Raised in North Carolina in a household steeped in bluegrass, old-time and Celtic music, singer-songwriter Sarah Siskind says she never even thought about not being a musician. Called an “underexposed treasure” by NPR, she had early success after a friend (fellow Nashville songwriter Julie Lee) sent some of Sarah’s songs to Alison Krauss, resulting in two hits: “Goodbye is All We Have,” from the Grammy-winning album Lonely Runs Both Ways, and the sublime “Simple Love,” which earned Krauss a Grammy nomination for Best Country Vocal Performance by a Female. It also led to a five-year publishing deal for Sarah on Music Row. A full-time singer/songwriter and recording artist, she now publishes her songs independently, with BUG Music handling her administration.
Her music is an unlikely but riveting amalgam of folk-rock and jazz fusion; her spectacular voice reveals Appalachian, Celtic and gospel influences. Five previous albums have won her fans including Bon Iver, Glen Hansard (The Swell Season), Vince Gill and Bonnie Raitt, who declared her 2009 album Say It Louder “a masterpiece.” During a recent visit to New York City, we asked her about her musical influences, writing a song on Bob Dylan’s guitar, her friendship with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver, and her new, homemade album, Novel, out now (stream it here).
Your 2009 album Say It Louder won Americana Album of the Year at the 2009 Nashville Music Awards, in a field that included heavyweights like Buddy and Julie Miller and Todd Snider. Do you think of yourself as an “Americana” artist, and what does that mean to you?
I don’t really think of myself as an Americana artist… but it was definitely an honor to receive that award. There are a few reasons why I think I get called Americana. One is because legitimately I do have traditional influences –- my parents were old time and bluegrass musicians. I was raised in the Appalachian area of North Carolina, and I’m very familiar with the old Appalachian sound. That has definitely influenced my vocals.
Yet other artists I’ve heard who are labeled ‘Americana’ don’t really sound anything like you.
Right. Well, ‘Americana’ took the place of ‘Alt Country’ as a label, and then it grew from there. And now it’s almost like a catch-all for music that people aren’t really sure what it is, but if it has any traditional leanings in it… that’s what I think [laughs].
So you do identify with that Appalachian sound.
I really do… I completely embrace that. That’s part of the way I was raised. Americana is the easiest genre to put me in –- kind of bluegrass and country, but kind of not… But, maybe even more so with the new album,I think I have more progressive ideas and melodies and sounds than traditional ones. A lot more on this record. Even on Say it Louder I felt like it wasn’t that Americana.
How happy were you with Alison Krauss’s version of “Simple Love?”
Really happy [laughs]. And the fact that she used her own footage of her childhood in the video of that song…it was such an honor that she felt that connected to it.
What kind of music did you hear in the house growing up?
I heard everything. There was a room in our house that was called the music room where we had an upright piano…but basically the walls were lined with records on shelves. My Dad collected 78s, so he had really old, archaic music…and he also collected LPs.
When you say archaic, are you talking about old-time country music, like Jimmie Rodgers-era?
Yeah, Jimmie Rodgers and a lot of really old gospel. Pretty much as early as they could record records in America, he had ‘em. A lot of old, scratchety…you know, somebody either singing a capella, or singing and playing banjo. I mean, just really very Appalachian.
Did you like that stuff when you were a kid, or did you think it was ‘weird?’
You know what? With the old country, Appalachian stuff, when I was a kid I didn’t have an opinion one way or the other – it was so ingrained in the sound of my house. It was just there. Dad really loved Brazilian music, too. So we had a lot of Brazilian music playing in the house, and then also Celtic music, which ended up being a big influence on me. I mean, Dad is into everything jazz, and some really psychedelic folk, you know like The Roches…
So, as far as getting into music, I never thought about not doing it. I started taking piano lessons when I was four. I had a really creative teacher who taught me sight reading but also encouraged me to play by ear. She used to put a children’s story book on the piano, open it up –- instead of a music book. And we’d sit next to each other on the bench, and she would narrate the story and I would make up music.
That was a brilliant teacher.
Isn’t that amazing? Yeah. And I think that really laid the groundwork for the way that I approach music. I try really hard to follow the muse and see where things take me – and that was instilled in me at a very young age.
In your writing you often do the unexpected. When the ear is expecting a rhyme, sometimes no rhyme. When the ear is expecting you to end the melody on a certain note, you go somewhere totally unexpected. Is that a conscious strategy?
No, it’s not at all conscious. I think where some of that came from is the music that I got into a little bit later, in my teens. I discovered Mahavishnu Orchestra, John McLaughlin…
I hear that influence on Say it Louder…
Yeah. Even Rush and Led Zeppelin. They were really into storytelling, so I think that might have had an influence on me, but in a way that honored the story. And that’s what I try to… when I teach songwriting and when I’m writing a song, I try and remove the filter of what anything is supposed to be, and I try and tell my story as honestly as I can. I think that’s why sometimes the lyric doesn’t rhyme. And sometimes the melody goes somewhere because, really, melody is so powerful that you can create a feeling, even without a lyric, just by choosing a certain chord.
And I think it’s really important to listen to that. Because, you know, you have 3-5 minutes to tell a story… to present what you’re trying to say. I think, if anything, listening to the more experimental (stuff), for example, fusion, gave me the confidence to stress what I hear in my head. And that’s really all I do when I write. I’m really…
…just trying to go with the muse?
You write very original melodies. Is melody primary to you when you write a song?
Yeah, melody is really key for me.
That’s where you start?
Yeah. I rarely get an idea for a lyric without getting a melody idea. Melody definitely dictates most of the time. And where the melody goes usually tells me what words to put with it. I know that sounds obvious, but some people might write a chord progression…
You don’t write obvious chords. Sometimes you end up with a harmonization I would not have expected.
Yeah. It’s interesting…in talking about influences, I sometimes get compared to Joni Mitchell, which is a huge honor. I hold her in the very highest respect. People were saying that to me way before I’d even heard her. I think it was because of my experimentation with chords; and also there’s a tonal similarity in the voice… It’s interesting, because I started performing live when I was about 14 or 15, and I lived in a somewhat conservative town in North Carolina, Winston-Salem.
What’s your favorite Joni Mitchell album?
Yeah. That was the first one I heard, at age 19. And I think it came at the perfect time for a couple of reasons. One, I was into fusion. And, you know, Jaco Pastorius, the great jazz fusion bass player (played on that)… And I’m very attentive to musicianship on every record that I listen to. I loved him. But I did get a little flak for playing these strange chords when I performed live. I mean, you know, my parents were really supportive, but your average Joe…would sometimes come up to me and say, “Why don’t you play something more normal!” You know? And I was like, “Well, this is just what I write.”
So when I heard Hejira it was actually a really life-changing moment for me. After I hear that album, I heard Blue. And that blew me away also, especially because she was so young when she made it, and I was so young when I made my first albums. What happened with her is that I felt validated.
Because she could write that way…and be that true to herself?
Yes. Absolutely. And when you listen to Hejira, she’s playing alternate tunings… and she’s playing electric. I never set out to play electric guitar the way she did, but I think it was always in my subconscious that it was OK…also because I heard Sister Rosetta Tharpe playing electric and I loved it… and Bonnie Raitt. So, Joni was a real turning point for me. I love her so much I have to take her in small doses. Because it’s too overwhelming.
What about alternate tunings?
Oh, well I play alternate tunings… where that started is that I loved Celtic music so much. When I first picked up the guitar to start learning guitar… my Dad tuned the guitar to D-A-D-G-A-D for me. Because he knew that I liked Celtic guitar playing so much. And I played in D-A-D-G-A-D probably for two or three years before I ever played in standard tuning. It’s great because, on the new album, I have almost entirely gone back to D-A-D-G-A-D.
Do you like to co-write? Do you prefer to write by yourself?
Yes and yes. I like to co-write, and I like to write by myself. I prefer recording songs that I’ve written (alone)…so I try to give writing by myself priority. It took me years to get into the flow. I did some of “the Nashville thing” where I was writing a lot with people I didn’t know…and that isn’t my favorite. But a lot of them were people I really respected and, now, because I did that, I have a group of writers that I’m really comfortable with and that I can schedule on my own.
So now you know who you can write with, and who you’d really rather not…
Exactly. It really was a great experience. It’s just…usually co-writing with other people, those songs don’t usually end up on my album. But I write a lot of songs…. I actually really love to write straight-ahead country.
Yeah… but when I write straight-ahead country, it’s still…
It’s filtered through the Sarah filter.
Yes. But I love it, because it’s ultimately about writing a song. To me it doesn’t have to have boundaries. I think it’s because I grew up with so much old country influence.
So, do you ever write more conventional country songs?
Yeah, I wrote a song, a little over a year ago, that’s real straight-ahead pop-country… I was in Ireland at Glen Hansard’s house, and I wrote it on a guitar that was sitting in his kitchen and that really spoke to me. It turned out it was Bob Dylan’s guitar that he had given to Glen. It’s a song called “Be Here Today.” It’s real straight-ahead, about “being present,” and it’s real pop.
Do you keep a notebook with little sketches or ideas?
I keep a notebook, I write stuff on my computer, I also talk or sing into my phone’s voice recorder. But I also do enjoy co-writing. Especially when it’s someone I connect with musically. That’s why Ari [singer/songwriter Ari Hest] and I are so…on the same page… we’ve written like 10 since [we met]. We’re trying to make a record, but we’re both really busy.
You recorded your new album, Novel, all by yourself in a ranch house just outside of Boulder, Colorado. How did that come about?
I had a really busy couple of years touring for Say it Louder and also doing a lot of co-writing. Then last summer (2010), I got asked to teach songwriting at Rocky Grass Academy… and Travis (husband Travis Book, bassist with The Infamous Stringdusters) was playing out there as well… so we decided, OK, it’s the hottest part of the year in Nashville. If we’re working out there why don’t we just rent a house… and make our home in Colorado for the summer?
My intent was to finish writing songs for the new record… I didn’t go into this with the intent of doing the album by myself. But I wanted to have some recording equipment that would allow me to make good-quality demos. I started recording the songs – just so I could have a record of them to take back to my band. I was just focused on getting the songs documented.
Were you planning to bring those songs to the band that you had on Say It Louder?
I wasn’t sure yet. And that’s not a judgment, it’s just that I hadn’t decided if I wanted to change the sound up a little bit. I definitely knew that I wanted to do something more organic, more… raw.
You mean less “produced” sounding?
Yeah. So, really what happened is… I just got inspired, and I think it was because I did have the capability to record certain things that I heard in my head. I was trying to honor the process that was happening.
How long does it usually take you to write a song?
Oh, it’s pretty all over the map… I sort of start and come back over the course of several weeks. But I definitely do sometimes write a song in one sitting. It just depends…
Is there anything on Novel that was written in one sitting?
I think “Welcome Home” was. “I Think About Love” is the last one I wrote for the album, and I think I wrote that in a couple of hours. And “Rescue You” I had already written a couple of years ago, and I re-wrote the lyric for the record. So yeah, I’d say a couple of them were pretty quick.
The muse was sitting on your shoulder.
Oh my gosh, yeah. I mean that’s this whole album, that’s how it happened. I can’t describe the sort of euphoria I felt of really putting down my own ideas. And I probably recorded 3 or 4 fully without even deciding that that was going to be the album.
You just thought they were demos, and you were having fun…
Can you describe your recording setup?
Yup. A MacBook Pro; I used Garage Band with a (A/D) signal converter box called a Duet by Apogee. It boosts the sound quality and signal coming into the computer. And then I used an Audio-Technica 822 microphone that I already had. I used that one microphone for the whole record. It’s a stereo condenser microphone. I figured out how to manipulate it, position-wise, where it would get really great sound. And it’s also a high-gain microphone, so the combination of the high gain and the boost of the Duet was really able to give it a better sound. That was it –- that’s completely it. And all the percussion was found objects.
Well, let’s see… the only thing I did direct was bass. I played bass direct. I mean I overdubbed everything live, using the same microphone.
You didn’t find it daunting to engineer yourself?
I was so completely… thrilled. And had so much fun… I loved it. When I was nine years old, I had my Dad’s 4-track recorder, and I would spend hours in my room recording myself. And I would experiment with overdubs and harmonies. And it was the most fun thing. And I think that in a way, it was a return to that.
Did you have help with the mixing?
No, I did it all.
What did Jason (Lehning, producer of Say It Louder) say when he heard it?
He’s heard a couple of the songs, and he actually gave me a thumbs up! And when I was checking the mixes and the masters – because I actually mastered it myself, too.
Yeah… I compared it to his recordings. And they’re still not as good, I mean obviously I didn’t have the equipment that he has access to…
To my ears, it sounds a little bit more homemade…
…in the way that McCartney’s first solo album also sounded homemade and also was outrageous…
Yeah, and you know, it’s interesting how it’s much more accepted now… with the Fleet Foxes and the Bon Ivers of the world – not that that’s the genre that I’m going for, but there are so many more opportunities to do it ourselves.
I know Justin Vernon of Bon Iver has been helpful to you. How did you meet him?
Justin found me because he is a Bill Frisell fan –- so he paid attention to every record that goes on –- he heard about “Covered” and bought it (ed. note: Siskind’s early album Covered features guitar great Bill Frisell). It’s not an album of “covers,” even though it’s called “Covered.” And he became a fan of mine and was following my career for quite a few years before I knew that. And he started covering “Lovin’s for Fools,” which is off my album Studio/Living Room (2008).
It became kind of an underground hit, a YouTube hit.
Yeah, it really was. It’s really remarkable if you think about it, that he didn’t even record it and that that many people know about it. Anyway, I found out that he was covering “Lovin’s For Fools” as the encore on his tour every night. Somebody forwarded me a YouTube video of him singing it and saying that he couldn’t wait to play Nashville at the end of the tour so that he could meet me. And I was like, OK… I’m here…
Pick up the phone…
Yeah. Right! So this girl that was working for me at the time got in touch with his manager and said.. “Sarah would love to come and meet him.” So that’s the night we met. And it’s funny, because there’s actually a YouTube video of me singing it with them that night – and we’d never sung it together before. And we became real fast friends.
Would you still like to try to land a major label deal, or are you happy being an indie artist?
I’m not interested in a major record deal unless they change the way they do things. My goal was to be an artist with total creative control, and a songwriter, period. I just want to be a songwriter. I’ll always write more than I could ever record. Doing everything I’ve done for the last seven years has led me to this good place. My goal, honestly, is to do what I do and make enough money to live. I’ve never sought riches or fame; this is just what I was meant to do.