Interview: Kalie Shorr’s ‘Open Book’ Chronicles the ‘Worst Year’ of Her Life
In late 2018, while traveling and performing for the Road to the CMA Awards Tour, Kalie Shorr took a phone call from her manager. "We'd been kinda banging our heads against the wall, because I was figuring out what the next step was, and I knew I wanted to make an album," she tells The Boot, sitting in the small recording studio and venue at which she was preparing to host her album release party. "And he just called me and was like, 'I think you just need to make your moody b---h record, you know?'"
At that point, Shorr was in the middle of what she now describes as the worst year of her life, and its most tragic event was still ahead of her. Throughout 2018, she underwent a number of professional shifts and transitions, and ended a six-year relationship. Then, in January, the singer lost her older sister, Ashley, to a heroin overdose.
Following her sister's death, Shorr went back home to Maine, a trip during which she spent time with her family, including Ashley's two young children. A month later, in February, she began settling into the record-making process, still honing in on her "moody b---h" album, but now with whole new meaning.
"My manager just called me and was like, 'I think you just need to make your moody b---h record, you know?'"
Shorr reaches into a bag by her feet and pulls out a glitter-coated, hand-embellished composition notebook. "Candi Carpenter [Shorr's best friend, and a fellow songwriter and artist] made this for me at the beginning of the album process. She put all these little stickers in it, and all this cool stuff," Shorr says, flipping through the book and pointing out little notes, snippets of lyrics and photos pasted into its pages. A long-time vision-boarder, Shorr meticulously compiled keepsakes as she worked on the record that became Open Book, out Friday (Sept. 27).
In fact, when it came time to assemble the track list for Open Book, the singer says she wrote the song titles down on paper so she could physically move them around. "I have a big mirror in my kitchen. I was writing all over the mirror in dry erase marker," Shorr recalls with a laugh. "I had taped them on the mirror, and I kept moving them around. And then I had a party at my house, and I was like, 'This probably makes me look like a psycho.' I looked like one of those people that goes off the deep end and starts investigating a case by themselves, like a movie."
At the time, Shorr had another batch of more commercial, pop-leaning songs in her back pocket. The more the album's theme fell into place, though, the clearer it became that those tracks didn't have a place on this particular project. "It almost felt like it would be cheating the more personal songs. It would feel so inauthentic to go from a song like "Escape" and then be like, 'Here's a party song,'" she explains.
Open Book's mission statement is clear, from the very first line of opening track, "Too Much to Say": "I've never been worse, thanks for asking / Is it making you nervous, all this honesty?" Shorr sings in a guns-blazing opening statement that she says takes cues from album-openers such as Miranda Lambert's "Kerosene" and "All I Really Want" by Alanis Morissette. Literally, the track warns listeners that a rough ride is ahead -- and tells them she understands if they'd rather sit it out.
The album doesn't just have a few painful parts -- it has nothing but painful parts. Listeners shouldn't go into Open Book expecting sad ballad after sad ballad, though. Cutting, plaintive tracks such as "The World Keeps Spinning" hit hard, and deal directly with Shorr's own experience of loss; however, the project's weightiest moments come in songs such as "Gatsby," a manically upbeat track that recounts a stint of hard, grief-addled partying.
""Gatsby" is when I start to go off the rails a little bit. I'm like, 'Oh no, I'm not processing things very healthily,'" Shorr says. "The image I get of that is just me holding on with white knuckles to this very out-of-control ... scooter, or something. That was how it felt."
Shorr was nervous to be so personal on Open Book for a lot of reasons, not the least of which was how her family -- particularly her sister's kids, 10-year-old Chloe and 5-year-old Cameron -- would react. "There's definitely songs on there that I told my dad not to let [Chloe and Cameron] listen to," she admits.
"And "Gatsby" was one I was always really afraid to play [live] because it comes on very strong," Shorr continues. "I'd do it and be like 'Hey, there's a line at the very beginning ("I don't really like dating a--holes / But I do it 'cause I have a weird relationship with my dad"), just put your hands over their ears if you don't want them to hear it.' But then I'm like, the only thing worse than saying a--hole is being one, you know?
"With "F U Forever," yeah, there's definitely some adult themes on it, but at the same time, it's also about sticking up for yourself and leaving an abusive relationship," she adds, addressing one of Open Book's other upbeat-but-sad songs. "So if I had a daughter -- and Chloe, I'm so close to her and I'm probably the most prominent female role model in her life -- I wouldn't get upset by her hearing that message. It's about sticking up for yourself, and getting out of a s--tty situation."
Shorr knows there are parts of the album that it wasn't easy for her dad to listen to, either. "He was like, 'Do you really date a--holes because of [our relationship]? And I was like, 'I mean, I also do it by choice, but yeah, a little bit.' He was like, 'Oh, okay. S--t,'" she recalls. "But especially since my sister passed away, we've gotten a lot closer and are beginning to work through a lot of stuff. So I feel like that's something you'll hear about on the next album."
Even though Open Book is such a personal, definitive statement on a chapter in her life, Shorr never lost sight of its place in the arc of her career. In the thick of it, she tried to be conscious of how it will tie into her next project. The singer says the album's last -- and most positive -- track, "Angry Butterfly," hints at a new future direction.
""Angry Butterfly" is like, 'Alright, we've evolved, we're gonna come out of this,'" Shorr goes on to say. After writing it, she got a small tattoo of a butterfly on her wrist.
"I got [the tattoo] for this song, and also because my sister has the same one," she says. "Now my other sister's gonna get it. And when [Chloe] turns 16, we're gonna sign off and let her get one too. So, yeah. There's a lot of butterfly imagery, and I feel like I see them everywhere. It's really cool how that all came together. My sister always loved butterflies."
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