The plot twist…that moment in a story when an event or experience dramatically shifts the future direction of the storyline and all the characters involved. I’ve always found these moments fascinating in real life, and so I started this new, recurring series—called “The Twist”—where I talk to entrepreneurs and explore the plot twist that led them to start their businesses.
Fifteen years ago, four sisters—Sarah, Hannah, Eva, and Liza—set out to use the artistic genes their mom and dad gave them, form a band, and find ways to blend their seemingly dissonant musical concentrations into one euphonious sound.
And 15 years and 2 full-length albums later, SHEL continues to harmonize their disparate styles and instruments—which include a rotating combination of violins, guitars, keys, pianos, mandolins, drums, beatboxing, and spellbinding vocals—into a flawless amalgamation of folk, rock and classical.
The five of us met before their recent show at the Hi-Fi venue in the Fountain Square neighborhood of Indianapolis to discuss their first musical memories, who they write their music for, and where they like to take people inside their songs.
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Joe: First things first, happy birthday, Eva! I’ll take the risk…do you all mind sharing your ages?
Eva, SHEL: I hit the big two eight today.
Sarah, SHEL: I’m 26.
Hannah, SHEL: Liza’s 23, and I’m the oldest at 29.
Sarah, SHEL: We’re still in our 20s…barely.
Joe: Now that I know the birth order, who’s in charge of this group?
Hannah, SHEL: No one’s really in charge.
Liza, SHEL: Everyone has their different areas where they lead, I would say.
Joe: I hear you. What were some of your first musical memories growing up in Fort Collins?
Sarah, SHEL: Our dad’s a singer/songwriter so we just grew up listening to him play music. My first memories are going to coffee shops. I remember being babysat by some of dad’s friends while he played for tips at this coffee shop. They took us over there to listen to his show. I remember they gave us each a dollar to go tip dad.
Eva, SHEL: I remember just thinking dad was a total rock star. I thought he was the biggest thing ever.
Joe: Was he successful in music?
Hannah, SHEL: Yeah, in his own right.
Liza, SHEL: He made some money off it for a while, but mostly made his living on his business. He was an independent business owner of a lawn care service. He’d work really hard during the day and then at night he’d come home and practice. That was the best part of how he would spend time with us too. I’d go, “Dad, play with me.” He’d say, “Why don’t you play with me?” He’d give you a wood block and teach you how to tap to the beat. It was really sweet of him. Being an adult and a musician now, I look back and think how that was a sacrifice for sure on his part. Because it’s not like you were playing in time, but he was taking the time to teach you.
My first musical memory was the song “Jamming” by Bob Marley. I remember jamming to that in the living room in my diaper. That’s like the first song I think I ever remembered hearing.
Sarah, SHEL: Solid.
Hannah, SHEL: She was too small to reach up and rewind it. So the moment it was over, she’d run around the room and say, “Rewind it, rewind it.” Someone would go in and rewind it for her again, and she’d just be jamming out in her diaper. Liza had the moves. I mean she still does. She’s had them since diaper hood.
Liza, SHEL: Our mom’s also a visual artist. She spends a lot of time making quilts. She would say she’s not musical…more visual. But I think we got a little bit of both because we’d make these clay creations out of sculpting clay. And then, when we’d go to our dad’s shows, we’d be sitting there with a table off to the side selling our little clay creations.
Joe: See, you were finding your entrepreneurial spirits back then.
Sarah, SHEL: Exactly. We got into merchandising pretty early.
Joe: So growing up surrounded by music, was it always a good thing in your life? Or was there ever a season where you rejected it?
Hannah, SHEL: I’ve known since I was five that I wanted to be a pianist, so when I finally got the opportunity to take piano lessons at 10 it was life changing. I’m a musician through and through, and I will always play music. I love it, and getting to play with my sisters is an honor.
Joe: And since Hannah plowed the road for you, did the rest of you feel like obligated or privileged to follow her?
Sarah, SHEL: O yeah, she was so cool suddenly. I mean she’s always been super cool, but all of a sudden it was like, “Oh my God, Hannah’s so cool! How could we be like that?”
Joe: Sarah, I know you dropped out of college a few times before accepting that music was where it’s at for you. Can you each talk about that moment in your lives when you were at a crossroad and your life veered into the music game? What was that plot twist like in your life?
Sarah: I was 16 when I went to college for videography. But then everyone was so insanely stressful in that world that I was like, “Okay, I’m out.” I left for a semester, and then went back to a different college for graphic design. Then left again because we were touring so much. Then went back to college again and my professors—I had really amazing professors would ask me to send pictures of where we were so that we could prove we were actually touring.”
Then, at the end of that semester, we signed with Universal when I was 18—just old enough to sign the contract—and that was what broke it for me. When we got a major record deal, I knew I should commit to this.”
Joe: How about you, Eva?
Eva: When I was 10, I’d kind of quit all music up to that point, but then we walked into this music store. There was a mandolin on the wall and my dad said, “If I buy this, will somebody learn it?” I remember as a 10-year-old being, “I would really like to have something that pretty that was just mine.” I was really attracted to it. I think he asked everybody but me, because he knew I was a quitter.
I ended up getting it. And I remember when we got home, my dad opened up the case with a key. And he said, “Someday when Eva’s famous, she can lock it when she goes on an airplane.” I remember having this breakthrough moment where I realized this thing could get me on an airplane! We’d never been on an airplane before.
So dad got me lessons with a great teacher, but I just wouldn’t practice. It hurt my fingers and I hated it. So I was working up the courage to tell him, “Hey dad, I’m going to quit.” When I finally told him, he said I at least needed to practice for today’s lesson. I remember something clicking during that lesson, and I loved it. And I knew then that I’m going to do this for the rest of my life. So that was the first pivotal moment for me.
Joe: And the second?
Eva: Later on, I went to college mostly out of obligation to my family, because I didn’t want my relatives to worry about me. I went for a semester, and it was very hard. As an applied learner, I didn’t really thrive in a classroom. So, I went for a semester and dropped out.
But I remember thinking at the time—I was 17—that it’s a big deal when kids don’t go to college. And I knew I needed to do something worthwhile. And so I determined that I was going to write enough songs to make an album. What inspired that was I had written one song, and I played it for our oldest sister Margot. She told me, “Wow, I love that. If you would make an album, I would buy it.” And so that was another click, knowing that people might buy an album I make.
Joe: Can I pass the question to you, Liz? Are you ready?
Liza: I don’t know, maybe I’m still waiting on mine in a lot of ways. I did kind of follow suit being the youngest. My dad really wanted me to play harp when I was a little kid, so I started that at six—right around the time that Eva and Sarah started their instruments. It took so much patience on my poor teacher’s part because I never practiced. I didn’t retain information well for any of that stuff. She was very patient and my parents were too. But I would tell them probably once every six months, “I really don’t want to keep doing this. Can I please stop?” They told me to hang in there.
Then I would have these little moments of, “All right, cool, I kind of like it.” But then it would happen again. I didn’t want to keep doing this. After seven years of this, I finally started playing percussion. I’d been tapping on the soundboard and somebody told my parents that I might be polyrhythmic. I got a little hand drum, and I loved it! Then at 13, my friends and family surprised me for my 13th birthday with a drum kit. I think that was probably my first pivotal moment of, “Wow, this is really fun and this is something I really like doing.”
Joe: Have you ever thought about bringing the harp back and adding it to the band?
Liza: Eva and I were just talking that! Yeah, I’d like to bring it back and reincorporate it.
Joe: Can you do a percussion sound on a harp?
Liza: You can and you can put [Piazza’s 00:23:43] in there as well. We can get all Ed Sheeran with it. So yeah, that’s my pivotal moment.
Hannah: My pivotal moment?
Hannah: When I was 16, I’d been playing piano for six years and I just started studying with a classical teacher. She’s now one of my best friends, and I just love her to pieces. But at the time, she was really hardcore and would get on my case if I didn’t practice.
She got me to enter these classical contests. I had started composing, and I was just learning how to write music. And at 16, I entered one where I had to notate the entire piece. She told me I probably didn’t have a chance because it was one of my first compositions. I went in there, presented my little sheet music to the judges. And by the end of the night, I competed against everyone who had won their category and then the judges picked me as the overall winner!
This was the first time I had won something, and that was a game changer for me right there. I remember, right then, wanting to do piano for the rest of my life.
Eva: I couldn’t believe it. I was crying. I was so proud and so shocked.
Sarah: It’s very clear that we all doubted Hannah. It was a turning point for all of us.
Hannah: I usually do my best work under pressure like or when people doubt me.
Then my next pivotal moment was more recent. After that contest, I started writing my own music and went to college to study piano performance. The girls were all working on a band during the day, and I was studying classical music. Sometimes, I would come and practice with them and we’d play shows together still.
I think because of the division of our interests at the time, it caused a lot of tension for me for several years. I kept trying to do both, but I knew I couldn’t. I needed something to change. They’re both right in front of me, and I feel like I can’t pick one over the other. I was actually in a lot of turmoil over this. It was actually a bit of a spiritual breakthrough. I prayed about it and said, “Okay, I need my heart to change or I need something to change. One of these things has to change drastically, or I’m going to have to do something else because I can’t pick. This is torturous.”
Joe: That was just last year?
Hannah: Yeah, this past December. And right around Christmas, I saw this documentary called, “Eight Days a Week,” by Ron Howard. There was something in it that just lit me up. Watching four guys do this thing together. There was something about that unity that’s really special, and it brought hope everywhere they went. People saw it and they wanted that kind of unity. They wanted that kind of camaraderie in their life. And as I was watching that, I thought, “Wait, we have that! We have that camaraderie!”
Eva: And there’s a part in that documentary where Paul says that John was the first songwriter he ever met. And for them, songwriting was how they would escape together. I realized that that was similar to how we ended up making music. When we were kids, we lived out in the country and ended up going on these adventures together. We always imagined these other places, and that carried right over into making music.
As soon as we were competent musicians, we wanted to go somewhere. Then as soon as we were professional musicians, we wanted to take people with us. It was like the experience wasn’t complete until we did that.
Joe: Oh, that’s great.
Hannah: After watching that, I basically had a breakdown because I realized that Eva’s always had this vision for the band. I love playing with them all. And if everybody wants to keep doing it, then let’s keep doing it.” Then finally I was set that I really want this.
Joe: Talk a little about your dad. I know he strongly encouraged music. How would you describe your relationship with him?
Eva: It’s different for everybody. Every child is different, and so I think every person at this table had a different experience. We’re all like our dad in different ways and obviously like our mom in different ways too. I know, being an adult and looking back, he did the best that he could. What I got from that was far more than ever hurt me from anything he didn’t do perfectly.
I remember crying and him being frustrated as he tried to explain to me how to read music. I was such a slow learner, and he didn’t quite understand how to teach me. But now as an adult, I understand his intentions. He was tired and frustrated. He knew that I needed to learn. And I wanted to learn, but I wasn’t quite capable.
There was grace too. I feel like—especially as I got older—my dad became my biggest ally. And his opinion I respected the most.
When I started writing songs, I did it shyly because I respected my dad’s opinion so much. And I was scared of what he might say. We always had our rehearsal space set up with microphones and speakers. I would stand in front of this microphone and sing this song very quietly. It was almost like I was doing it for myself, but I wanted him to hear it.
Eva: I remember one night. I went outside with him and he told me, “That song you were singing in there…it’s really beautiful. You have a very beautiful voice.” And that just meant the world.
Joe: Wow, as a dad myself, that’s great to hear how positive affirmation can go so far.
Sarah: I’ll add to that. I remember when Eva and Hannah were writing so many songs, and dad would ask me, “Why aren’t you writing songs?” He’d ask me that for like a year or two, and I didn’t know why I wasn’t writing songs. Then he finally—after we’d been playing music together for a while with him—came to me and said, “I’m sorry that I ever asked you that because I realize now that what you’re doing with your instrument is like writing. Keep doing that.” That was really empowering and sweet. And since then, I’ve been able to write songs because it was like the pressure was off.
Joe: That’s so great.
Joe: While it’s obvious that you all connect so well, it’s also clear that you’re each very different from one another. How does that all come together when you’re creating a song? Does it work well? Is it a challenge for you to bring all that together?
Liza: Yes and yes. Sometimes it’s so easy and everything melds together well, and sometimes it’s literally like pulling teeth. It’s so wild how it can go back and forth. We have found that we kind of have to butt heads about things. But because we love each other, we’re willing to fight through it and get to the other side. It’s not always a fight. It’s a little bit of a struggle because it’s a meshing of ideas.
One person has one idea how a song could go, and the other person hears something else. And so we’re finally learning to listen to each other. That’s been the biggest breakthrough this year. We’re not perfect at it. We’re still working on it. But we have discovered that when we combine our ideas and everybody’s voice is heard, that’s when we are truly at our best. SHEL is SHEL when everyone has a voice and when everyone is contributing.
Eva: We’re like opposite personalities as well and preserving individuality is the only way it can work. You’ve got to have individuals who are heard, but you can’t have a war at that point. In the 15 years we’ve been doing this, the only thing that has saved us is that moment when we come back to the realization that it’s about respecting somebody who is different than you or thinks differently than you or works differently than you.
That’s what makes it all come together is that respect and grace and accountability. Those three things seem to be the magic combination that allows for very different individuals to work together. I think what we make is what it is because of our desire to push through the hard times and create something. We all have faith that if you work past it, then it will be better for actually having gone through the hardship.
Joe: Yeah, I feel like that mutual respect would be good for society in general.
Sarah: Yeah. Wouldn’t that be crazy?
Joe: Who do you target when creating your music?
Eva: Well, I think we’re doing the same thing we’ve always been doing. For us, it’s like we create this sort of secret world that we escape into. It’s not exclusive; everyone’s welcome. We put it out there, and not everyone’s going to want to step inside. But when people do, I think for all of us there’s a sense of purpose and destiny that’s gratified in being able to take people somewhere.
In a sense we follow that muse that’s taking us and helping us escape. We follow her wherever she goes. Then sometimes people follow us, but we’re following her. You know what I mean?
Joe: That makes sense.
Eva: I think that everybody is trying to escape. In escaping, I don’t mean avoid the unpleasantries or the suffering of existence. It’s like everybody wants to escape to gain a better perspective. It’s sort of like why we read fairytales. Because we watch a protagonist overcome all these trials that we feel we don’t have what it takes to overcome. Then we read about somebody else doing it, and we embody that person. And if we ever do provide that for somebody, then my purpose is gratified.