Q&A: Sara Bareilles
Pop songstress Sara Bareilles is winding her wagon wheels for a trip down south, and will play Nashville’s Rites of Spring festival this week. We talked to the Grammy nominee and “Love Song” writer about Nashville’s charms, the challenges of co-writing, as well as her beginnings as a student at UCLA. And her favorite song? You’ll be pleasantly surprised.
You’re playing on a really diverse bill with Public Enemy, the National, and Kid Cudi. What’s the strangest show you’ve ever played?
Well, I would have to say the one that comes to mind is the show that I played with Three 6 Mafia. Yeah… I definitely had flasks thrown at my head. It was maybe not the best pairing of a line-up, but you know those experiences make you stronger, don’t they?
Do you listen to rap at all? Or indie rock?
Definitely Indie rock. I don’t know hip hop that well. I tend to be much more of a songwriter fan. I love storytelling, and that’s kind of where I get my kicks in terms of music. But there are always exceptions to that rule. I think I am a music lover first and foremost of all types, but I think I sort of gravitate towards songwriters.
So, no real surprises in your playlists at all?
I mean I’ve got all sorts of things. I’ve got everything from Bob Marley to broadway, tons of that. I’m trying to think of what would be really surprising. I don’t know, I’m a huge Radiohead fan, huge Arcade Fire fan. And then there are things like Billy Idol and Bjork. I’m a big Bob Dylan fan. All sorts of stuff!
Well what can fans expect from your Rites of Spring performance?
Well, I like to think that if people haven’t seen us live, that they will hopefully be pleasantly surprised. We have a lot of talent on stage. I sort of pride myself on having a great time up there, and sort of not taking myself too seriously on stage. I’d like to think it’s pretty high-energy. I love talking to the audience, keeping things really loose and casual, and then just making it all about the music. I’d like to think that we’re pretty good at it. I love it. I love being on stage more than anything else in the world, so it is definitely a blissful place for me.
Rites of Spring is a Vanderbilt event. What was your college experience like — did you major in music? Did you play gigs?
It was kind of a mish-mosh. I was just getting started with the idea of taking songwriting and performance pretty seriously. I was in an acapella group, and was apart of some theatrical productions. Then, I started playing open mics and small gigs around the city. It was definitely musical, but I didn’t study music. It’s always been something that has kind of stayed as a hobby, or something I did on the side. But I absolutely had the best time in the world at college. I loved my experience at UCLA. It was just really self-exploratory for me. I was just figuring out who I was, and still am to this day. So, it was great!
Was there any nervousness in those first stages about playing live? Or were you excited to be on stage like you are now?
Oh, God no. The very first open mic I played, I didn’t tell a soul because I didn’t want anybody there. I was just absolutely petrified. Slowly, but surely, that all faded away, and I think it’s like anything; with repetition and familiarity comes comfort, and it’s become a much more comfortable place for me.
You played at The Ryman last fall. How does the Nashville music scene compare to, say, LA?
Honestly, LA, among artists at least. is known for being pretty difficult, just because the audiences tend to be pretty reserved. Not reserved as in conservative, but I don’t know. It’s hard to get any sort of energy back from the audience. Sometimes they are a little too cool. But, I’ve always had really wonderful experiences in Nashville. I find that the audience is really adhesive, and just joyful. They’re ready to jump on board with the energy of the performer, and that’s great.
You write songs on your own. Have you ever been drawn to do co-writing sessions, or have you always wanted to do it yourself?
Oh, I have tried. Many, many times I have tried. I’m honestly just not that great at it. It’s something that I hope to get better at in the future, but I tend to get really heady and self-conscious when I am writing with other people. For me, right now, it works best to do it alone, but I have nothing against the idea of collaboration. I think there are so many amazing pieces of art and music that have come out of collaboration. I think it may be that I just haven’t had the right chemistry with someone. Like maybe I wasn’t in the right headspace. I’m not sure. I think it’s probably a combination of things, but hopefully I get better at it!
So, what comes first for you? Lyrics, melody, riff?
Usually the music comes first. It’s usually some sort of piano idea, motif, or melodic idea. And then, lyrics kind of come afterwards. They take a little bit more work for me. Yeah, with piano or guitar I can usually get started with some kind of idea, and then go from there.
I read that you had gone into making Kaleidoscope Heart with four songs that you were excited about, but hadn’t really developed the rest of it yet. Was there a song on this album that you found particularly hard to write, or was limiting?
There is a song called “Say You’re Sorry” that is actually a second incarnation. When I first wrote that song, it came about a couple years ago but it was more of a ballad. For this record, I was thinking about it in a new way. I wouldn’t say that any of these songs were particularly difficult to write. If they made the record, they were the ones that sort of came out the easiest I think. There were lots of songs that didn’t make the record that sucked and were hard to write. But, these songs in general were my favorites of the batch. They were actually the easier ones to connect to.
Was there a pressure to produce an album as successful as the first? How did you cope?
I think I really had to let go. I had to let go of the idea of comparison, and really embrace the idea that this going to be something different. I had to, I don’t know, make myself believe that there was no better or no worse, it was just different. Instead of playing the comparison game with my first record, I had to just decide that this is who I am today. As long as I believe it’s authentic now, then I can stand behind it. I was just really caught up in worrying that everyone would compare what I did to “Love Song”, and tell me I wasn’t as good, that none of these songs were as good as “Love Song”. That’s just a really toxic and stagnant place to come from as a writer. If you’re already telling yourself you aren’t going to be as good as you were, how can you create like that?
Your version of “In Your Eyes” is great. Would you say Peter Gabriel is an influence?
Oh yeah! Absolutely. I’m a big Peter Gabriel fan. That song is probably my top ten songs of all time. I love that song. That’s just one of those recordings that I wouldn’t change a thing on that. Yeah, if you’re going to do a cover, I think you need to start with a song that you love, and then see if there is a way you can bring anything unique or different to it. It’s just a nice moment to make homage to another artist that inspires you, and definitely Peter Gabriel is one of those people for me.
Favorite female songwriters?
Oh, lots of them. Joni Mitchell is right up there at the top for me. Fiona Apple is a person who’s made a big impact on my life, and was kind of introduced to her repertoire in high school. She really sort of changed my view on what a female singer-songwriter could sound like. I love Sarah McLachlan, Norah Jones, and people like that. But, it was really nice to see someone with a little bit of grit, and a little bit of a darker side. I really appreciated that from Fiona. I’m also a big Indigo Girls fan, as well as Tori Amos. Those are some people that I think of as being pretty bad-ass.
I saw something on Twitter about you mentioning Brooke Fraser’s causes. She recently came out with Flags. What do you think of her? Is there any kind of future collaboration with that?
Yeah, I mean it’s always a possibility. She’s a sweet girl, and a friend. I love her voice. I love her writing. I was introduced to her through Marshall Altman who is the producer of Albertine, he’s a Nashville guy, and just fell in love with that record. I thought it was awesome. I got to know her and her music, and I think she is fantastic. I would totally collaborate with her.
Can you tell us where “Let The Rain” came from off Kaleidoscope Heart?
For this record, as I was saying, I was dealing with so much anxiety and worry about what was to come. When I look at this body of work, I see a theme of embracing change, and how I got through all of that anxiety was kind of stepping into the fire a little bit. “Let The Rain” is all about confronting your fear, and embracing the idea of rebirth, and kind of letting go of the past. Letting yourself be reborn into whatever it is that you are supposed to be at that moment. The first verse kind of says it all. It’s all of those things that roll into your mind: “I wish I were pretty/ wish I were brave…”. You know, if I could do all these things the way I wanted to, I’d feel like a super hero kind of thing. But, that’s not reality unless you really kind of succumb to your own faults and embrace them and love yourself for them.
“Bluebird” is, in a way, about rebirth in a different sense. “Let The Rain” is sort of a much more grand, outreaching idea. “Bluebird” is sort of a very specific incarnation of what that means when it has to do with a relationship ending. It’s letting yourself take flight from a situation that’s either no longer working or happy, and kind of fell apart. You know, it’s walking away from something but not in a defeated way, in a way that makes you feel optimistic about the possibilities.
If you could claim one song for yourself that would be in your catalog, what would it be?
It would be “Fuck You” by Cee Lo Green. I love that song. I sing it in my shows now. I wish I wrote that song. I just think it’s so ballsy, and brash, and I absolutely love it. It’s awesome.