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Q&A: Sara Bareilles on Overcoming Her Fear of Playing Solo

'I was in room by myself and was tearing up,' she admits

October 22, 2013 3:50 PM ET
Sara Barielles
Sara Barielles
Danny Clinch

This past July, Sara Bareilles released her fourth album, The Blessed Unrest. But months before, she embarked on "The Brave Enough Tour," an intimate, stripped-down run that found her playing just by herself. The shows sold out in minutes. Out this week is Brave Enough: Live at the Variety Playhouse, a DVD set that was recorded during the May 20th stop in Atlanta. In addition to fan favorites like "King of Anything" and the ubiquitous "Love Song," Brave Enough features "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road," her rendition of the Elton John classic. Rolling Stone spoke to Bareilles this week about conquering her solo fears, what music she listens to when she's feeling down and the neverending appeal of "Love Song." 

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Brave Enough is out this week. I read that touring solo was one of the most terrifying things you've done. How did you overcome the fear?
I think it was one of the situations where you had to close your eyes and jump. I was told by several people that this experience in and of itself would be really transformative. They were absolutely right. I think there was only so much preparation that could be done. After that first night, I felt such a deep connection to the audience and I knew, if nothing else, the tour would be enlightening and education for me. Super challenging, but really rewarding.

What kind of transformation happened?
I got to see myself in a different light. I'm a social person and I'm used to working as a band member. I like that. I like being a part of a family onstage and on the road. I think I really attributed a lot of success to the people around me. I still do but I think it was important for me to realize I was strong enough to be able to do it on my own as well.

Did you use any tactics like picturing everyone in their underwear or downing a shot of whiskey to help you before the first show?
[Laughs]. Uh, well I was in room by myself and was tearing up. It was really emotional actually. There's aspects of it that are pretty lonely as well. I didn't have any tricks. My trick onstage is to be as honest and sort of, authentic as possible. For a while, I was hoping I could do cool things with a computer and a looping peddle. I'm just not really good at that stuff so my bag of tricks is really my honesty. If I felt uncomfortable or if I felt scared or awkward, I just let the audience in on the secret. In that way, it made for a really communal experience.

The album has your remake of Elton John's "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road." Why did you choose to do this song?
Elton John is a huge influence and an artist I've listened to since I was a little girl. That song in particular, sort of took on a new meaning for me. I really started to dissect the lyrics and think about the storyline of that song: You can get handed the Emerald City but there's still no place like home.

Your breakout hit "Love Song" is also featured on the album. That song will probably have legs forever. Do you still enjoy playing it or are you ready to finally retire it?
I'm not gonna lie and say I don't get sick of playing it but you know, what reinvigorates it is audience reaction. It feels really good to give the audience something they're excited to hear. That's one of those songs. I think I would feel remiss if I did a show where I didn't play "Love Song." It's the song that started it all to me. I feel like I owe that song something and I don't want to forget where I came from.

It's like the high school boyfriend who still won't leave you alone.
Yeah. There's times where it feels like it's the ghost that I'm living down. Everything I do will always be compared to "Love Song" in terms of success or the way it's written or whatever, but it was a really formative moment in my life and in my career. You can't be mad at people for hanging onto those.

You sang "Brave" with Taylor Swift onstage recently. How was that?
It was awesome! She was the consummate hostess and just so lovely and gracious and welcoming. That's a whole different world from the way I tour. It was totally fascinating and terrifying at the same time. It was great.

Taylor prefaced that she listens to "Brave" when she's having a low self-esteem day. What do you listen to when you have a low self-esteem day?
Well, it goes one of two directions. Either I'll put on something like Bob Marley to kind of snap me out of it or something like Bon Iver and just dive deeper into it. Something that makes me feel emotional and the license to cry.

You mentioned that loneliness was a theme during the tour. What's the first thing you did when you came home to New York City?
Oh gosh. What did I do? I called friends and wanted to reintegrate into the life I've been building back in New York. We went out to see a show the night I got back. What I missed most were the people. I was lucky to have one of my best friends who was on tour with me running my merch. That was nice. I could lean on him during those lonely days out on the road. I just wanted to be back in my bed. I missed the very mundane normalcy of everyday life.

Nothing like being in bed and ordering food online on Seamless.
[Laughs]. Yeah, exactly.

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A country-folk song of epic proportions, "San Francisco Mabel Joy" tells the tale of a poor Georgia farmboy who wound up in prison after a move to the Bay Area found love turning into tragedy. First released by Mickey Newbury in 1969, it might be more familiar through covers by Waylon Jennings, Joan Baez and Kenny Rogers. "It was a five-minute song written in a two-minute world," Newbury said. "I was told it would never be cut by any artist ... I was told you could not use the term 'redneck' in a song and get it recorded."

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