The Cruel Liars album is the latest project from a North Carolina musician known best for their country stylings.
by David Menconi | photography by Jillian Clark
Like a lot of musicians, Chapel Hill’s Sarah Shook passed 2020 with a quarantine project. But Shook’s was less a simple musical project than a radical reinvention. Having just embraced sobriety after years of alcohol abuse, Shook marked the occasion with a solo album. Titled Cruel Liars, it was released under the name Mightmare, and is a radical departure from the straight-up honky-tonk of Shook’s first three records.
“It wasn’t just my pandemic project, it was also my ‘freshly sober and not having anything to do indefinitely, so I’ve got to keep myself busy for who knows how long’ project,” Shook says. “I produced, wrote, composed, arranged, recorded and engineered everything myself.
Not having a drummer really changed the sound. I did want it to be a lot less country, more indie-rock. Using just electronic drums took it in more of a new-wave, synth-pop direction, which was cool.”
Performing along with their longtime backup band The Disarmers, the musician comes across as a honky-tonk equivalent to Pretenders frontwoman Chrissie Hynde, with a switchblade voice delivering bar-room epigrams like, “God never makes mistakes, he just makes fuck-ups.”
By contrast, the music of Mightmare (a name Shook took from a typo on a lyrics-captioned video by Creedence Clearwater Revival) sounds like it would have been right at home on college radio stations during the 1980s alongside The Cure or Depeche Mode.
“This is certainly very different from the Disarmers stuff, but Sarah is often underestimated,” says Ian Schreier, Shook’s longtime producer and engineer in the studio. “A real artist can transcend genre, because genre is just a tool for writing songs. As different as this record is, it’s still very Sarah.”
Born in Rochester, New York, in 1985, Shook landed in North Carolina in 2005, playing in bands and living in the country while bartending at Chapel Hill nightspot The Cave. Shook has always been unconventional for a country performer, openly bisexual and nonbinary with an attitude seemingly better suited to punk rock -— and the lyrics to match.
“Performer” is actually not the most obvious career track for Shook. “I was extremely antisocial as a kid,” they say. “It was hard for me to talk to or even look at people.” Shook still remembers their mother’s reaction to news of their first show: “She said, Sorry, I just can’t wrap my head around this,” Shook recalls. “You’re going to get onstage in front of people and sing?”
But summoning the fortitude to keep playing, singing and recording is part of Shook’s ongoing personal as well as musical work. Part of that includes taking care of their mental health, something Shook set their mind to three years ago.
Over the past decades of performancing, Shook had mostly worked in bars, and found that alcohol abuse was an easy trap to fall into. It took a toll for years before Shook finally resolved to escape. “Toward the end of my drinking days, it had gone on so long that I got really tired of it,” Shook says. “Knowing what to expect every day and night, and how I’d feel every morning, got to be boring. Getting sober was actually scarier than continuing to drink myself to death, and I like to push myself to do scary things. So I did.”
While Shook doesn’t believe in sobriety for everyone, “it’s something I needed to do,” they say. “This record never would have happened with drinking, which was taking up so much time and mental energy. Thanks to recovery, I made it by myself. This has been my busiest year ever.”
Indeed, Cruel Liars is Shook’s second release of 2022, following the release of the Sarah Shook and The Disarmers’ country record Nightroamer. Chances are that the new-wave pop of Cruel Liars will be just a temporary change of pace rather than long-term new direction, with a return to another Disarmers country record on the schedule for 2023.
“I have no interest in turning the Disarmers into Mightmare, or vice versa,” says Shook. “Mightmare is a good side-project outlet for me to get all my creative neuroses into the world without any outside criticism or disagreements or even input. It’s me at my most obsessed, working on music for 12 hours a day while forgetting to eat.”
Not surprisingly, most of Cruel Liars is minor-key moody. But the album does have something of a breakthrough, “Easy,” in which Shook sings the praises of a newfound love.
“It’s the first song I’ve ever put out that’s completely optimistic, with no shadows or tinges of melancholy,” says Shook. “I wrote that at a time when I was freshly in love with my current partner and things were going beyond well. You date enough crappy people for long enough and get into something better and deeper, and you think, Man, I am going to write the best, happiest song about this person ever. So I did.”
And is that song’s subject still living up to it? “Absolutely. Hands down,” Shook says.
This article originally appeared in the November 2022 issue of WALTER magazine