On one of my occasional Patreon expeditions, I stumbled across Shelby Sifers, a musician looking to make her creations free and open to the public. Curious, I decided to take her name to YouTube and see what came up. As I perused Shelby’s catalogue of music (available via a simple search of her name) I found a treasure trove of oftentimes sombre, reflective, and sometimes uplifting songs.
I promptly contacted Shelby and arranged an interview for Grog Boat, exited for her to be our first musician interviewee. Hearing her story and her passion was very heartening, and I’m glad to be able to share it with you.
At an early age, Shelby’s grandmother gave her piano lessons. Though she did like it, the education was short-lived, as the financial constraints of living in a single-parent household made the trips across rural California too expensive. It wouldn’t be until her 16th birthday, having received a guitar, that she would resume her path to song writing.
As it happened, a singer/songwriter had been couch-surfing with her family. In him, Shelby found a source of inspiration. He even taught her the first song she’d play on guitar (House of the Rising Sun).
Throughout her life, Shelby had balanced her creativity with daily trials, joys and her ongoing devotion to activism. The need to stand for those in need flowed into her professional life, bringing her to work in a non-profit dedicated to ending pet overpopulation in Mississippi.
“Sometimes it can feel as if I’m spreading myself too thinly in regards to the causes I am passionate about, but the more I dig in to each one, the more I am able to see how all activism is connected, in that it works toward a more equal and just situation for everyone- whether it involves animals, people of color, LGBT folks, the criminal justice system, cooperative economics, refugees, humanism/atheism, politics and the environment. By looking for commonalities in different movements and building coalitions, we can cover much more ground than each group can on its own.”
Despite these demands on her attention, Shelby has managed to create a growing catalogue of original music, consisting of both solo projects and collaborations with artists like Jordaan Mason.
One of the first songs of hers that I discovered was “In Grief”, which turned out to be a flooring experience. I’ve found Shelby’s lyrics to be the most powerful component of her songs. In an industry saturated with hyperbolic metaphors and scatter-brained imagery, “In Grief” cut to the core of its message with a simple second-person storytelling perspective and a semi-autobiographical narrative. I gave the song a few listens, taking the opportunity to reflect on my own life.
“Shower” was the next song on my list. This bright and peculiar song brought much-needed levity to my research. Taking its name quite to heart, the song consists of clapping, vocals and the sounds of a shower. The story told was that of a freedom in her young adult life (more on that in the Q&A below). Managing to be both minimalist and infectious, “Shower” is easily one of my favorites, just behind this next song.
For those who follow Grog Boat on Facebook, I linked to one of her more recent songs, “Death or Docked Pay”. Not losing her edge for commentary and honest lyrics, Shelby (now accompanied with a drummer and bassist that collectively form “Shelby Sifers and Hellfire Club”) focuses primarily on society, while managing to keep a personal tone.
“My ideals are definitely peppered throughout all of my songs. Voluntary human extinction and godlessness are topics that often float to the top, which may be because I feel that they are the ultimate solution to all problems. I don’t think I’ve ever been able to create something that wasn’t deeply personal; it’s a way to create something succinct and palatable out of a train wreck of philosophizing and ranting. I also think that because of the personal nature of my songs I am able to start a dialogue and find common ground with others through them, so that we can have much more substantive conversations right off the bat. “
I had the opportunity to talk with Shelby about her music and the stare of the music industry, in general.
On the Music Industry
Your desire is to produce music that is free for everyone to enjoy. What made you decide to take this avenue for distributing your work?
“I want to make sure that my music is accessible to everyone, regardless of where they live or how much money they earn. I want people to have the freedom to love my music and carry it with them, or hate my music and move on. Regardless of the outcome, they will learn something about themselves in the process.
I was given my first computer by a family member in high school, and got my first dial-up internet connection. I got Kazaa and downloaded a Dashboard Confessional song that was mislabeled as a Smashing Pumpkins song, and that’s when I learned that there was a world of music waaaay larger than the radio or the CD club catalogue I got in the mail each month. I went down a rabbit hole and became totally obsessed with discovering new music, and this kind of access enabled me to escape my isolated town of less than 100 people and my low-income upbringing and begin to imagine all of the things that music could be. It made me realize that there was music I could really love and that spoke to my interests- music that read my mind, stretched my mind and inspired me to be a better person. It introduced me to bands that I would later drive hours to see in basements and living rooms and venues in bigger cities. If I had simply had access to the music I could afford on CD or LP, my life would have been completely different. And probably not in a good way.
My day job is at a nonprofit that charges very little for services to the public. The rest is subsidized by donors. I love this “business” model because it is beneficial to those who cannot afford services, and allows for passionate people who have the means to give to offer their financial support. Others can give their time. Nonprofits create personal relationships with clients, donors and volunteers- like an artificial family. I think music can be the same way. Given away for free, supported financially by those who can, and others can assist by hosting shows and sharing songs. I don’t want my music to feel like a product that can be bought or sold- I want it to build relationships and finish sentences and be a reason to bring me and my friends together in a room. I am very lucky that it has done those things for me, and I hope that it can do the same for others, too.”
Staying on the point of music distribution, how do you think listeners can have the boundaries of their musical tastes pushed, as you had when you downloaded the Confessional song? Do you think this is an undertaking in which the developers of digital distribution platforms should play a role?
“I think digital distribution already plays a large role in pushing musical boundaries, especially with ‘related artist’ type features. Platforms like Band Camp and Last.fm have a much more inclusive platform for sharing music, allowing anyone to use it with less restrictions than spotify has. But, like it always has been, whether it be on the internet or in a record store, good music is worth doing a little digging for.”
What is your opinion of musical superstars? Does having such a level of celebrity undermine the quality and diversity of what’s available to consumers, or does the added incentive motivate musicians to increase their appeal and productivity?
“Celebrity worship in general is problematic, both for fans and the celebrities themselves. It elevates them to a level where they are both irrationally revered and horribly disrespected, losing their privacy and ability to do normal everyday things. For fans, especially children, the worship of celebrities can warp dreams and goals and turn them into obsessive fame-seekers.”
How do you feel about songs being used in commercials or similar promotions? Do the songs lose their integrity if they are tied to a product?
“In my perfect world, people would make their art and music, and those who relate to it in some way could find it, enjoy it, and be inspired by it to be a better person or contribute to the world in a positive way, whether that means getting out of bed that morning, telling someone you love them, or working hard toward a meaningful goal. I like to differentiate that music from the products that are manufactured by the music industry, just as I would differentiate a unique piece of pottery from a cup I bought at Ikea- one is created to express a feeling or make a statement, and the other to appeal to a broad group and make the most profit. But to be clear, I am not exempt from loving my share of pop music/pop culture and don’t believe that fame and substance are mutually exclusive.
My perspective is probably a strange one on this topic- I work in nonprofit communications (marketing) as my day job, and my partner works in audio and visual design. Part of my job is using music to help tell our nonprofit’s story in an effective and emotional way, and part of my partner’s job is composing music for films and commercials. So, being in a household that benefits from these things on the music side, I can say that I enjoy seeing quality music being used in advertising vs corny jingles. In the end, it’s up to every individual to decide if they are comfortable with using their music in advertising, and what advertising they are comfortable using it in. In terms of musicians that are locked in predatory contracts, that’s a whole other rabbit hole to go down.”
How do you feel about musicians endorsing specific political candidates? Should they do so, or should they stick to advocating for larger ideas?
“I personally feel an obligation to use my circle of influence to endorse both political candidates and ideas/causes, but I am also not obligated to anyone but myself. I feel that more discussion (civil discussion) is always better than less. There is always more to learn. When we are in the polling booth, we are often swayed most by the conversations of our friends and family more than what a candidate has proposed. By hearing from someone I feel a connection with (like a musician/artist whom I respect), I am more likely to research a particular issue than if I hear it from a newscaster. Some of the most memorable shows I’ve been to have started these types of conversations, and have been able to connect people who have some common ground and can learn from each other.”
On Her Songs
One of your most curious songs, at least to me, is “Shower”. Can you walk me though the creative process behind it, from inspiration to recording?
“For the most part, I am writing from direct experience or observation, or a combination of the two. I wrote shower during my first year of college, reflecting on how my life, that was really in my hands for the first time, was shaping up to be. I felt pretty amazed to have survived the year before (see in grief below) and had graduated high school early, worked my ass off at two jobs in order to save some money, and got into the only school I ended up applying for.
I moved to Santa Fe, NM with my high school-turned college boyfriend. I had a dorm room and he had a fantastic studio underneath a stained glass gallery. You can probably guess where I preferred to be. The apartment had a Jacuzzi tub which was everyone’s favorite thing in the world. It was large and round and we used it like an indoor hot tub, so myself and my friends spent a lot of time in the bathroom. I was a full-time student with two jobs, so my Saturdays (short work days) were sacred. I learned to make crepes and it became my routine. In a studio apartment, everything one does in the bathroom is public knowledge, and my boyfriend had a tendency to practice his own songs in the shower. It was annoying/endearing, but nonetheless memorable. It reflects on the awesome back yard we had, which was unconventional and had no grass, but was full of wind-powered sculptures. And then it ends with the observation about how my stress shifted from the intense experience and relationships in my family from the year before to a whole different kind of stress, a welcome and freeing kind.
It felt appropriate to record the song in the Jacuzzi tub/shower, so I did. We got the mic as close to the water as possible and I hopped in and took a shower, and recorded it. It was one track, one take, and a complete mess, which felt appropriate.”
I found “Death or Docked Pay” and “In Grief” to be sister songs. Both songs deal with the strain of life, with “In Grief” focusing primarily on interpersonal relationships and “Death or Docked Pay” incorporating larger societal issues, and both convey a certain feeling of exhaustion in our relationships. Do you ever find particular bonds between any two of your songs that you notice later on?
“I hadn’t thought about those two songs as being related, but really appreciate your thoughtful insight on them and think that you are totally right. They were written about ten years apart from each other, and (unfortunately) convey the same feelings of hopelessness and frustration and nihilism. But I agree with you that the focus is different- in grief is very micro- it follows the year when I was 17 and my brother had emergency brain surgery and was given a terminal diagnosis (which thankfully turned out to be incorrect, he’s still with us today.) As a busy 26 year-old and dad to a toddler, he was in disbelief. His way of coping was to isolate himself from friends and family- to stay invincible. My chosen grandmother (one not related by blood, but who I adopted as my own) had also just recently died from cancer.
This caused my mom and I to completely collapse and our depression fed off of each other in a horrible way. We are terribly alike and I think we both brought each other into a very dark place. After my brother’s diagnosis, I never went back to my high school (eventually homeschooled myself through graduation), and sort of dropped off the face of the planet. Both of us developed depression and insomnia and we tried desperately to keep our minds busy. I wrote a lot, she did a lot of crafts. She made an amazing collection of magnetic poetry that I still use on my fridge today. It’s a souvenir of where we were. We have always had an extremely close, friendly relationship, and a silent co-parenting agreement for my much younger brother. That year our relationship made a 180. We both turned into monsters and our closeness made it easy to tear each other apart. As we both recovered, our relationship did as well, and got even stronger. It was hard to play this song for her the first time. It made her very sad. But I am glad to say that it is in the past.
Death or docked pay is macro- it zooms out and shows that my worst memories are just mosquito bites compared to the true hurt that others experience every single day. As a teenager, it’s natural to turn inward and be self-absorbed. This song turns outward and recognizes the parts that each of us play (knowingly and unknowingly) in the oppression of others. Both songs work to expose surface religiosity as a poor substitute for direct action and sympathy as a way to distance ourselves from the problems of others in a socially acceptable way.
I do find a lot of relationships in songs, usually before they are complete, and many ‘completed’ songs are mash-ups of several different ones (Death or Docked pay’s chorus was a completely different song at one point). Partly I imagine is because they are all a very intimate part of me, and I don’t really write about that many different topics, and a lot of them flow together. I also believe that my elementary knowledge of music theory and process (lyrics then melody then accompaniment) contributes to this because my melodies subconsciously run into each other all the time.”
On Shelby Sifers and Hellfire Club
How did Shelby Sifers & Hellfire Club come into being?
“After someone close to my friends and I had a mental health crisis which rocked our worlds, it caused me to look at myself and accept the fact that I had been riding an untreated mental health roller coaster since that year I was 17. I got help and everything changed. I could think more clearly, I could stay awake, I could finish work and get excited to dig into another project, I could be around people, and the chronic pain I had dealt with for almost 10 years (which made guitar playing nearly impossible, as well as silly things like using can openers and door knobs) completely disappeared. I would have never imagined that something so simple could change so much. Part of me really wishes that I had noticed earlier, but the other part of me is so grateful to know the difference.
Throughout our friend’s crisis, 4 of us were faced with some difficult decisions and ultimately purchased the building that we all live and work in through a cooperative effort, spanning over 2 years of frustration and failures. Zach, a guy who had recently moved back to town, needed a place to live and some of us knew a little about him and knew that his dog was really cool. He moved in and we all got to know him a little better. My partner Tyler (AKA Spirituals) has played drums with me in the past and has recorded/produced several of my songs. He played some of them for Zach, who happens to have a degree in bass performance. Zach got really excited and wanted to start a band. I was just coming out from my mental cloud and was able to play guitar again, so we just started meeting up every day to hang out and play my songs.
I has been a huge part of my healing process and I am so goddamn lucky to have these two dudes. They are full of talent and love and insight and support. None of us are stressed or pressured about meeting deadlines, and we are just working to finish songs as we can while focusing on keeping our lives together. Though in the near future I think we will be living in different places, I really hope that we can keep the dream alive in some small way.
The name “Hellfire Club” comes from some high-society exclusive clubs that popped up in 18th century Britain and Ireland. These Hellfire Clubs met on Sundays to enjoy in-depth discussions, alcohol, and religious satire. Women and men were considered equal in these clubs. When I learned about Hellfire Clubs, I realized that our band had subconsciously created one.”
How has the band played live since its formation? Was there an instant on-stage chemistry, or was an adjustment period needed?
“We have played several live shows with this lineup in town, but haven’t yet played any shows in other cities yet. Since we are friends who know each other’s dark secrets, and since my bandmates are such talented improvisers, we’ve clicked for sure. It’s helped improve my playing to try and keep up.”
Do you feel long-distance bands can be viable, especially with today’s technology?
“Just like a long-distance relationship, sometimes it’s worth the work and pain to stay together. Recording can happen easily long-distance…it’s the shows that become a bit more difficult.”
What can we expect coming from Shelby Sifers and Hellfire Club in the near future?
“I’m hoping that this group can create a collection of recordings that either haven’t been recorded or have been recorded in a different way. Then we will release them into the wild.”
As an artist who has faced a great deal of adversity, emerging with a band and an impressive back catalogue of songs, what would you say younger artists who are facing their own hardships?
“Art does not make you a good person, but it gives you a unique opportunity to be one. Seek out what you wish you could change and use your medium as a vehicle to change it. Use your influence to stand up for what’s right and to protect others. Be honest, be empathetic, grow and change. It’s scary and you can work through it. Sometimes it means that people won’t like what you do, but that means that you’re doing it right.”
For those looking to learn more about Shelby, I’d recommend an episode of the podcast Directors Club which held an excellent interview with Shelby. You can connect with Shelby via the following links: