Sara Bareilles wrote her first song since the pandemic started less than a week ago. When she hops on a call with American Songwriter, late Friday afternoon, she’s in the middle of the sticks and expressing what many artists have witnessed over the last 15 months: total creative depletion. “I was one of those people that got very quiet. I think I was pretty shell-shocked, as most people were, but some people turned to artistic expressions to process. And I wasn’t able to do that. I was very heavy and depressed and just didn’t find a lot of solace in writing. I think that I’m just starting to turn the corner on that now.”
The song in question emerged as way “more hopeful than I thought it was going to be,” she admits. “And maybe that’s part of what I wasn’t wanting to process─what’s happened through the lens of the melancholy I was feeling. Now, it actually feels like it might be fertile ground to kind of look back and reflect, but with a more hopeful tone. I was grateful for the people who were making music. I just couldn’t, I couldn’t quite access that in myself. I just sat and cried into my coffee.”
While creatively uninspired, Bareilles found herself leaning on “comfort food,” she laughs. Well, music that is. Artists like Aretha Franklin, Carole King, Etta James, and Ray Charles became her haven into which she could escape and soothe her anxiety-addled brain. She also spent time revisiting Harry Belafonte’s catalog and flipping through the work of Phoebe Bridgers and Billie Eilish.
“I ended up doing a little bit of escaping into television, actually,” she adds. “So I was [watching] a lot of Marvel movies and superhero stuff at the height of the pandemic when I was like, ‘I don’t want to think about anything real.’”
But now, Bareilles finds some comfort with her newly-released live record, Amidst the Chaos: Live from the Hollywood Bowl, recorded at the tail-end of 2019─a living document of her last pre-pandemic performance. Little did she, or anyone for that matter, know what the world would be like 18 months later.
“It feels like a time capsule in a weird way. I can’t get away from the knowledge that we’re never going to quite go back exactly to what was before. There’s a nostalgia that I feel when I listen back, tons of joy,” she reflects. “That night was so special to me in just the arc of my career and such a huge milestone moment for me, personally. I remember the joy, man, I just remember the joy and the pride. With the band, it was late in the tour. So we had really bonded.”
The lineup of songs includes many deep cuts, bombastic hits, including “Brave,” and fresh songs from her 2019 studio record (also called Amidst the Chaos). Such moments as “Brave,” as well as “Armor” and “Miss Simone,” pound the heartstrings in ways wholly unexpected and unavoidably cathartic. Art, as it frequently does, slips into social and cultural movements and erupts as symbols of reckoning, accountability, and self-reflection.
“I’m of the mindset, and I think a lot of artists do it, it’s sort of like it never really belongs to any of us. So, sometimes you find yourself in the song, and you learn as much from that song as a listener might. ‘Brave’ was a very intimate song when I wrote it─from a letter, basically from me to a dear friend. And then it took on a bigger meaning, and then, as time and cultural events have unfolded and politics have changed those same words that meant one thing, [they] take on an entirely different meaning. I think that’s part of what is so miraculous about music, anyway, the majesty of the fact that words take on new meanings, depending on the context and that we’re all kind of just going along for the ride.”
The evening before our call, Bareilles attended an event that reminded her exactly what she had missed most: “shaking someone’s hand,” she says. “Everyone had to be vaccinated and show proof of vaccination to be there. So, we were all very safe. I realized I really missed human contact. I’m a hugger. I’m a touchy feely person anyway. I’m only just now realizing how kind of deprived that part of myself has become. I missed people so much.”
She also performed for the first time since that cold November day at the Hollywood Bowl. Full circle doesn’t even begin to describe her experience. “I forgot how much you receive being on stage. I always think the audience is there to receive what we give from being on stage. But as an artist, the act of offering is actually an act of receiving because we get so much from the audience. They have no idea sometimes how powerful they are. And so it was just a reminder [that] my soul is fed by playing live music for people.”
Nearly 20 years ago, upon graduating from UCLA, Bareilles hit the club circuit, performing wherever she could and slowly building a loyal audience, grassroots style. Live performance is intrinsically tied to her art─feeding her craft across six studio records, from her 2004 independently-released debut to her latest major label offering. She craves the stage, and her blooming audience craves her words. “It’s like the Rubik’s Cube,” she offers. “I feel lucky that I was an artist who really got started grassroots and did a lot of trying out new songs for an audience. It was really informative, and it tells you what’s speaking to them and what isn’t. I try not to let that get too much in the way and write too many up tempo songs. I’m a little bit more of a balladeer, by nature. You want to find the balance there.”
In taking stock of her own life over the last year, as well as her own blind spots when it comes to representation and inclusiveness within the industry, she hopes the general populous have uncovered “a willingness to pay attention to each other, and to pay attention to who is not in the room and why they aren’t there,” she says, “and how we can be active agents of change, to make musical spaces, staged spaces, crew spaces, audience spaces, a more diverse and inclusive expression of the world.”