Sara Bareilles didn’t intend to drop “Armor,” her powerful new single and feminist rallying cry, until the last calendar page of 2018 had long since flipped. But current events forced her hand — and not a moment too soon.
“As [artists], we react and respond to the world around us,” she tells Billboard. “I had this song sitting and ready and waiting to go. I was just feeling so much in that moment and really wanted to reflect that musically. It’s the right time for this song to be birthed into the world. I’m really proud of it.”
In recent years, Bareilles has shifted her focus from her solo endeavors to the stages of Broadway: She penned the music for Waitress, which has only cratered in popularity since its 2015 debut; starred as Mary Magdalene in the live TV broadcast of Jesus Christ Superstar Live! last April; and donned a sparkly tux to (hilariously) host the 2018 Tony Awards alongside Josh Groban. But now, Bareilles is going back to her roots — and her seat at the piano — to work out the dismay brought on by the news. She started writing “Armor” shortly following Donald Trump’s ascent to the presidency, but it was the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court that encouraged her to share the song — and reveal that her next album will tread similar political ground in this increasingly unsteady time.
Below, Bareilles unfolds her “Armor” and tells Billboard about the catharsis it gave her, where she wants it to go, and why the song is her first step forward in a new, raw direction she’s eager to explore.
“Armor” is the first song we’ve heard from the forthcoming album — and it’s a jam. Why did you choose this to be the jumping-off point for your new music?
You know, it’s been a really interesting and fertile couple of years for the women’s movement. It’s been something I’ve been thinking a lot about: what it means to be a woman in the world, how you cannot escape the power, the impact of the #MeToo movement, looking at how women are seen and how we’re felt and heard in the world. It had a really big impact on me, looking at my community and whom I draw strength from and the kinds of things I want to be talking about in music right now. This was a song that was meant to wait. We weren’t going to release anything until next year, and I was really moved by the experience of watching the Kavanaugh hearings. This song felt like it wanted to belong to this moment in time.
So to clarify — you were not going to release “Armor” until next year, but then came the Kavanaugh Hearings?
A little bit, yeah.
There are so many stories and gut-wrenching personal accounts that we’ve read and heard in the last year that could have informed “Armor.” When did you write “Armor,” and what was the spark for that particular flame?
The seeds of the song were planted right after the election. Originally, it was going in another direction. When I talk to my friends and community, I think we all are suffering from this sense that the world feels like it’s on fire. I really believe that it’s a bipartisan experience right now. There is so much fear and so much mania right now, and that’s part of what was informing the birth of this song back in the beginning of the Trump administration. As songs do, they change, they evolve, they move into different things. This song then became about my experience as a woman and as an artist and a community member.
It offers catharsis to your listeners — but was it cathartic to write? Did “Armor” help you work through this malaise?
It speaks to something bigger, which is the therapeutic quality of art right now. For me, that’s where I feel and seek purity and truth and authenticity. I think artists are some of the real fearless leaders in that way. What I like about the message of “Armor” is it’s about a community. We give each other what we need to move forward. I put this Maya Angelou quote on my website, but she talks about how a woman has to be tough and tender. I think we don’t have to sacrifice one or the other, but right now it’s time to be activated and galvanized and draw strength from each other — and to fight for what’s right.
Did any artists or songs help forge the path to “Armor” or resonate with you on an inspirational level when you were working on it?
I’m a little bit embarrassed to admit that I haven’t been consuming a ton of new music right now. [Laughs] So much of this next chapter in my life is returning to music in this capacity because I’ve been deep in the theatrical world. I’ve taken so much inspiration from political leaders. I just came from a lunch yesterday with [New York Senator] Kirsten Gillibrand, and her optimism was really infectious. We’re seeing some incredible leaders speak up and gain traction. I came away from yesterday feeling very inspired, but I didn’t draw necessarily from the musical realm in this particular moment. I have a million times throughout my life, but right now what I’m really listening to are leaders in the political field. She’s the real deal. I’m not a bullshitter. I was so moved by what she had to say and the brass-tacks honesty about the reasons to feel hopeful and the work that is to be done. It was really beautiful to be in that room… I think what we don’t need, for “Armor” as well, is hysteria anywhere. That’s not helpful. In terms of the messaging of the song, it’s like, this shit has been around since the dawn of time, you know what I mean? Let’s get our heads straight, link arms and keep marching forward.
This will be your first post-Waitress album, and it’s been such a wonderful thing to watch you thrive in musical theater — with Waitress, but also in Jesus Christ Superstar and at the Tonys this year. How have your theatrical pursuits informed your album?
My time in theater has made me feel more courageous. It’s so ironic coming from a person who has a song called “Brave!” [Laughs] I feel so fortified from my time in the theatrical community. I felt so embraced and so safe and so welcomed to take risks, to be bold, to try new things, so I think I took that with me. In this collaboration with T Bone, that was another environment where it just felt safe to try to push the boundaries. To circle back to theater, it was a beautiful teacher in the lesson of how important collaboration is. I came to this record with a much more collaborative spirit, being less precious about choices, allowing for other peoples’ input and creativity. It was a much more open-minded process for me, personally, and I know I learned that and took that away from Waitress.
You and John Legend got to work really closely together on Jesus Christ Superstar. He’s used his social media presence to raise awareness about voting and other causes he’s passionate about.
Oh, absolutely. I’ve been emotionally inspired, to watch someone be so comfortable with moving gracefully through being a public figurehead and using his platform to really talk about issues he’s genuinely passionate about. He’s a very smart man who is doing what I think the best artists do. They take their time at the microphone to move people to think about real issues. As much as we want to entertain and comfort people, we also want to get you to think and just engage with the experience of being human. I think he does it beautifully. He has been a great friend and collaborator and I adore him.