For Issue 1049, Caryn Ganz spoke to Sara Bareilles about breaking big with an inescapable hit single and her long journey to the Top Ten (it involved an audition for The Mickey Mouse Club). Click above to watch Bareilles in action at SXSW performing “Love Song” and her cover of the Beatles’ “Oh! Darling” and chatting about her upcoming headlining tour. Keep reading for more Bareilles on recording Little Voice and meeting Fiona Apple.
What did the first song you ever wrote sound like?
My first song that I ever played in front of people was at this choir recital in high school. At that time I was trying to be really heady, and I was listening to a lot of Tori Amos, and the song was called “Water Dancers” if that gives you any idea … people were so confused by it and not into it at all, I think it really made me retreat and I didn’t play music for anybody for years after that. I’m a believer that things don’t happen until you’re ready, and I wasn’t ready to be criticized or have people tell me it wasn’t good.
Have you ever met one of your idols, Fiona Apple?
I met her once. She was wasted at a bar, and I was like, “I’m wasted, you’re wasted!” But I really had always held her up on this pedestal, she was super-human. I just said, “Hi Fiona, I’m a big fan.” I got all tongue-tied and totally star-struck. There’s people that for whatever reason are so special to you and you don’t know how to let them know how special they are to you, because they don’t know you, and that’s weird, to have a stranger come up and be like, you’re my life.
We’ve established that “Love Song” isn’t exactly a love song. Are there relationships you do write about?
I’ve had a handful, but I’ve had great success in turning one relationship into a lot of songs. Some of them are just about the idea — I like with songwriting the idea of diving into the psyche, I can put myself in someone else’s shoes.
You’ve said being in the studio is a challenge for you — how hard was recording Little Voice?
I just was a basket case in the studio. I cried more in the studio than I think I’ve cried in ten years — that’s not true, I cry all the time. It was just really emotional. Trying to illustrate your ideas with music is really hard and when you’re somebody who doesn’t have experience in the studio, the studio is like a whole other language. And I’m really stubborn, like, “I can do it, don’t tell me how to do this.” It was really hard for me to suck it up and let people make choices.
Can you give us a specific example?
I remember we were recording the song “City,” and it was really run-of-the-mill to me in my head, and I just burst into tears. I just didn’t want it to be just a pretty recording, and the engineer was like, okay, let’s try a Massive Attack version of it. So we went the other extreme, where it was really sparse and industrial, and that wasn’t it either. And then we finally got to the middle ground, which is what it ended up being — it ended up working out. But for me, the process of going from one extreme to other was so traumatic, it felt like life or death right there, and I cried to Chris Chaney the bass player out in the lobby.
What is it about Broadway and show tunes that you find so appealing?
What I love about it is these songs have incredible dramatic arcs to them. There’s a story — a beginning, a middle and an end — and it’s okay to really explore the range of that within a song. I can get pissed and feel remorse and feel sad and be pissed again, all in the same song. The melody has to be such a strange focal point. You can’t just moan through a song on Broadway.
Was your song “Vegas” inspired by any personal lost weekends there?
To me, “Vegas” was about living in L.A. It’s such a dream-chaser society down there. There’s something really beautiful and magical about that, but there’s so many people that want to believe if they just do this one thing, everything is going to plateau and you’ll be happy, and you’ll win. If I just lose ten points. If I just move to Vegas. If I just move to New York, then everything’s going to be all tied up with a bow, and that’s just not real life. I just got really interested in that idea; what are we really telling ourselves here?
How concerned were you with putting yourself on your album cover? You’re kind of hiding behind a radio.
I didn’t want to be on the album artwork at all. I didn’t want it to be about my image as much. I know how important it is, but it can start to be all anybody talks about or cares about. I remember going through a period of time where it had just become a part of the conversation — what I look like, what I’m wearing, what my hair does — and the music took a back seat. You’re fooling yourself if you think you got into an industry that doesn’t care about image. But if I let myself start to care about it too much it’s going to take over, and I really believe that once you lose focus and the music is not the core of why you’re making your choices, the shit’s going to hit the fan.