Singer-songwriter Scarlett Rabe grew up without the influence of pop music or TV. Instead, she immersed herself in classical music. “My [early] songs sounded just like Mozart, only with the lyrics of a six year old girl,”says the piano-playing prodigy. We asked Rabe about her rocking new EP Scarlett, her unusual upbringing, her approach to songwriting, her healthy Facebook following and more.
Who are your songwriting heroes?
Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Dolly Parton, Jeff Buckley, Brian Wilson, Carole King, Bloodshy & Avant, Max Martin, to name a few . . .
You grew up without any TV or pop music. How did that shape you?
Well, there are a lot of social and cultural cues that we absorb through music, and through pop culture, some subliminally and some very consciously. Those just were never there for me, which always made me feel odd. But that wasn’t so much “shaping me” as it was just a bit of a void. So I’d say the most dramatic shaping happened as I started to experience everything at once. I ingested music voraciously and as comprehensively as I could, and I still do. But the perspective of only ever experiencing music across all genres and all decades all at once is again, really odd. There are no lines for me, no boundaries, no context, just the songs and the music for what they are. And I don’t know it any other way, so I can’t say whether it’s cool or not . . . it’s just the way I know it.
How does being a piano prodigy play into your songwriting? Do you find it hard to “keep it simple” when you write or play?
Creating something that is simple yet impactful is one of the hardest things in the world to do! Having extensively studied classical music, I love the thrill and the challenge that writing a “pop” song presents — It’s a completely different experience! Every note and every lyric has to earn it’s place within the three minutes or so that you have to tell your story. But what I learned, and what I love about classical music is how the notes can be combined very intricately to create so many more “colors” than you hear in most pop music. I’ve always “seen” music in color, in my mind. I try to bring more of those colors into my songwriting. Also, the power of chord voicing, where you can have the same group of notes but they can create vastly different effects depending on how you stack them. Somewhere between the two very different worlds is a thin line that I’m constantly tightrope walking…
Whose piano playing do you admire?
So many! From classical greats like Bella Davidovich, Caio Pagano, Vladimir Horowitz, etc., etc., to my modern idols — Elton John, Tori Amos, Ray Charles, Fiona Apple, Brian Wilson, Lady Gaga — so much inspiration, especially in how each of them completely owns the piano, but in a very unique way.
One million Facebook fans is nothing to sneeze at. How did you achieve that?
Honestly, I just made sure to always spend time talking to everyone and anyone who cared. I still do! I love having conversations with fans on my wall . . . knowing how you’ve connected with someone is one of the best parts of creating music. Without them, the music is silence.
Can you summarize your career arc thus far? How did you get to where you are now?
There’s a lot more than just writing music and the whole creation process that goes on behind the scenes. I’m a pretty comprehensive girl, and I’m very intense. So for me, this is a constant focus, and I’m involved with every single aspect. Everything from directing/editing videos, booking shows, interviews, photo shoots, lawyers and contracts, so much paperwork it should be a crime, band rehearsals, designing/producing merch, sewing costumes for the dancers, and anything else you can think of . . . I love it all. I haven’t stopped long enough to survey “where I am now” or “a career arc,” I just keep doing what I love, and I know I’m never gonna stop doing that.
How would you describe your new album?
I guess I’d say it’s very storytelling, moody at points, intense and somewhat hard to describe. It’s all about a feeling.
How would you compare it to your last album?
Much darker, with more of a rock attitude.
How often do you play for fun, just for yourself? What sort of stuff do you play when you do?
I play every day. Every time I play, it’s just for fun, and I try to play everything I’ve ever heard, from Billy Joel to Zedd. And of course, I still love playing classical music . . . Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Bach . . .keeps my fingers nimble.
When did you start writing songs?
I’ve always written songs, for as long as I could remember. The first songs I wrote were pretty terrible. Since I had only really been exposed to classical music, my songs sounded just like Mozart, only with the lyrics of a six year old girl.
What sort of things inspire you to write?
Anything that makes me feel something. It’s somewhat automatic and subconscious for me, the song has already started writing itself inside me before I realize it’s something I need to say.
How do you go about writing songs?
It’s different every time, although I’d say the one constant is that it’s usually sometime in the middle of the night. Sometimes it’s a little melody that I can’t get out of my head, and sometimes it’s a collection of words that I feel with a sort of intensity. At that point, I usually go on a walk or curl up in a corner somewhere until I figure out what it is I’m trying to say.
What is your approach to writing lyrics?
Well, like I said, the beginnings are somewhat subconscious, but then once I’ve figured out what I need to say, I start digging for the best way to say it. I love words. I love finding the perfect ones. I love how they combine with other words, I love how they feel on your teeth and on your tongue. I love how they roll together, and I love playing with them until I get them exactly how I want them.
What’s a song on your album you’re particularly proud of and why?
I’m gonna go with “Battle Cry” because it’s very emotional and powerful for me. It’s the first time I could say the things I said with that kind of conviction. A close second I guess would be “Fight For This.” I love how the chord changes in the bridge and into the last chorus make me feel like I could explode every time.
What’s a lyric or verse from Scarlett you’re a fan of?
My favorite lyric/verse is actually not on the EP, but will be on the album . . . So I guess I can’t tell you what it is yet. You’ll have to ask me again after the CD release!
Are there any words you love or hate?
YES. I hate the word “moist.”
(Ed Note: Rabe is the sixth songwriter to say this since we’ve been asking that question.)
What’s a song of yours that’s really touched people?
Most definitely “Battle Cry.” And a close second would be “Unconditional.”
Do you ever do any other kinds of writing?
Yeah, I’m working on a screen play, although I’d never admit it.
If you could co-write with anyone living or dead, who would it be?
Dead: Freddy Mercury. Living: Max Martin.
Who do you consider an underrated songwriter?
Kimbra. Way too underrated.
What do you consider to be the perfect song, and why?
“Toxic” by Bloodshy & Avant, Henrik Jonback and Cathy Dennis. It’s a song that just keeps hitting, no matter who you are, no matter how it’s played or produced, and no matter how many times you’ve heard it.