"I love when I feel challenged to step up to my highest capacity," the singer/songwriter tells Billboard.
"I always swore I would never live in New York," Sara Bareilles says with a laugh from her New York apartment. "I always felt so overwhelmed here. It's ironic -- the thing you think you don't need is the thing you actually need most."
Last year, the 33-year-old singer/songwriter decided that the thing she needed was a major personal and professional change in order to record the aptly titled "The Blessed Unrest," the follow-up to 2010's "Kaleidoscope Heart." That album debuted atop the Billboard 200 and has sold 441,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. It spawned the hit "King of Anything," but Bareilles was terrified of feeling creatively stagnant while assembling her next LP. "I felt antsy when thinking about coming from the same angle [with this album]," she says. "Like, 'OK, I'm going to sit down at the piano and write some songs, then I'll pick a producer.' The whole methodology being a mirror image of what had come before just wasn't feeling exciting."
From a commercial standpoint, Bareilles didn't necessarily need to rejigger that image: After breaking out in 2007 with the pop smash "Love Song" (3.6 million downloads, according to Nielsen SoundScan), she scooped up more fans with "Kaleidoscope Heart" as well as with a judging stint on NBC's "The Sing-Off." But like a star pitcher retooling her fastball in the off-season, Bareilles decided to evolve her proven approach for "The Blessed Unrest," due July 16 on Epic Records. Recorded during the past six months, the album showcases the expansive energy of Manhattan life while touching upon heavier themes than heartbreak. "Chasing the Sun" is a song about mortality, while first single "Brave" was written for a friend struggling to come out as gay.
Bareilles also made an effort to recruit more collaborators for her third album: Along with producers John O'Mahoney and Mark Endert, the singer met with fun.'s Jack Antonoff for a potential co-writing opportunity. "I was introduced to Jack through Sara Quin of Tegan & Sara," Bareilles says. "We met for breakfast one day, and I was just so enamored with him and his personality... The first day we sat down together was the day we wrote 'Brave.'"
Released to digital retailers as the lead single on April 23, "Brave" has sold 160,000 downloads and peaked at No. 61 on the Billboard Hot 100 -- a far cry from previous lead singles "Love Song" (No. 7 peak) and "King of Anything" (No. 32). But those songs each took several months to bloom into ubiquitous hits, and the strategy will remain the same for "Brave," which has been pushed to adult radio and will be crossed over to pop in the weeks prior to "The Blessed Unrest's" release.
Epic VP of marketing Scott Walker says, "When we've run a Sara Bareilles single successfully, it can take between six and nine months at radio. And right now, we think we're on that trajectory." Bareilles performed "Brave" on NBC's "Today" on April 25, and will do so again on "Live With Kelly and Michael," "Jimmy Kimmel Live!" and "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" around the album's release date.
Meanwhile, the music video for "Brave" -- directed by Rashida Jones and starring a bunch of wildly uninhibited dancers beckoning to Bareilles' call of "I wanna see you be brave!" -- has scored 1.1 million YouTube views in less than a month. And after setting up "The Blessed Unrest" with a short headlining run through mid-May, Bareilles will join OneRepublic for a co-headlining tour beginning Aug. 29.
Bareilles says that she's looking forward to playing her new music live, but her favorite part of the album rollout thus far has been the "I Am Brave Enough" campaign, which prompted fans to share their own courageous stories through downloadable postcards that were then posted on Twitter and Instagram.
"There was everything from 'I'm brave enough to fight this brain tumor' to 'I'm brave enough to come out to my conservative family,'" Bareilles says. "To me, it illuminates the fact that people want to be called out to be their best selves, and that resonates with me. I love when I feel challenged to step up to my highest capacity."