Tim Showalter made his name as Strand of Oaks over three albums of dark folk music, a mysteriously enticing mix of dreamscape sci-fi lyrics and a simmering, powerful delivery. Unsatisfied, however, because of a key missing piece, Showalter turned everything upside down for Strand of Oaks' fourth album, HEAL.
"What changed the most on this record is I finally was myself. I finally was able to do what, either secretly or not secretly, I always wanted to do -- make a record like this. And I didn't possess the confidence to do it, the confidence in my songwriting or my guitar playing," says Showalter during a phone interview from a tour stop in Pittsburgh just two days after making his national television debut on Late Night with Seth Meyers.
HEAL is a big and bold rock record, careening dangerously fast from the opening song, loud and raw with headbanging intensity (and a guest guitar solo from J Mascis). But just as much as the transformed sound, Showalter's stark and personal lyrics characterize HEAL and the break it represents from his past.
"I don't want to bullshit people. This is as close to a diary as I can give," Showalter says. "I love writing all kinds of songs and I have an ability to work in metaphors pretty well. It's my comfort zone to disguise my true feelings, but when it came to this record, I didn't want to do that. I put myself in a pretty vulnerable place, and at first I was scared that people didn't want to hear me sing about my own shit."
The record comes after a dark and brutal two years for Showalter -- alcohol abuse, endless touring that left him lost and disconnected, marital infidelity, and a collision last December between his tiny Honda and two semi-trucks that he and his wife were lucky to survive. The most treacherous times lead to the most productive art, he says, and the album title, capitalized and forceful, is written in the imperative.
"There's nothing soft on this record, whether sonically or lyrically. I wanted it to be a command," he says. "I'm not a subtle person. I tattooed 'Survive' the length of my arm. It's just my approach to life. I'm going to do things with every ounce of my ability."
Before beginning to record HEAL (mixed by John Congleton, whose recent work includes St. Vincent and Swans), Showalter wrote three albums' worth of material, saying it felt as though he'd tapped into some cosmic force.
"I've talked to other musicians who've experienced that. Joe Pug put it best: 'Brother, the faucet has just been turned on.' I really believe in that. There's something that's beyond your control that starts flowing out of whatever recesses of consciousness you're dealing with. For me I just had to keep up with it, with whatever was happening in my mind, I had to do it justice," he says. "It wasn't an intentional process, it just happened. It was very instinctual that I needed to make this record. It was almost by my control. My mind wasn't allowing any editing, any second-guessing. I don't know where I got that confidence, but I'm grateful for it." Touring in support of his previous albums, the dark yet quiet folk of Pope Killdragon (2010) and Dark Shores (2012), Showalter performed as a duo with drummer Chris Ward, and the two abandoned the introspective style of the records in favor of bombastic live shows.
"Unbeknownst to me, it was foreshadowing. I was playing louder and getting closer to where I wanted to be just naturally by playing those concerts," he says. "I was playing these rock 'n' roll, cathartic shows and people would be buying the records and it was very different. With HEAL, there is no gap."
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Strand of Oaks is scheduled to perform Friday, September 5, at Last Exit Live. Find any show in Metro Phoenix via our extensive online concert calendar.