The way that SHEL – a folk group comprised of sisters Sarah, Hannah, Eva and Liza Holbrook – met Christian rock band Jars of Clay is like a scene out of a movie. The two acts were eating at the same restaurant in Nashville when Jars of Clay frontman Dan Haseltine approached their table, asking if they were a different female-fronted indie group, Lucius. The serendipitous encounter prompted the sisters to go back to his table and share how they’ve been longtime fans of the Grammy winning rock-gospel group, working up the courage to give him a CD of their work. “He listened to the CD and he got back to me and he’s like, ‘It’d be so fun to work together,’” Eva Holbrook recalls to Audiofemme via phone interview from a recording studio in Nashville.
Haseltine put these words to action, inviting SHEL to perform as part of Jars of Clay’s Family Christmas concert in Nashville in 2018, their chemistry and mutual love for the holiday sparking the idea for a collaborative EP, A Family Christmas, released on Nov. 22. “So much of the time that we spent bonding as bands happened at the Family Christmas show,” Eva explains. “I think we also shared this love of Christmas music and doing unique arrangements, as well as writing original Christmas music. That was something both bands were really excited about.”
The two acts wrote and recorded the festive EP this summer. The six-song endeavor features covers of two powerful classics, “Go Tell it on the Mountain” and “What Child is This,” alongside four original songs written by the band members. In the midst of working on the project, Eva was recovering from skin cancer removal surgery that left her with 20 stitches underneath her left eye. But still she persisted, making her way to the studio to lend her voice to the project that she describes as one of her favorite experiences in the studio. “I think I expected to feel really self-conscious about my appearance, but I was more caught up in the joy of creating, and it was a very fresh experience for our band,” she shares. “It reminded me what is important and what really brings us joy.”
Sharing joy is one of the messages interwoven into the EP, particularly on two of the original numbers penned by Haseltine. “Something New” is a cheerful letter to Santa with a dash of social awareness mixed in, as Haseltine sings “I don’t want anything made of plastic” and a member of SHEL echoes “straws get stuck in turtle’s noses,” while Hannah and Haseltine glow on the duet “Happy For the Holidays” that follows a shipwrecked couple happily secluded on an island during the overwhelming time of year.
“The holidays become so much about gifts and superficial things, but underneath all of that, I feel like there’s this feeling that we all remember from our childhood that we’re trying to get to,” Eva notes. “When I heard those songs, it brought up that emotion again.”
But the EP’s true standout shines in the form of the dreamy “Wonderful Feeling.” The whimsical folk tune touches on the nostalgic feeling of seeing Christmas through innocent eyes. Written by Liza in 2018, the song sees her taking lead vocals for the first time. “It’s a wonderful feeling/Draw near to those dear/And let the world hear/All of our hearts are singing,” she sings angelically, with a twinkling harp and fiddle supporting her along with her collaborators’ peaceful harmonies. Though Liza was originally tepid about incorporating “Wonderful Feeling” into the project, it quickly became a favorite among both groups, so much so they released it as the EP’s first single.
“I think for all of us, it really captures the magic of Christmas this time of year,” Eva observes. “I think life for everybody right now is so chaotic and can be very disconnected. But when you put your devices down and when you’re all in one room and you’re sharing stories, sharing the beautiful and delicate experiences that come from winter and the celebration of joy and hope and rebirth, all of these beautiful things, I think it touched that subconscious feeling inside of every single one of us.”
Having the opportunity to work with a group they’ve admired since childhood was a dream come true for the sister quartet. Eva uses striking words from 19th century Scottish poet George McDonald to frame how she hopes listeners will be impacted by A Family Christmas: “The best thing you can do for your fellow man, next to rousing his conscience, is not to give him things to think about, but to wake things up that are in him.”
“I feel like that’s my goal with every project – if it’s touching something deep inside of me and that awakens joy or sadness or anything on the spectrum of those essential human emotions, then I’ve done my job as a vessel for inspiration,” Eva determines. “I hope that it awakens beautiful things inside of people.”
SHEL and Jars of Clay will present the second annual Family Christmas concert at Liberty Hall in Franklin, Tenn. on Dec. 7.