A Bad Breakup and Her Sister's Death Inspire Kalie Shorr to Record Her Daring Debut 'Open Book'

The singer-songwriter turns in intensely personal songs after enduring the end of a six-year relationship and her sister's heroin overdose — and she's discovering that exposing her pain helps her connect to listeners

kalie shorr
Photo: Catherine Powell

Kalie Shorr used to walk into her songwriting sessions ready to do the Nashville thing of “let’s try to write a hit today” — but then life happened. Lots of it.

She and her boyfriend of six years broke up. It was bad, as in he-cheated-on-her-and-she-lost-her-health-insurance-and-he-got-the-dog bad. Then, seven months later, things got worse. Her dad called and blindsided her with the news that her sister had died of an accidental heroin overdose.

Trying to write a hit song suddenly seemed beside the point. “I had to go back to how I started writing in the first place,” the 25-year-old singer-songwriter tells PEOPLE. “I was just like, all right, I’m not writing for anyone but myself right now.”

The songs began to flood out of her, and in startlingly specific ways. She named names. She confronted demons. She described all the screwups, not just the ex-boyfriend’s, but her family’s and her own.

Then she did something daring and decided not to keep it to herself. She put it all on a debut album with a spot-on title, Open Book, and released it to the world.

Doesn’t she feel — even just a little — that she’s in the TMI zone?

“Oh, I absolutely do,” the “Fight Like a Girl” singer says with a laugh. “I think there’s way too much.”

kalie shorr
Kalie Shorr’s Open Book. Catherine Powell

It’s a disarming self-awareness that signals Shorr well understands the risk of her new music. It’s exposing. It’s scary. And it certainly invites a snap judgment. “Yeah,” she allows, “when you laundry-list the things on the album it sounds like a cry for help.”

But listen to the music — including first single, “Alice in Wonderland,” which goes out on Friday — and it becomes clear that Shorr hasn’t sensationalized her heartbreak and grief. Instead, she’s expertly navigated it and turned it into something artful. New York Times music critic Jon Caramanica has compared its “raw tension” to Miranda Lambert’s music, and likened Shorr’s “crisp pop songwriting instincts” to Taylor Swift‘s and Kelsea Ballerini‘s.

The album’s narrative actually begins where Shorr began, growing up in Maine with divorced parents, the youngest of seven children produced by blended families. A precocious child, Shorr told her parents, at age 10, “I want to move to Nashville and get a publishing deal.” She reached her first goal by age 18 and the second four years later. In between, she acquired the boyfriend she believed was for keeps.

“We lived together,” she says. “We were part of each other’s families. I thought I was going to marry him. I didn’t think there was a universe where I didn’t.”

The betrayal assured a devastating end. That was in May 2018. Shorr was still trying to regain her footing when she learned, this past January, that her 37-year-old sister, Ashley, had died.

Shorr had grown up idolizing her creative, musical sister. But drug addiction also exacted a difficult toll, including prison terms. Still, the last time the sisters spoke — by phone a couple of months before Ashley’s death — Shorr thought she was talking to someone who had turned her life around.

“None of us knew that she was using again, which is how it happens,” she says. “They’ll be sober for a while and then they use the same amount that they’d been using, but they’ve detoxed from it a little bit, so it hits twice as hard.”

An optimist by nature, Shorr says she never expected to get this news. “I just felt like some day she was gonna beat this,” she says.

Most of the 13 songs on Open Book were written in the ragged weeks following Ashley’s death. “Everything just clicked for me,” Shorr says, as she gathered with sympathetic songwriter friends and she wrote and wept about her twin losses.

Putting all of these new songs on an album was not her immediate next thought. In fact, for some of the songs, she had to work up the courage to even perform them. But she had the perfect venue: As a founding member of Song Suffragettes, a women’s songwriting initiative in Nashville, she found a supportive audience at its popular weekly showcase.

Shorr remembers trembling the first time she performed “Gatsby,” an uptempo song that documents her reliance on antidepressants and a string of ill-considered benders. “It just felt so confessional,” she says, “but by the end of it, everybody’s singing along to ‘when I get up, I get down, I take my meds and I hit the town.’”

Afterward, audience members showered her with compliments and been-there-toos. “I was immediately so much more calm,” Shorr says, “and then releasing it felt like a no-brainer. But if I hadn’t been able to play it out live first, I probably would have been too afraid to cut it.”

Of course, what Shorr has discovered is that, while her messy life is hers, it’s not hers alone. “I think the biggest compliment I’ve gotten from fans on this record,” she says, “is them saying, ‘I didn’t have this song, and I needed this song.’”

Shorr reports that her family has been immensely supportive of the album and its truth-telling. Her father, especially, offered her important insight when he divided musical artists into two camps: those who help you escape and those who help you confront. Open Book clearly puts Shorr in the latter category.

“There’s a lot of value in a concert where you can go and drink a beer and forget about your problems for two hours,” she says. “Then sometimes you need to go to a concert for two hours, and it makes you really rethink your life and why you’re here and feel connected to other people because of this shared common thread.”

Through the grapevine, Shorr has learned that her ex-boyfriend has not been quite so understanding, particularly with one choice cut entitled “F U Forever.”

“I heard that he thinks the song is too literal, and I thought that was really funny,” Shorr says. “It’s like the douchiest thing he could probably say about it, but notice he didn’t say it was untrue.”

She certainly has no second thoughts about putting it on the album. “I just hope that anyone who needs to get out of a crap relationship hears this song and can find the resolve to do it. I think if I had had that song when I was going through it, it would have changed the game for me.”

The album’s songs have been placed mostly in chronological order, so listeners can easily follow Shorr’s real-life journey. Thankfully it ends on a hopeful note with “Angry Butterfly,” a song she calls “the concluding paragraph-slash-happy ending.” It’s among the last she wrote for the album.

“I love the line about ‘constellations in my eyes and darkness in my veins,’” she says, “because I still have stars in my eyes. But then I’m always going to carry the darkness in my veins with me because it’s a part of who I am now. But it doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It’s just who I am.”

So how did she get through what she calls her “really, really tough year”?

kalie shorr
Kalie Shorr. Catherine Powell

Shorr doesn’t hesitate: “The answer is therapy and really good friends and having an outlet for my energy — and, through the whole process, never questioning what my purpose was. I feel like I know what it is, and it’s to make music.”

Though now contentedly single, Shorr also says she’s hardly given up on love. And if it comes? “I’m excited to see what will happen when I get to write an album full of love songs one day,” she says. “I don’t when that’ll be. But I think it’ll happen.”

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