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Strand of Oaks Finally Lets Go

Tim Showalter returns with a trippy synth odyssey of self-discovery
Strand of Oaks
Tim Showalter of Strand of Oaks (Credit: Greg Vrotsos)

By the time Tim Showalter steps onstage at Nashville’s Centennial Park in early June, it is a small wonder this show is still happening. Being the cusp of summer in Nashville, one of those gently emphatic storms rolled through — patient downpours for hours, steady and in no rush to leave. Showalter is in town briefly, this gig is a solo prologue to his forthcoming Strand of Oaks tour. He flew in, with only a small pedalboard and guitar, to perform in a series of free weekend concerts running in the city through May and June. It is not lost on Showalter, the irony of getting up there and singing a collection of deeply sad songs while children frolic in the mud alongside some old devoted Oaks fans. But in most ways, this show is not indicative of what’s to come the rest of the year so much as a last rodeo for an old idea of Strand of Oaks. 

For a little over an hour, Showalter stands up there alone with his guitar. He plays a few new songs, recent singles “More You” and “Party At Monster Lake” stripped way down to voice and six strings. Mostly, he carries us through the last 10 years, from his 2014 breakthrough Heal through Hard Love and Eraserland and In Heaven. All the requisite hits from each era appear. It’s a reminder of the many beautiful moments and harrowing confessions Showalter has given us. 

But by the time Showalter exits that stage, all I can think of is how wildly different this is all about to look. No more rocker, no more singer-songwriter. No more sad songs. This is not the Strand of Oaks of 2024.

Strand of Oaks
Tim Showalter in the studio (Credit: Greg Vrotsos)

When Showalter arrives in Nashville, he’s less than a week from releasing his eighth album, Miracle Focus. While its advance singles would only partially suggest as much, the album is the sort of sharp pivot that will inevitably leave some fans enraptured and others scratching their heads. Over several conversations via Zoom, first with Showalter beaming in from his home in Austin, and over barbecue at the famed Nashville establishment Martin’s, Showalter explained how we got here. 

By his admission, for much of his career, Showalter was governed by impulsiveness. While the wild swing of Miracle Focus could seem the same, it was actually the opposite. After In Heaven, Showalter felt he had taken certain types of Oaks songs to their final form. He had said what he wanted, and he was, for the first time in many years, satiated by the experience of writing and recording that material. What unfolded next was several years of exploration, expansion, and wandering. 

In the interim between records, Showalter tried new creative endeavors. He fell in love with painting and began devoting much of his time to it. In the spring of 2022, he joined the cast of the Sons Of Anarchy spinoff Mayans M.C., playing a ruthless biker. These experiments allowed him to step away from himself, and the records tied to his own name — to be nervous again. “I didn’t feel so good about the music industry or what my place in it was,” Showalter says of the strange time spent divided between zen painting sessions in his garage and flying to L.A. to don an SOA jacket and inhabit his violent Mayans character Hoosier. “I was granted this gift, a vacation from being that.” As far as Showalter’s concerned, he wasn’t Strand of Oaks for a while. So when it came time to write new Oaks material, it happened completely differently. 

“I had found a way to empty myself on to the paintings,” Showalter explains. “Each of my big paintings is the amount of existential thinking as In Heaven.” This meant that when Showalter began embarking on late-night sessions at his trusty synthesizer, his songwriting approach was inverted. No longer were there dark thoughts and lingering crises to pour into the new music. “I started with blank canvases, impressionistic swathes,” he says. “Then I’d see the story and pull it out.” 

While synthesizers were always a part of Showalter’s songwriting process, the long gestation from demo to finished recording usually relegated them to supporting roles. Not this time. Fueled by the exhilaration of painting and acting, Showalter chased a new sound: reverberating bass, celestial oscillations, groovy beats. 

Singles like “More You” and “Ananda” might have the sort of ruminative, mystic threads of past Oaks dressed in more atmospheric tones. Other tracks, like “Fantasy Wranglers” and “Miracle Focus,” have Showalter’s typical melodic sensibility, rendered in new colors. But a lot of other songs go there. Both “Future Temple” and “Switched On” almost eradicate Showalter entirely, heavily processed vocals coasting across clouds of fizzy synth layers. “Navigator” and “Ascend You” build and build to climaxes bursting with synth arpeggios and clattering beats. 

This is not just a stylistic facelift, though, but a near-holistic reimagining of what Strand of Oaks is. The starting point is the lead single and opener “More You.” “I need something more than me/ Something beyond what I can see… A little more you/ A little less me,” Showalter intones. It represents the reversal of Miracle Focus. Where Showalter once used his albums as memoirs purging real life demons, Miracle Focus became about abstract searches, and about embrace. “Instead of me swimming in the trauma pool and trying to keep my head above water, I’m learning not to disconnect from it, but to dance with it,” he says. 

At the same time Showalter’s creative life was broadening, so too was his spiritual life. During long painting sessions, Showalter would spin Alice Coltrane and Miles Davis records. One day, he stumbled on a Ram Dass lecture that completely leveled him. In the past, Showalter always seemed like a psychedelic dude, but of the more hedonistic breed. Now, he was newly enthralled with meditation and yoga. 

“I kept asking myself: ‘What’s the best way to translate bliss, this new feeling I’ve discovered?’” he recalls. “For me, the gateway was synthesizers, movement, and fun. If I take myself too seriously [with this stuff], I become a Silverlake guru. I’m from Indiana. How do I do this authentically? Be fun, not change who I am, be exactly me.” 

Throughout our conversations, Showalter characterizes Miracle Focus as a “gateway to meditation” akin to the old Nintendo instruction manuals he remembers from his youth, introducing the characters and how you’d play as them. I call it a “self-help book as synth odyssey.” Either way, something is clear: For all the past Oaks albums that presented exorcism as catharsis or self-exploration, Showalter is fundamentally changed here. There’s a reason he keeps emphasizing the idea that it’s an album meant to be heard as a whole, as a carefully plotted journey. 

In one moment of cosmic happenstance, Miracle Focus arrives nearly 10 years to the day as Heal. After hushed earlier records, Heal was where Strand of Oaks cohered, Showalter dealing with a host of traumatic events via a synth-tinged heartland rock sound that was just starting to come back into vogue in 2014. While Heal garnered press accolades and signaled Oaks’ breakthrough, Showalter’s search continued, each record reacting to the last: the roadworn party time of Hard Love, the otherworldly crash landing of Eraserland, the post-sobriety reckonings of In Heaven. Miracle Focus could yet become an outlier in Showalter’s story. But for now, it feels like some starlit end destination to all that preceded it: A decade of adopting and then shedding the tropes of the rock star life. 

Showalter still sports his trademark long hair and voluminous beard, both streaked with grey as he settles into his forties. You will only see him wearing leather and boots on Mayans. Hunkered down in the psychedelic temple he’s fashioned for himself in his Austin home, he’s taken on more of a ‘90s video game shaman vibe, multi-colored sunglasses and cargo pants and all. He seems chilled out. But he’s also self-aware enough to know the music industry still shudders post-pandemic and has braced himself for plenty of fans to not fully understand where he’s coming from on this album. 

“I’m pretty depressed right now,” he admits. “Miracle Focus is the first time I’m singing about something that’s inexplicable. I can’t find the words for it. How do I explain absolute stillness and balance?” After a vivid several years of new creative endeavors, he feels his battery is tapped out, and at times questions whether he should’ve kept Miracle Focus closer — whether releasing it as another entry in the Oaks canon somehow mars what it all meant. 

In the past, Showalter was always a wildly loquacious interviewee, and he indeed chooses his words more carefully today. He reflects on his career: He has no manager or infrastructure around him right now. He compares Miracle Focus to Heal in that it was a moment where nobody is expecting anything specific, nobody’s asking him for a certain kind of Strand of Oaks album. Because of that, he went somewhere else, and Miracle Focus is his humble attempt to lead others there.  “If one person could find this album and feel great,” he says, “That was all I intended.”

“I don’t know if people are done with Strand of Oaks,” Showalter concludes. “I’m not done with myself. I found a new path.”