Shirley Hurt :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Towards the end of Shirley Hurt’s self-titled debut record, on a song entitled “Smile,” the Ontario-based songwriter intones: “I’ve learned to be patient /I’ve learned to be quiet /I’ve learned to say nothing when I feel anything, I just smile”. Accompanied by an affecting skeletal arrangement of soft piano, the song eloquently captures the transience of formative periods in one’s life. Years which can be packed away in memory boxes, filled with “Pictures of people I once used to know”. This is a recurring narrative throughout Shirley Hurt. It’s a catalog of recollections, some are challenging and others provide bursts of exuberance. 

What has Hurt (real name, Sophia Katz) learned since penning that poignant song? “I think I’m learning a lot about how to let go,” she tells me. Her debut is a striking and searing honest body of work whose greatest asset is the diaristic quality of her lyricism. Existing in a similar world to Aldous Harding, tonally, the process of finding her voice and sound was not always easy or straightforward. Quite often, it required her to let go; of ideals and of control.

Shirley Hurt is a record that reveals different things with each return. What you uncover tends to stay with you long after you’ve stepped away from its rich, yet economic, instrumentation which features warm flourishes of sax and flute from Joseph Shabason. In tracing Hurt’s progress in the personal voyage she embarks on across these nine songs, her words have the potency to stop you in your tracks: “They said when I was 25 I would expire/Burst into flames.” | z hedderman

Aquarium Drunkard: I was reading that you moved around quite a lot throughout your teenage years and your twenties before settling in New York for a period. What was it about the city that felt homely to you, or as a place where you felt comfortable to live and inspired to work? 

Shirley Hurt: I’m a pretty idealistic person. And I think like most people, when they’re a teenager and have yet to go to New York, but read about it, or see it in films have this idea of what it’s going to be. When I eventually went, to my surprise and delight, it was, actually.

I feel like so much of life is spent feeling disappointed in outcomes and that was just one moment when I went there for the first time when I was 18, I was like, “Oh, this feels correct. This feels like exactly where I want to be.” That was what kept pulling me back I think for a long time. It was just the feeling I had when I was there more than anything. It almost wasn’t anything external. Obviously, there are a million external things about New York that make it a wonderful place to be. But more than anything, it was the feeling I had internally when I was there.

AD: Where did you live in New York?

Shirley Hurt: I was in and around Park Slope, over by Windsor Terrace, technically. But Park Slope is where I was. It should be said that I had a very different experience of living in New York than what most people have because I was staying with some people who sort of treated me like a surrogate family, who I met through a friend. They’re incredible people that are sculpture restorationists, and they’re some of the best in the world. Their house was just filled with the most incredible rare art like Yves Klein busts in every third room. For whatever reason, they were cool with me hanging out. I came to learn after living there on-and-off for quite a while that they were just like that. It wasn’t just with me, they were just happy to have guests anytime. They were so kind to me and still are. They’re some of the most generous people I’ve ever met. 

And so, they allowed me to have this idyllic version of living in New York where I was in a house in Park Slope with a backyard. That’s definitely not most people’s experience of living in New York. That  added to the mystique, it sort of felt like living in a novel or something.

AD: As well as moving a lot, I know that your song “Charioteer” was inspired by a couple-months-long road trip with your bandmate Harrison. It feels like place and travel are both important influences to your songwriting approach and style. Can you tell me about their role in your work?

Shirley Hurt: Yeah, I can try! Wherever you go, there you are, as we’ve learned. And so I, whether I like it or not, find myself in new places frequently. I think there’s a big part of me that yearns for more stability. But I’ve also accepted the fact that for whatever reason, at least up until this point in my life, that just hasn’t been the way of things. And so like more than anything, it’s a product of trying to use what I have in front of me. The reality is that I can’t really control what I write about. And oftentimes, I don’t really know what I’m writing about until much later. Sometimes it takes a few years to really understand what I was writing about. You know, what comes out, comes out in that moment.

For “Charioteer”, it was exactly that. We had been traveling for six months or so, in a trailer we bought, and we were in Joshua Tree. And… Did I write that song in Joshua Tree? Actually, I think I may have written that song right at the end of the trip, when I was getting home. Now, I can reflect back and I can see what I was writing about. But at the time, it was coming in and I was trying to get it down as quickly as possible.

AD: How do you find that style of living; going from moment to moment, place to place? Are you someone who can adapt to new surroundings and situations easily? Do you embrace change?

Shirley Hurt: I try to be adaptable. It’s hard sometimes and I think that’s true for anyone. But I like to think that because of how frequently I’ve moved around in my life that’s catered to my degree of adaptability. But I don’t know if it’s more or less than anyone else’s, I just know that it seems alright for me. It’s so hard to see yourself objectively, you know.  

AD: Of course. Especially when you’re so close to those present and current moments. You can look back at how you were as a teenager or even 10 years ago because you have hindsight.

Shirley Hurt: Yeah, I think I’m prone to trying to understand what’s happening in the moment as it’s happening. That’s not really helpful, actually. I’m learning that lesson whilst doing it and hopefully, I’ll have learned it soon. But sometimes, you just have no idea what’s going on. I really think that most of the time I have no idea what’s going on and an attempt to understand it is actually just my attempt to control. I’m a bit of a control freak!

AD: That’s funny you mention being a control freak because I read that seeing your bandmates, who were also your housemates, playing music together in a playful and improvisational style was hugely inspirational to you. It encouraged you to take a new approach to music in wanting to embrace the fun that comes from playing music. I always think it’s interesting  how with some types of music it can be quite a controlled practice in following certain melodic patterns and structures. It can almost be like math! How was that experience for you to embrace a freeform approach and how did it change your relationship with writing and playing music?

Shirley Hurt: You know, I want to have fun so bad and the only person getting in the way of it is me! So, in that respect, it was really lovely because those guys just love to play. At that time, I was just so riddled with insecurity and self-doubt about my skill set as a musician that I’ve never really allowed myself to just do it for fun. It always seemed like I had to be getting somewhere, or improving, somehow. Seeing Patrick (Lefler) and Harrison (Forman), and whoever else happened to be at the house at any given time, playing together allowed me to try something else. I’m still a control freak and I still have trouble allowing myself, especially with music, to just have fun which I know seems counterintuitive because it should be fun. 

I think, you know, it feels like such an enormous privilege to get to make music at all so I can’t but take it seriously. There are so many people I know who would love to be doing what I’m doing so I don’t take that lightly. Sometimes, though, I sort of overextend in that direction and I recognise that I can be too precious with my music. 

AD: It’s both a creative and professional practice and so I think it’s important to have a balance of taking it seriously and having fun with it. It’s like how the improvisational play made you feel which made me think of that feeling of being a kid and picking up a toy guitar for the first time and that wonderment and excitement that comes from hearing the sounds you’re making with the instrument. Did you take that kind of mindset into the writing and recording sessions for your debut album?

Shirley Hurt: I tried and failed! I felt so bad for everybody who had to play on that record. I mean, we had a lot of fun but I can be really challenging to work with. Honestly, I really can. It’s because of the control freakiness and because there’s to me a duty and a responsibility to do the music justice. I’m still figuring out how to ride the line of having fun and making it right. The reality is that I know when something is right; I can hear it. And what is right is different for everyone but I know when it’s right for me for this project. It’s just a matter of massaging it until it gets there. I really feel for the folks who are generous enough to play with me because oftentimes it’s a really, really grueling method. You know, the constant massaging, massaging and massaging and that believing in someone that they can get the take during a session and pushing them without pushing it too far. 

It’s challenging, but I am able to find fun in my tools. That’s helpful. The tools I use, I like that you mentioned picking up a toy guitar. The guitar that I write like 90% of my Shirley Hurt stuff on is a half-size classical, child-sized guitar. It’s a guitar that Patrick found as he was walking down his street, there was a woman about to put it on the curb and he was like, “Are you getting rid of that?” And she’s like, “Si!” and he asked her if he could have it and gave it to me because he didn’t need it. I fell in love with it immediately because it was easy to play. That was helpful for me because I’m not a virtuosic guitar player. I’m just not, I can get by but having a guitar that’s fun and easy to play, that’s kind of kid-sized, allowed me to play freely. A lot of all of the songs on the album were either written on that guitar or they were written on this wurlitzer beside me. 

AD: Oh, nice! Musically, there’s a gorgeous timelessness to the arrangements. Often, they make me think of Aldous Harding but there are also moments, some darker shades and atmospheres conjured, that made me think of the worlds created in Karen Dalton songs. There’s also such a nice balance of dynamic and vibrant instrumentation and skeletal and intricate pieces, too. Can you describe the process of writing the arrangements for the album and what kind of worlds you wanted to create for you and the listeners to exist within. 

Shirley Hurt: My favorite part of the recording process is taking things away. I love to take things away. When I am recording, I try to just get as much as I can in the period of time that I have in the studio. Then the bulk of the time is not spent doing that, the bulk of the time is spent saying, “Okay, let’s get rid of this. Let’s get rid of this.” It’s like carving a statue. It’s done when it’s done. And it can only be done when everything that doesn’t need to be there is gone.

AD: A particular motif I loved across the album was the warm flourish of sax. Joseph Shabason contributed a lot of beautiful accompaniments on sax and flute for the album. How did that collaboration come about? 

Shirley Hurt: He’s incredible. I had been following his music for a long time, and was a big fan. A friend of mine mentioned him in passing and said that he lives in Toronto. I had no idea that he lived in Toronto and it turned out we had a lot of mutual friends. What happened was that I found him on social media and we chatted a little bit. This happened when I was talking to Jason Bhattacharya about where I might record my album. It turned out that Joseph had a studio and it also turned out that Jason’s recommendation on where I would record would be his studio. So it was me, Nathan Vanderwielen and Chris Shannon who worked out of Joseph’s studio. It all came together in a sort of too coincidental way.

Joseph was an enormous support for me and just incredibly generous. He would give me advice about everything because this was my first time making a full length album. I’ve never done it before. He was so patient and generous and continues to be. I’m really grateful for him.

AD: Something I enjoyed a lot with each return to the album was focusing on a particular song to fully absorb their stories and your perspectives within them. It’s remarkably honest and descriptive in recounting your experiences and emotions. The opening line of the album is, “My life is like a koan / It’s designed to make me break”. Elsewhere, there are several visceral and very open self-reflections and self-realizations, throughout. I know earlier you said how the words pour out of you at the time and it’s only afterwards when you can process the subject matter. But, how do you find the experience of being unfiltered on the page in that initial stage of the songwriting process?

Shirley Hurt: Honestly, to me, it still feels filtered. Because depending on how centered I am and how available I am to the writing process, what I get will be clear or not. Sometimes it takes a lot of work to get the message as clear as possible. In the same way that in the recording process, it takes some work to get the sound as clear as possible. Some songs take 20 minutes and some songs take 6 months. It just depends. 

“Problem Child” took 20 minutes to write. Harrison and I were sitting together at the piano and then with him on guitar and I wrote the lyrics in 20 minutes. It’s great when that happens. I’ve heard artists talk about that and say that that’s usually your best work. I don’t know if that’s true for me. I don’t know. It’s certainly easier. I’m still reckoning with how to give myself the space and time to be as clear of a channel as possible because sometimes I am pulling from personal experience, but oftentimes I’m not. Or if I am, I don’t always realize it.

AD: Interesting. There are so many striking lyrics, whether they’re coming from you or a protagonist within the song, I think of a song like “Empty Hands”. For the listener, there’s that sort of magic of not knowing what perspective that kind of comes from. Always, something I love and appreciate from artists is when they have the ability to stop you in your tracks with their honesty. I love it because it makes them feel like real, open, and honest people. How important or how necessary is that to you? Is that openness something you strive for in your work?

Shirley Hurt: It’s something that I’m always striving for and it’s something that I’m definitely afraid of. Because it’s contending with the kind of music I want to make and the kind of music that I am making. Those things aren’t always lined-up. Sometimes, I’ll write a song and I’ll read it back and I’m like, ‘I don’t know if I want to say that.’ 

AD: Or even ready to confront it? I think something that’s so incredible with songwriters and lyricists and poets and writers, novelists, or anyone working any artistic medium where they are drawing from personal experiences to inform their work. That facilitated an intense intimacy with yourself in actually having to be extremely honest with yourself when pulling out various personal experiences. Whereas a lot of people often wouldn’t want to do that level of self-examination. It must be such an amazing thing to have that relationship with yourself and your experiences. Even just to see them on a page and learn how you want to move forward with personal relationships, dynamics or situations.

Shirley Hurt: It’s an intense thing seeing either your story or someone else’s story or a more mysterious story laid out in front of you, all of those things are intense. There’s nothing to complain about in terms of being a songwriter, it’s a gift. But, you’re right, it does require a certain degree of vulnerability and that looks different for everyone. The listener is smart and knows when you’re not being vulnerable. I can see it when I share something that I’m doing with someone I trust. It’s not a question of if they like it or not. In the end, I have to be that person. Usually, I have to bring it to myself and say, ‘Is this right?’ If it’s not, then I have to let it go. I mean, sometimes you can work it and it becomes something else or you take bits and pieces and collage it. I have no idea how many songs I’ve written at this point that will just never see the light of day. That’s something that took me a long time to understand. For a while, I was sort of under the impression, before starting this Shirley Hurt project, that really great songwriters or really great musicians were on all the time and everything they put out was gold! That’s just not usually the case. Maybe if you’re David Bowie, but even Bowie has released songs that aren’t so great. There’s a lot on the cutting room floor.

AD: It’s good to be ruthless with your work and to know when something’s not right or not a true representation or reflection of who you are. How do you find the experience of translating that to live performances? 

Shirley Hurt: I still am figuring it out. Ask me again in a year! I try not to say yes too much to shows. And it’s not because I hate playing live, although, if I’m honest it’s not my favorite thing to do because I’m still figuring out how best to do that. Once again, it’s an enormous responsibility to have a microphone in a room full of people and you can say anything to them. My attempt, what I’m working towards, is to give myself fully to the people in that room but I’m not there yet.

For me, the songwriting process is such a… it’s almost entirely done in solitude. And so, translating that to an audience in front of you is a unique challenge. I, sometimes, envy people who live and die to play live. I don’t know if that will ever be me but I would love it if I felt that way. I am an incredibly sensitive person, to a fault. So it takes a lot of energy to give myself in that way and I’m still figuring out how to do it without losing myself or draining myself. 

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