Kalie Shorr’s Very, Very, Very Bad Year
Kalie Shorr will make you flinch. In conversation she's sweet and cordial, with blue eyes that assign naivety. Then you hit upon a sore spot and her gaze tightens with such focus you gasp for a breath. Projected innocence is one hell of a Siren's call, it seems.
At its best, her new album Open Book works the same way. Shorr mixes plucky melodies with lyrics that break the shackles that so often hold a young female artist back in Nashville. It's bold, it's raw, and above everything, else it's real.
“I’m just so over writing about stuff I don’t know about," she tells Taste of Country of a realization she had at 25 that often takes until 35 or 45 to figure out. Cheating (not by her), anorexia (hers, as told in the bridge of "Escape"), drug overdose (not her) and sleeping with a guy who has a girlfriend (hers, but it's complicated) are what she's known since May 2018. To say she's had a bad year is an understatement. A car theft is such a minor detail that it doesn't even get a passing reference among the 13 divulgences.
Shorr started her interview with Taste of Country with an exercise meant to see how she's doing today. When asked if she's empowered, put together and professional (like, say, Oprah) or a hot mess (like, say, 2007 shaved head Britney) the "Lullaby" singer said she's halfway in between. She once thought she was full Oprah and knows she's been full-blown, mid-decade Britney.
"Yeah, have you heard 'Vices'?" she asks, laughing (referring to a song that lists her misdeeds). "I keep waking up next to my ex because he knows my body / And his new girlfriend, she doesn't know and, hell, I wish I was sorry," she sings.
"When I get up, I get down / I take my meds and I hit the town," she repeats during the bridge after casually glossing over a fear of being alone. You might have missed the pain in this song because it's so doggedly happy, but you recognize the story arc. Here's she's bottomed out and four songs that follow find her getting back to normal, back to halfway between Oprah and Britney.
"Gatsby" may be the most important song on Open Book, as the response from her audience empowered her to push herself even deeper into a rabbit hole of feelings and stories she wasn't sure fans would appreciate. Flatly stated, Shorr worried people would think she was crazy for talking about taking medications to help her mood, but instead she found a lot of older fans cheering in agreement. Performing the song at a Song Suffragettes show was terrifying ... until she finished and saw a clip was going viral on Instagram Stories.
“Once I figured that out and had that crowd reaction I was like, ‘Oh, I can just say whatever I want,'" Shorr says. "Vices" and "F U Forever" came quickly after that. About a third of the album was written in a period of three weeks, and while the songs are laid out chronologically to take fans through her journey, they were written out of order. "The One" was written 10 hours after a breakup that started her tumble, but it's track No. 4.
Emotionally, Shorr plunges into a darkness anyone who's loved and lost knows well, and she starts to come out of it before one big interruption. In January 2018, her sister overdosed on heroin and died. "The World Keeps Spinning" tells the story of how she found about it. The whiplash you feel at this point in the album was intentional, because that's how Shorr experienced it. Earlier she refers to this in "Escape," naming names and listing her family's sins. If you're wondering if the family signed off on it all, yeah, they did.
“I called my dad," Shorr says without hesitation as she talks about a song that details a brother's drinking, her father's marijuana use and her late sister's addiction. "The line I was concerned about was the ‘Heroin, piece of sh-- named Phil’ like because that was like — I wanna tell my story … but I also wanna be respectful of other people. But my dad had that same approach with that to us sharing how my sister passed away, because I wrote the obituary too. Be honest about it.”
Co-producer Skip Black also had a family member who overdosed, and together they dedicated the album to those loved ones. But there's something of a happy ending here, because Shorr remains close to her mother, her relationship with her father is better and the family is finding ways to move on.
“He doesn’t smoke anymore, which is good, but he was definitely stoned my entire childhood," she admits, laughing. "Now he’s raising my sister’s kids.” Maybe we should have ended there, on an upbeat.
Did you apply the same set of sensitivities when it came to songs about your ex-boyfriend?
Didn’t hold any details back?
So all that’s —
"As far as that goes, I’m not super-concerned with his feelings," she adds and we scurry to the next topic.
Being able to compartmentalize the pain is a gift or a curse, depending on if you're Shorr or her therapist. "I'll go five months without crying," she says with a smile toward the end of the interview, and if you talked to her at any point this past 18 months, you know that's true. Weeks after her sister died she was doing media, talking about it all as if time had healed wounds. It hadn't.
“I’m like, ‘I feel like I’m feeling sorry for myself,'" Shorr says, replaying a conversation she had with her therapist. "She’s like, ‘Dude? Feel sorry for yourself!’”
Self-pity might not be for those who move to Nashville from Maine right out of high school, with little money and few resources. Twenty-somethings that take on sexism in the music industry as the "Fight Like a Girl" singer did and is doing with the #LettheGirlsPlay movement aren't prone to self-loathing. Independent artists who plug away show after show, song after song with no promise of a "hit" usually don't waste days crying for themselves, and if they do, they at least come out of it with a few songs.
It's been a bad year for Kalie Shorr, but she's coming out of it with a new focus that would be terrifying if it wasn't so exciting.
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