Sarah Shook and Mariel Buckley Just Want People to Have More Experiences

The friends talk experimenting with country, spirituality, and more.

Sarah Shook is a singer-songwriter from North Carolina, known for their work fronting the country rock band Sarah Shook and the Disarmers, and now performing solo as Mightmare; Mariel Buckley is a Calgary-based alt-country singer-songwriter, who just released her latest record Everywhere I Used To Be via Birthday Cake Records. Since Sarah is releasing the debut Mightmare record, Cruel Liars, next month on Kill Rock Stars, they hopped on the phone with their good friend Mariel to catch up about it and much more. 
— Annie Fell, Editor-in-chief, Talkhouse Music

Sarah Shook: What’s up, buddy?

Mariel Buckley: Oh, man. It’s so good to see you.

Sarah: It’s so good to see you, too. Why haven’t we done this before?

Mariel: I don’t know. Because I feel like everyone was like, oh, I get to be totally alone for two years, and none of us reached out.

Sarah: [Laughs.] I think we have a problem.

Mariel: How are you, dude?

Sarah: I’m doing pretty good. I’m getting ready to leave for Europe tomorrow and, you know, five million last minute things. I finally just got my little tracking devices that I’m sticking to my guitars, and I’m excited. I’m kind of geeking out about it. I’m not usually very good at technology, but these were very self-explanatory. I hope you have the same user friendly experience.

Mariel: I just feel like we need them now, flights are just so brutal. Are you worried? Or are you feeling pretty chill?

Sarah: I feel pretty chill. Whatever happens, we’ll make it work. Our lineup right now is just wildly talented and just wonderful human beings, so I’m pumped about that.

Mariel: Yeah, dude. I follow everything you do, but, fuck, the whole flipped, and it looks fun all the same. Like, I know the last one was fun, but this one looks fun, too.

Sarah: Yeah, it’s been good. It’s definitely been different. There’s been a lot of instability for the first half of this year, and it feels like we finally got some really, really good folks dialed in. You know how that is. It’s like after a couple of weeks on the road and everybody’s tight as heck and it’s just it sounds so good. How are you? What are you up to?

Mariel: I just got back! I had five days off, so I was just off the grid — but also putting out a record, which is not really off the grid. So I did that. I’m also going to Europe in two weeks, so I’m trying to get my stuff in a group. You know, we’re doing the same things at all the time, I feel like.

Sarah: Yeah, exactly. Have you looked to see if we’re crossing paths anywhere?

Mariel: We’re not. 

Sarah: Damn it. Is this tour your first time in Europe?

Mariel: Yeah, it’s first time ever going over there, so I’m pretty excited.

Sarah: I am so excited for you. You’re going to kill it. You’re going to make some lifelong fans, my friend.

Mariel: Oh, that’s what I hear. I hear they’re nice over there. And I think you were the one that even got me set up with my Swedish and Scandinavian agent now, so I’ll get to go over there soon, too. 

Sarah: Heck, yeah. [Laughs.] 

Mariel: And you look fucking amazing. I’m sorry, I swear, but you look so good.

Sarah: [Laughs.] Thank you.

Mariel:  You look like you feel good, too.

Sarah: I do, I feel really good. I’ve been taking really good care of myself. It’s amazing how when you take really good care of yourself, you start feeling better. Not just physically, but mental health — take care of your body and your brain benefits. It’s wild.

Mariel: Oh, my god. I feel like that’s the new most punk rock thing that is happening, for people like us that probably used to party way more than is absolutely necessary — it’s like, take care of yourself now, and tell people to take care of their mental health. I love that trend.

Sarah: I love it, too. I think that the ripple effects from that are something that we probably won’t ever be able to quantify or understand, but I think it’s so powerful and so damn cool.

Mariel: Dude, yeah. Well, right after you and I met was kind of when you were like, “I’m going to sober up.” And I was like, “Woah, that’s crazy.” And then a couple years later, I was like, I’m going to cut my drinking in half. And then I just basically stopped. I still do sometimes, but I feel like it’s such a palpable change. You made it so that I was like, Wow, Sarah, looks like they’re doing fine. I bet I can drink less! [Laughs.] It’s crazy. Do you feel like you’re doing better work than you ever were before, too? Because I’m like, Wow, my show is better.

Sarah: Yeah, absolutely. And definitely there was an adjustment period where it was pretty wild, the first few months of playing shows as a freshly sober person. It was weird because I didn’t feel like I was getting stage fright, so when I walked onto the stage, I kind of felt like I always feel — which is good and positive. But I would get on stage and even though I didn’t feel like I was stressed out, it was as if my fight or flight response kicked in. It was really bad. I saw my primary care doctor about it and she gave me a prescription for just a really mild antihistamine that’s also an anti-anxiety pill, and I like it because it’s take as needed. It’s not something I have to do every day. So every once in a while, if there’s elements of my day or surrounding the show that I know is going to be a little bit more high pressure or whatever, sometimes I’ll just take one of those and it helps immensely. I mean, I could suffer through the show and I would do a good job, I know I would. But there’s no sense in needlessly suffering if you can not.

Mariel: Take it as needed — that’s the nicest thing. I’m coming off my antidepressants right now, because I’ve just been taking them forever, and, you know,, your body just starts to do weird stuff when it’s in you for that long. But I would love to find an alternative, because I’m like, Man, I don’t want to be on these. But then I think about touring without them, I’m like, Oh, my gosh

Sarah: Yeah. I actually just had an appointment today to get a diagnosis for ADHD, and I was pretty skeptical. It’s this website that’s like, you sign up for this half hour consultation and they either say you have an ADHD diagnosis or you don’t. So in 25 minutes, this woman was like, “Yeah, you definitely have ADHD. Here’s a prescription for Adderall. You need to start taking this every day.” And I was like, “Can I just say that I’m about to be out of the country for 30 days, and I probably shouldn’t be starting a new daily medication regimen.” And she’s like, “No, you need to start tomorrow.” And I’m like, “I don’t think so. No, I’m not going to do that!” [Laughs.] This is not something that’s insanely impacting my day-to-day. There are times when my brain is completely going a mile a minute. Or, you know how it is — there’s five million things going on and your brain is perfectly executing everything, and then the moment that it can’t anymore, you’re just like, I can’t even get out of bed.

Mariel: Yeah, it’s crazy because I feel like as much as medicine is very helpful, and I’m pro the medication if it’s for you, I feel like doctors — especially with nonbinary people and women — are just like, “Take a pill! Take this, shut up, you’re being hysterical!” It’s like, no, I’m genuinely struggling. But, yeah, the urge to medicate is really strong, I feel like.

Sarah: Yeah, absolutely. Especially after only 20 minutes of an assessment when they didn’t even ask for access to my medical history — it’s just like, “Yeah, we’re just going to ask you a series of questions and you’re going to answer yes or no.” It’s wild. I feel like it’s kind of a sign of the times that people really are taking more control of their mental health, and we’re sort of having this collective awakening that a lot of us are really fucked up — from our childhood, from being raised by parents that weren’t equipped to teach us really important things, like emotional intelligence and self awareness. A lot of things that, a lot of us are in our 20s and 30s and 40s and we’re just now learning about. It’s like, Damn, this would have been would have been helpful in my early 20s. [Laughs.] 

Mariel: Oh, my god. I feel like you and I probably are in the same generation — I feel like people in that age range, the amount that are getting the ADHD diagnosis or dealing with the mental health thing is just insane to me. And I often wonder, because we both came from pretty conservative places, how much that played a huge part in it too. Because now the world is so divisive, but a lot of the people that I know and associate with are apolitical and atheist. So it’s the same influence around kids that there was to us when it was, Christianity or the highway, you know?

Sarah: Exactly. The highway to hell, Mariel!

Mariel: [Laughs.] Oh, my god. Are you at all spiritual?

Sarah: Not even kind of. I was just talking to my partner about this the other day — I think I was 21 or 22 when I came out to my parents as an atheist. I think that there are a lot of things that we experience in the natural world that we don’t understand and that we don’t have a scientific explanation for, and I feel like religion is a byproduct of insisting on having an answer when there aren’t answers. So I’m perfectly fine being like, there’s all kinds of stuff that goes on that I do not understand and we do not have the capacity to understand or explore scientifically at this time, and that’s OK.

Church for me, is is being outside, being in the woods and being in nature. Mentally, I’ve just been going down this nature rabbit hole for the last few weeks. I just had this realization that nature operates within a set of rules that gives it a sort of freedom — it’s like, when the wind blows the leaves and the tree move, because that’s the nature of a tree, that’s the nature of wind. So much of the source of human suffering is us either not knowing what we’re supposed to be doing or working against our own nature, and that’s the cool thing about nature — it’s not attached to anything, it’s just functioning as it’s supposed to function. So for me, I’m constantly reevaluating my place in this world and what my life means and what I want my life to mean, and ceaselessly learning how to exist in my natural state without struggling against it. And it’s awesome. I wish that for everybody. I hope everybody gets to have that place of exploration and freedom in that.

Mariel: I don’t think enough people realize that if they work hard on achieving that sort of sense of total control over your mind and body, and existing in a state of peace like that, really is the ultimate bliss that any human can experience. I agree with you — I think the whole sort of religion being something that people are after is just a lazy and a little bit sad way of reckoning with things that they don’t understand. 

You got me into a musician over the pandemic, Benjamin Todd, who I just love and am obsessed with now.

Sarah: [Laughs.] Yup.

Mariel: He put up this thing about getting really back to the land and helping his community — I think he’s from kind of near where you are — and how he just didn’t care at all about the music business. And then I read your comment, and it was how you were going to be super happy one day just to fade into mediocrity or obscurity. I was like, Man, that’s exactly what the world needs more of, is people comfortably rescinding into into the trees when it’s time to go.

Sarah: Absolutely. We all need to make peace with our deaths. [Laughs.] How did we get here? 

Mariel: [Laughs.] Yeah, I think everyone should take a page out of our book and just get ready to die. 

Sarah: Buckle up, buttercup.

Mariel: It’s the only sure thing. So what else is new? I love the new music. It’s so fucking cool.

Sarah: Thank you. I’m really stoked for our next single to drop in September. I feel like “Easy” is the most poppy song that we have, and I wanted the first single [“Saturn Turns”] to be like, this is sort of the vibe of the record. And then “Easy” was the second and it was like, “OK, this is sort of the extreme.” And then [the forthcoming single] is sort of circling back and tying things in to the vibe. It’s darker and heavier and a little bit more menacing, I guess.

Mariel: I love that though. Do you also notice that so many country musicians love that sort of heavy synth, Depeche Mode, punk rock? Like, why are we all obsessed with those things?

Sarah: Yeah, I think it’s because we’re rebellious. We don’t want people putting us in boxes, man. [Laughs.] 

Mariel: It’s so fun. I love to hear all the people that just want to take it and bend it and play with it. It makes it way more interesting and fun.

Sarah: Yeah.

I don’t know, there’s going to be fans that are just like, “This sucks, you sold out, blah, blah, blah.” And it’s just like, I have never been a person who is like, “I only listen to country music.” I don’t even really listen to country music almost ever. I never wanted to be pigeonholed as a country artist. Every album that we put out, there’s always something else in there, whether it’s punk or rock & roll shit or pop or whatever. 

I feel like a lot of people limit themselves unnecessarily, and part of the appeal of putting out different music for me is, maybe that will turn somebody on to a different kind of music. Maybe that will open some doors for them, in their musical taste, where they’re like, “I never thought I would be sitting here listening to this bullshit, but here I am and I like it.” You know? I just want people to have more experiences, Mariel!

Mariel: You’re just a good parent and a good person! But it’s true. Especially in country music — sometimes I feel like as a genre, it’s so opposed to the idea of change because the traditional is what makes it rich with history. And I love country — I do still listen to country, it’s great. But to limit yourself to one genre as a listener or as a musician is artistic torture. What are you gaining or benefiting or learning by doing the same thing five times over and over? I mean, there’s the argument that you could perfect it, but I don’t know if you could ever perfect any kind of music. So just do what makes you feel good, I think. And like you said, other people will get into shit that they didn’t think they would.

Sarah: Yeah, absolutely. It’s always about just making the music that comes to me. I’m not a disciplined writer, and I don’t set out to write a pop song or write a new wave song. That’s not the goal, ever. The goal is to write the song and the music is supposed to serve what’s happening with the melody and the lyrics and the chord progression. The songs have a mind of their own and I feel like it’s my job to sort of coax out the best version, whether that’s country or rock & roll — or funk. [Laughs.] Just kidding.

Mariel: Don’t joke, I love country funk. There was a good movement in the ‘70s, we gotta bring it back.

Sarah: A revival. 

Mariel: Oh, god, yeah. No, it’s just good to catch up with you. 

Sarah: I just got back from my walk, and I was thinking about the day we met — I was like, Damn, we were rascals. I mean, immediately it was just like, “Let’s have a dart and walk to the liquor store.”

Mariel: [Laughs.] It’s funny, because I didn’t think I would ever get older, but I turned 30 and now I’m like, Woah. You were already quite a bit further ahead when we met, and I guess you must have lots of young artists [that you know] — you seem to promote people in your community and pay attention to who they are, which I just so appreciate. 

Sarah: Absolutely. I didn’t really want to do this job, but I’m doing OK at it, and I feel like if you’re having success at something, it’s important to be aware of what else is going on in your area of expertise or whatnot. I don’t feel like I really have my finger on the pulse of what’s going on in the Americana world.And part of that is just the way my brain works — I listen to your albums all the time because I know I like you and I know I like your music and your songwriting, and I know that it’s a consistent result. Every time I listen to your music, it’s going to feel like home. 

And, I don’t know. I feel like Americana as a genre is just inundated with mediocrity. I have no interest in listening to 99% of these bands. They put on these clothes they think they’re supposed to wear and they write things that take no risks whatsoever. It’s just like watered down fucking swill and I hate it. I’m not interested. And so when I do find somebody in that world that that has the thing, it’s like, “Oh, yeah, I will do whatever I can to help get the word out about you.” Like Sunny War is, in my opinion, one of the best pickers and songwriters happening.

Mariel: I love her. Every time I see her at festival up here, I am glued to her set.

Sarah: Yeah. So it’s like, when you find somebody who has the thing, you do what you can.

Mariel: I totally vibe with what you’re saying. Especially with the amount of middle of the road, not really pop, not really country, just kind of average, boring, straight white people Americana — it still occupies a lot of the space in the genre. And then when other people say shit that’s poignant or relevant, people are like, “Oh, my god!” It’s like, yeah, [there are a lot of] people talking about real shit. I’m getting tired of watching people appropriate an idea that isn’t really a thing — like, you can’t commodify a genuine song. You can’t put on a pair of fucking Wranglers and decide that you now have been through a lived experience in a good song. But it seems like people think it’s the easiest genre to jump into because they’re like, “Oh, I can just sing badly and wear a cowboy hat and I’ll figure it out.” It pisses me off so much, but I don’t know why.

Sarah: Because it sucks. [Laughs.] I think you’re onto something there. I actually think that the reason so many people think that you can just do that is because you can just do that. And for whatever reason — and god only knows why, because I sure don’t — the Americana world is just throwing the doors open to every Tom, Dick, and Harry that wants to be like, “Yeah, we’re Americana, buddy.”

You and I are very similar in our approach. We’re not out here trying to fit in. We’re not out here trying to make a name for ourselves. We don’t even like that aspect of what we do. We are out here to write good songs and to make good music with people that we care about and love and to make fans happy. The idea of success is different for everybody, and I feel like that’s why spending time with you is always a breath of fresh air, because our brains are headed in the same direction and coming from the same place.

Mariel: Oh, man, yeah. We are a bit of the kindred spirit vibe. And I also noticed that kind of the further along both of us get, it’s less about helping ourselves and more about, how can I help the people around me? And that is such a quality that I have always wanted to have, and to see that in you is so great, because if more people were like that, we would have a healthy and probably very thriving scene of great creators.

Sarah: Absolutely. But for now, I feel like it’s really important to recognize when those special little pockets of interaction are happening. 

(Photo Credit: left, Jillian Clark; right, Heather Saitz)

Sarah Shook is a singer-songwriter from North Carolina. Known for their work in Sarah Shook and the Disarmers, Shook now performs as Mightmare. Their solo debut, Cruel Liars, is out October 14 via Kill Rock Stars.

(Photo Credit: Jillian Clark)