Photo by Marie Lin
Sheer Mag Have The Right Stuff
Like Rhiannon Giddens or Jason Isbell, Sheer Mag are that rare thing: musical traditionalists with something new to say. They appropriate the onetime sleazy riffs of Kiss, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and singer Tina Halladay’s favorite band Thin Lizzy (she has a full-length tattoo of Phil Lynott on her thigh) for trenchant jams about slumlords ("Fan The Flames"), murdered maquiladora workers ("Can't Stop Fighting"), and fat-shaming concern trolls ("The Right Stuff"). Needless to say, this isn’t your dad's cock-rock. In fact, we should probably stop calling it "cock-rock."
After a string of increasingly awesome EPs and a well-received full-length, the Philly four-piece just released their second album A Distant Call, which expands their sound into both louder (the Judas Priest-like "Steel Sharpens Steel") and prettier (the '80s Fleetwood Mac turn "Silver Line") realms, and combines their personal and political songs like never before, in part because the frontwoman suffered the loss of a partner, a job and a family member since the last recording. Halladay spoke to the Recording Academy over the phone from Philly about the new album, the majesty of Lizzo and how to be the cool aunt to end all cool aunts.
What did you set out to do differently this time after Need to Feel Your Love?
It was a huge difference going to digital for recording the vocals from, like, a tape machine where I had to do everything in one take. That was the right move.
You stuck with lo-fi production for a long time. Did you all feel pressure to make the digital jump?
Not really, but people have always told me they can’t hear my vocals clearly. We take such a long time to do things that [digital] is cost-effective as well. [Laughs.] The instrumental parts sound so much better, and I wanted to try and do the vocals in a different way. Because it’s stressful and limiting to have to do it all on one track.
I can hear the need to make them more legible, especially when the lyrics are so specific and politically focused.
Definitely, that’s something that had been bothering me. I don’t think we realized how illegible they actually were to some people.
Sometimes the lyrics can be secondary when you instantly love the sound of a band, but after you have a feel for them you can focus on that other layer.
Maybe [a fan] doesn't agree with what we’re saying and it would influence them. [Laughs.] They could listen and it would change their mind. I’m excited for people actually hear what I’m saying.
Have any Sheer Mag fans ever thanked you for opening their eyes to world issues?
I’ve had friends with Mexican ancestry who live in Texas near the border thank us for "Can’t Stop Fighting." But mostly it’s women coming up to me and telling me "You’re the reason I started a band." When YouTube comments and idiots tell women what they can’t be in a band, unless they’re industry-standard hot or conventionally attractive to a bunch of sh*theads. More women have told me that than I can even count.
Has that been the most gratifying part of your success so far?
I think so! That and my friend who works in the Girls Rock Camp in Austin sent me a photo of a collage that a young girl had made of me; they all make different collages of different artists. I cried.
You very specifically of all bands seem like your stage presence conquers the room, so I can see why that would be very inspiring.
Thank you, yeah, it’s always a strange feeling inside me when we’re playing. If people are being assholes, I use whatever energy is being brought to me by the people in the room most of the time. That could be feeding off of everybody’s excitement or it could be anger from whatever person being rude. It’s something I talk to other people in bands about, being energy vampires.
Where have you experienced asshole crowds?
There was this funny time in Denver, the guy was in front of me, leaning on the PA speaker and texting the whole time, while everyone else around him was so amped. So I leaned over and he didn’t even notice me and I took his phone out of his hand with my two fingers and he was furious. I had it for maybe like, half of a song and then gave it back to him. Then he went back to doing it and a bunch of 15-year-olds start pushing him around. I thought he was going to murder me but it was so funny. He was a nerd, somewhere I have a picture someone took of him looking really serious.
A Distant Call seems to connect the personal to the political more in the lyrics.
Yeah, I think it’s melding the two aspects that we usually write about, bringing them together instead of in separate songs. Everything is political in our lives so it only makes sense.
You went through some significant tragedies between the last album and this one. How did those find their way into these songs?
The way that Matt [Palmer] and I write together is really personal and we have to be—I mean, we are close friends—but for him to help me express those ideas and feelings of despair and everything I felt when my father died, and the fear and frustration of the world treats fat women and most of the things that I deal with… we have to be pretty close.
"Cold Sword" deals with my feelings about my dad, who wasn’t very present in my life except as a force of terror. I hope other people who’ve had similar experiences will connect to that. "The Right Stuff" deals with unspoken things about looks and the conversation about how society treats fat women. But Lizzo is famous now… I’ve loved her for a long time, I saw her playing at [Philly venue] the TLA a few months ago and it was insanely packed.
I got shut out of that show!
Our touring guitarist Kora Puckett's brother Aaron co-wrote Lizzo's song "Boys" so he was able to get me a VIP pass. I was crying the entire time. She’s so powerful.
I did catch her opening for Sleater-Kinney a few years ago, so it doesn’t seem crazy that she’d share a bill with Sheer Mag someday.
She's really, really famous now, though.
You mention SNAP benefits on "Blood From A Stone" and I don’t think I know many rock songs that name-check food stamps.
That time of my life was really… I was a manager at one of the locations for a service that picks up and drops off your laundry on bikes. I had just broken my thumb on the way to work and they basically forced me to sign papers that say I quit, because I didn't know what was going on and I wasn't really educated in what I should’ve done. I was living paycheck to paycheck at that point so I had no way to make money because I was injured. Luckily, I had health insurance because if I didn't, it would’ve been really, really bad.
Do you ever get recognized around Philly?
Yeah. [Laughs.] I did once in Wal-Mart. Actually, I was in Long Island with my mother a few weeks ago walking with my niece, she’s like, 11, and has no idea. Someone drove by and yelled "Sheeeer Magggg!" I was like “What up, bitch!” and played it all cool for my niece.