“I don’t think I found my way out,” Timothy Showalter said of his depression. “I think everyone around me helped me out.”
Showalter, who performs indie-rock as Strand of Oaks, didn’t sound down on the phone, being energized by a day spent moving and a pending flight to Amsterdam. That wasn’t the case a year or two ago before recording this year’s “Eraserland.” It took a message from My Morning Jacket’s Carl Broemel to jump-start his art and his emotional well-being.
“I’m usually kind of my own cheerleader through anything. It was a moment where I couldn’t do that for myself,” Showalter explained. “I must have done something right, because, at that moment, my wonderful wife, My Morning Jacket … all these people came and made it happen, really. I wrote all of the songs out of the pressure of ‘I’m playing with better musicians than I ever have in my life, and I better have good songs.’ Because of that pressure, I got out of whatever depression I was in.”
The process wasn’t easy or permanent, and Showalter recognizes that having a mission can influence mental health.
“None of us ever get out of depression,” he said. “Life is tough for all of us. What it did was it gave me purpose. Purpose is important. You don’t realize that until you find it again. I have a reason to do something! I love today. I love the fact that I had a lot to do today. I jump at those chances. I want to be tired when I go to bed.”
Showalter developed that sensibility growing up in Indiana, surrounded by farm and construction work. “Eraserland” was intense work, with only a week to track the record. The musicians had a tight schedule, and turned it into tight music.
Speaking in the wake of the deaths of Neal Casal and David Berman, Showalter reflected on the struggle that artists sometimes face.
“People that touched with such grace and beauty can succumb to it, but I understand it. It’s an undefinable feeling. I’ve been down before. In crisis there’s something to grab a hold of, but when it doesn’t have a name or identity … I feel like I’m floating away. I’m untethered. Since that moment I got the text from Carl, there’s such a purpose.”
He doesn’t know whether Broemel knew his state of mind, or whether the message was “glorious serendipity.” Likewise, he doesn’t know how Jason Isbell ended up contacting him to offer to help out. The experience speaks to the value of community.
“I may not have a lot of attention, but I just worked really hard for 15 years to just be a good guy to people, and that’s where the currency of recognition comes in,” Showalter said. “If they needed me, I’d be on the first flight out. That takes precedence over songs, over anything. It sounds dramatic, but I love that people get to hear ‘Eraserland,’ but when I was flying home from Louisville after mixing it, all that mattered was that it was made and I did it. The record was a great byproduct of this life-altering event I just went through.”
In his art, Showalter finds music to be nearly salvific, and find ways to convert his own struggles into meaningful shared experiences.
“I’m a person that’s extremely prone to anxiety and fear and depression, but underneath all that, I’m a naïve, hopeful optimist. I love to think that I can vanquish things. That’s why I was devastated with the passing of Jason Molina. He didn’t wallow in his problems. He tried to find that mythical sword to battle that feeling. That’s how I feel.”
As an adolescent, Showalter suffered from juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, and his “grandpa came and almost threw me out of bed and said, ‘You need to get up.’” His grandfather lived through the Depression in a barn, and he routinely thinks about that, considering how to push through and find a “tiny sliver of light” when you need to.
“You see heroes go away. I worry they’re not finding that,” he said. “Their job is to search existentially and to manifest it in art. It’s a weird window to open, navigate [and] still have an identity after that. I’m Tim Showalter, not Strand of Oaks. If I don’t get enough retweets, I’m still me. Our virtual selves are not our selves. We are beings that are loved.”
That thinking led Showalter to the idea of geological feelings or experiences, where there’s “no real emotion I’m reacting off of,” as in “Forever Chords.” He separates emotions, which are fleeting — “The happiest you feel won’t last; the same with the saddest you feel,” he said — from something deeper, finding a peaceful feeling from recognizing our place in the universe.
While Showalter thinks deeply and abstractly, he still stays grounded. He has a great love for watchmaking, comparing the extreme mechanical precision of that work to the ethereal nature of music. He also finds a foundation in the relationships he develops on tour.
“I’ll take the Southern any day,” he said. “The sound’s going to be great. The people are going to be great. I like playing, and I like playing in front of my fans. My fans turn out to be people that I’d be friends with.”
As Showalter sifts through the experience behind “Eraserland,” it’s easy to imagine many of his fans feel the same way.