed to get better. I lived in a state of denial, and now I can talk about memories from 10 years ago and not have them be painful anymore. Like on “Goshen ‘97”, would the 15-year-old me like this record? Fuck yeah, he’d like this record! With my past three I would have said, “What’s this folky shit?”
What do you think is the most common misconception about you?
I always think about stuff like that. You know, those stories of the house fire and girls breaking my heart that happened when I was 19 years old, and I’m 32 now. How would you like to still be talking about something that happened 15 years ago, or however many years?
Photo by Sasha Geffen
Do you feel those stories overpowered your music a bit?
For this one, I was actually worried because I was like, well, it’s just about me loving music and getting saved by the music. I was so nervous that I actually cut a few songs from the record because they were bordering on the mopey-feel-bad-for-me. You shouldn’t feel bad for me at all! In a way, this record is a big thank you note to music. Like, thanks, Sharon Van Etten, for making my heart melt!
Don’t even get me started on her.
I don’t want to be too premature, but that’s my favorite record of the year.
I was a blubbering asshole when I spoke to her, and all I want to do when someone asks how I am is sit in front of her record, press play, and point.
[Laughs] I was hanging out with her and watched her show in Paris like two weeks ago, and I had to leave the room. It happened at a Damien Jurado show, too. I was like, I am gonna turn into an awful wreck, and it’s one thing if it’s a really cool, indie rock, skinny guy with glasses crying, but when you look like a homeless meth-head, that’s when you get kicked out of clubs!
Your version of yourself is ridiculous! What did you tell Sasha [Geffen] and Philip [Cosores] on the podcast last week again?
That someone called me a pregnant Zach Galifianakis, and someone else called me Captain Caveman. I was like, “Yeah, keep ‘em coming. This is the way I look, guys.”
I’m a huge pregnant-man fan. So, tell me, what emotion are you referring to in the song “Same Emotion”?
Have you ever had a year of your life just happen and you don’t even remember that year? I think that happened for three years of my life. On the outside, I was touring the world, playing shows, and meeting new people, but really I was dead inside. I wasn’t feeling passion, and I really just wasn’t feeling. I think that’s why that song is so dance-y, because I’m not saying a lot in the lyrics except that I’m fucking tired of feeling this way! It goes back to the lyrics inspiring the music that was inside me.
And I think, theoretically, the way you’ve composed songs such as “Shut In” actually feels bizarrely uplifting.
Oh God, yeah. When I sang “Shut In” in the studio, the take that’s on the record is the first take we did. I was so emotional that I overdrive all the preamps, and that’s why it sounds distorted, because I’m singing so loud into the microphone.
How 24-hour is the songwriting process for you? When you’re doing your daily stuff, like combing your beard, do you have new melodies happening in your head?
This beard, man! It was really hard for me to write a song for a long time, but then something happened in my brain, and the faucet just turned on. I wrote two songs this morning? Like, they aren’t always good, but I don’t do a lot else. I don’t look at the Internet, or play video games, or watch a lot of TV, so really making songs is my form of entertainment. Sometimes when I play a synthesizer and go from a C sharp minor chord to an A chord, that feels like I’m battling a skeleton army with a laser sword!
When you write a song about somebody, do you think about that person when you hear the song?
It’s funny that the record is nostalgic, but my mind isn’t very reflective. In the song “Plymouth”, I sing a line that’s like, “Naked in the great lakes underneath the shining of Mars,” and that was just something I did. I swam in Lake Ontario, and Mars was out, and I was like, “Man, that was one of the nicest memories I have.”
And in that same track, you say, “Comfort doesn’t mean you’re better off,” which I really couldn’t agree with more.
I think that’s such a huge theme explaining why the record happened. I’m in this life, with an apartment, married, with three awesome cats, but does that mean I’m happy? It’s horrifying to face that. It’s important to realize there are no safety nets, and you can fall forever into darkness. If I was standing at the edge of the cliff and the other side of the cliff is darkness, I want to have my fists clenched and be like, “It’s fucking on. We’re gonna go toe-to-toe in the ring.” I tattooed S U R V I V E down my arm because I need to read it every morning. Is that cheesy? I’m old enough and comfortable enough with myself to almost be cheesy.
Did you ever have a moment where you felt you weren’t being emotionally in-tune enough, or almost too open? The Jason Molina song feels like a centerpiece.
I’m looking at the table and chair where I sat and read the news, and I couldn’t move. That day I played all of his music, but since then I haven’t listened to him in a year, and I know it sounds dramatic, but it’s very painful. I feel like a friend is not here. Talk about nostalgia and reflection. Jason was the guardian angel, the voice that was the prayer for me. The first verse is me at 18 years old, then 21, and then 32 losing my hero and trying to understand how similar I feel him and I were. He was the guy that inspired me to know that not every songwriter has to take depression and make it a weak thing. You can empower yourself against sadness. Jason never gave up.
Was there anything you thought you needed to change instantly about your own life?
Well, it scared the hell out of me because I have similar problems with alcohol. I thought to myself, “I don’t know how long I’m gonna be around, so I need to make the record I need to make now. I can’t wait on this.”
I can’t imagine what that’s like playing live.
I feel like it’s a Viking experience of shooting an arrow into the floating wooden raft of your leader and not just burying him in the ground but burning him in the ocean.
Its placement is perfect, too. Was that you?
That was actually Chris Swanson, who runs Secretly Canadian. He said that side A, songs one through five, are for the people, and side B for the heads.
Yes! So how do your friends and family feel about this process?
My friends are just excited. They know this is the record I’ve always wanted to make. It’s funny. My parents are great, but they’re not really music people, so when I made my second record, my mom’s reaction was [mimics his mom] “Oh, you made another one?” Yeah, you make more than one, Mom.
Bless her heart!
This was an amazing talk. I’m gonna go to band practice, and they’re gonna ask why I’m so pumped, and I’m gonna be like, “Well, I just had the best friggin’ talk of my life!”