Shirlé Hale: Striking Chords of Nostalgia in ‘The Silver Garden’

Shirlé Hale

Nostalgia, post-punk, and a sense of witchiness are all apparent on Shirlé Hale’s new album ‘The Silver Garden’, a collection of 12 songs which focus on the experience of ageing and loss, finding love and keeping it alive at an older age, and existential thoughts on what comes after. The record touches on Hale’s own experiences both musically and personally. Based in Lisbon, Portugal, born in Los Angeles and growing up in Philadelphia, Shirlé Hale has been influenced by many different music scenes and has spent over 30 years fronting various indie rock bands.

After attending Berklee College of Music in the mid-80s with co-busker & dorm-mate Mary Lou Lord she relocated to Baltimore to form the riot grrrl band Womyn of Destruction in the early ‘90s.

In 1995, she formed Gerty, an indie pop band, with her boyfriend and Liquor Bike frontman David Koslowski. After relocating to Chapel Hill / Durham, NC she formed the shoegaze noise rock band Free Electric State releasing two records before returning back to Baltimore.

After listening to the track ‘Never Be The Same’ on repeat and adding it to my playlist, I am thrilled I got to talk to Shirlé to find out more about her and her music, and I am excited for whatever it is she cooks up next!

Listen to ‘The Silver Garden’ by Shirlé Hale on Spotify

Welcome! It’s great to have you with us, Shirlé. After listening to your latest release, I’m excited to learn more about you. Would you mind giving us a brief overview of your life story and how it’s influenced your path in music?

Hello and thank you for having me, Ali! O.K, Let’s see… I was born in Redondo Beach, Los Angeles California. Before I turned one, my family moved us across the country to a small town outside of North East Philadelphia. My mom had bought an old 1929 Lester Upright piano for my older sister to take lessons, but she lost interest quickly. I, on the other hand, would always climb up onto the bench after her lesson and begin tapping out the notes she had just been practicing. I was 4 years old. My mom hired an old woman down the road to begin teaching me how to read music, but over 5 years I refused and have always played by ear.

At 12 years old I was given my first guitar, a cheap acoustic. An older girl in the neighborhood who played guitar taught me how to play “4+20 ” by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. I felt like a rockstar! From there I started picking out Beatles and Pink Floyd songs and moved onto learning every Joni Mitchell song in all her open tunings. I sang in chorus from 1st grade through 11th grade, playing every talent show I could starting in 5th grade, usually playing piano and singing something I wrote, as I began writing my own songs.

In High School I started a trio with my best friend, Sharon Dillon, along with a two other girls at two different times calling ourselves “Benson, Dillon and Hale” or “Marley Dillon and Hale” and then finally just “DIllon and Hale.” We sang three part harmony, and all three of us played guitar.

A week after I graduated high school, I moved to Madrid Spain, thinking I would attend the Madrid Conservatory of Music with the scholarship money I had won, but instead bummed around most of Spain with my then Spanish boyfriend following a number of music festivals, sleeping in parks and having a great time until my money ran out.

I came back home and applied to Berklee College of Music in Boston and was accepted. It was there that I met my dorm mate, MaryLou Lord, and we started busking in the subway. She has stayed a life long friend. After attending Berklee from 1984-1988, I moved to Baltimore with my college bandmates, an Afro-Punk Funk band called False Face Society, and then formed Baltimore’s first riot grrrl band, Womyn of Destruction, with some of my best girlfriends in 1991.

In 1995, I then formed Gerty, an indie pop band, with my then boyfriend and Liquor Bike frontman, David Koslowski as well as Miyuki Furtado. In 1998 we moved the band to Chapel Hill/Durham, North Carolina.

In 2005 we started the short lived dance pop band, Ex-Members with Melissa York (Team Dretsch/ The Butchies). In 2008 we formed my favorite of all the bands I was ever in, the beautiful shoegaze noise rock band, Free Electric State, releasing two records before returning back to Baltimore in 2012. It was here that I began writing the songs that would become my first solo album aptly titled’ The Silver Garden. I know that wasn’t brief. Lol.

Womyn of Destruction, Baltimore based Riot Grrrl band from 1990-1995

“I felt a beauty in addressing topics of ageing, in all its forms… a way of archiving my life.”

Shirlé Hale

It wasn’t brief, but we love the detail!! And, I love your latest album, ‘The Silver Garden’! You remind me of a unique mix between Stevie Nicks and Siouxsie Sioux. Can you tell us about any influences they may have had on your work and how you carve out your own niche within the genre?

Thank you so much! I have heard the Siouxsie comparison before but, wow, I’ve never been compared to Stevie Nicks! Usually its “you sound like Chrissy Hynde or PJ Harvey..” you know, all those strong, alto-voiced women.

I guess I was always a fan of women with strong voices. Like, when I was a young girl, I LOVED Karen Carpenter. Her voice was the epitome of strength and purity. She could hit a note and it was so spot on. And I guess I’ve always loved women singers without a lot of vibrato. Chrissy Hynde was one of the reasons I started taking my music seriously. She was such a strong bad-ass. Fronting a band with a bunch of guys. Early on in my life I really looked up to her and Patti Smith.

You’ve described ‘The Silver Garden’ as an ode to experiencing the passage of time, addressing the beauty in ageing and the spectrum of emotions from love to loss. As you delved into these personal and universal subjects, what revelations emerged during the writing process, and how personal are you willing to make your music?

Ya know, writing this record was a very cathartic experience. Both of my parents died 11 months apart back in 2011. I think that was the catalyst that started me down this path. I was feeling really untethered to this earth after my parents know, the people who brought you into this existence and how they weren’t here anymore. At that time, David (my now husband) and I were playing in our band Free Electric State, and had just released our second record “Monumental Life”. Most of the lyrics for that album now feel like the start of me looking deeper into subjects of death and dying, regrets, loss and all the unknowns. Then in 2018 one of my best friends and bandmate died suddenly, and with that, I felt a clock ticking and the realization that we all don’t know how much time we have here.

So, when I started writing songs for what would become this record, I felt a beauty in addressing topics of ageing, in all its forms. The changes we all go through, whether it be physical (graying hair, wrinkles, bent backs, fading vision and gnarly knuckles) or mental (losing loved ones and dealing with that emotionally and then worrying about the great beyond) were things I needed to sit with. I also feel like it is a timeline, a way of archiving my life. From looking back to late nights partying with friends “back in the day” (Big Summer Moon/Lullaby) to looking at my husband now and being enamored with how much we are changing together on this journey (Another Trip Around the Sun/ Change). That said, this album is extremely personal.

The way you describe your journey through loss and transformation is really touching. Speaking of transformation, ‘Never Be The Same’ is my favourite track of the album, and learning that it “literally came out of nowhere, written in a matter of minutes along with the lyrics” is fascinating. Would you say many songs come to you as naturally as this one did, or was there something particularly inspiring about the moment that birthed this track?

Awww, thank you! I’m so glad that song resonates with you. As for “Never Be The Same” that one literally came from thin air. But, it also came from such a place of deep grief with the loss of my friend Tom. I had just gotten an autoharp, a new instrument for me, and was sitting on the couch when those chords started a “mandala”. It was like the progression became a meditation, swirling around in this spinning, unending circle. The first line that spilled out “Well, what words can we say, when you left us here that day” was a call to our friend Tom. A letter to him on the other side from all his friends that miss him so much.

Another song that was literally written in 30 minutes, start to finish, was “Schooner”. I again picked up the autoharp and was messing around with it when this progression just flowed effortlessly. Almost like I had KNOWN this song before in another life. The words just poured out as I could see this metaphor for lost love as a heart floating on a small schooner boat , sailing out to sea and sinking. I has a very old world sound to it.

It seems like certain songs have a way of finding you! Contrarily… Which song was the hardest to write? Could you also shed some light on your writing process and what it typically involves?

I think the song I wrestled with the longest was “Will You Remember Me (Like I Remember You)”. I had this little piano progression that I would play over and over, something that sounded almost classical in nature. It evolved into what I think is a wonderful, expansive piece of dark wave pop.

As for my writing process, I do have this way of writing where I pick up my guitar, or sit at the piano or whatever instrument, and start to bang out a few chords, then a progression will just begin to flow out and grab hold of me. The way I write songs has been the same since I was a kid. I always write the music (chord progression) first. Then the music will dictate where I am lyrically, if the music sounds dark, sad, happy, strong, etc… Then, a word or a short line of poetry might pop into my head. It’s a very unconscious process and never forced. Sometimes I do write lyrically with intent on a certain subject, a topic I might have been thinking about, but usually it’s free to manifest on its own.

With your roots in Los Angeles and upbringing in Philadelphia, and now being based in Lisbon, you’ve experienced a diverse mix of music scenes. How does the vibrant music culture of Lisbon influence your music, and in what ways do you see this cross-continental journey reflected in your work?

I have lived in many music scenes, that’s for sure! I’ve only been in Lisbon for 8 months, and am just getting my feet wet in the music scene here, but I will say that this might be one of the most breathtakingly expansive scenes I’ve ever witnessed.

From Fado to jazz to electronica to pop and everything in between those genres, there is something to hear daily. It would take us 24 hours each day to be able to explore ALL that Lisbon has to offer in live music. It’s a bit overwhelming to be honest. I did just see Laurie Anderson give a talk about her late husband, Lou Reed’, and his record Berlin. It was so cool to be able to see this, on a monday morning at 10 am. See, things like this go on here all the time. As for my musical future here, I am in the early stages of seeing what a small European tour might look like to promote the record.

Well, I’m hoping there’ll be some UK dates on your schedule – best of luck with the tour plans!! Shirlé, with over three decades of experience fronting various indie rock bands and a journey from the riot grrrl energy of Womyn of Destruction to the dreamier ambiances of your current work, do you view your musical evolution as a natural progression? How do you think your rich history and diverse experiences have shaped this transition?

Yes, I think I’ve been lucky to have been on a path of various sounds and experiences. It’s made me a much better musician for it. I have had traveled a truly diverse and unique path in my musical career, thanks to all those people I have played with. Every band has broadened my knowledge and love for so many different genres of music. But I will say that staying true to indie, non commercial music has been a staple in my journey.

Your work has often intersected with the concept of community, evident in the collaboration with friends on this album. How important is the sense of community to your music, and how do you choose your collaborators?

I have been so damn lucky to have had such talented friends along with deep friendships with each of them. One thing I will say, coming from the Boston music scene of the 80’s that was so dog-eat-dog, and moving to Baltimore in 89′ to be a part of that cities camaraderie with bands helping other bands, players filling in in multiple bands, as well as a similar vibe in my Chapel Hill and Durham years, just gave me such a true knowledge of “community” in a music scene.

I was so humbled that the friends I asked to play on this record took the time to learn the songs and to travel from all parts of the country to lend their talent.

First, without David Koslowski, my husband and bandmate of the last 25 years, I don’t know where I would be. He has been the most instrumental person in my musical career and I can’t thank him enough. From co producing, to playing and being my most honest critic, this record wouldn’t sound as it does without him.

I’ve know drummer Laura King since she was 15, when she dropped out of school to form a band and go on tour, eventually moving to Chapel Hill to play drums with our band Gerty back in 2000. Now she’s playing in Superchunk and has played with Kelly Deal and so many other great musicians.

J. Robbins, a dear old friend, helped arrange “Silent Now” and played unbelievable guitar and drums on that song.

Gosh, I’ve known multi instrumentalist Miyuki Furtado since 1990. We played in a great but totally frustrating band together for a hot minute, then joined forces and started Gerty with my then boyfriend and now husband of 30 years, David Koslowski. Miyuki then went on to move to Brooklyn in the early days of 2000 and started The Rogers Sisters. Now he’s doing his own project called Divining Rod.

Rob Girardi who produced and played on the record was a honorary “Woman” in our riot grrrl band, Womyn of Destruction. I’ve known him since 1991. He’s produced numerous great bands like Beach House, Celebration and Future Islands. Just incredible and I’m so honored and proud of him. He and his soul mate, Veronica Clay, have a wonderful dark wave band called RJVJ.

Speaking of Veronica , she has been a fixture in the Baltimore music and art scene since the mid 1990s and was always a huge supporter of my music. She is also the art director for three of my videos for this record.

Dave Heumann, guitarist and singer for Arboretum, has been in my orbit since the early grunge days in Baltimore.

David Bergander from Celebration is probably the one who I’ve known the shortest. Nick Williams (Free Electric State) has been a good friend since our early days in Durham.

So, as you can see, I have grown long roots with most of these friends, hence, another reason I called the record The Silver Garden.

“Truly love making music for the sake of simply making music. If you are looking for fame and fortune then you are in it for the wrong reasons.”

Shirlé Hale

It’s clear you’ve built a remarkable network of talented friends over the years. Based on your breadth of experience, how do you view the current landscape of music compared to when you started out? What are the most significant changes you’ve observed?

The more things change, the more things stay the same, and it’s not too different for the music scene. Everyone is still vying for a space at the table. That is the same as it ever was, as David Byrne once sang. BUT, the biggest difference between then and now is the internet. The Internet and particularly, social media, has made it both easy to get your music out there but also WAY more competitive.

I saw a piece on how some musicians pay “phone banks”, a warehouse with hundreds of cell phones all opened to the Spotify app, where 50 people were simply clicking the same song for the artist so that they would get thousands of plays a day, making them stand out. This really upset me and I find it truly disgusting.

Back in my day, if you were an indie musician you most certainly did not want to “sell out”. For example, if a band sold a song to a car commercial we were all like, “WOAH! They totally Sold OUT!” but with the rise of the internet, EVERYONE wants to sell out, to cash in and to get paid. Shit, we played for $100 guarantees at clubs and thought we were killing it in the 1990’s and 2000’s. So, to see payola happening in this business at the rampant pace it’s currently going, is to say the least, disappointing. And just wait until AI takes over. It’s all going to get so much more weirder! LOL.

That’s a fascinating reflection, and echoing Cobain; “the worst crime is faking it“. That in mind, what advice would you give to up-and-coming artists who draw inspiration from your music and may aspire to have a career as diverse and rich as yours?

I would say Thank you first! My advice would be to truly love making music for the sake of simply making music. If you are looking for fame and fortune then you are in it for the wrong reasons.

Try to play with as many people as possible. Embrace all genres and try to learn how to incorporate those sounds that resonate with you. Be gracious and kind. And most importantly, have fun and don’t expect anything to come of it.

Sage advice! Now that ’The Silver Garden’ is out – what direction do you see your music taking next? Can you give us a glimpse into any future projects or new sounds you’re exploring?

Well, someone I am truly enamoured with currently is an artist named Hania Rani. She’s a classically trained pianist that layers piano with synth and vocals in such a beautifully ethereal way. If I could be one tenth as good of a composer as she, I would be happy to create a mix that’s one part Hania, one part Tom Yorke and two parts me. I don’t know what that sound would be but I’m looking forward to finding out.

I’m also working with a producer named Devereaux where we are collaborating with dance music. Check out the song “Mel” on Spotify.

Thank you very much for taking the time to talk with IAMUR, Shirlé. As we wrap up our conversation, I want to make sure we’ve touched on everything you consider important. Is there anything we haven’t covered that you’d like to discuss, or any message you wish to convey to our readers and your listeners?

I truly appreciate your interest in my music and I welcome people of all ages to check out the record, but especially those older folk. If we are truly the lucky ones, we will all get to travel a long and beautiful path into this Silver Garden. Muito Obrigada, Ali.

If Shirlé’s journey has inspired or intrigued you, then immersing yourself in ‘The Silver Garden’ is a must to fully appreciate her introspective musings on the passage of time. Follow Shirlé on Instagram, Youtube, Facebook, Bandcamp, to stay updated. And while you’re at it, why not explore more of the reviews we’ve shared this month, here!

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