The Shook Twins shower Corvallis in effervescent harmonies
The Shook Twins’ “Window” (2011) ends with a prime example of the sisters’ enduring chemistry, their playful nature and a demonstration of how far they’ve come.
The gentle sounds of dawn rise o’er “Way to Wake,” as all of creation stirs to life. Two voices drift in, descending from beyond, first as barely perceptible breeze, then as heavenly call. These are the Shook Twins, unadorned.
Have you ever heard the wind sing its song for the day
It whispers and cries to the morning
Oh, what a beautiful way to wake
Oh, what a beautiful way
It’s a stark two minutes of lilting hypnosis, then it vanishes as softly as it came. A long silence follows, a canvas to fill with orchestras of your own environment: the peaceful screech of crickets, the distant play of children.
Suddenly another voice interrupts the serenity, a voice from long ago. A woman addresses two young girls in another time and place, girls whose harmonies haven’t yet fully formed. They’re still too young — maybe five, perhaps six — but their relationship sounds familiar, the fledgling roots of a union to come. It doesn’t take much coaxing to commit their tones to tape.
It’s been 7 hours and 15 days
Since you took your love away
Prince wrote “Nothing Compares 2 U” for The Family, but Sinead O’Connor claimed it forever and another family has it here, rendered as only children can feel it. The interpretation’s shaky but endearing, and it’s evident these girls were born to sing.
“We started choir in the fifth grade and sang all the time before that, even,” Katelyn Shook recalled in a recent telephone interview with sister Laurie, one minute her junior, sitting close at hand. “Even early in choir they didn’t teach us harmony. Our dad kept saying, ‘Sing harmonies! Sing harmonies!’ Back then we were in elementary school or the sixth grade and we didn’t know what he meant. I don’t know when it came. It came out as our voices matured a little bit, to where we were able to hold a tune.”
Katelyn credited the twins’ harmonic convergence in part to Jon Brownell, music instructor at Sandpoint High School in their Idaho hometown (“Sandpoint’s gorgeous,” she confided, “but don’t tell anybody because we’re trying to keep it small”), with whom they studied through high school. “He was incredible, awesome,” she said, “and that’s how it started.” (Brownell remembered the Shooks as “always happy and bubbly and fun to have around. They were always very inclined musically. I catch up with them when they’re in town. I’m very proud of them.”)
The girls enhanced their vocal brew with lessons in guitar and other stringed beasts. But ultimately they preferred the self-taught approach, which has informed their playing in distinctive ways. “We never really took it too seriously,” Katelyn explained. “They had us reading a lot of music, which we don’t really like to do. It was fun, but we didn’t feel like it was benefitting us that much, so we looked up chords and learned songs that way.”
With such determination, then, it’s hard to imagine that they almost chose an alternate path into hearts and minds. The sisters had dreams beyond music, specifically to become the beloved hostesses of a sure-fire Travel Channel hit, “Travel Twins” (still a great idea). So they enrolled at the University of Idaho at Moscow to pursue radio/TV/digital media majors, a curriculum they found instructive but ultimately not their thing. They weren’t enamored of the on-camera experience and the media aspect thrilled them not. In 2004 they took a year off and packed their bags and boyfriends for Virginia, where music began to beckon them back.
“We didn’t really have any friends and weren’t doing much, so we started playing more together at home,” Katelyn said. “We had our first gig at this restaurant and it went great. They gave us $300 and it was really fun. We looked at each other and said, ‘Why don’t we do this more often?’”
The Shooks soon returned to Sandpoint, scored a regular winery engagement and returned to campus to complete their education. They found creative ways to satisfy their requirements. Among their projects was a filmed documentary of a friend’s band, tirelessly jammin’ So Cal transplants Frame of Mind, as it embarked on a five-day tour. “That was very cool,” Katelyn recalled. “That was right at the beginning of our career, too. We would open for them when they’d come through Moscow. We got a glimpse of tour life. They were really great guys.” The girls also recorded their sets at the college town’s One World Cafe, compiling highlights into a live album for credit.
They may not have followed their schooling into ordinary vocations after graduating in 2006 — the world, alas, must wait for “Travel Twins” — but they’ve certainly capitalized on it. “We learned how to use Final Cut Pro, which Laurie uses to edit our videos,” Katelyn said. “We learned a little bit of Pro Tools. We got input on how to film something. We definitely took a lot from that experience.”
The Shook Twins’ music is a fetching menagerie of old and new, Americana shadows with a confident swagger. Both sisters tackle a variety of instruments both standard and inspired; Laurie’s been known to feed her banjo through a wah-wah pedal, a badass combo she picked up from Elephant Revival’s Sage Cook. Katelyn occasionally uses an old telephone to broadcast sonorously from the ether. Also in their inventory is a looper for self-sampling, as well as that most primitive of percussive instruments: the human voice.
“We didn’t have a drummer back then,” Katelyn explained. “Laurie learned how to beatbox from this group called The Standards, an a capella group, when we were in high school. After she became good at it, it was like, ‘This is pretty rad.’
“We never set out to be the sappy singer-songwriter types. We always wanted to have something interesting going on, and that was kind of our first quirky, interesting thing. When we started that weekly gig in Sandpoint, she was always beatboxing. Before, she would do the whole song through, which was just insane. So then we started thinking, ‘There’s gotta be a way. Let’s get a looper so we can just loop it and she can keep playing with me.’ At first she just put her vocal through, then we decided to put the banjo through it too. We started incorporating banjo loops and banjo beats.”
Then there’s that other percussive implement: a crowd-pleasing golden egg, whose contents rattle contentedly when given a vigorous shake. That sound, according to Katelyn, is not humanity’s collected hopes, as many (i.e., me) have long suspected, but simple popcorn. It’s practically an honorary twin, much like bassist Kyle Volkman, who’s kept the girls’ compositions humming since 2007, minus a year-long break when the Shooks left Sandpoint for Portland in December 2009.
“He’s definitely our backbone,” Katelyn said. “We were glad that we did come to Portland on our own and tried to perfect the duo a little bit. That made us grow a lot. When you have a whole band, you start to rely on them rhythmically and vocally, and we found it a challenge to stay in time by ourselves. You can definitely tell the difference when he’s not there. It’s so important to our sound, rounding us all out, with the banjo being so bright and my guitar-playing in general. I’m not that great a guitar player. I can tell when he’s not there. It sucks.”
The trio’s usually accompanied on stage by at least a fourth person, occupying what the sisters have termed the “shredder” position. These days they’re often joined by the great Anna Tivel (Anna and the Underbelly, The Carrels, Nathaniel Talbot Quartet and a host of other armadas), a string-manipulating dynamo whose dexterous digits define the very parameters of “shred.” “We like to have another person who’s really good at solos,” Katelyn said, “so we can let them shine and make the song more interesting and advanced.”
Not that the Shook Twins aren’t already sonically compelling, their catalog abundant with spooky emanations of a time long past as filtered through a modern and sometimes amusing prism. Produced, as was 2009’s “You Can Have the Rest,” by Brody Bergholtz, “Window” wanders an open field, waltzing with spectres in the sisters’ beautifully ethereal tangles. Their vocals interweave, thread and enchant in the resplendent shivers between breath (pay particular attention to “Ting Ting’s” gorgeous rise and falls).
The banjo riff on “Time to Swim” is less front-porch, feet-up folksy than stone-cold avenue roll, with a second plucker gurgling swamp-water wah-wah beneath a midnight bayou. The title track, inspired by a houseguest named Krista Boland, sticks to an acoustic gambol, allowing vocal showers to weep in glorious buckets. Following the wishful “If I only had a window / a window to the ’60s / all the people, all the people, all the people we’d meet,” the girls then imagine all the acid they’d consume, at which point the structure crumbles and melts like an uptown LSD party and slurps toward an out-of-body crawl.
’Twas in this passage that the song was truly born, orgiinating from a Boland observation. “We are all one,” she reportedly announced after attending an outdoor festival; Katelyn riposted, “It’s like I’m looking through a window into the ’60s at you.” “Months later we started writing that song and it came out like that,” Katelyn recalled. “The acid version just goes with it. We just wanted to be trippy, man.” (Kidding aside, the sisters’ affection for their former boarder resonates in the album’s fine print, where Boland is credited with “the best hand claps.”)
The Shooks generally collaborate with one another, with Katelyn first conjuring riffs and and lines. “And that one lyric gives me a theme for the song,” she explained. “Then I just keep going, simultaneously coming up with the guitar part and the lyrics. And then Laurie comes down and does the harmonies and cool banjo parts, plus any kind of percussion we think we’d like to add, like in a loop or to play with the egg. Kyle comes in last; he plays it one time through and he’s got it. He has an amazing ear and it doesn’t take him much time to learn a song at all.”
More compositions are in the works, with six already completed. The Shooks plan to regroup in the winter to focus on a song cycle, then raise funds to record and recruit a dream producer. “We love working with Brody, but it’s so hard to go down to Santa Cruz,” Katelyn said. “I think he would be down for sure again, but it’d be a lot easier to do it in Portland. Brody’s so brilliant. We might do a little EP with him — have him do more remixes because those are so cool.”
In the meantime, they’ve contributed those angelic scales to Ben Darwish’s folk opera, “The Clear Blue Pearl,” and found the experience rewarding. “It’s a cool thing to do, get outside of your own personal shell and let someone else take charge,” Katelyn said. “We had to let him guide us. It felt good; I never found myself saying, ‘Really? You want me to sing like that?’ We all shared the vision, even though it’s totally his. We learned how to give it a certain harmony. It was like being in choir again. He would count it down on the piano. It was really challenging to do something that’s out of your box.”
Out of their box, maybe, but not beyond their astral grasp. “Sing harmonies! Sing harmonies!” their father once implored. And few would ever sing them better than the two little girls from Sandpoint.
Have you ever heard the ocean sing to the shore
The tide, it sighs with relief
It tells its tale of its journey
From the middle to the end of the sea
Oh, what a beautiful way to wake
Oh, what a beautiful way
The Shook Twins perform as part of the Majestic Theatre’s Song Crafters and Guitar Master Series at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 14, at the venue, 115 S.W. Second St., Corvallis. Admission is $12 advance and for theater members, $15 general at the door. For more information, call 541-758-7827 or visit www.majestic.org. To float in the Shook Twins’ spine-tingling bliss, visit www.shooktwins.com.
The series continues Saturday, Sept. 15, with an exquisite performance by classical guitarist Scott Kritzer. Showtime is 7:30 p.m. Admission is $12 advance and for theater members, $15 general at the door. Artist information: www.scottkritzer.com.