Sara Bareilles


Finding the keys to confidence and beating the sophomore jinx

Sara Bareilles doesn’t like being told what to do—but it does seem to inspire some of her best work. The singer-songwriter’s 2007 breakthrough hit, “Love Song,” from her Grammy-nominated debut album, Little Voice, is a clever rebuke to a record exec’s alleged appeal for a more marketable hit. “King of Anything,” the first single from her second album, Kaleidoscope Heart, boasts similar beginnings. “I was starting to share my demos for this album with my inner circle and asking for feedback but found myself getting defensive,” she says. “‘King of Anything’ was sort of a pep talk to myself. It was a reminder to take things with a grain of salt.”

But that doesn’t mean Bareilles, a self-taught pianist, doesn’t welcome advice. When burnout and nerves left her with a serious case of writer’s block this time around, she turned to several close confidants for support. Ultimately, going into the studio with a new producing partner, Neal Avron (Fall Out Boy, Say Anything) to lay down a few tracks proved liberating. “I felt so creative there and loved how things were coming to life, so it freed me up to write the rest of the record,” she says. Rolling through the South on a tour of radio stations to promote the highly anticipated Kaleidoscope Heart, Bareilles took the time to chat about being brave and breaking bad habits.

Did the sophomore jinx worry you?

Oh my God, yes. I won’t even be proud and pretend like it didn’t. I was terrified, actually. I worried about people comparing this record to the last, even though I know that is a natural reaction. It got in the way initially. I had a hard time getting started writing and couldn’t finish any songs. It was strange because that was so not part of the process with Little Voice. When I was writing the songs for the first record, I didn’t even think they were going to end up on an album anywhere. I was just writing them to write. So at this point, the game changed.

How did you conquer those nerves?

What really helped me was having a conversation with the producer of my first record, Eric Rosse. I told him how scared I was, and he said, “Well, it sounds like that’s your song there.” That ended up being “Uncharted.” I’m so grateful for that song because it opened the floodgates for me. It was the first song I had written in a long time that I connected with. I started thinking that I had to divorce myself from the idea that I needed outside validation to know that this was good. I wanted to get to a place where the only opinions I cared about were mine and Neal Avron’s. I’m so proud of this record and feel like it’s exactly what I want it to be. Of course I hope people enjoy it, but that’s out of my hands at this point.

What were your goals for the album?

I tried to be a little more fearless than on the first record. I was so new then, and everything was intimidating. I was scared of making decisions, making choices and taking risks. So this time around, having much more experience under my belt, it was so fun to let go and enjoy the process. I also wanted to become a better pianist. I’m not a really chops-y player. I can be limited in terms of what I can actually do with my hands on the keys. So I tried to write songs that were more challenging to play, more complicated, more arpeggiation. I tried to push myself a little, and I definitely did. As we went into rehearsals I thought, “Oh, I have to figure out how to play these!”

How did you meet Neal Avron?

He was a suggestion from my longtime [Epic Records] A&R guy, Pete Giberga, who’s not with Epic anymore, but is still a really close friend. He brought up Neal’s name and I looked up his discography and thought, “This doesn’t make sense at all for me. This is a rock guy.” But I made an effort this time around to be open-minded. I used to have severe knee-jerk reactions about trying anything new, but I’m trying to break that bad habit. So I agreed to meet with Neal, and we had an awesome first meeting. He seemed really passionate about helping to articulate my vision musically. I felt so safe with him. I felt like whatever I wanted to try, I had a co-pilot.

The album opens with an a cappella interlude. Are all those voices yours?

Yes. I have an a cappella background—I sang in a group at UCLA [Awaken A Cappella]. That was one of the first communities where I felt embraced and supported. I wanted to tip my hat to that. But this was an idea from my guitar player, Javier Dunn, and it was so fun to write. I also wanted to expand on the idea of what “kaleidoscope heart,” which is a lyric from “Uncharted,” meant to me.

What kind of pianos do you play?

I’m a Yamaha girl. I have an upright at home. Someday if I can graduate to a grand in my house, I’d like to. But I really like the brightness and the tonality of an upright piano. It seems to be a good fit for me in terms of what I’m saying musically right now. On the road I use a Yamaha Clavinova. It’s a MIDI keyboard, but I use the baby grand model so it really looks beautiful. Of course everyone who’s a piano player would rather play a real piano, but if you have to use a keyboard, I love the sound of a Yamaha.

What is your writing process like?

I usually just sit at the piano, and if I don’t have anything specific to start from, I’ll literally put my hands on the keys and see what comes out. To this day, I still feel like my piano is one of my best friends. It’s a very warm, welcoming, safe place for me to release what’s in my mind. I’m not a great guitar player, but I have had some ideas start flowing when I’m playing it. Some of my favorite songs on the record, “Let the Rain” and “Basket Case,” are guitar based.

Do you write on the road?

I have a difficult time writing while on the road. There’s so much stimulation and so little alone time. Some people really thrive on that and feel a lot of ideas rushing through them. But I need a lot of space and isolation to feel like I can write. So everything gets put on hold while we’re touring, but I have a Rolodex in the back of my mind with all these images and experiences filed away. I’ve been fortunate in the past that when I’ve sat down to write, they kind of flow out. I’m just going to hope that happens again.

–Katie Dodd

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