“It’s a Home, Not a Band”: Hanging Out with Shirley House

photo via Shirley House's Facebook
photo via Shirley House’s Facebook

With shows at the Mercury Lounge and Gramercy Theater, a residency at Pianos, opening for JD Samson and Rashaad Newsome, and as one of New Music Seminar’s 100 Artists on the Verge, Brooklyn-based musical and performance group Shirley House is on fire.

Cofounded by DJ Gillian Sandman and vocalist Sam “Monce” Brady, Shirley House brings together electro-pop texture with R&B-informed vocals and, well, lots of dancing. In the spirit of ball culture, Shirley is a house, one with many members. Dancer and choreographer Omari Mizrahi dominates the movement of the stage with fellow dancers Georgia Sanford, N’tifafa Akoko, and Jaqui Rice. Allicia Lawson, Nkrumah Gatling, and Luke Smith (a literal member of the family—he and Sam are brothers) provide a powerful sonic backdrop in live performances. Together they make up something that’s bigger than a band and more profound than a stage show. It is crazy how many things they do and how well they do them.

With all this in mind, Brooklyn Magazine is excited to debut Shirley House’s new video for their single “Carry On.”

“Carry On” is a song about desperation and survival, and so it’s especially fitting that Tina Romero, daughter of legendary horror film director George A. Romero, directed the video with filmmaker Emily Ray Reese. Set against the spooky background of a white void, a laser jungle gym, a Red Hook empty of people, the video looks culty, but it’s the sort of cult you’d want to join.

Now, I’ve known Sam since he was fourteen and I was fifteen, when I saw him for the first time from the rear of our DCPS high school auditorium—a curly, bleached-white head of hair floating above the seat back. (Justin Timberlake-inspired ramen curls is the 21st century equivalent of short pants.) Since then I’ve shared a prom limo with him, seen him as a singing waiter, sung really loud in his car driving down beach roads with all the windows open, recorded iPhone videos of his acoustic gigs on the Lower East Side, celebrated New Years and birthdays and plain old Fridays, and now—watching him own stages across New York as part of Shirley House.

This is my statement of extreme, affectionate, and longstanding bias. I am team Shirley House. I am team Sam.

I saw Shirley House perform most recently at Drom in Alphabet City as a part of New Music Seminar’s “Artist on the Verge” program. The room was full of people who didn’t quite know what Shirley House was and who maybe weren’t quite sure they’d like it. When I first walked in, the crowd was dispersed around the room, drinking and talking in clusters. It’s the sort of experience Sam would poke fun at later that night in an apathetic, too-cool monotone: “I’m seeing a band.”

“We did the job that needed to be done,” Sam said after the show. “We needed to convey the message early on that it’s the thing you bring your friends to have a good time. It’s not a band, it’s a party!”

“It’s like 305 Fitness,” Shirley House cofounder Gillian Sandman said, referring to the dance workout program.

“We’re like the 305 Fitness of music. It’s a,” Sam paused, finding the phrase, “‘party-inspired live show.’ Good job Gill,” he said. “That was Gill, that was Gill’s line.”

I noticed the change in the room almost as soon as Shirley House got on stage. People looked up, moved closer, set down their drinks. It wasn’t long before people were dancing, clapping, waving along.

photo by Molly McArdle
photo by Molly McArdle

“That’s the Shirley experience,” dancer and choreographer Omari Mizrahi said after the show “You’re always going to leave entertained, and sweaty—because you’re dancing—and humming a tune. Hashtag Shirley House.” It was like putting a period on the end of a sentence.

“We’re not microwaveable,” Omari went on. He was on a roll. “You can’t just pop us in and we’re done. We’re a stew. We watched it cook.”

“Fast food music!” Luke Smith shouted back. “We’re organic!”

“We sense each other’s hunger as artists, as a house. That feeds us. That builds the house. Everyone is welcome,” Omari said. “It’s exactly what a house should be—a house is not a home unless the people are there.”

“It feels like a family,” said Luke, Sam’s older brother, and he clearly wasn’t just talking about their relationship as siblings. Though he’s also appearing in the Roundabout Theater production of “Significant Other,” he makes time for Shirley House.  Shirley House isn’t only “a celebration of music,” but also something that “invites people in.”

Singer and actor Nkrumah Gatling (who has his own impressive Broadway and national tour credits) has known Sam since they both did Broadway Theater Project in 2005. “I’m always willing to help a friend,” he said, but “if it wasn’t good, I wouldn’t be here.”

Omari echoed this sentiment. “Why wouldn’t I do this?” he asked, gesturing to the performers around him. “From the beginning when I met Sam, we clicked.” They took a dance class together and discovered a mutual love of music, of movement, of West African dance, of vogue. For Omari, Shirley House wasn’t a hard sell.

“We got into rehearsal and that was it. I found my brother. It was easy!”

Towards the end of the summer, they’ve got a show at Mercury Lounge on August 5 and an EP coming out in the fall. They also just performed to a wildly enthusiastic audience at a Priday Concert presented by Hot Rabbit and Live Nation at the Gramercy Theatre on Friday, June 26th—the day gay marriage became legal in all fifty states. Their cover of Jagged Edge’s “Let’s Get Married” was exuberant, joyful. But when I talked to them at Drom, the members of Shirley House were mostly geared up about their video.

After months of planning, designing, and storyboarding, Shirley House drew on the resources of their members and communities. A successful Indiegogo campaign raised much of the production costs, and industry professionals Nicalena Iovino (Kill Your Darlings, Date Night) and Marika Litz (Midnight in Paris) signed on to work as Director of Photography and Colorist (respectively) for free.

“It’s hard to really wrap Shirley House up in one song,” Gill said. “It wasn’t just, let’s film this on an iPhone. The video was very much like one of our shows. It represents the kind of show we want to put on.”

“It’s been an honor to work with such a diverse group of individuals,” said Tina Romero. “It’s amazing to watch them bridge their different experiences and histories to create something greater that unites them.”

“It was pretty clear from the start that Shirley House was bringing something new and exciting to the music industry.”

Everyone involved in Shirley House touches on this same point—the sheer variety of people and genres and media that come in the door, and the astonishing artistic products (music, dance, now video) that come out of it.

“You’re welcome here,” Omari said of Shirley House, “and you’re added to the stew.”

“It’s a home, not a band.”

Follow Molly McArdle on twitter @mollitudo


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