Strand of Oaks on "Putting the Antennae up" and Receiving His New Record

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Strand of Oaks on "Putting the Antennae up" and Receiving His New Record

If there’s one thing that Hoosier musician Timothy Showalter has become accustomed to in his decade-plus career under the all-purpose alias Strand of Oaks, it’s change. An average metaphorical day that started out sunny for him could take a dramatically dark turn a few hours in, as when juvenile arthritis ended his promising basketball career back in Goshen, Indiana. Or later on, on a festive Christmas Day in 2013, he and his wife Sue lost control of their car on black ice and skidded straight into two oncoming big rigs; their present that year was, they survived, but barely, while he transmuted the near-death experience into folk/punk/metal gold on HEAL, Strand of Oaks’ breakthrough disc in 2014, its fourth.

Since then the virtual one-man band—with Showalter, 39, adding and subtracting tour and studio members as needed, while remaining the equation’s only constant—has continued to experiment with his sound, culminating in his new eighth effort In Heaven, which effortlessly weaves beefy synthesizer and stabbing electric guitar through folk melodies that also have distinctly pop sensibilities. So the approach is in flux from track to track, a la the coliseum-huge opening jangler “Galacticana,” a Phil Spector-lush “Easter,” an endlessly building crescendoed rocker, “Carbon,” and the ’70s-glam anthem “Jimi and Stan,” in which he cheerily imagines his late pet cat Stan partying with Hendrix in the Great Hereafter. In between sit even sharper examples of his old acoustic stock in trade, like “Under Heaven,” “Horses at Night” and the Mac Davis-cheesy message number “Hurry.” As in, don’t hurry—stop and smell life’s rich floral bouquet instead, because it will all be over soon enough.

Change played an unusually heavy In Heaven role, as well. No sooner was Stan the cat diagnosed with terminal cancer, Showalter sadly relates, than his wife’s mother lost her battle with the disease, as well, which shrouded their Philadelphia home in grief, eventually leading to the couple’s boldest move yet—relocating to Austin, spur of the moment, in 2019. And just when they thought things were looking up, they were T-boned by something much more unforgiving than a semi—the coronavirus and its attendant lockdown constrictions. Still, the malcontent managed to look on the bright side of life with his generally uplifting and deeply spiritual and/or existential new material. My Morning Jacket guitarist Carl Broeml lends some choice licks to the proceedings, as does Smashing Pumpkins co-founder James Iha, singing and strumming on “Easter.” But it’s Showalter, plugging back in to campy keyboards, which he hadn’t done since HEAL, who puppet-masters the whole textural show, with the skill—and considerable glee—of a young Jeff Lynne.

The singer has become a teetotaler, after finally assessing the toll alcohol was taking on his system, marriage and composing skills. Seeing a new Texas skyline every day helps, he admits. “I love Austin in the morning, real early, and especially in the summer,” he says. “I get up at 5 o’clock, and I can go outside and kind of feel the day begin to start heating up, but it’s not quite there yet.” That ephemeral aroma of the sun beating down on concrete, he sighs, “is just electric, And then at night you’ve got the bats and the grackles and whatever is hiding in the woodpile at my house. And what is in there? I really wanna know, but my wife always warns me, ‘Maybe you shouldn’t so confidently reach into the woodpile all the time, you know?’ And I never thought I’d say this, but I am saying it—this record is directly influenced by my environment. The heat, the sounds, the smells, hiking by Pedernales Falls. And I never thought that would happen, but my blinders are off. I can see things and actually smell the roses—I actually have rose in my front yard now, so I can literally stop and smell the roses! I’m even eating a fig from my own tree right now—it’s pretty nice down here … ” And the always-affable artist is happy to keep branching out on colorful In Heaven tangents for Paste.

Paste: How are you doing, overall?

Timothy Showalter: I’ve been having a pretty good last few weeks. I mean, I’m a little scared. But it’s a real one-day-at-a-time kind of thing, and it’s all about trying to pull out the best things you can in your day and keeping a good perspective on everything, if you can.

Paste: Do you have any daily rituals for doing that? Do you meditate, take certain vitamins, exercise?

Showalter: You know, I walk two times a day, and over the pandemic my wife and I have joked that that’s me going on tour. So we walk around the neighborhood, and I just talk to people in my neighborhood about their yard. So my meditation is like … and what I really was having a difficult time with over the course of the pandemic—was really just the lack of human connections. I really rely on conversation, I’ve found in my life. Sometimes, my wife just wants to exercise on the walk, but part of my brain exercising is stopping and saying hello to so-and-so about their sunflowers or whatever. It’s very important to me, and my routine a lot of the time is, I kind of create universes in my head, so it’s very difficult for me to get bored. I’ve always got something to do, or something to read or research, or an activity.

Paste: I’ll bite. What are some strange worlds that you’ve imagined for yourself?

Showalter: Well, I think Stanley Kubrick once said, “Always be fascinated by something. Always find something to be fascinated by.” And that is my personal cure for the blues and depression. And I’ve found—especially over this time—half of this time during the pandemic was me writing the record, and what that usually involves is a natural isolation for me where I basically get up in the morning, and I sit down in my little office, and I just start putting the antennae up. And oftentimes, for every 50 songs I write, there’s one good verse in them. And I make a lot of material just ’cause I like writing, but over the course of the day, let’s say, when I’m writing songs, I’ll be starting with the guitar, I’ll be feeling some melody come through, and then maybe I might have some really good song if it’s really cooking during that day. And then I take a break in the afternoon, because I get up real early, and most of my songs start at … well, I’ve written some songs at 7 in the morning, if I’ve started at the rise of the sun. But then what I do is, I’ll leave the office and do yard work and whatever else I need to, or go for walks. And then at nighttime, when my wife goes to bed, I start working on the lyrics. And the lyrics come last for me, always. But then I have this bedrock of a song that I can then think about, like, “What am I gonna sing about?” But with each song, they start as islands. But then after about four or five songs that I really like, I find that there’s a connecting road between them all, and then I start getting a culture on the record. And then you realize who’s allowed in this party. So there are times when I’ll have a song and it’ll be fully done, and I love, but then I realize—especially for this new record—a lot of songs got cut that were too … emotionally selfish, if that makes any sense.

Paste: Like, “Waaah! Waaah!”

Showalter: Yeah. Absolutely. And I’m not saying I wasn’t like that in the past. But I spent a lot of time digging into the depths of me for 12 years, maybe? Just making records. And I didn’t even choose to do it. But it was just that when it came time for this one, I was not the priority on this record. Or my issues in my life. There were a lot of other priorities, of love, support for people that are close to me, especially my wife Sue. And we had a rough go of it, and we had this time when we temporarily lost our minds in grief. The grief was so sad and so sudden, and on top of this time period my little buddy, my cat, had cancer, a week before Sue’s mother passed away, we found out this. So we had this death linger in our house, and we projected a lot of the sadness onto this beautiful cat, and that’s why I think he held on. And then when he finally left this Earth, we didn’t know what to do. And that was right around the time when I went to South By Southwest in Austin in 2019. And my wife went down with me, and this was like the first time we saw the sun, saw some brightness in this city. We loved Philadelphia so much, but there was a lot of pain and turmoil that was associated—not necessarily with the city—but with the sadness that had flown into our house. And we were in Austin, and I looked at my wife and she was smiling. And I was like, “We’re moving here! We’re moving!” It was a crazy decision. And I know I’ve lived a crazy life, but I’m also overly rational about things. Like big decisions like that. But I just made this pact, and then we bought a house and moved down here. And this was the summer of 2019, and that was the first step in my life that I took where I was like, “You know what? I have focused so much on myself, and I just need to start doing things for others.”So I just made this instinctual reaction to move across the country to bring some joy to my wife. And it seemed in some ways like, yeah, it might have been running away from problems. But it was also like, “We need to just wipe this canvas clear and not have to drive down every street and think about her mom or all of that stuff.”

Paste: How did you locate a new place down there? And you’re in Jimmie Vaughn’s town now—did you settle quickly into that scene?

Showalter: You know, I’d come to Austin like most other people in my field from being at South By. And there’s always that almost surreal sense about it—even the smell in the air in the morning, everything in Austin got me, and it was interwoven in my DNA. And I feel this duality, because there’s so much of me that will always be Philadelphia, because that was basically my home for 28 years, my whole adult life. But there’s something right now, where I look down the road at the next 20 years of my life and see it down here, with us establishing a new life together. And we lucked into a house that needed a little bit of work, but we’ve made it our own. And the Indiana in me has come out with tactile things like gardening, and I build tables and furniture now. And I try to fix up everything around the house, and I’m loving those responsibilities. And I feel strangely … strangely … there are so many things that I wish I could have done—and people I wished that I could have seen and shows I wish that I could have played—over these two years at this point. But also, I needed some time to be home with my wife and be in one place, for the first time in years. So I was able to make a bigger dent in a community, whereas in Philadelphia I didn’t really get out that much, and I really enjoyed being at home when I was home. So it’s been such a confusing time, because I’ve also really grown as a person over the pandemic, and I felt like I’ve found maybe a closer-to-true version of myself, just through a lot of time to just contemplate. During the pandemic, I was in a fortunate position, because my job at that time was to write songs and to create a new album. But there was a lot of time when I wasn’t songwriting when I just played darts for three hours and listened to R.E.M. And I wished there was somebody that I could have played darts with, but I was just by myself, playing darts in my garage, and I was just quiet. You said meditation, but I had a lot of moments like that. Like, I’ve taken up painting, very, very seriously.

Paste: Oils or acrylics?

Showalter: It’s mixed media, so it’s acrylic-based and I can be real active with it. And I took it straight from the book of Jean-Michel Basquiat with the oil-paint sticks, where they can be super-expressive and really ride over the acrylics and stand out. And it’s very similar to my music in a lot of ways, where it’s impulsive and extremely unfiltered at times. And it’s the oldest story in the book when a musician discovers painting, like so many have before, because that’s helped me become a better songwriter, it’s helped me become a better singer. And you may relate to this, being from the Midwest—there’s a thing where I want to be an extremely genuine and true-to-myself person, and sometimes I feel like in the past if I’ve acted like I’m overly art-driven and conceptual, I didn’t deserve to be acting that way because I didn’t go to school for it and all that stuff. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve stopped caring about that—I was like, “Wow! I’m a person who loves being a nice jokey, smiley guy from Indiana, and talking to everybody, even just about the weather. But I also like looking at Gerhardt Richter paintings and thinking about this center of humanity and existence and life, and the connectivity of science and string theory.” So I’ve grown to be comfortable with both now—I can be heady and I can think of huge concepts, but I can also do like, “Hey! Nice sunflowers!” I want to talk to everybody. And I think that duality is extremely healthy for me, and it showed up a lot more on this record, where I wasn’t scared to play the acoustic guitar again and sound like I did 12 years ago, but at the same time reach further into my influences. It doesn’t seem extremely apparent, but there is so much Miles Davis on this record, so much Pharaoh Sanders influence and Keith Jarret and spiritual jazz, and even Talk Talk and all this sophisticated pop music from the ’80s.And all of these sounds play in much more freely. And I’ve had such a fun experience with it all, because Strand of Oaks is just me—it’s what’s in my brain. And I was feeling acoustic guitars—I was listening to R.E.M., I was listening to Lucinda Williams and a lot of Americana music, Everybody was welcome for this one. And it’s been two years, almost, since I was writing some of these songs, but it’s been such an unhindered creative experience from the moment I wrote the songs to the moment I finished recording them. And I’m gonna make a dramatic statement because I believe it—it’s because I stopped drinking. I stopped the booze. And when I did that? I … I get emotional, because I just spent so many years of my life numb, and I regret it. And I don’t want to feel guilty, because that’s not the appropriate emotion, but I just missed so much, and in writing these songs [he gets choked up for a few seconds, apologizes], I just felt like I was communicating with parts of the universe and my soul that I didn’t know were there, because I was just drinking all the time. And hungover. And trying to destroy myself, eventually. And I stopped drinking before I went on tour with the last album, but I was drinking when I was writing it, very heavy, and I was very self-destructive. So this is the first record that I’ve written without that unconscious desire to self-destruct. Well, maybe not even unconscious.

Paste: When you stare into the abyss, my friend, you have to remember what Nietzsche once said—the abyss stares also.

Showalter: Yep. Yep. And I’ve found that. And it scares me sometimes. But it’s also so beautiful, because when I’m writing the lyrics, I realized that booze made me so selfish, and my drama and my self-created problems became so much more important than the people around me. I was so infatuated with chaos. But when I made that chaos still and quiet by the removal of booze, the blinders came off and I became aware of other people’s feelings, a thousand times more acutely. And I looked at my wife, and was like, “It;’s just been the Tim show for so long, and I don’t wanna do that anymore, to my friends and my family.” And my songs instantly stopped being about, “Oh, my problems! Oh my problems!” And I instantly started thinking about, “How is everyone else? How is my wife doing, with such terrible sadness?”

Paste: It’s easy to get caught up in your own mythology in the creative pursuits, thinking you’re an artiste with an E on the end. And I think a lot of married or settled guys during the pandemic probably finally realized, “Oh! So that’s how the dishes got into the dishwasher and cleaned! So that’s how my shirts got washed and folded! I’ve been an unobservant idiot!”

Showalter: Yup. Exactly. You just said what it took me so long to. Because when I stopped drinking, I thought I was so boring. I thought all of the fire that enabled me to get onstage and be the wild person was gone, and I kept thinking I was boring. And then my friend blew my mind, saying, “Did you ever think the things you thought you loved to do were boring? And you’re actually not boring, maybe? Staying at that bar until 2 in the morning, or just thinking you’ve gotta have one more whatever?” And full disclosure: I don’t drink anymore, I stopped smoking cigarettes, but I still do other stuff—I just stopped the stuff that’s gonna kill me. Or that was gonna kill me fast. I still enjoy the psychedelic experience, but I just became so empathetic, and I’ve always loved people like that. My dad was a car salesman, and he was a fantastic car salesman, but not because he was what you would associate with that. It was because my dad just loves talking to people, and it’s the same with me—I got everything from that. I can play an incredible guitar solo at a killer festival, and I get the exact same satisfaction if I just wave at somebody, and they smile and wave back—I dunno why, but it just makes my day. Or if I just catch somebody off guard and give ’em a compliment, and a genuine one at that. I’ve always loved people, but this whole record? It’s like my first time getting glasses. I got reading glasses a while ago, and it was a similar feeling of, “Whoa! I should have had these for so long! I really have not been able to read very well!” Because my eyes just weren’t that good. So removing alcohol from my life was like getting reading glasses—it was like, “Oh, I can read this life better! I can read people’s emotions and I can be more aware of how I treat people, and how I interact with people I love and strangers. And you said it, but because I’m a child of the ’90s—or just a child of rock and roll who has to be wild, and the world has to be falling apart in order for you to write lyrics?It’s like, oh no, my best lyrics were waiting all along for me to just take a moment, relax, stop thinking that the world revolves around me, and that’s where this magical zone happens.

Paste: I think you sort of summed up the album in “Jimi and Stan”—which sounds like classic Elton John—when you say you’ve been wondering why you’ve been hanging around so long, and you admit that it’s “all about the songs I haven’t found.”

Showalter: That’s my Disney song. And that’s my own experience, but for you it could be that interview you’ve been looking for, or just that turn of phrase for an album. My thing is songs. And you are absolutely correct—there are sad parts to this record, and there are raw parts, and I do sometimes question things. Each year as I get older, I think, “Man, life is long! And people leave, and these people you love won’t be here all the time.” And then I look at my grandma, who’s in her late 80s now, and she has her family and people that love her, but how few are left that she knew as a kid? And it’s the inevitability of life, and you ask sometimes, “Hey, why is this long?” But yeah, life is long, but tomorrow, I could hear a McCoy Tyner song or a Wayne Shorter song that I’ve never heard before that changes my day. So this record is about that—it’s not about healing, it’s just about existing, and wanting to live. I don’t want to sound dramatic, but I told my friends, “This is the first time in my life that I wanna live long. I wanna be 90, I don’t wanna just burn out.” And there’s an added responsibility and weight when you don’t wanna self-destruct anymore. I wanna be here and see, say, what new hobbies I get into. I just got into golf again, and I haven’t golfed since Clinton was president! All of those things! I know my brain can sometimes be all over the place, but that’s what i wanna stick around here for, because there’s gonna be an amazing joke that a friend says, or I’ll see a Robert Motherwell painting that I’ve never seen, in person.

Paste: The cover photo itself is an interesting metaphor—you’re gazing toward the heavens, when many people were getting into lockdown stargazing. But your eyes are shut.

Showalter: Yeah. We took that at Pedernales Falls near Dripping Springs, Texas, but that picture means so much because we had no idea if we were gonna pull it off. Merrick Ales, who took the photo, he’s a fantastic nature photographer. And because this is a Midwest thing, that sometimes I’m so presumptuous and I believe so hard in people that I just think that we can make the impossible happen, I asked him, “Can we do one where I’m in front? Where I’m in focus and the stars are in focus?” And he said, “Well, that might not be possible.” And I was like, “Well, let’s just try it! Can we try it?” So we chose a night when there was no moon, so you could see the Milky Way, and it was so dark you could see all these ominous fires in the distance, which was even stranger for a luminescent effect. So we took the shot, and we didn’t know how it was gonna go, but Merrick said, “It worked! It worked!” And this was deep in the pandemic, in the middle of August 2020 in Texas, and this was the first time I was hanging out with somebody, and we were outside, and it had been so hot that summer in Texas, but it was a cold night. And we got that shot, and then we just laid on the rocks, still warm from the sun, and just looked up at the stars until 4 or 5 in the morning. And I drove home. So that picture we actually took before we made the record or named the album. The record wasn’t called In Heaven until we went into the studio. I was gonna call it Galacticana, but my friend Chris Swanson, who was also in the studio recording, said, “You talk about heaven a lot in a beautiful way on this album. How about Strand of Oaks IN Heaven?” And after I heard him say it, a lightbulb went off, like, “This record deserves more! It deserves a title like this!” It just worked. And that’s part of that kismet that I believe all plays into the idea of giving up controlling substances in your life, you’re gonna be able to put the antennae up again to receive information like that.