Whiskey, addiction, breakups: Kalie Shorr is the new queen of country

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Had everything gone to plan, Kalie Shorr would have just wrapped her first UK tour. Instead, the 25-year-old country songwriter is stuck in Nashville, diagnosed with coronavirus and fighting trolls who accused her of faking it for publicity. It’s the longest she’s spent at home since music became her full-time gig seven years ago. She has been writing songs with her two housemates but, otherwise, lockdown has been an exercise in getting comfortable with her own company. “I am very extroverted and thrive on chaos,” she says with a guilty laugh.

Shorr is no stranger to it. Her 2019 debut album, Open Book, documents the worst year of her life: her older sister’s fatal heroin overdose; a cheating boyfriend; an eating disorder relapse. “I’ve never been worse, thanks for asking,” Shorr sings on the album’s opening line. “Is it making you nervous, all this honesty?” Her poignant bleakness and acid wit (the latter honed at stand-up nights between gigs) did spook the famously conservative country industry. “They’re terrified to take a chance on something they don’t understand,” says Shorr. So she self-released the album, a gloves-off evolution of Taylor Swift’s Nashville years. It made the New York Times’ best albums of 2019.

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Shorr is more strategic and resourceful than that chaotic exterior. Age 11, she told her dad she wanted to sign a publishing deal one day: “He was like, you wanna write a book?” The pre-teen Shorr avidly read CD liner notes, researching the songwriters whose names appeared alongside those of the Dixie Chicks and Faith Hill. “From there I fell down a songwriting rabbit hole.” Shorr grew up “honestly, just poor” in Maine, shuttling between her divorced parents. In a home where religion was “kind of a replacement” for psychology and therapy, she was sent to a pastor to address her anorexia, someone “who has no qualification in talking to a teenage girl about how she’s not eating cos she’s trying to maintain control over her world and she doesn’t have any”, Shorr recalls. She was left to figure it out on her own, and songwriting became a way of processing the world: “Making it rhyme and being able to organise it into three minutes and 30 seconds.”

Shorr posted covers on YouTube to lure listeners to her original material. After travelling to Nashville to perform at a showcase organised by Perez Hilton, she realised she would have to move there if she wanted to make it. So she headed south aged 18 and took a forensic approach to her hustle, studying the industry up close, “trying to pregame the whole thing”, she says. “I wanted to brace myself for the worst-case scenario.” She worked by day in a clothing shop and took an all-night job at a hotdog stand. “I’d seen E! True Hollywood Story,” she says. “If Faith Hill can work at McDonald’s, I can most certainly work at the snack shack on Broadway.”

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There was no worst-case scenario, at least not career-wise. Shorr joined Song Suffragettes, a female songwriters’ collective countering the industry’s gender disparity. Showcasing her song Fight Like a Girl (“when you push me, I’ll just push back harder”) at its weekly live slot earned her a publishing deal. For a while, Shorr smoothed down her edges to try to write commercial material that might get playlisted on country radio. Then the beginnings of her bad year, in 2018, forced her honesty back out. “My manager told me, ‘All you’re doing right now is listening to Alanis Morissette and Fiona Apple and crying – channel that, that’s clearly what you need to do on a personal level’,” she recalls. After her sister died, she wrote Vices, confessing to all her unhealthiest coping mechanisms: “I keep waking up next to my ex because he knows my body / And his new girlfriend, well she doesn’t know / And hell, I wish I was sorry.” It was liberating, says Shorr. “It’s accountability, being able to admit that, because then it’s a lot harder to do it again.”

When she showed her manager another new song, the savagely funny kiss-off F U Forever, he leaned back in his chair. “He was like: ‘Fuck, I guess we’re doing this!’” Shorr says. She recently revisited the songs she was writing at school. “They were so much like Open Book,” she says. “That’s so beautiful and reassuring that I’m on the right path, because Open Book channels who I was when I was first using songwriting as a coping mechanism and a crutch – that raw emotion before you’re really taught you need to be ashamed of it. I’m never gonna go back to writing songs from a guarded perspective.”

Naming Open Book an album of 2019, the New York Times wrote: “Everyone in Nashville is likely hoping to sandpaper her into something just a bit less confrontational; fingers crossed that doesn’t happen.” It hasn’t. “I don’t think anybody’s tried to chisel me down because I really came in swinging,” says Shorr. “When you put out F U Forever, you can’t go back.” Still, she is frustrated by the labels’ resistance to her: “They’re like, ‘We can’t really sign another girl’ or ‘We don’t really know what to do with it’. Well, the fans know what to do with it. People are finding this and we haven’t had a marketing budget. I haven’t even run a single Instagram ad – it’s as grassroots as it could possibly be.” Self-funding everything has been difficult. “But I wouldn’t change it cos of the level of control I’ve been able to have: owning my masters, controlling my own narrative, saying whatever I wanna say.” She recently rejected an offer to advertise a weight-loss aid. “That’s not a detox tea, it’s literally laxatives,” she says. “I wanna maintain my righteous anger about this.”

Shorr’s life has improved since releasing Open Book. “There’s definitely still struggle, but not the same struggle I sing about on the album,” she says. “I haven’t had a ‘chase Jameson shots with Jameson on the rocks while smoking a pack of American Spirits’ night since I finished it.” She’s been auditioning for film roles, presenting her show on Radio Disney Country and starting her own comedy podcast about oversharing. Recovering from coronavirus has given her a new perspective on her future. “It’s so easy when you’re in your 20s to feel invincible,” she says. “If you listen to Open Book, it’s the journey of me figuring out that I’m not.”

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