Top Hats & Tales


Top Hats & Tales


Words Paul Watson

A quiet, ‘hippified’ upbringing in the rural town of Fort Collins, Colorado, proved to be the perfect musical platform for Sarah, Hannah, Eva, and Liza Holbrook (SHEL). These four super-talented siblings ditched their college education for a life on the road, which has amounted to a rigorous 200-show schedule per year, some beautiful vinyl recordings, and a love of live performance...

Home education clearly did these girls no harm: a fusion of hard graft, creative freedom, and classic folk recordings was just the catalyst they needed to carve out a career in the music industry. SHEL’s lyrics are smart and intricate, their instrumenta-tion flawless, and they are as charming to talk to as they are in their approach to their craft. And it all stems from the family genes...

“Our Dad’s a musician, and we started off backing him, but now he says it’s gone full-circle; we let him back us if he’s lucky,” smiles Sarah, violinist, bassist, and film-maker. I push for information on the latter. “I also cut the band’s videos, and we’ve been fortunate enough to have them played on a few campaigns; we’re big on the visuals as well as the sound, and it’s another medium in which to portray our music.”

Modesty is an admirable quality, but let’s make no mistake, these videos are stunning, and the campaigns she mentions are not only national, but for sizeable brands such as Glade and Splenda; furthermore, SHEL’s music has been featured on programmes on the ABC and CBS TV networks.
The more time I spend in their company, the more I struggle to find any other word than ‘quirky’ to describe them. I check if this is acceptable. It is. Good. I mean, they make their own ‘whimsical’ top hats, they’ve got djembe drum (Liza) and mandolin (Eva) in their locker, and their songs, complete with frighteningly tight four-part harmonies, are real roller-coasters, so I’ve got a point.

Although they’ve been together since birth (literally), professionally, it’s now five years and counting for the four-piece. So what’s the goal for 2014?

“Pay the bills,” chirps Liza, which is met with giggles of agreement. “It’s not easy when you’re constantly travelling the country, not knowing what kind of venue you’re going to find when you eventually get there, and dealing with bad house engineers! But you’ve just got to stick with it.”
And getting on with it is what these girls know all about: after a deal went sideways with Universal, they dusted themselves down, formed their own publishing house and label, and cut their first record... on vinyl (told you they were quirky).

“An incredible thing that we’re seeing now are companies like Pledge Music, who make it possible for fans to contribute towards the cost of making our records. It’s a partnership really, and it also allows us to share the experience with them, which is really nice,” says Sarah, humbly. “As [acclaimed music industry analyst] Bob Lefsetz said, the problem with artists today is they feel entitled to success, but really, we’re not entitled to anything. Once you realise that, you discover whether or not you can really make it. It defines your mission and your music.”

Wham, Bam, Thank You, NAMM
For the second year in succession, SHEL was the resident band on the DPA stand at the Winter NAMM show in Anaheim. A ‘silent stage’ setup utilised four DPA d:facto II mics, three of which were mounted onto Lectrosonics HH handheld transmitters.

For the mandolin, djembe, and fiddle, DPA 4099s were fed to Lectrosonics SMQV belt pack transmitters. Signal was sent to a six-channel Venue receiver, and into a myMix personal monitoring system, via a pre-amp. myMix opened the door to some cool audience interaction; visitors to the DPA stand (me included) were busy dialing in their own mixes, and the overall sound quality was outstanding.

“We can always tell when people ‘solo’ us,” says Hannah, wide-eyed. How did she spot me, I ponder, silently. “They don’t take their eyes off you, so that adds a little pressure, but it’s a really cool way of inviting the audience into the live experience; and I have to say, I love singing through the d:facto micro- phone. It’s so rich sounding, which isn’t always the case with mics, especially as I always like a dry mix, but using this, it’s perfect.”

Being on in-ears is more clinical, Sarah adds, explaining that the band tend to use wedges ‘for the vibe’ at shows, however, it does allow them total control, vocally.

“What I love about the DPA mics, even in this environment [at NAMM], is that they’re all really dynamic,” she explains. “Sometimes we sing softly when we’re doing harmonies, and it’s amazing that whether we’re whisper- ing into the mic or belting it out from way back, the vocal always sounds crystal clear, and the tone is exceptional. You just don’t get that with other mics.”