Interview: Strand of Oaks

by Craig Howieson

Celebrating the beauty of life in the face of tragedy, Strand Of Oaks’ Timothy Showalter is embarking on a new chapter guided by the power of love

‘We just had this real tough period of our lives’ says Strand of Oaks’ Timothy Showalter of the time prior to him and his wife moving from Philadelphia to Austin in 2019. Having lost his wife’s mother and their beloved pet cat both within a short time period, it perhaps became apparent that sometimes a change can soften the absence of a cure. ‘Nick Cave is like my spirit guide,’ laughs Showalter, ‘and he said that when you experience trauma you are granted this time period of temporary insanity.’ From the outside, moving from a city they loved deeply and had called home for twenty years could seem like they lost touch of their senses.As would become evident from my chat with Showalter though, this decision – as with many in his life – was made based on love, hope and a vitality for life.

‘I took my wife down to Austin a few years ago in the midst of all this sadness that was happening and I saw her really happy. She looked at me and it was one of those moments where she said “let’s just move down here”, and I thought “if you are smiling and you have joy in your eyes then I will do whatever I can to make this person I love just feel better.”’ With their lives touched by grief and the loss of loved ones far too soon, Showalter also made a realisation. ‘Life is very short and I was like “if we want to do this then let’s just do it cause if we don’t we’re gonna blink our eyes and be old.”  I’m 39 now and it’s a strange age where I still feel extremely young and capable and energetic, and I don’t know how many years of this kind of energy I will have left. So this was the time to do it.’

In Heaven is a warm wind of invitation, a set of songs full of compassion and wrapped in a celestial cloud that evokes the sun-hazed backdrop against which they were conceived. ‘I can honestly say that of all the beautiful places I’ve lived, I’ve never had one where I live be my source of inspiration. That feeling of the humidity and how my quality of life was improving seeped into the songs.’

Much of the confidence found on In Heaven stems from the artistic success of its predecessor, Erasureland. Feeling like a high point of an already impressive catalogue, Showalter describes it as ‘the end of an era.’ He continues, ‘the last song on that album is Forever Chords and I’m literally playing this song that I’m so proud of, looking at the members of My Morning Jacket –  maybe one of the most important bands of my life – and seeing them play it so majestically. It felt like I climbed to the top of some mountain. A lot of dreams came true with Erasureland and so with In Heaven I felt freed by whatever history or narrative that I thought Strand Of Oaks was, and I could just kind of do anything. I think it’s reflective in the music and in the way In Heaven sounds.’

There is a sense of freedom on In Heaven – a willingness to follow new directions and ideas that sets it apart from previous Strand Of Oaks’ records. It is something that is still a surprise even to its creator. ‘I don’t necessarily know what it sounds like,’ Showalter smiles, ‘I don’t know what kind of music I made.  I felt like I got on some fast moving river and I sat on top of a canoe and was like alright let’s just let this take me wherever.’

The word ‘Galacticana’ – also the title of the opening track – is Showalter’s attempt to give a name to the heady mix of sounds and influences on his new record. Despite explaining how Neil Young ‘built the framework for my house’ he is just as effusive about The Cure, Talk Talk and Miles Davis, all of whose influences are more keenly felt on the sonic structures of In Heaven. Galacticana also extends to Showalter personally refusing to adhere to predetermined stereotypes. ‘I realised that the word Galacticana means I am from the heartland or whatever people say but at the same time I feel like an alien and I don’t really belong anywhere; so accepting where I’m from, and not denying that, but also not letting that just be the controlling force.’

It is hard to imagine Showalter as anything other than the compassionate and genial man I sit in front of on Zoom, and he does note that even in his wildest days of partying and drinking that ‘I was a good person, it never made me mean or anything.’ But he goes on to explain that as he has gotten older he has lost the youthful edge, or perhaps even insecurity, that made him feel like he had to be the loudest in the room. ‘I got comfortable playing the acoustic guitar again’ he says. ‘I can be gentle and I can be subtle and I think there is a lot of power in that in my life, even as a person as I get older. I get a little softer, in a good way. I think the music just became better as I was like, “I don’t need to follow this script that I thought was written for me.” And I hope everybody feels that way. I write these songs about my own experiences but my dream always is that people hear the songs and can hear not just me presenting my experiences, but find something in their lives. I hope people find a commonality in it, because I don’t ever want to make my music exclusive. I want it to be hopefully helpful to the listeners.’

In Heaven was born under the cloud of tragedy and loss. There are heartbreaking moments but there is also a radiant resilience, and you don’t need to spend long in Showalter’s company to see where the grains of positivity emanate from. ‘I feel this record was ahead of me as a person, almost giving me advice on where I would want to go in my life. I want to have a life centered around love and not fear and I want to make decisions based on that. I have lived so long being fucking ruled by anxiety and when death comes and knocks on your door it doesn’t  worry about all the little worries that meant nothing.’

‘I want to have that feeling that I made an impact, that I invested in my firends and my family and my wife.’  And Showalter is committed to this investment. Having given up drinking and smoking cigarettes he states ‘I feel like i am making up for lost time a little but becuase I was fucking drunk for 15-20 years of my life, and it just made me kind of oblivious to existence.  I want to invest in this life, I don’t want to take it for granted and there’s a responsibility that comes with that.’

At the heart of In Heaven sits the track, Horses At Night. It is, according to Showalter, the ‘glowing centre of the album.’ After a whispered intro and just a strummed acoustic and Showalter’s voice in the verse it climbs like a bird on the wing to the chorus where he sings ‘We’re just movement in the dark / lonely fragments made of stars.’ In a way it encompases the existential questioning of the record and provides a thesis statement of the album’s exploration of grief and hope. ‘It makes me feel like if someone we love dies, they explode into billions of pieces of matter and see the galaxy somewhere else. And that’s how I had to deal with death,’ says Showalter. ‘I think that’s why the record has a celebratory feel even if it’s sad. There are terribly sad moments. But if you are blessed enough to be loved by someone so well I don’t want to send them off in a sad way, I want to be like ‘holy shit I got to be loved by this being and it made me a better person.’

The Strand Of Oaks’ universe is again populated by members of My Morning Jacket for In Heaven, with Bo Koster and Carl Broemel back on board. It also finds Showalters’ ‘dear sweet Kevin Ratterman’ back on co-production duties as he was on Erasureland. In addition to referring to Ratterman as his ‘partner in all things’ Showalter goes to pains to  recognise the input and influence of all those involved, humbled to have them as band members and friends. 

Another special guest shows up too, in the form of The Smashing Pumpkins’ James Iha. ‘My manager also manages James, so I just asked,’ Showlater beams, ‘he said yes, and he asked what we wanted him to do and my response was “I want you to have the most fun you’ve ever had making music.” So he sent us back his files and I thought it was going to be one guitar part but it was guitars, synthesisers, he was singing, he was playing glockenspiel…he gave us all these treasures.’ 

‘I try to be a good person to people and be nice to people and I think sometimes the universe gives a little nice stuff back. That’s how I view it ‘cause it’s insane to think that the first music video I ever saw that changed my life was Today by The Smashing Pumpkins. I was 12 and I saw the video. I didn’t have any money to buy the CD and I remember riding around on my bike trying to remember this song and just singing it. That was maybe the first moment in my life when I realised music was magic, and here is that same person who created this life of music worshipping for me and he’s on my record.’

On the aforementioned Erasureland there were hints of Showalter foreseeing a reckoning of sorts in his life. On the track, Keys, he sings ‘I gotta get my shit together before I’m forty.’ It is a line that particularly resonates with a new generation of listeners who at the end of each decade have the whole world of social media to compare their achievements to. But Showalter is not as interested in personal wins as he is in personal growth. I ask him, as he now approaches 40 how ‘together’ he feels. 

‘I haven’t figured it out, I’ll never figure it out, but I think the thing that I’ve realised is that in terms of me getting my shit together I like to be alive. I want to live long and I don’t know if I necessarily could have said that 5 years ago. I still suffer from a lot of anxiety, I don’t sleep much and I’m scared of things but  I wanna be around a while and make 100 more records. In 10 years I want to try and make my version of Spirit of Eden or something. I want to protect and celebrate being alive which sounds so simple. But it’s not simple for someone who has suffered from depression their whole life and had a very difficult time finding my place in the world.’

Having overcome arduous hurdles to embrace a life where his choices centre on love and positivity, In Heaven feels like a cleansing awakening for Showalter, and the hint of a new stage of his career that is taking its first tentative steps into a future he is determined to see. ‘One of my heroes is Warren Ellis and I always joke with my wife, “when am I allowed to wear gold and stuff and dress like Warren Ellis,” and she says “give it 10 more years”, so I hope to get to my Warren Ellis phase sooner or later’ he jokes towards the end of our call. 

Strand Of Oaks’ music is a welcome respite for tired souls, but in Showalter’s outlook there is a positivity that uplifts those around him, and you can’t help but hope he finds the same happiness for himself he wishes for others, and perhaps he is getting close.‘There’s no other person in the world who hesitates as much to say they are happy, but I think I’m kinda happy, that’s about as much as I can give but I’m kinda happy.’

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