SHEL is memorable for many reasons. First among them, perhaps, is the Fort Collins group's neo-vaudevillian sound. You can hear it on their recent self-titled debut, in ornate tracks like "Freckles" and a delicate cover of Led Zeppelin's "The Battle of Evermore."
Next is the unusual lineup — the four strikingly beautiful Holbrook sisters, whose first-name initials make up the moniker: Sarah (vocals, violin), Hannah (vocals, keyboards), Eva (lead vocals, mandolin), and Liza (drums, djembe).
And then, of course, there are those quasi-Victorian wardrobes. From any angle, SHEL is entirely unforgettable.
How did all this come about? In blissful solitude, basically. "We were all home-schooled, so we actually spent a lot of time at our house," says 23-year-old frontwoman Eva. "We lived 10 minutes north of Fort Collins, actually, out in the country, and I loved spending time on the farm. And it was a great place to grow up, because the music scene there is really fun — there's a lot of bluegrass and folk, and a lot of small places around town where you can go and hear music."
Adding to the equation was their father, a professional musician who encouraged his daughters to pick up whatever instrument intrigued them. Once they mastered them, they were asked to join his backing band — as little kids.
"So at concerts, he would invite us up onstage, one song at a time, and then if we were good enough, he'd invite us up for multiple songs," says Eva, who first joined dad's entourage at 10. "Then slowly, we all started learning how to sing — I didn't really learn how to sing until I was 15."
Their father didn't let his kids flounder as songwriters, either. He'd sit them down and teach them the nuts and bolts. "He was such a good influence in that respect," says Eva. "He'd say 'Take the Beatles — here's what made them such innovators.' And he'd talk about how they all had their own personalities, and he'd talk about the Marx Brothers and how hard they worked, just to become successful. We were always inspired by that, so we were constantly trying to push ourselves, to keep growing."
Eva reckons SHEL has been together for almost eight years. They all still live at home, and have even converted her bedroom into a recording studio she's dubbed the Blueberry Room. Dating? Don't even ask, Eva sighs. "We've done some, on and off, now and then. But it's pretty impossible right now."
SHEL's uniform sartorial sensibility stemmed from their shared love of Victoriana, explains Eva. They design, then handcraft most of their outfits themselves, all the way up to their ribbon-festooned velvet hats. Naturally, the sisters have been adopted by the steampunk community, even being invited to play some of the movement's conventions.
"I love steampunk," says Eva. "But now a lot of people recognize us at festivals just because of how we dress. So we'll play and then get offstage and be walking through the festivals, and people always walk up and say hello. And we even have fans who come to our concerts wearing top hats like ours. So we actually sell our own line of hats now."
Meanwhile, the parental involvement has continued on. "But over time, it came full circle," says Eva. "Now he backs us up on bass, and we write all our own music."