“How do you cope when the world always seems to be on fire?” - hmv.com talks to Sara Bareilles
Technically, it’s been six years since we last had a new album from Sara Bareilles, but it’s not like the California native has been enjoying a long break.
The last five years of Bareilles’ career have been taken up with Waitress, the hit musical adaptation of the 2007 film of the same name.
Bareilles, along with writing partner Jessie Nelson, penned all the songs for the musical, earning herself a Tony Award in the process. It’s been a hit on Broadway and is now opening in the UK as well as Australia in 2020. But, for Bareilles, it’s back to her day job and the small matter of Amidst The Chaos, her fifth studio album, or sixth if you include the soundtrack to Waitress.
Recorded with country legend T Bone Burnett, overseer of hit TV show Nashville among many other things, the album also features a duet with John Legend.
Amidst The Chaos, as you can probably guess from the title, sees Bareilles channelling the tumultuous political situation in the US into her lyrics.
We spoke to Bareilles about coming back to her solo career, working with Burnett and if she’s got a taste for musicals now...
This is your first studio album for a little while after Waitress. Have you been collecting songs for a while? Or did you consciously decide that you were entering a new writing mode?
“A little of both. A few songs that had trickled in over the last couple of years, but it wasn’t like I had tonnes to go through. When I made the decision to make a record last summer, I did go into work mode. It was interesting. For the first time, I found myself with studio time booked and not enough songs for the record. But I found some wonderful collaborators and songwriters to work with, and, in the end, the songs magically appeared. There was some faith involved.”
Having written songs for a very specific narrative and structure, was it strange to go back to being to do whatever you liked?
“Going back into that space where you’re telling your own story was a challenge. To make Waitress work, I had to adopt the psychology of the characters I was writing for and it did feel foreign trying to do that for myself. Waitress was wonderful, it was very collaborative and I felt like I’d expanded as a writer. I was writing about bigger things, broader themes and I felt like I had something to say about my relationship to the world. How do you cope when the world always seems to be on fire?”
Does every song still begin with you and the piano?
“Or the guitar. ‘No Such Thing’ was a piano loop I wrote on my phone on a plane. That’s the magic of it, songs can come from anywhere. Mostly it still is the piano, but there is more guitar on this record than what I’ve done in the past.”
When did T Bone Burnett come into the picture?
“I met him through Jessie Nelson, my writing partner on Waitress. It was just supposed to be a song, that’s what I asked and he told he’d rather do a whole record, which was not something I was going to say no to! I have this piece of yellow legal pad paper, I wrote a list on it when I was 18 of everything I wanted to do. A lot of it is embarrassing, one says ‘Write a song with horns’ and another is ‘Play some funky s**t’. But also on that piece of paper is ‘Work with T Bone Burnett’ and that’s a massive milestone.”
Did it live up to those lofty expectations?
“Oh yeah. It was such an interesting journey. He’s someone who holds the creative process very lightly, which is ironic because the guy is almost seven feet tall! He’s a creative force and a brilliant mind, but so gentle in how he ushers in new ideas and moves you away from other ideas. He’s a beautiful conductor of everything.”
At this stage in a lot of artists’ careers, they are starting to produce themselves, but you still see a lot of value in the producer relationship?
“Certain producers. I’ve been very lucky, I’ve had beautiful relationships with all my producers. With someone like T Bone, he’s someone I was interested to learn from. There’s nothing technically holding me back, but I’m also looking for collaboration and to make the whole greater than the sum of the parents. I took away so much from this process and it would have been a very different record without T Bone.”
Were any of the songs difficult to get right? Was it a hard record to make?
“Nothing felt forced. There were songs that were harder to get to, but we tried to keep everything really simple. This isn’t a record with lots and lots of stuff on it. We really wanted to capture a beautiful performance. T Bone is all about performance rather than perfection. A lot of the vocals are one take or recorded live playing with the band. That was very special to me, I’d never done that before.”
Is it important to you for a song to feel natural and easy? If a song is taking too long, do you tend to assume it’s not meant to be?
“I go back and forth about that. Sometimes if you have to work too hard on a song you can lose its thread and what made it special, but sometimes it’s worth all the hard work. I am impatient. If something isn’t coming quickly then I will lose interest. But doing something like Waitress was such a good exercise. I wasn’t allowed to not finish a song, you have to make the story work.”
You’ve said this is an album inspired by what’s going on with American politics, would you say that’s the album’s main theme?
“The thing I’m most interested in talking about is emotional architecture. The way it feels to be human. The centrepiece of the record is a song called ‘Armour’. That’s a track about the new feminist movement and what it’s like to be 40 years old and readdressing my thoughts about what I’m allowed to do and be in society. You can’t unsee what you’ve seen, it’s like coming out of The Matrix. Re-defining myself, that’s a big theme.”
Are there some love songs too?
“There’s lots of love. Some of that is romantic love, some of that is friendship and community. And some of it is love for The Obamas. I miss them.”
How are lyrics for you? Do you need the song to be ready to put words to it? Or are you always writing things down?
“It can go a few different ways. Most of them come quickly and I have to return to little pockets. Some lyrics are really hard won. I have to sit down for hours and pound them. That’s more common.”
When did you settle on the title?
“I called it Amidst The Chaos and that’s taken from a line from ‘Orpheus’. That’s another big song for me. It’s about learning cope with chaos. Everything feels so destabilised and in flux. It’s trying to make sense of that.”
When did it come about? Was the title there at the start of recording?
“God No! It was almost the last thing, it was the grace note of the record. During every recording, you’re trying on titles and seeing what fits with the record. Watch an album come to life, and, by the end, it has its own little heartbeat. You find what fits, and, by the end, it felt pretty obvious to me to go with Amidst The Chaos. I like pulling from the lyrics. Especially from ‘Orpheus’, it’s a very special song for me.”
How’s your live set coming together? You’ve got six records now...
“We’ve got a few small shows first and that’ll mostly be new stuff. Those shows for my hardcore fans and it’s me inviting them into this new world. When we do a bigger tour, I want to have a rotating set so we don’t get bored. I like having a large body of work, you can play what feels like to you, what’s speaking to your heart. Then there are fan favourites. I would get stoned to death if I didn’t play ‘Love Song’.”
Finally, will Waitress be your one and only musical? Or would you go back and do it again?
“I loved it. I would totally write another one. When I said yes to Waitress, I had no idea how much work it would be. It was so much. The hours were unbelievable. Knowing that I would be pretty choosey about the project. But I loved the show and it’s completely changed my life.”
Sara Bareilles’ new album Amidst The Chaos is out now in hmv stores.