Kalie Shorr Discusses Grieving in Public, Learning How to Write Songs About Her Sister’s Death
"Knock on wood, but this is probably going to be the worst year of my life," Kalie Shorr says matter-of-factly.
In 2018, the country singer faced challenge after challenge: She underwent a number of professional shifts and transitions, and broke up with her boyfriend of six years. Then, at the beginning of 2019, she lost her older sister, Ashley, to a drug overdose.
Like many people who have close family members struggling with substance abuse, Shorr has long had a complicated relationship with her sister. "She had a really long battle with addiction, and was in and out of prison," the singer recalls. "Our relationship was a little strained because of it, because I was just angry at her -- for doing that to us, and to her kids. But it is a disease."
A couple of months before Ashley died, however, Shorr reconnected with her sister: "I had this moment, around Thanksgiving, where I was like, 'I think our families are in our lives for a reason, and it's our job to love them through everything,'" she explains.
"I reached out to her for the first time in a while, and we had this great conversation, for probably half an hour, just catching up," Shorr recalls. "The last thing she ever said to me was 'I'm so proud of you.' Even when I've not wanted to get out of bed, and had a show or whatever, I've thought about that, and that's been super inspiring."
After Ashley's death, Shorr -- with the support of her family -- decided to be open with her fans about her loss. "I don't want to gloss this over. I want to talk about it," she states. "Because people who battle addiction and overdose, they don't get to have their faces on the news. They're just a number."
Shorr wants to make sure that people remember her sister the way she deserves to be remembered: as a regular, complex person whose demons ultimately killed her. "We've got to show people that she was a real person, with passions and children -- not just some junkie, you know?" she goes on to say. "But because of that, [I'm] letting people into a really personal part of me."
"We've got to show people that she was a real person, with passions and children -- not just some junkie, you know? But because of that, I'm letting people into a really personal part of me."
The response from her fanbase was overwhelming, and largely positive. In the days following Ashley's death, listeners flooded Shorr's inbox with well wishes and their own stories of addiction. That part of it, she says, was healing; she had no idea that so many of her fans had struggled with similar issues.
Then, there were other times, when the attention felt a little surreal: "It's been so bizarre. Because I've never felt famous before," Shorr points out. "I know everyone's really well-intentioned with it ... but it is interesting when I'm just out and about.
"I was at the doctor's office, and the receptionist was like, 'Are you Kalie Shorr?' And I was like, 'Oh, yeah, is it my time to go in?'" she recalls with a laugh. "And he was like, 'I just wanted to let you know, I'm so sorry. I saw it in People magazine.' I'm like, 'Jeez!'
"It's weird. I don't think it's good or bad, but it's definitely been interesting," Shorr continues. "At the same time, it's a blessing to be able to share her story, and hopefully educate people."
As far as music goes, Shorr says she's still writing her way toward songs that directly deal with her sister's death -- "slowly," she adds. "I kinda touched on it in a song I wrote the other day." She's planning a new album, one that grapples with her devastating year, and her songwriting will lean into the experience of losing Ashley.
More immediately, the loss has impacted Shorr in less direct, but just as musically meaningful, ways: "She was the first person to introduce me to Jewel, and the whole Lilith Fair thing, which has been inspiring the project a lot," Shorr notes. "Diving back into the songs that we listened to growing up has been really comforting. That definitely shapes the project."
For now, Shorr says, a lot of her new music tells the story of growing up with a family dynamic that often caused her a lot of heartache.
"[There's a song] I just wrote about my family in general. It's called "Escape,"" she shares. "The hook is 'Everybody needs and escape, and mine was leaving.' There's a lot of bad habits in my family. Every single person on the planet has that thing that is their escape from life ... I grew up around a lot of negative ones, and just, like, got out."
"I'm never trying to disrespect anyone, but if it's something that's affected me, I need to be honest about it. It's how I process stuff, too."
On Friday night (Feb. 15), Shorr played "Escape" during a show at Nashville's Listening Room Cafe. It was a benefit for her sister's young children, so many of those in attendance were familiar with her story, but Shorr admits that it's still been pretty nerve-wracking to debut the new material.
"It's a scary song to sing. I had to call my family and be like, 'Hey, there's this line in there that you might not like, but it's in there,'" she says. "I'm never trying to disrespect anyone, but if it's something that's affected me, I need to be honest about it. It's how I process stuff, too."
And "processing stuff" is often exhausting work in itself: "After I wrote "Escape," I think I sat on the floor with my best friend, Candi Carpenter, and we drank wine straight out of the bottle and basically unboxed my entire childhood," adds Shorr. "But once I wrote the song, I feel like I put together a lot of the pieces."
Even in the midst of grief, Shorr finds pockets of joy and hope. While she was back home for Ashley's funeral, she immersed herself in spending time with her sister's two children. In fact, the age difference between Ashley and Shorr was the same as the age difference between Shorr and Ashley's daughter, 9-year-old Chloe.
"I swear to God, we're the same person," Shorr continues, lighting up. "She's been so inspiring, and seeing her go through what I went through -- she's my little sister."
The two have a kinship that goes beyond being blood relatives: "Chloe wrote her first song two weeks ago," Shorr adds. "So she's finding healing in that same place where I found it."
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