The path to making it in music has never been linear. In the social media age, it’s become a bit cleaner – blog support, streaming and ravenous music fans on the Internet rallying behind you can quickly take an artist out of local obscurity and into the national spotlight. For DC’s SHAED, an electro-pop trio formed in 2016, a combination of almost every success marker in music of the past 20 years brought them to where they are now.
In the literal sense, they’ve joined On Tap outside the LINE Hotel in Adams Morgan on a sunny spring day. The trio of vocalist Chelsea Lee and twin brothers and multi-instrumentalists Max and Spencer Ernst arrived with all their gear in tow, and after our interview were straight off to New York. While radio play, streaming support and a strong fanbase all tangibly factored into their meteoric rise to success with only EPs and singles released, it’s their sheer hustle and willpower to make it in an industry constantly changing and challenging them that’s perhaps the key factor in their ascension.
“The last six months, we’ve been on a headlining tour,” Lee says. “We did a lot of radio promo, we’re working on an album and we’ve been writing a ton. It’s been really, really great. Obviously, the Apple commercial lifted off a bunch of things for us.”
The Apple commercial in question wasn’t even just an Apple commercial. When the new MacBook Air debuted at the end of 2018 at the annual Apple summit, SHAED’s song “Trampoline” soundtracked CEO Tim Cook’s unveiling. An artist’s song appearing as a sync in these iconic commercials is a badge of honor after the brand established itself as a musical tastemaker in the early 2000s. With this kind of exposure, doors begin to open – and quickly. But the band didn’t even know when to expect the change.
“Like nine months ago, Apple reached out to us because they were interested in using ‘Trampoline,’” Max explains. “We got them all the files, but then didn’t really hear anything for months. Two weeks before the commercial actually aired, they reached out and said, ‘We’re going to use your song.’ They didn’t tell us what it was for, and they didn’t tell us until that day. So the day everyone else saw the commercial was they day we saw it, too.”
“Tim Cook did the announcement in Brooklyn and I was like, ‘Let’s just livestream this and we’ll see what’s going on,” Lee adds. “Spencer and I were in the car driving, Max was at home and I just put it on. And Tim Cook goes, ‘Aaaaand the MacBook Air!’ I said to Spencer, ‘Wouldn’t it be so funny if our song came on?’ and it did. Spencer and I had to pull over and scream.”
“Trampoline” is a perfect introduction to the band’s polished, haunting pop sound. Its lyrics could even serve as an ethos to another thing that’s made the band so successful – their connection to one another. Friends for many years while pursuing other musical endeavors – Lee as a solo artist and twin brothers Max and Spencer as alt-folk band The Walking Sticks – their relationships eventually blossomed into the band as it exists today. Lee and Spencer are married, and the three live together and have a palpable bond evident in person and in their music.
The chorus in “Trampoline” is the somewhat wistful, “When I dream of dying // I never felt so loved.” Spencer says it’s all about embracing your worst fears and finding joy in what terrifies you. To be able to write a lyric this heavy, the people around you must love you very much. It’s clear this is the case for each member of the band. Their incredibly deep bond goes beyond allowing them to make great music; it allows them to embrace the unknown in all aspects of their lives, no matter how frightening.
The trio works on music from a studio in their shared home. They’re the first to admit that spending so much time together, even outside of recording or touring, would be less than ideal for many musicians. But from the outside, it’s clear it’s given them an edge.
“Our routine is to get up in the morning, eat breakfast and go right into the studio,” Lee says. “Over the years, we’ve gotten more comfortable with each other. We’ve been able to work through problems. Getting to know each other is such a complex thing and then on top of that, living together and spending so much time together…”
“It’s a unique dynamic, for sure,” Max says, finishing Lee’s thought. “I’m sure it wouldn’t work for a lot of people. But we just love making music together. Financially, too, it’s great.”
Spencer notes that, “There are times, clearly, when you spend so much time together you get on each other’s nerves.”
“But we give each other our space,” Lee continues. “It works out great for us. We’re traveling all the time now. We definitely get on each other’s nerves. But we also definitely know how to handle it and work smoothly through things.”
In addition to the support they provide each other, their native DC is also essential to SHAED’s success. They credit local outlets, venues and fans for their early successes, and for still following closely as they enjoy their newfound mainstream notoriety.
“It’s not a huge scene, but it’s very tightknit,” Max says of their experiences at home. “If you’re making cool music here, there’s ways to be seen and there’s an audience for it. People still come out to shows – even if you’re not on a huge headlining run around the country – people still come out and support local artists.”
This summer sees the band off to a whole host of amazing new endeavors including sets at festivals like Japan’s Fuji Rock, BottleRock in Napa Valley and Lollapalooza. With tons of material in their arsenal, the trio is in the process of putting together a new album and aiming for a fall release and subsequent tour. All of these events will surely invite new fans into their intimate sonic world, but in the meantime, they’re leaning on each other as things continue to evolve.
“Being a musician and being in this world is so hard,” Lee says as she puts one arm around each Ernst brother, and they lean into her. “To have this constant support – these people that you can rely on and trust and feel at home with – is huge for us. These two are the kindest people in the whole world. It’s really nice to have that family vibe.”
SHAED play DC101 Kerfuffle on Sunday, May 19 at Merriweather Post Pavilion. Tickets start at $55. Gates open at 4 p.m. and the show begins at 4:30 p.m. For more on the event, visit www.dc101.iheart.com. For more on SHAED, visit www.shaedband.com.
Merriweather Post Pavilion: 10475 Little Patuxent Pkwy. Columbia, MD 410-715-5550; www.merriweathermusic.com