Sara Bareilles is having a banner year, and we’re barely six months in. Aside from her enduring powerhouse vocals, she recently mastered the role of Mary Magdalene in NBC’s live production of Jesus Christ Superstar and this Sunday night she’ll co-host the Tony Awards, two years after she herself was nominated for Best Original Score for Waitress.
Her artistic sphere may be broadening, but a common thread of self-awareness, compassion and shared human experience run deep through all of Bareilles’ artistic expressions — just a few of the reasons why the Songwriters Hall of Fame will honor her with its Hal David Starlight Award on June 14, a recognition specifically granted to gifted young songwriters.
Let’s start with your songwriting process. What’s that like?
Traditionally for me it has always been a very organic process, sometimes something as simple as sitting down at the piano and placing my hands at random and finding the seed of an idea. And if a song would take too long or take too much reworking, I would lose the thread of where it was headed and would tend to abandon those ideas. And that’s something I have gotten a great education about through working on Waitress, and working on a musical theater project, and that is staying with an idea and being willing to work and rework. That’s been the biggest shift in the last five years. My process has been more assignment-based, which I used to feel was a bit of a contamination of the purity and expression for the sake of expression, but I’ve actually found writing for an assignment has unlocked some interesting stuff for me personally to explore ideas and stay with them.
Yes, you definitely have been adding new roles to your repertoire lately.
It’s an outside-in process, to have the idea first and then you have to get there. There was Waitress, and I’m working on a TV project right now and developing ideas for that. And I did a song for This American Life about President Obama, and that was a really daunting experience but also assignment-based, and it actually one of the things I’ve written I’m the most proud of.
What’s the TV project?
I’m probably not at liberty to say too much but I’m at the beginning stages of developing a TV project that has a music component.
Is this a project that might also bring you in front of the camera?
I don’t know… part of the fun of Waitress and Jesus Christ Superstar was how fun it is to work in a new medium. And how much that reawakens the adolescence in you and how exciting it is to feel challenged and unsure, like I don’t know what I’m doing — but do it any way.
We’d love to share story behind a couple of your songs. You mentioned the song “Seriously,” which you wrote for This American Life. That seems like a great place to start.
I’ve been a fan of This American Life for a very long time and am a huge fan and supporter of Barack Obama and his presidency, so it was a dream scenario. I was really, to be honest, very intimidated and really stuck for a while because I felt like I was out of my league and wanting to be so sensitive about putting words into the mouth of anybody but particularly this body, at such a sensitive time. It was during campaigning, so Trump was just coming to life in front of our eyes and I was sort of living in disbelief, so it felt like a pretty hefty assignment but it was really beautiful to search for the base-level humanity of all of it.
I would comb through speeches and talk to Ira Glass about it and several people in the African-American community who were giving me insight about what it feels like in the moment. The song unfolded looking at this 30,000-foot view of where the fuel on the fire was being poured, and whether or not [Obama] was angry. It ended up coming out really beautifully in no small part because we got Leslie Odom Jr. to sing the song and his interpretation was so incredible. It felt very much like a collaborative process, even though I wrote the song alone it felt very much like a community-organized expression.
How about “Love Song,” the one that started it all?
That was a real savior song for me. I was trying to write for my first record for Epic Records and had been vaguely told to keep writing and waiting for the green light to go into the studio. I found myself tacitly understanding that I was being asked to write a song that could be a single on the radio, and I remember one morning driving to my little rehearsal space, which was this metal storage unit friends and I were sharing. And I was listening the radio and I sort of caught myself red-handed trying to bite off the ideas that were already existing there, and I was really furious with myself that I had fallen into the trap of trying to re-create something instead of following my own intuition.
I went into the space and said a little prayer and was asking for a return to that place in myself that just felt pure and I could say what my songwriter self needed to say and not have any attachment to what the label would like. And, truly, it was like a magic moment where the song tumbled out. It wrote itself as quickly as I’d ever written anything. I was certain no one would like it, and after it eventually got sent in as a demo and my A&R rep called and said, “This is incredible,” I thought he was joking. It turned out to be this wonderful return to myself but also ticking the box of what they needed and then I got the green light to move on and make the record.
Did it feel cathartic to write? It’s such an anthem for so many people.
It’s so funny, because it felt like what I was getting wrong in the writing was it was so specific. But it’s been a great teacher to me because I’ve realized the more specific, the more vulnerable, the more willing you are to share the deepest darkest parts of yourself that you feel are only true to you, the more universal they become because everybody has those sides to themselves that need articulation.
Speaking of articulating, do you feel a heightened desire or responsibility to embrace some of the issues occupying so much of our collective social conscience?
I think I feel what a lot of people are feeling, which is a reawakening of a global consciousness, and an awareness of some of these really just primal themes that have been a part of every artistic expression since the dawn of time. Division and identity and hate and fear and love — all these things that are so alive in our social climate. I want songwriters to speak to that and not pretend they are not a very big part of what our community at large is experiencing. There is this epidemic of depression and anxiety, especially with young people. It’s a vulnerable time anyway, but now more than ever I feel the need to speak to these larger themes and try to parse them out a little bit and at least remind people, You’re not alone in that being a human is really hard, and we’re all trying to figure it out. You’re not alone if you’re confused or you’re fearful or you think you’ve failed in some way. We all end up in those places sometimes.
How important is it to you to write in a distinctly female voice?
In my perfect world there would be a nice balance. Looking through my canon of work I always have felt passionately about the female perspective. Young women are really important to me and giving them a reflection of themselves that is positive is something I’ve spent my whole career hopefully doing because it really matters to me. I want to continue that messaging, but there is a part of me that wants to speak to larger themes that transcend gender. As I’m writing for my next record, I want to go where the energy flows and don’t want anything to limit it.
Do you have a timeframe for your new music?
I’m writing currently and it’s kind of one of those things where you want to press the pedal to the metal, and you don’t know where the car is going to go. I have a handful of songs that I’m proud of but still need some work, and then of course there’s the recording process. But I’m hopeful.