Sarah Martinson, an emerging artist, has been playing music as a hobby until she became an artist herself, having been raised in a musical household. Recently, she released her debut album, Back to You, on which she adapted quality songs into something distinctive and special. Sarah might be an up-and-coming singer, but this young lady is, without a doubt, a forward-thinking musician with a tendency for experimentation by blending jazzy-pop soundscapes with modern soul.
Sarah collaborated with various artists for every song and incorporated a wide variety of stylistic devices and approaches with her jazzy voice. In addition to topics of self-love, gratitude, and forgiveness, Back to You is also a personal journey into stories of loss, love, and the celebration of life. The album was recorded during Sarah’s student years at Berklee, with songs being written to the exact capabilities and strengths of the various musicians who performed on each piece, adding their own flavour to the album itself.
Sarah’s love for jazz, nature, and her classical roots shine through in a sound so evocative that it brings Stevie Wonder, Sara Bareilles, and Vulfpeck to mind. We recently had a chat with the singer and talked about her musical journey, the creative process behind Back to You, and life in general.
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It’s lovely to meet you, Sarah. First of all, let’s talk about how it all started. Do you remember the first moment when you felt that music was your future?
Hi! It’s lovely to meet you as well. I grew up in a musical household, so music was always a given as my go-to hobby. I’ve followed the musician path in a lot of different ways, from being a classical trumpet player to a public school teacher, and now, an independent artist. I’ve never felt better about having music as my future as I do now in the DIY indie music scene.
As you are an up-and-coming artist who has just released a debut album called ‘Back to You’, what was the creative process behind making the album? What challenges did you face while making it?
This album took me from 0-60. I’ve always been a musician, but there is SO MUCH that goes behind writing, recording, producing, and creating an album – everything from the songwriting, the branding, the artistic identity, and the marketing angles were completely new to me. I mean, completely new. When I started this album, I didn’t know the producer’s role, I knew zero information about the industry, and I had never even stepped foot into a recording studio. Since I recorded this album during my time in graduate school in Spain, a lot of my music stemmed from the experimental time allotted to me in the studios and the musical connections I had made with my colleagues and friends from all over the world.
The creative process was based entirely on my circumstances. For example, for certain songs, I knew that I would only have 2 hours of recording time, and I knew exactly what kind of instrumentation I would be able to have for my recording session. So, I would write my song, do my arrangement, and base the entire creative process on who was available and how much time I would have in the studio. Since time was limited, I would write arrangements based on the strengths of the friends who would be performing on each song. The music is very much written for those who played on it, since I wanted to capture the very best performance in the time that we had together. Although this way of writing made my songs interesting and very different from each other, it definitely created some challenges in that the vibe and personnel were not able to be consistent throughout the album. I have absolutely zero complaints about any aspect of my album, because I know that even through my challenges, I will never be able to recreate the personnel, the vibe, and the energy that went into each song. There’s something magical about creating music in the middle of the night with new friends and I wouldn’t trade this album experience for anything.
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On your new album, you explore the last decade of your life. How important was it for you to tackle subjects of love and loss?
Super important, I mean, these are topics that everyone experiences, right? I wanted my music to be outrageously, unmistakably me, but I also wanted to tell the stories that would be digestible and understandable by people all over the world. I’ve heard occasionally that music is oversaturated with these topics, but I don’t care! Love and loss are two universal concepts that drive, and have always driven, the creation of art, be it music, dance, poetry, visuals, etc. These concepts are some of life’s greatest teachers, and they are experiences that every human in the world will feel at some point in their most raw form.
Many artists say that improvisation is a large part of the creative process. How strictly do you separate improvising and composing?
This is a great question! When I truly think about it, I’m not sure that there is any differentiation for me. My songwriting process usually follows the same steps:
- I decide on a theme, a concept, a genre, or some central idea.
- I write the song in my head while I’m doing ordinary things: walking the dog, exercising, doing the dishes, etc. Usually, I’ll have dedicated “writing” time where I honestly just sit and stare at the ceiling fan while I write and re-write in my head.
- Once the entire piece is finished, including all parts, arrangements, etc., I notate it and prepare it for recording.
I know this is kind of weird, but in a lot of ways, my composition process is just continual internal improvisation until I’ve settled on my final product. If I’m really stuck, I might sit at the piano or guitar and try to write something that’s theoretically “correct” or “good”, but normally I just let myself go wild until I’ve settled on a result that I’m happy with. In the recording process, I love featuring improvised featured solos, so there is a differentiation between improv and the composition in that final stage of the production process.
To what extent do you think your surroundings shaped you, creatively speaking, and in what way?
Wow – in every single way. First of all, I give so much credit to the incredible musicians and friends I worked with in Spain. The cultural, musical, and educational influences of their vastly different lives had a huge impact on the sound, genre, and performance of my music. A massive impact. I honestly believe that any musician who claims that their ideas and their sound are 100% original is lying to themselves. I’d be a fool to claim that my sound is nothing short of the culmination of every place I’ve lived and every person I’ve met. And this is one of the main points of Back to You! The album explores so many different genres that I love, it features over 40 musicians from 10 countries and 17 US states, and the lyrics spew imagery from the nature of my home state of Alaska. I’ve emulated the genres and writing styles of my friends, used the stories from our lives to shape the lyrics, and taken these songs to create an honest snapshot of exactly who we all were in this era.
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Looking at the British music industry right now, where do you aspire to fit in? Do you want to play strictly jazzy-pop or would you like to make music of a different genre someday?
Honestly, I’m not extraordinarily familiar with the British music industry; I’ve observed it from afar, but I’m still working to immigrate to the UK so that I can immerse myself in that scene. Wherever I am in the world, I do not see myself strictly sticking to one genre. One of my main goals as an artist is to write whatever kind of music is inspired by and reflects my current state in life. I want to be able to grow and develop with the music I write, so it will always be a snapshot of my current experience, in any style. Inspired by my COVID isolation in Colorado, I’ve recorded my second project which features a more gentle, acoustic, Americana vibe. I’m excited to dive into the British music industry when I get the opportunity, but I don’t plan on writing music strictly with the intention of fitting in.
The role of an artist is always subject to change. What’s your view on the tasks of artists today, and how do you try to meet these goals in your work?
Now that we are so connected and so many artists are going full DIY, the role of the artist is completely fluid. To me, I take on the artist roles of all the songwriting, rehearsing, arranging, comping, and vocal/trumpet performing – I outsource some editing and all the mixing/mastering to experts in those skills. I’m slowly learning the marketing and promotional side of being an artist, and it’s rough! However, I know loads of artists who produce their own electronic beats, many who mix and master their own works, and also many singers who barely write or arrange any of their music, and all of that is fine! It’s so easy these days to collaborate, hire freelancers, and build a remote team for your music. I encourage everyone to push their boundaries and try to expand their artistic roles, but I don’t find any shame in outsourcing the things you’re not great at, whether that’s songwriting, mastering, or marketing. The role of the artist is ever-changing, and the artist themselves should commit to consistent growth and development. Whatever that means to each individual artist is exactly right. As long as I’m pushing myself and learning, I try not to beat myself up for not doing 100% of every task involved in creating my music.
Usually, it is considered that it is the job of the artist to win over an audience. But listening is also an active, rather than just a passive, process. How do you see the role of the listener in the musical communication process?
The listener is just as important as the artist! Honestly, listeners inspire, motivate, appreciate, and shape the direction of artists. While I do think it’s crucial for artists to make honest music, I don’t undervalue the importance of fans, supporters, and critics. Listeners have so much power and they truly influence the direction and style of artists!
Most humans that I know have at least one song that speaks to them on an extremely personal and meaningful level. Artists know this because artists have that special connection to music as well. So, while artists are making music for the love of it, we all crave that one deep connection that a listener has with our music. There’s nothing more special than hearing that your music changed someone’s life, or helped them through a tough time.
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How do you think non-mainstream music can reach a wider audience?
I’m trying to figure that out myself right now… How can non-mainstream artists find their future listeners? The good news is that the listeners are out there. There is an audience for EVERY niche. A lot of indie artists struggle with the platforms they use because they are so heavily geared towards artists who already have their foot in many doors – through their genre, labels, money, etc. I don’t know how to find the listeners, but I know they exist. I’m new to this world, but what I’ve learned is that the non-mainstream musicians who find their audience are CONSISTENT. They might not reach their audience right away, but with consistency in their releases and engagement with small audiences, they eventually grow their listener base in the most organic, real way.
Is there music you like, which never fails to make you feel good?
Oh, definitely – anything by Earth Wind & Fire, any solid disco/funk, “Andre” by Jojo, literally anything Baroque, most John Mayer tunes, “Girl put your Records on” by Corinne Bailey Rae, the last three minutes of the 1812 overture, anything by Vaughan Williams… I could go on forever! There’s so much good music out there that I’ve actually often considered the scariest part of death to be the fact that at some point in life we will run out of time to listen to all of our favorite songs one last time.
Who really inspires you as a singer? And who motivates you to work hard and stay on track?
Ask any of my friends – they will all tell you that I’ve been obsessed with Jojo since we were both 13 and she was scoring number ones on the charts. Jojo has always been my main vocal inspiration for so many reasons, like her CHOPS, her musical intuition, and her killer drive to fight through her insane industry legal battles. She always takes the high road, never ever quits, and never ceases to amaze with her flawless, raw voice. I grew up watching her succeed, and since we are only 3 months apart in age, I was constantly inspired by her career and growth. Lately, I’ve also been really fangirling over pop vocalists with powerhouse voices like Tori Kelly, Demi Lovato, Kelly Clarkson, and Lady Gaga. The things that these ladies can do with their voices are incredible. From a songwriting perspective, I’ve recently been loving Kacey Musgraves and Bruno Major (who are both also great vocalists). I love the way they tell their stories. Oh – and Alison Krauss is an all-time greatest, is there anything she can’t do?
Looking at the current situation around the world, how do you think you can progress as an artist?
This is a tough situation for everyone, and as an artist, I know there will be no “normal” for a long, long time. We can’t simply go back to work; our work depends on crowded theaters, huge festivals, loud bars, and mobs of dancers in clubs. Like most artists, I’m focusing on my digital presence and recording as much as I can, while I can. I’m seeing myself progress through this discomfort by making myself learn some new instruments, record vulnerably on live video, and write in new styles. Luckily for listeners, artists are focusing a lot more on virtual interaction with fans, which should help both listeners and artists feel grounded and inspired during this time.
I’ve noticed that musicians are not slowing down in any way. A lot of people predict a wave of quarantine babies in about 9 months; I predict a massive influx of albums coming out in about a year!
Thanks so much for taking the time to chat – I really appreciate this interview! – Sarah
Interviewed by Maggie Gogler
Edited by Julia Litwinowicz
Official Audio © Sarah Martinson