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River Shook's new album as Mightmare weaves tales of heartbreak with newfound optimism

River Shook's (second from left) new project is called Mightmare. Their album 'Cruel Liars' is available wherever you find your music.
Danny Council
River Shook's (second from left) new solo-project is called Mightmare. Their album 'Cruel Liars' is out now.

River Shook is the one-person band behind the debut record from Mightmare. Shook's other gig is with Sarah Shook & the Disarmers, and that band is building a growing fanbase with songs that combine elements of outlaw country with a punk-rock attitude. Touring for that band got suspended in the early days of the pandemic and that's when Shook started work on their solo project.

The songs from Mightmare inhabit the world of indie-rock, but there are moments of anthemic exhilaration too — on tracks that touch on relationships, mental health, and non-conventional identity issues.

Eric Hodge caught up with Shook recently while they were in Nashville doing production work.

This is an excerpt of an edited transcript of that conversation. You can hear the full interview by clicking the LISTEN button at the top of this post.

We're listening to the track "Saturn Turns" where you sing that "you're looking for any ol' road you ain't been down before." You composed, arranged, produced, performed and recorded this entire project single-handedly. Was that a road you hadn't been down before?

It sure was. I had dabbled a little bit in engineering my own demos, but they were only used as references for songs that would be on Disarmers records. So this was kind of a new animal for me. And I initially started out with the intention of making demos, and a few songs in I realized that with some adjustments that I could actually potentially make an entire album.

Was it daunting, fun or exciting? How did you feel as you began this project, because that was also a really strange time.

It really was. I was early in my sobriety, I got sober July 15 of 2019. So with less than a year of sobriety under my belt, and just still sort of navigating the early days of recovery, this was a project that really afforded me a chance to focus all of my energy and attention in a direction that was more productive than self-destructive.

"Easy" is one of the most emotionally upbeat songs on this record. There's a line in there, where you say "beautiful dreams come true." That's a hard place to get to, isn't it?

It is. And it's like the cheesiest thing I've ever said in a song.

I know! But that's also why it made me pay attention.

Yeah, absolutely. I feel like I got my own attention with that one, too. I really had to think about the fact that I had got to a place in my life where I was exploring that as a possibility. Not that I'm overly pessimistic, but I'm very much a realistic type of person. And those are not the kinds of things that I say lightly.

The song "Come What May," the first time I heard it, it sounded resigned and regretful but then it seems uplifting when that chorus about being strong comes in. And I guess both things can be true, right?

I feel like that's a very fair observation about that song. My heart was really, genuinely breaking at the time that I wrote that. And it was just one of those situations where the timing just wasn't working out between myself and this other person that I really loved deeply and cared about. And I feel like it was a very pivotal moment for me, as far as relationships, and how we fit with other people. Because even though I was just absolutely in despair, over the knowledge that I was losing this person, I still had this feeling of like, if I really love someone, and I say I really love someone, I don't have the right to decide what's best for that person. And what's going to make that person happiest, and what's even the most healthy for that person.

And so it was kind of gaining this knowledge. And at the same time getting to this place where instead of getting lost in my despair, I was kind of coming back to myself and realizing that as painful as it was, it was something that I was going to live through and pull myself out of and hopefully come out on the other side a better person for it.

I read somewhere that you're going to open for yourself next year. Is that true?

[laughs] It is. Yeah, my band Mightmare that I put together in October is going to be opening for the Disarmers for a string of dates in January.

The title track "Cruel Liars" starts with a keyboard that reminds me of The Exorcist theme. And there's a feeling of defiance on this one and your singing on it is so strong. How do you go about going, that's what I'm going to call the record?

When I finished that song, and was sitting there looking at it and looking at the title. To me, the title is striking. And the imagery that is delved into is really, I feel like it's something that really stands out. And it really got my attention.

There are a lot of different meanings in that song, but a lot of it is about overconsumption, and materialism, and how damaging that is not just for us psychologically, but for the environment. Those are issues that are sort of near and dear to my heart. And to be able to make a statement about those things in a way that's sort of vague enough that it could mean a lot of different things, I think is important, because it sort of requires the listener to explore what the song means to them or like what meaning they find when they listen to it.

You know, it is weird, living and working in an industry that requires consumption. Every time I print shirts, I have mixed emotions about it. And it is a very product-based industry. These are things that I feel like I can improve upon and we can all improve upon and starting that conversation and saying, "Okay, well what's the alternative?" or "If this is the way that we have to do things, are we doing it in the most responsible and ethical way that we can?" And if we're not like let's talk about that and figure out a better way,

River Shook's new project is called Mightmare. The album is "Cruel Liars" and it's available wherever you find music.

Eric Hodge hosts WUNC’s broadcast of Morning Edition, and files reports for the North Carolina news segments of the broadcast. He started at the station in 2004 doing fill-in work on weekends and All Things Considered.
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