Singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles pursues artistic growth, not chart-topping tunes—and yet the hits keep coming

Many artists who find success with a particular formula refuse to change that approach. Not Sara Bareilles. Since bursting onto the scene with her 2007 smash “Love Song,” the singer-songwriter has placed a premium on expanding the parameters—to the point of embracing creative discomfort.

“My music is a reflection of the driving forces that have moved me from one stage of my life to the next,” she says. “I’m consciously taking risks and feeling myself develop as an artist and a human being. And I’m grateful for the divine dissatisfaction that keeps me marching on.”

While Bareilles’ breakthrough was sudden, her musical journey has been a long march. Raised in the small Northern California town of Eureka, she sang in her high school choir and appeared in community theater productions. After enrolling at UCLA in the late ’90s, she joined the a cappella group Awaken and began nurturing a childhood fascination with songwriting. Though she had virtually no formal training, thoughts of a career in music began to take hold. “As a kid I was always enamored with music and the piano,” she recalls. “It’s always been a very special sanctuary. Songs are always like diary entries for me.”

Landing a deal with Epic Records in 2005, Bareilles spent a year writing new tunes and retooling old ones for her major label debut two years later. As work neared completion, she was pressed to come up with a strong single. Bareilles penned “Love Song,” a delicious slice of sophisticated piano pop that poked fun at the very notion of writing to spec.

Ironically, the tune proved to be exactly what the label wanted. “I don’t choose a theme and then write a song about it,” says Bareilles, 33. “It’s more about picking an emotion and then extrapolating the time, the place, the feelings. Most of the time I draw from real-life experiences. And if it hasn’t happened to me, it’s something I can imagine happening to me.”

Bareilles couldn’t have imagined what happened next: “Love Song” hit the top spot on the U.S. charts and cracked Top 20 in more than 20 countries, propelling her album Little Voice to platinum status. In 2010, her major-label sophomore album Kaleidoscope Heart hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, spawning yet another smash single, “King of Anything.” Two years later, the Ben Folds–produced EP Once Upon Another Time further solidified those achievements. She also earned three Grammy nominations—one for Song of the Year and two for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance.

“I felt a little blindsided by it all,” Bareilles admits. “Some of it felt like holding on for dear life. I was shell-shocked by a lot of the experiences that were coming then.”

Her latest set, The Blessed Unrest, marks another leap in Bareilles’ creative evolution. Recorded in L.A. and New York, the record finds her broadening her horizons on several fronts. Her professed dislike for songwriting collaboration dissolved, leading to “Brave,” the record’s lead single, composed with Jack Antonoff of the indie band Fun. The recording process was less insular as well, with Bareilles enlisting multiple producers and seizing the reins as co-producer on half the tracks. “It was a really organic and collaborative experience,” she says. “John O’Mahony
[co-producer], who worked with me at Electric Lady in New York, allowed me into the production process, so I had a bigger role putting things together. It was lots of work but also lots of fun.”

So much fun, in fact, that Bareilles decided to move to New York City. The jazzy album cut “Manhattan” reflects her decision to relocate during the early stages of making the album. “I still love L.A. and have a house there,” she says, “but I was at a point where I needed to step out of my comfort zone, especially creatively.” From her new home in Manhattan, Bareilles discussed the new album, fending off writer’s block, and why lack of formal training has worked to her advantage.

Did you have a plan going into the new album?

One main goal was to relax my grip on the process and try something different. In the beginning stages the idea of coming at it from the same angle felt uninspiring. From a songwriting standpoint I wanted to come at the music from a different place. Plus, I wanted to try working with different producers. The record has a lot of programming and synthesized sounds. That was a fun change. I had a great time stretching out on this one.


Did moving to New York have an impact?

Definitely. There’s something about New York that makes me feel expansive. I hear that in the songs. It comes through in the music, and it’s also true thematically. I wanted to conceptually jump into some spaces that were bigger. Opening up to collaboration—to do some co-writing—was also part of what happened since coming here. There’s something about how people here are basically living on top of one another. It’s all fusing and meshing in interesting ways. Just the spectrum of humans on a subway train is a unique experience. There’s so much electricity in the air.

Did “Brave” set the tone?

That was the first song that came out of the collaboration with Jack Antonoff. The theme had been brewing in me for the past year in terms of looking at my life and seeing where I had become stagnant. I was afraid to change because I didn’t know what the outcome would look like. It was also inspired by a good friend who was struggling with coming out. Watching this person face their fears inspired me to face my own, and put them into a song. I really believe in its message. It’s been wonderful seeing people connect to the ideas behind it.

Explain the album title.

It’s taken from a quote from Martha Graham—the famous choreographer and innovator in modern dance. She talks about the role of the artist, how there’s a reason artists are always dissatisfied with where they’ve been. “There’s a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.” It’s that feeling that takes us toward the next piece of art. It’s not up to you to know whether your art is good or bad—to judge it. Rather it’s your job to make the art, and to keep the channel open and be a vessel for the creative source. That really spoke to me in the past year. So much of what I was doing was unknown, but I felt compelled to keep moving forward.

Did you approach writing differently?

Some of it was more beat-driven this time, which is one of the things I got out of collaborating. I’m not a great programmer but I learned a lot from Jack, who is. He would play me a track that was partially complete, and then it became about filling in the blanks. I would hear these snippets of songs and would immediately feel inspired to finish them. That’s how you know it’s a good collaborative match. I think there was something cosmic about our creative synergy.

How about songs you wrote solo?

In some ways that’s stayed anchored in the same place. It’s still about me being in a room by myself, and on some level unpacking my life experience. But there were some songs where I took a different approach. A couple of times I took drum grooves off GarageBand and tried writing without the chords already figured out—just inventing a melody that felt fun to sing. Other times I tried writing something completely a cappella and giving voicing to that. I’m more or less a traditionalist when it comes to songwriting, but for this album I wanted to do some of each. There are definitely songs that were done in the traditional way. For “Manhattan,” I sat at the piano and wrote a jazz-based ballad about moving to New York and leaving a love. But then there’s a song like “Cassiopeia” that’s all programming. There’s a wide spectrum of approaches. It’s one of the things I was most excited about.

How do you know when you’re onto to something?    

I have a physical reaction. It sounds a little weird, but I start crying when I’m playing something that feels connected, where I almost don’t know where it’s coming from. There’s humility involved. I feel humbled that I’m allowed to be part of that channel. Beyond that, there’s just the general sense that it’s satisfying to play and to sing. It feels really good. At its best moments it’s fun.

How did you learn to play piano?

I spent lots of hours with songbooks. I took lessons for a little while, in second grade, but I hated it. My older sister was a decent player and taught me how to read chords. I would just sit with musical theater songbooks—Phantom of the Opera, Les Misérables, Miss Saigon. I always had a pretty good ear. I could look at the chord and know how it was supposed to sound. I sort of learned backward in that way. I still can’t read music, but I can read a chord cheat sheet. I would get home from elementary school and sit at the piano for hours. It was all I ever wanted to do. I would go into my backyard and make up songs and sing on a wood stump, imagining a big audience of people. It was ingrained in me from a developmental age.

Has the lack of formal training made you a better songwriter?

I think it’s certainly possible. There are times when I feel frustrated that I don’t have more technical knowledge, because there are limitations to the way I play and the way I write. On the other hand I never dissected the craft in a way that wasn’t built on pure love of the art form. I was never forced to do anything, so I was always coming at it from a place of pure devotion. It was always fun. I’m grateful I developed a foundation in that kind of space.

Do you enjoy working on vocal harmonies?

It’s almost part of how the writing happens. A chorus doesn’t feel complete to me until I know what’s happening beneath it, and plenty of times that has to do with vocal support. I usually have demos that are pretty stacked with that kind of information before I go into the studio. My favorite part of recording is doing the background vocals. I love singing harmony. I think that came from singing with my sisters when I was growing up.

Did the songs change in the studio?

It ranges. Some stay very true to where they started from, and others not so much. Part of the job of producing involves paying close attention to what the song wants to be. Sometimes you try to impose your expectations on it, and for some reason it’s just not fitting. My production partner, John O’Mahony, was really great at listening to where the songs wanted to end up and steering us toward that place.


Do you have a go-to keyboard?

I have a Yamaha upright here and in L.A. I mostly like writing on acoustic piano. I have a Nord keyboard that I used for some of the writing and composing. On the last tour I used a Yamaha Clavinova onstage. And in my dressing room I had a Yamaha CP300 keyboard that I used for warming up and just playing around. Every once in a while I’ll pick up a guitar or a ukulele. Changing your instrument occasionally when you’re writing can change the outcome.

How do you deal with writer’s block?

Ben Folds gave me some great advice. He said you have to kick the editor out of the room. If you allow that version of yourself to be present—the one who’s telling you if something’s good or bad, or too long or too short—you lose the essence of where everything’s coming from in the first place. Music is magical because it isn’t a perfect, formulaic craft you can dissect. People have varying philosophies about that, but I prefer to think of music as an elusive, magical being that you invite into the room. If you get consumed with where it’s headed, you get in the way of what it’s trying to be. That happens and oftentimes you don’t even know you’re thinking about it. I try to curb that.

How do you evolve without losing fans?

That’s a risk you run. This album might challenge some loyal and longtime fans. They might miss some of the sensibilities from the past. But everyone has to be allowed to evolve. I view this album as a snapshot of where I am now, and I want it to be an authentic representation. I would love to make a jazz record one day, or make something that’s really small in terms of production style. But for now it’s more about just playing. I don’t think I’m defining anything right now. I’m simply expressing where I am.

Do you think about the future?

I’m not really a planner, but there are things I hope to see. I hope to have more albums under my belt, and to complete some of the projects I’m working on—like a couple of musicals that I’d love to see come to fruition. I want to keep growing and stretching and finding ways to be inspired. I want to stay excited about my artistry. I keep coming back to that word “fun.” That’s how I’m feeling now.


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