Rewind to 2015 and the first time I chatted with the artist formerly known as Sarah Shook.
(Technically, they’re still known as Sarah when they’re on marquees and billboards and show flyers advertising their hard-driving alt-country outfit, Sarah Shook and the Disarmers. But off stage and in their personal life, they go by River these days.)
At the time, they were still using she/her pronouns. Their sexuality was a private affair. And while we talked about the warning signs of heavy drinking, they weren’t all-the-way sober.
That was the year the first Sarah Shook and the Disarmers record, “Sidelong,” was released independently, and whether they wanted it to or not, it thrust them into a spotlight that forced them to either carve out spaces or get steamrolled by expectations of the industry. They chose the former and haven’t looked back, they told me recently.
“Even though in theory, if I could go back to myself in 2013 and give myself a piece of advice, I don’t know that I would, because everything that happened along the way was necessary to bring me to where I am today,” Shook told me recently. “As frustrating as that can be, I needed to go through the years of addiction I went through, because at the time, that was the only coping mechanism I had.
“Coming out the other side was a long process, but ‘Cruel Liars’ (the new record credited to their solo project, Mightmare) would have never happened if I hadn’t quit drinking. I spent so much time focused on the physical aspect and psychological aspects of healing that it made me realize just how much time and energy I had once I got sober. I never would have had any of that if I hadn’t quit drinking.”
Say this for River: The dark and gritty tone of their material, from the driving country rock to the last-call weepers to the dreamy angst-pop of Mightmare is a direct result of those experiences. Raised in a strict Christian fundamentalist household, they were only allowed to listen to classical and gospel, and the ideal future, they were told, would be as a wife, mother and homemaker.
Needless to say, they jettisoned those expectations early on, and by 2013, they were part of a project called Sarah Shook and the Devil, which lasted roughly a year before they launched the Disarmers. While country music has long had a simmering undercurrent of outside-the-mainstream artists content to do things without the support of major labels, even the alt-country world wasn’t prepared for the diminutive, tattooed, plainspoken individual who declared in an early interview that “I’m a vegan, bisexual, atheist, civil rights activist, female in a country band in the South.”
When it came to “Sidelong” — picked up by the indie label Bloodshot and re-released in 2017 — Rolling Stone said, “Her sound is a sneering fusion of punk-rock autonomy and say-it-like-it-is country from the classic era, paired with a timeless vocal warble and tons of attitude. Honest to a fault and as foul-mouthed as a drunken sailor, she’s a nonconforming spitfire.”
Nonconformity became their comfort zone over time, especially after they quit drinking. In 2018, the Disarmers released “Years,” a record of greater complexity that hinted at the direction of the group’s latest album, “Nightroamer,” recorded at the start of the pandemic. It was then, they told me, that the seeds of Mightmare began to germinate.
“I’ve been writing songs for years and years, and some make the Disarmers cut, but some I don’t know what to do with,” they said. “We went into the studio in early 2020 to cut ‘Nightroamer,’ and I had a couple of songs I put to the side and categorized as ‘others.’ Some of them, like ‘I Got This’ and ‘Been Lovin’ You Too Long,’ I didn’t know if they should go on the record because they were so different, but the band said, ‘Let’s do it,’ and I felt the same way.”
Attempting to shoehorn those particular songs into a country music mold is futile: “I Got This” rides a skittering backbeat and Shook’s voice takes a cue from Hope Sandoval’s Mazzy Star recordings of the 1990s, while “Been Lovin’ You” is a midnight drive down an empty backroad with a gas tank full of regret. Both, they said, opened the door for Mightmare to become its own project.
“I had this small mountain of songs that I’d written that were very deeply personal,” they said. “Everything I write is based on personal experience; there’s a degree of that in everything the Disarmers have released, but this is even more so. This is real life (stuff): What it is to be a human being, and what it is to figure out what you’re doing and how to get through the day, all the way up to bigger questions like, ‘Why am I here, and what can I do in the world with my time?’”
Once the COVID-19 pandemic put the plans for “Nightroamer” on pause, Shook knew they needed an outlet to keep from going mad with the unexpected downtime. They threw themselves into making “Cruel Liars,” billed as a River Shook solo record and built off of a deep dive into every phase of the song construction process, they said.
“I would get up, make a pot of coffee and get right to work, and I was so hyper-focused that the next thing I knew, my partner was telling me, ‘OK, I’m going to bed now,’ and they’d been home for four hours!” Shook said. “With the Disarmers, I would write the whole song and the arrangement, then take that to the band, and together we would sort of fine tune it: the solos, what chord progressions we want to use, all of that.
“With Mightmare, there was no feedback, no communal ‘let’s figure this out together.’ I had to do it all myself, and it turns out, I really enjoy working like that. I love my bandmates and the group and that process, but I also love being 100% in control.”
The result is an indie dark pop record with only Shook’s voice as the common denominator between it and anything the Disarmers have done. The press package compares it to works by Belle and Sebastian or Blonde Redhead, which make for great reference points, but there are grander sonic elements that hint at a newly discovered creative landscape in which Shook might well find a second home: everything from the shoegaze of Asobi Seksu to the teeth and claws of the Jesus and Mary Chain to the hypnotic drone pop of a band like Low.
“One of the things I love about this album is how layered this is,” they said. “There are so many tracks on every single song, and getting that down and figuring out what instruments were going to work together and what’s going to sound good together sonically, I felt like took my brain over.”
Out now on the Kill Rock Stars label — an imprint famous for its work with riot grrl acts in the 1990s (“I’ve been obsessed with Kill Rock Stars forever, so this is literally the stuff of dreams!” Shook added) — “Cruel Liars” received an East Tennessee showcase when Mightmare performed at the Old City Knoxville indie club The Pilot Light on Oct. 23. It wasn’t the first time Shook performed in the area, and it certainly won’t be the last, especially with Mightmare growing into so much more than just a one-off side project.
“I’m still figuring so much out and learning the ins and outs of starting a new business like we had to do with Mightmare, and even though it’s been a lot of pressure, I’m excited,” they said. “I could not be happier with this band or this record.”