I’m A Defeatist But I Don’t Have To Be: A Conversation With Eisley’s Sherri DuPree-Bemis

Bliss Katherine

Tyler, Texas-based Eisley was once a record label’s dream: a band of teenage siblings, three sisters, a brother, and a best friend, making dark, moody, dreamy alternative rock music, irrespective of any genre and existing comfortably in the ether of the lesser corners of the internet, building an audience without the necessity of things such as a record deal. How many bands with no band member over the age of eighteen, no record deal and no releases whatsoever get tapped to open a full American tour for a superstar, stadium-level band like Coldplay? The family unit was one of the unique features of the band, and over the decade since their appearance, they would go through ups and downs, but yet, the family remained.

Jump, then, to 2013. The band released its fourth album, Currents. On one hand, it was their best-selling record to date. But underneath the surface, things were about to change. After its release, the band went quiet, until an announcement came that things had changed. Gone were siblings Chauntelle (guitars) and Stacy (keyboards/vocalist/songwriter), leaving to focus on their own families and musical projects, while brother Weston too would soon take a studio-only role. What had made the band special—its sibling bond—was gone. Yet sister Sherri DuPree-Bemis, who had always been Eisley’s de facto lead singer, would carry on with a new lineup of the band for a handful of tours.

Earlier this year, Eisley would release its fifth album, I’m Only Dreaming, and the first with an all-new lineup. It’s a brighter, lighter, and more wistful affair than the groups previous records, thanks in part to a fresh new approach to songwriting, her new bandmates, and the inspiration of daily life. We were happy to sit down for a chat about the ups and downs that come when major changes happen to a band.

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When I first listened to I’m Only Dreaming, my first thought was how it sounds so fresh and new. (She agrees) Then it struck me–this really is a completely new Eisley.

When we went through all the changes in the band, I was obsessed with this thought that I was going to lose Eisley. It was really something that worried me, and it kept me up at night. Everyone else, they were all in different places in their lives, where being in the band wasn’t necessarily a priority; they didn’t feel the need or the desire to go out and tour or get together and write and record, and it was a little strange for me, truthfully. I had never felt that way. My sisters, they were telling me that they wanted to spend time with their kids and their families, and they didn’t feel the desire to do Eisley right now. I was mortified, and I started to feel bad about it, because to me, Eisley is my life; it’s my baby, it’s my passion, and when I started to see that the others didn’t feel the same, it made me sad. I couldn’t just tell my siblings to push their families aside, and so to me, it all just seemed like it was over.

I was so consumed with my emotions about all these changes, I must admit, I wasn’t listening to them. Even though all of a sudden it seemed like they weren’t invested in the band, I didn’t realize they weren’t saying I couldn’t do it, either. In fact, they all gathered around me and rallied around me. It sounds so cheesy to say, but you know how everyone in a band talks about how their band is a family, and how you don’t want to break up that family unit? Well, I had lost sight that we really are a family! (Laughs) These were my siblings first, who happened to be in a band with me, and that even though we might not be in the studio together or out on the road together, I haven’t lost them, and I’m not betraying them by continuing on, and what’s more, they were supportive of me carrying on.

It was still kind of weird, though. I was still writing, but the songs weren’t coming together. Then word started getting out about the changes, and fans were freaking out, thinking it was the end, and it’s hard not to pay attention to that and to get caught up in that. But my family, they were telling me to keep going. They’d tell me that the songs I write are Eisley songs, and that’s not changed. They reminded me that when Stacy was in the band, we rarely wrote together. We’d work on songs as a band, but we all wrote the songs individually. So in that regard, nothing had changed. I guess I didn’t really notice that, but they were right.

Once I accepted that, I started to find it easier to write. My anxieties were starting to slip away, and I felt a lot happier with what I was doing, and when I started to look deeper into what I was doing, I was starting to see how all of these stresses and heartbreaks and anxieties could be turned into a really important and meaningful experience that I think has really helped me grow as both a songwriter and as a person.

I recall feeling really sad for you when you released the Youtube announcement about the lineup changes. I could tell you were really trying to hide your emotions.

Oh, gosh, yes! That was such a hard thing for me to do. Max (Bemis, Say Anything frontman and Sherri’s husband), that poor guy, he had to put up with me through that—I’m sure I was just a total wreck! (Laughs) But he’s been through times where he’s had to address lineup changes in his band and rumors, so he knew the delicateness of it and the emotions involved, and he really helped me get through it. And my family—you know how tight we are, Joseph; you’ve been around us, so you know that family is such a big deal for us—it was weird, because Stacy and Chauntelle were moving to Nashville, and it felt like something really bad was happening, that something greater was falling apart, and we were all going our separate ways. It wasn’t, of course, but considering how close-knit we are, it was just a really, really weird time, and I felt especially vulnerable. To me, I felt like I was holding the band together, and it took me some time to realize that this was a chapter of their lives that might seem like it was closing, but instead it was something good for all of us, moving into adulthood and onto new phases of our lives.

But I came to realize that instead of seeing this as a weakness or a failing, it only made me realize that our bond was strong, our love for each other was stronger, and my bond with my music was with Eisley, and I was really lucky to have had my family with me to make Eisley grow. I came to appreciate that these bonds, they weren’t going to break; they were merely changing. And change is hard, but it’s how you grow. It was a very vulnerable, emotionally challenging and weird time for me, but it was so necessary. You can get complacent, and when changes come along, they can rattle you, and as hard as it was, it was a really good thing for me, a growing and learning experience. Really, really hard, no two ways about it, but something I needed to experience to grow.

It’s funny; in our earliest interviews, we would occasionally get this question about what would happen if one of the members of the band decided to leave the group, and we’d always say, “Well, Eisley will never really, truly break up, because we’re family.” You say these things as kids, and you say them because you believe them, but saying them and the reality of that when that time comes , that’s something completely different. I’m Only Dreaming answers that question.

Did you find that once you got into the swing of making the new record, it was a lot easier for you? I liked your previous album, Currents, but when I went back and listened to it after listening to I’m Only Dreaming, I sort of came away feeling like there was a bit of a strain in the band.

I think that’s rather insightful, because in reality, I think that’s absolutely true. I love that record and I love the songs, but at the same time, we knew something wasn’t quite working, and we sensed something was about to change, and it did. “Currents” was a great title, because it suggests change—even though we might not have really realized it at the time, and I might not have picked up on the subconscious way that title is apt! (Laughs) But really, what happened was natural. I mean, you can’t really expect five people in a family to fully dedicate themselves to being with each other for years at a time, neglecting their own families. I mean, here we were, we’d been in a band since we were super-young—Stacy wasn’t even a teenager yet when we were being courted by the major labels–and here we were, packing ourselves into a tiny van and playing shows, and we’d been around a long time when Currents came out. We were babies and kids when Eisley started, and now we were adults with babies on our own, so it’s to be expected.

Currents was a rough record to make, but not necessarily because of anything bad, because a lot of good things were happening. A lot of us were pregnant, some were just getting married, and we were starting to enjoy adulthood, and Eisley sort of became—a distraction, perhaps? Well, it started to feel less special. It sort of became a chore to get through, because we had to push ourselves to get it done. It was a bit of a struggle, but I think it came out beautifully. But you’re right, there is something about it that feels strained, especially if you’re familiar with the band, or you kept up with what was going on with the band. I think a lot of it comes down to us knowing that a change was coming, and we weren’t quite ready to face that reality.

When I started to work on I’m Only Dreaming—and this isn’t a knock on my family whatsoever—instead of that strain, writing the songs started to be effortless again, because I didn’t have these other concerns hanging over me. I’d get together with Garron (DuPree, bassist/producer), and we’d bounce ideas off of each other, and it was really, really productive.

Was the writing process a lot easier, once you got into it?

It really was. I mean, when I started I had some insecurities about doing it all myself, but what really got me through it was how encouraging everyone was. Eisley as a solo project had never been something I’d considered, but everyone was telling me not to get hung up on those things, that I could do it, and it’ll be good. I’m an “artist-type” (laughs), so I wasn’t sure I believed them at first, but I got over that! (Laughs)

But what was really cool about all of this was discovering how wonderfully talented Garron has become. He joined the band sort of out of necessity, my little cousin filling in when our bass player quit, just fifteen. Our singles, “You Are Mine” and “Defeatist,” he wrote the music for both of them, and they were almost more him than me. He played them for me one day, and he was like, “Hey, you think you could put some lyrics and melodies to these, think they might work with some of your songs?” We’d actually never collaborated like that before, and those two numbers have quickly become two of my favorites from the album. I have to say that even though we just finished up and released this new album, I’m already looking forward to working on our next record, because I’m so looking forward to collaborating with him more.

One of the things that struck me about I’m Only Dreaming is that aside from the lineup change, there’s a definite lyrical change too. Your early records had this sort of dark, dreamy, ethereal and fantasy-minded sensibility to them, while I’m Only Dreaming, it’s not like that at all. It’s a much more realistic album, one that’s—well, it’s a love album, basically. Not that you haven’t written love songs before, but this time, they’re songs about love of family and security and about maturity and being grown-up—domesticated Eisley, if you will.

I think that’s a wonderful way to put it. And I think that it’s a natural progression, too. It’s like the verse that says, “When I was a child, I thought like a child.” Those first records, we wrote them when we were kids. Babies, even. (Laugh) And those songs really captured where and who we were at the time, and that’s why they resonated with the people who love our music, because a lot of our audience, they were our age—or discovered us at the ages we were when we wrote the songs—and so they could relate. So if I was having boy frustrations, or if I’d read a really great book or had just watched a movie that I found inspiring, I’d write about that. Now, it’s like, if I look at my girls after I put them down for bed and I feel inspired by watching them sleep, I’ll slip out to my little studio and put down ideas about how that makes me feel. So even though the subject matter’s changed, the process of inspiration and interpretation hasn’t. Either way, the subject is still rooted in the reality of my life and how I see things, and I think when you’re writing from a point of reality like that, it resonates with people.

Songwriting is funny; as the writer, I can’t really see the themes or the trends of my work; I see those things only in retrospect, or when someone points them out. I tend to gauge things more in relation to where I stand at that particular moment in time. At this moment in time, I’ve been married for eight years to a wonderful man; we have two beautiful kids, and I have a wonderful and supportive family—with my immediate family and the extended family of Eisley. Life isn’t always perfect, but if I’m Only Dreaming is a love letter to all of that, then I’m quite happy that it shows, and that I’m able to sing about these things, and I am happy to share that with people who love my music.

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