When faced with the biggest stages in the music world, fearless frontwoman Sarah Barthel knows exactly how to get her mind right.
There are intense flashes of light and bursts of color as Sarah Barthel triumphantly throws her head back and swaggers in reverse across the stage. The song isn’t over yet – in fact, the instrumental interlude only lasts a matter of seconds – but it doesn’t stop her from relishing the audience’s feverish reaction to “Fall in Love,” one of Phantogram’s most recognizable records. While Barthel would normally be the first to admit that it’s impossible to tell whether you’ll bring down the house on a given night, she knows now that the crowd is in the palm of her hand. She owns this moment.
The performance marks the start of the festival season for Barthel and Phantogram, who will depart the Coachella Valley only to start prepping for the likes of Governors Ball and Lollapalooza. Luckily, if their festival kickoff is any indication, the unit is already in mid-season form.
“This festival sets the tone for the rest of the summer,” says Barthel, hours before she’s due on stage. “It’s a nice starting point for what we have in store for the rest of the festivals. Getting our set list and everything figured out for this show is good because we can gauge how it went and add or take things away.”
Barthel approaches her performances with the cool assurance of an entertainment veteran, so much so that it’s easy to mistake her confidence for some innate ability, rather than a hard-earned skill; like any form of mastery, it took time, focus, and a healthy amount of trial and error for Barthel to hone her pre-show preparation tactics.
It’s a two-hour drive to the Coachella Valley from Los Angeles – if you’re lucky – and for Barthel, it’s the perfect opportunity to start her mental warm-up for the festival. “When I’m traveling to the venue, [I’m] preparing myself for the stage and taking a moment for myself – always appreciating what I do,” she says. “It took me a little bit of time to realize that I needed this moment for myself before we perform. When we first started out, we didn’t have a lot of time for that kind of stuff, and I’ve learned that having that time is just as important as the show.”
Once Barthel arrives at the venue, her preparation intensifies as the clock ticks closer to show time and greater focus is required.
“There is a practice that I’ve adopted to get myself in the zone: I always give myself about an hour of personal time. Even if I can’t get away from everybody, I just put my headphones on and listen to music – kind of inspire myself.” Focusing on the music is only half the battle, however: Barthel admits that her hour of alone time is essential for her nerves, and not for the reason one might expect.
“For this festival, everyone around us is probably giving me more anxiety than I am myself,” she chuckles, explaining that she prefers not to see friends and family before the show and would rather spend that time alone with her band mates. “It’s my job. It’s like having your friends and family come up at your cubicle and tap you on the shoulder. It just messes me up and puts me out of the mode of focusing on the songs and what I need to do. I like to be around my band mates because we’re all really good friends. We kind of feed off of one another and just have fun.”
In addition to her hour of personal time, Barthel has another pre-show ritual that gets her ready to perform: spending time with her dog Leroy. The small and stylishly-dressed Yorkie mix has been accompanying Phantogram on tour for two years (enough time to memorize the set list, according to Barthel), and he’s become a bit of an institution on the road.
“He’s like my therapy dog,” she says. “Being on tour is not easy – you forget about the normal world because you’re in this strange bubble where things can just stress you out, depress you. But when Leroy is in the bubble, everyone’s happy. They can breathe.
“I say he’s my dog but he’s really everybody’s dog. He allows me to let life in and take a step back. He calms us down, mellows the mood out if someone’s in a bad mood or nervous. You just look at him and [you’re] like, ‘Ah, okay. Let’s go play. I can’t wait to come back and hug you.’ He’s very important. He does his part and you don’t realize it.”
Once her hour of peace is over, Barthel is ready to hit the stage running. Armed with hair made for headbanging, heels, and a clear mind, flipping the switch to performance mode comes easy.
“The transformation from ‘Everyday Sarah’ to ‘Sarah On Stage’ happens when I walk on stage, put my ears [ear buds] in and have the songs start. That’s when I switch over and become a different person. I am a pretty goofy human being and I like to laugh and have fun, but the stage becomes just a different experience for me.
“I realized that performing was so cathartic when I finally got comfortable with the stage – when you realize you’re not gonna die, which I think Josh and I did for a few years,” she says. “Once you realize that you’re gonna be okay, and you can focus on yourself, focus on the moment, that’s when I think I realized that I hold this power.”