THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
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Which Sara Bareilles do you know? The New York-based songwriter with a hit Broadway show – Waitress – that she’s coming to London to star in? The crafter of impeccable pop songs that have inspired young girls worldwide? The grafter who toured on the road for years? Sara tells Michael Burland about her journey, from her Northern California roots to the West End via the White House!
First published in the January-February 2020 edition of The American magazine
Sara, going back to the beginning, where are you from and how did you start in music?
I grew up in a really small town in Northern California called Eureka, surrounded by redwood forests and right on the ocean – it’s a really, really beautiful place to grow up. I moved to Los Angeles to go to UCLA and studied Communications and got a minor in Italian. I started my songwriting career right about that time, at the end of my college days...actually I started writing songs when I was really young but was very shy about them forever and ever. I only started playing open mic nights and little gigs around Los Angeles after I went to college, and my UCLA community was a huge part of launching my fan base in LA. Then really, it’s just been a very brick-by-brick building for me. I did a lot of touring in the early days, spent most of two years just hitting the road, building audiences in a grass-roots way. Then I signed with a management company, got a record deal, and you know, here we are 5 albums later and lots of stuff has happened!
People in the music business often start on the east coast and head to California – you’ve gone in the other direction?
I know, usually it’s the other way around! I was originally a California girl and then I moved to New York about 6 years ago, kind of coinciding with the beginnings of working on Waitress and so I’m still here in New York City and I love it! I had lived in LA for about 15 years and I wasn’t even unhappy there. I lived a really comfortable life, I have a lot of incredible friends there... I just saw myself feeling kinda stale in my life and I just wanted to have an adventure, so I thought I’d come to New York for about a year, have a great time and do something different. That was about 8 years ago now – I never went back. The nice thing about having home bases in the big cities is that I see my friends from Los Angeles probably more than I did when I was living in Los Angeles. Everybody comes to New York and I’m always in LA for work so we do pretty well.
It’s interesting that you said you were out on the road so much. It’s a good way of building a fan base as you said, but it’s also a great way of honing your performance skills, and having adventures and getting experience must help your songwriting as well?
Absolutely, it feels like one of the things I’m most grateful for, and my advice to young artists is always go play shows! Play live shows, because we’re now in the culture of YouTube and there’s so much getting done at home and on your own, but I really think that there is no substitute for live performance. It’s a skill and a craft that really takes a lot of time to fine-tune.
Like the Beatles in Hamburg! That’s where they say they learned everything.
Your music appeals to young and old people, males and females, in fact it was my young daughters who were schoolgirls at the time, who introduced me to you!
Oh I love that!
Have you tried to analyze why that is? Is it because you were out there playing to lots of different people?
When I was just getting started, ‘Love Song’ was my most popular song, it had a broad reach and a lot of people got introduced to my music because of that song. ‘Brave’ was another song that had a more broad reach in terms of radio play and placements and people getting exposed to the material, but that didn’t happen until 8 or 9 years later, so there was a whole crop of other young listeners who got to know me through that song. Then with Waitress coming around, there’s a lot of young, wonderful, passionate theater lovers who may be introduced to my material because of that. I’ve been very fortunate to have different contact points over the course of my career that spanned a large age range, and I love that! In fact I talk about it on stage on my tour. I asked people their ages and we had a 70-something year old and we had a 6 year old all at the same concert, and I just think that’s magical.
You have great songs, and they’re well-produced and beautifully sung, so they could almost come from any era – they’re timeless.
Oh thank you. I think I grew up on so many of the classic songwriters and I was really influenced by people like Carol King and Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell and Aretha Franklin...the people that I love never go out of style.
And like you they’re all singer-songwriters not just singers, they’re people who have written their lives in their songs. In all of those years of gigging around the place have you got a favorite venue?
Oh boy! I have so many incredible memories from over the years. The most recent memory that will be hard to top was getting to play Madison Square Garden in New York City and why that was so special is because I never in a million years imagined that that would be something that was possible for me. I think it was just off my map of things I would even have hoped for. It was surreal in all of the best ways, just looking around and going ‘Wow. Look at what happened here!’. It was really amazing.
It is one of the top venues in the world. And you’ve played the White House a few times!
The White House, yeah! During a time when I wanted to be there!
So you performed for the Obamas a few times?
Yeah, several times and one of the great honors of my artistic life was getting introduced to them and getting to perform for them on multiple occasions. It was really special.
Did you get to know them?
A little bit, as much as a few minutes here and there can let you know somebody. But I think more than anything I was just in awe of their grace. Both of them. Their grace, their curiosity and their ability to put people at ease. They were so generous with their time and attention and so loving and I was very moved by that over and over again.
Excellent. I get the impression they love music too.
Absolutely! That was one of the first things that happened the first time I went to the White House. We were doing the Easter Egg Roll on the South Lawn and I was standing next to one of the Presidential Aides after our sound check, when we had played a particular song of mine called ‘Many the Miles’ and they showed me a text which said “POTUS likes” [laughs]. That was really sweet.
Now, we should talk about Waitress! We’ve talked about you being a singer-songwriter which is a very personal thing. What inspired you to write a musical?
I think I said yes to it because I was already looking for something different. I was a little burnt out with the pop music schedule – you write a record, you record a record, you tour a record, you come home, you write a record, you record… It’s an endless cycle and I’d started to feel monotonous and uninspired. My first love when I was young, my whole life, was musical theater, I grew up doing it. After I moved to New York I had been asking my agent for opportunities in the theater, but thinking that I would go in as a performer then I had a meeting with a woman who asked me if I wanted to compose. That was our director Diane Paulus. I sort of said yes as a grand experiment and it has completely changed my life. I’m so thrilled that I had no idea how hard it would be, because I would have said no – I would have been too intimidated. It’s by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done...and the most rewarding.
How did the writing process differ from working on a new album?
I had to learn very quickly to be less precious about music and be more collaborative. I’m traditionally kind of private in terms of my process and I haven’t done a lot of co-writing in my life because I haven’t had that many great experiences doing that. While I didn’t have to co-write the musical, I did have to share all my ideas with other people really early on, sometimes bad ideas, sometimes ideas that weren’t going to end up living in the show and ideas that I would feel a little embarrassed about. But you realize early on that you have to really, really trust your collaborators and build a language that way. So that was a major difference. Then there’s learning to write for other people’s perspectives. As a songwriter I was used to speaking for myself and had to learn to talk for Old Joe and Earl and Ogie and all of the wonderful characters of this musical who are farther away from Jenna, who I could see myself in the closest.
It’s Jenna that you play in Waitress. How long is it since you were in the Broadway show?
Last January, so it’s a year now.
Have you had to go back and relearn all the lines?
Well to be honest I have been working on a TV project that has been all-consuming so I haven’t spent a lot of prep time on Waitress! But this is material that I do know very, very well, I’ve seen the show and I’ve done the show thousands of times, so I hope that all the words stay in my mind!
It’ll be like riding a bike, they’ll come back!
I hope so!
We reviewed Waitress and we loved it, and we also interviewed Ashley Roberts when she was over here.
Oh, what a love! We’ve been just so amazed by our incredible entire cast in London, we’re so lucky!
Did you see it over here?
Oh yeah! I was there working and putting up the show, and all through rehearsals and opening. But this will be the first time I’m back since the opening.
So you’re quite familiar with London – what do you like about the city?
Oh God, what don’t I like about London?! I love that absolutely anything you could ever imagine or want is at your fingertips. I love that history is just pulsing through the veins of that city, I love the parks, I love the food, I love the fashion, I love the people and I love how passionate they are about theater – how revered and respected the craft of theater is.
Do you get the feeling that it’s a different audience or a different experience in the West End compared to Broadway?
There are always cultural differences, jokes and things that land differently. I remember we had a whole creative discussion about whether or not to use Taco Bell, because there’s a line about it in the show. We were like, ‘Ah, does that play over here? Are people familiar with Taco Bell?’. Little things like that. But what’s beautiful about this show is that what is emotionally resonant is pretty universal. This is about a woman who loses sight of herself and her own worth and diminishes her own life because of an abusive marriage. We’ve all had those relationships that make us feel small, but we watch her relate to her community and see what nourishes her in that, then she ultimately has to fight for her own self and for the love of her child too. These are messages that ring true. They are universal themes that transcend anything else...Taco Bell or not! [Laughs]
So, did the Taco Bell stay in the script?
I’ve got one final question. What is the best thing about being Sara Bareilles?
Oh my goodness...The best thing about Sara Bareilles is that I’m still learning who she is! I don’t know, I’m always growing and changing and I’m glad that I’m not someone who feels stuck in any version of myself. I just turned 40 and I feel as wobbly-legged – in a good way – as I ever have. I’m still wide-eyed and in love with and amazed by the world, so that is a cool thing.
Sara Bareilles joins the cast of Waitress for 6 weeks only from January 27, 2020. For more details check out