Two years ago, Shen Teh was a band — but not a band. Lara Olson wrote and sang the songs, which were complex, eclectic piano-centered compositions to which bandmates added color. Things have changed, and the change started at the CD release party for Shen Teh’s debut, “Alter Ego.”
At that show at The Root Note, Porcupine singer/guitarist Casey Virock was slated to open, performing as his Dolly Rocker alter ego. He had planned to play a couple songs with Shen Teh that night, but after the band’s regular guitarist had to bow out at the last minute, Virock was recruited to sit in for the whole set.
“That stuff is completely scary for a guitar player,” Virock said of Olson’s compositions from “Alter Ego,” adding that getting the chance to try new things was a big reason he accepted the offer to join the band. “It’s just so different. It’s challenging. I like that. It makes me approach the guitar differently.”
The process of writing and recording songs for Shen Teh’s second release, “Hide & Seek,” was much more of a full-band exercise, in which the songs she wrote would take shape with input from fellow band members, which include drummer Eric Gerke and bassist Colin Johnson, in addition to Virock.
“It didn’t feel good at first, but I’ve come to appreciate that process,” said Olson, a native of Germany with extensive classical piano training. “They all have really good ideas. I don’t always have to come to the band with every aspect of it laid out. It’s good to be flexible and create together.”
With “Hide & Seek,” Olson and her bandmates wanted to take a different approach to the songs, one that was less dependent on the piano. “We wanted to create a more rhythm-driven record, danceable, but we still didn’t want to lose the feel, the core of what we did before,” Olson said. “I like to dance and I like music that makes you want to move. I hope this is a movement in that direction.”
One thing that made achieving that goal possible was having Gerke on the drum throne. “I knew he was a great drummer, but he blew me away,” Virock said.
The seven songs on “Hide & Seek” retain Olson’s signature vocal theatricality, emotional depth and evocative lyrics, and at least a couple songs (“Hide & Seek” and “Kitty in the City”) show off her prowess on the ivories and her skills at composing for the piano. But the other three band members shine as well, with the piano more often yielding the floor to the other instruments.
Olson recalls the turning point in the band becoming a bigger part of the creative process came during a session where they were working out the album closer, “Would You Rather.” Gerke and Virock came up with a funky drum-guitar intro that didn’t fit with the piano part Olson had carefully crafted for the song. Because of that, the song took off in a new, improved direction, and Olson learned how to be more open to a collaborative creative process.
“I don’t always have to be 150 percent prepared,” Olson said, summing up the lesson. “That was a key moment for me as a songwriter and for us as a band.”
“Would You Rather” also stands out on the album as the only one with an outside producer. Jason Knox, a longtime collaborator with Virock, was given the chance to act as producer on the song, working with Olson on lyrics, arrangements and the sonic palate.
This song (along with “Keys”) will be the hardest to resist dancing to, with Knox giving it a bit of a 1980s spacy, bouncy New Wave feel.
For Olson, it was worth giving up some control on “Would You Rather” to Knox. “He was amazing,” she said. “I was a little bit worried to let go of that final say. In the end, I’m really happy with how we did it.”
The band is celebrating the new record with a series of shows, including one Friday night at The Root Note. Olson and Virock plan to make sure there is plenty of space for dancing.