Photography by: Samuel Hanson
By: Hawken Miller
It’s hard to define the band SHEL, a quartet of sisters born within five years of each other. They each bring their own unique influences — Bob Dylan, the all-acoustic bluegrass group Strength in Numbers, Led Zeppelin, Alt J and the more classically-focused Bach, Chopin and George Gershwin — to the table.
If one were to try to put a label on the band, though it may be an exercise in futility, they would land on indie-folk. Think Haim, but less pop rocky. Their sweet-as-honey vocals combined with light, airy instrumentation — mandolin, violin and keyboards — are the perfect soundtrack to drift through a hot afternoon in America’s heartland.
Eva Trout and Hannah, Rachel and Sarah Holbrook are like a deck of cards. If one of them were removed from the equation, their sound would collapse. Their togetherness is found even in the name, an acronym based on the first names of the Holbrooks.
“That’s the beauty of SHEL in itself, is it doesn’t work if one of us leaves,” Sarah said, adding each of them is irreplaceable. “You’d have to find the right letter in someone that drums and beat boxes, or has curly hair and a mandolin.”
Listeners will find a myriad of sounds when they listen to SHEL’s two full studio albums — Just Crazy Enough and the self-titled SHEL. “Tuscany” evokes their classical music education; no vocals just coordinated mandolin plucking accompanied by sad violin, while “Is the Doctor in Today” slowly builds up to a driving melody. Their newest single, “Rainbows,” is the 2019 pop version of their sound — all instruments stay the same, but vocal runs and light modulation add something for the current times. It moves from slow and introspective, to a quick foot-tapping beat, like much of SHEL’s other music, owing their dynamic sound to the flip between disparate musical emotions, minor chord to major power.
Though the quartet is based in Fort Collins, Co., their travels have taken them as far as India, where they filmed the music video “Rainbow,” which supports widows in Vrindavan, India. In London, they used street art as backdrops and snuck onto a random rooftop, where Eva’s top hat blew away. There’s no risk without reward for SHEL.
That’s especially the case for SHEL’s cover of “Enter Sandman” by Metallica. It’s not often that an indie-folk band covers a metal song. The deep, brooding vocals contrast with the loud, distorted original version. They created an entirely new song, but with bones from a completely different genre. Risking covering a beloved song netted them 1.7 million views on YouTube.
The SHEL sisters are also visual artists, their music videos transporting viewers to an Alice-in-Wonderland dimension. The video for “Let me Do,” features a black and white room, Eva wearing a dollhouse on her face. You need to see it to believe.
“It’s been incredible watching the process of creating it play out, and having something we all had a hand in come together,” Eva said.
When they play, Sarah cocks her violin in the ready position, but when shooting music videos, she grabs the studio lights and sets up the camera tripod. Eva’s husband is an illustrator with a degree in filmmaking also lends his hand to a band that has always been rooted in family.
The four sisters grew up in the idyllic Colorado country, replete with snow-capped mountains, vistas of valleys, and crystal blue lakes. Eva said her parents bought a trailer park to raise the kids to “cultivate and encourage our curiosity.” Homeschooled by their father Andrew Holbrook, a professional songwriter, and their mother, an artist, the artistic liberties the sisters take come as no surprise.
Each finding their own instrument at a young age, the quartet made their unofficial debut in 2000 when they performed on stage with their dad. In the years since then, they’ve further developed their sound, an amalgamation of influences. It wasn’t until 2012 that they debuted a full album, with the help of producer Brent Maher, who won a Grammy for engineering Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard & Ray Price’s album The Last of Breed. They released their latest, Just Crazy Enough, in 2016.
Their work is found on TV, from the CBS series Jersey Girl to ABC’s The Fosters to Splenda and Glade ads. They’ve played across the U.S., including underground in Tennessee’s Cumberland Caverns and festivals such as South by Southwest and Lilith Fair.
SHEL’s music speaks for itself, but the bond between the four sisters has continued to grow. If they faced the terrible position of being the last band to play on the Titanic as the ship went down, they probably wouldn’t even be able to finish, even though they’d likely be playing the melancholy “Is the Doctor in Today.”
“We’d all be, ‘I just love you so much,’” Sarah said.
Listen to all of it here.
Follow them @iloveshelmusic
We just love you so much.