Sara Kays wasn’t necessarily looking for closure when she wrote “Remember That Night?,” a guitar-pinned pop track with a thumping undercurrent. But when her ex reached out to her, it “opened up some old wounds,” as she describes it, and she knew she had to write through her pain. Her daring to write so candidly about the breakup and its aftermath has led to the song becoming a massive streaming hit; its Spotify tally currently stands at more than 35 million.
Now, Kays peels back the song’s layers for an acoustic performance that cuts even deeper. “Doing the song in a stripped down way makes me feel more emotional,” she tells American Songwriter, “but it doesn’t change the meaning of the song for me.”
The unshakable thematic core is an unwavering foundation for a vocal performance that cracks like thunder, often glistening yet remaining weary and wilted. “The day after you said goodbye / All I did was lay in bed and cry,” she weeps over a single piano. She tenderly unravels her emotional journey, as dark, swirling clouds slowly dissipate from view. “But after one month, I started to move on / And after two, I felt alright / Then three months in, you were off my mind.”
The Nashville-based musician was healing, soon casting the chains of the past aside to live her life anew. Life had other plans, however. Her ex reached out to her with this single prompt: “Remember that night?” It soon sent her careening back into her memories, and she shares every bruised detail with the listener. “We went for a drive, 2:30 in the morning / I kissed you, it was pouring,” she sings. “We held each other tight before the night was over / You looked over your shoulder.”
As the song continues to collect streams, it has taken on a new life, and its meaning now belongs to Kays’ flourishing listener base. “I’m so grateful [the song] has connected with so many people, and I’ve heard from a lot of them telling me about the people and memories they associate the song with,” she says. “I think it’s cool that when someone listens to it, they interpret it the way they want to interpret it—and in that sense, it kind of does become their song. But when I sing it, it still feels very much like my own. So, I think it would be fair to say I feel like we all own it together.”
Kays, whose influences run the gamut from Ed Sheeran to Mayday Parade, started playing guitar when she was 12. Adventurous and creatively hungry, she began busking in small restaurants in high school and released her first single “Rich Boy” in 2018. Her debut EP, A House Too Big, soon followed, and the follow-up Camera Shy arrived two years later.
Etched throughout her songwriting, Kays knows what it takes to craft heartfelt lyrics spun with velvet, tight-knit arrangements that simply elevate the already high-flying material. “My listening taste has always been pretty all over the place, but I think that comes from just loving a great or well-written song,” she says.
Sheeran became an early, and immediate, influence in her childhood after hearing him on the radio. “His sound really stood out to me among everything else I was hearing at the time. With Mayday Parade, I remember being emotionally connected to so many of their songs growing up. The incredible storytelling in a lot of their songs inspired me from the start to be more creative in my writing.”
Camera Shy signaled a watershed moment for her in many ways, most of all the ability “to write about a few very personal topics for the first time,” she observes. “Since that was released, I’ve felt creatively inspired to find new things to write about—and also new ways to talk about the same topics. It’s been really great so far, and I’m excited to start sharing more of what I’ve been working on since then.”
“One of the new songs is about watching your best friend become someone else’s ─ going from being the passenger seat rider to the back-seat rider,” she teases of new material. “Another song goes behind the scenes into the life of a bully, and another is about trying to be there for a friend who’s struggling with depression.”
Photo by Meg McCauly