When Fort Collins, Colo., folkie Andrew Holbrook was considering a more expansive sound 10 years ago, he didn’t have to look very far for new musicians. Cleverly, he put his four youngest, home-schooled daughters to work as each mastered her chosen instrument — Sarah on violin, Hannah on keyboards, Eva on mandolin and Liza on pedal harp, then percussion.
“At his concerts, he’d invite us onstage to play with him, one song at a time, and then if we were good enough he’d invite us up for multiple songs,” recalls Eva Holbrook, who debuted alongside her dad at age 10.
“We kind of became his backup band, then slowly we all started learning to sing, and now it’s come full circle — now he backs us up!”
True enough. The sisters went on to form SHEL (from their first-name initials), a truly unique quartet that hits San Francisco tonight.
On their eponymous full-length debut, the sisters harmonize on quirky, vintage-vaudevillian melodies such as “Freckles,” “The Wise Old Owl” and “When the Dragon Came Down,” and they sport steampunk-inspired garb: homemade black Victorian dresses and flower-banded top hats.
They even offer an ethereal, lute-delicate rendition of Led Zeppelin’s “The Battle of Evermore.”
Growing up, there was no strict curriculum around the Holbrook household. The sisters were encouraged to pursue any artistic outlet that interested them.
“It wasn’t like our parents forced us to learn specific instruments,” says Eva, 23, who also handles lead vocals. “There were just different instruments that we were naturally drawn to, so it was all kind of instinctive. And our dad was a great influence — he taught us about the Beatles and how they had their own personalities, and he’d talk about the Marx Brothers and how hard they worked. So we were constantly trying to push ourselves, to keep growing.”
Eva still shudders recalling the first gig she played with her father, who arranged a special version of the gospel chestnut “Steal Away” for his kids.
“It was our first real performance, and it was terrifying,” she says.
Now, SHEL is so confident, Andrew only occasionally joins the group on bass. The Holbrook family still lives together on their Colorado farm. But the living room is now a rehearsal space, and Eva’s bedroom has morphed into a home studio dubbed The Blueberry Room.
SHEL just composed an original song for a Glade scented-candle TV commercial. But the group’s look is a hit, too. “People at festivals recognize us because of how we dress, and walk up to say hello,” Eva says. “We even have fans who come to our concerts wearing top hats, so we actually sell SHEL hats now!”
IF YOU GO
Opening for Eleni Mandell
Where: Café Du Nord, 2170 Market St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. today
Tickets: $12 to $14
Contact: (415) 861-5016, www.ticketweb.com