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Masen - The Dreamlife of Angels Interview
by Steve Stockman
With the release of her new album Dreamlife of Angels due out soon, Sarah Masen spoke to Stocki about art and husbands and babies and, oh aye - the songs!!!!!!!
Stocki - Sarah it's been a while since the last album. You've had time to get married have a baby and then some. What has been going on with the music?
Sarah - March 6th will be the date of the new release The Dreamlife of Angels - a collection of songs that document the years between my last album and now. The opening track is a song I wrote for my wedding, the others involve the expectation of our daughter Dorothy (already 15 months old), life with our new resident alien, difficult times in Kosovo and Rwanda and Croatia and Serbia and Burma. Many of the new songs also try to address some complicated issues that keep coming up in the lives of the ladies in my neck of the woods. I've been writing all along. Two of the songs were written nearly five years ago, songs that didn't make the last album but needed to get out. I wrote a bit with friend and fellow musician Julie Lee on a project that she released in July of last year. It was a joy and privilege to work with her.
Stocki - Would it be fair to say that you struggled a little with the CCM straitjacket?
Sarah - Yes.
Stocki - Is there anything more liberating about the new deal?
Sarah - I hope so, and certainly think so. Word and particularly friend Brent Bourgeois who works at Word as the VP of A & R, approached me with both arms open artistically and somewhat financially. I already had some ideas about how I wanted this record to sound and I had spoken with John Jennings (Mary Chapin-Carpenter's producer and long time guitar player) about producing the album. Brent was very enthusiastic about supporting the ideas already set into motion, and if they pay you for what you want to do...well...who can complain? The publishing was much more humane than my last deal, the other details of the contract were humane enough to sign on, and frankly Word showed a great deal of believable support. making the machine work for me is what I am interested in. There are still people working in the machine, and some of them really love music.
Stocki - Charlie has been a mentor and sidekick on the last two albums. Was it strange without him? How was it working with John Jennings?
Sarah - There were times I wasn't sure about not working with Charlie. There were hard times, but my memory feels fairly glossy when I think about what I learned from Charlie. He is a very hard worker and he encouraged me to go further with my interests and writing and music. I hope we work together again.
John Jennings was very nice to work with. He set a nurturing environment up for the songs to unfold in. Considering the budget we had, he put together a fantastic band that captured some very kind and musically poetic moments. I think this is representative of John's good judgment. John was also insistent on playing around my performance of the songs. This maintained the organic, acoustic, "I wrote these at my house" feeling that the songs represented. I did write these songs at my house. They are mostly about our little community, family here in Nashville, Tennessee.
Stocki - There's been a baby. How has that changed things? I'm thinking more the soul and the art than the sleepless nights!
Sarah - I think Dorothy has saved me from becoming too self absorbed. The care she miraculously and thankfully demands takes me off of my sometimes sulking front porch and into the great wide world of forest and field, sky and sea. a care both practical and redemptive. Along with the immediate care Dorothy demands, she is like a mirror showing me my inmost parts, somewhat like David did when I met him, only more. She has begun to imitate us. An example would be the other day when I scolded Dorothy for tearing a book. "WE DO NOT DO THAT DOROTHY DAY"- brow angular, lips pursed. Dorothy looks at me for a moment, studies, and proceeds to wrinkle her nose, furrow her brow and breathe heavily like an angry ape as if to say, "Is this how I express anger?" Scary and real.
Stocki - Being married to a literary kind of guy. Has David influenced the songs in content or lyric?
Sarah - Yes. David is responsible for the lines: "like a flower you will burst forth smiling even in the valley" and "as it happens light has nowhere else to happen but the valley." David is the sparrow that the gospels say God takes care of without their fretting. I tend to fret while he is in flight.
Stocki - You are a very literary writer. How does it work. A line? A topic? Or 32 lines eventually pasted together?
Sarah - Anything that inspires. Often, from a moment, a movie, a book. People. I get a feeling that I need to write something down and if I do I follow where that intuition leads. Eventually a song comes together. it could start with a few words I heard or a few chords that set a particular mood. Different clothes, same intuition. Faith that there is something there is what's required. Mind you, there are times when you end up with a terrible song. You trust any ways and keep showing up. Sometimes when I don't feel like it.
Stocki - What do you see as the function of songs and art?
Sarah - Music breaks down the thick walls around the heart that words sometimes cannot. Art is telling us who we are and are not. Where we are going and where we are not. There is more but I think I am overwhelmed by the question. Song and art tells us stories without words--a language we are still learning.
Stocki - Why "Give a Little Bit?"
Sarah - David's idea. the lyrics are pretty straight forward kingdom coming in our opinion. I'm sure the movie Magnolia had something to do with it too.
Stocki - Talk us through some of the songs. "Hit N Run?"
Sarah - Compare a hit-n-run accident with our wreck and abandon words of anger or thoughtlessness. there are hit-n-run accidents of the heart and soul we commit daily. I want to be awake to the shouting -loud worth of others so I can cut down on the violence my words can possess. Of course, I want others to do the same for me.
Stocki - "Valley?"
Sarah - All creation is groaning. And it feels like I go back and forth between having a nervous sense of humor about it and wanting to enact violence upon anything moving with a little grace. Both are fairly dysfunctional reactions. In light of the lack of peace on earth, the kingdom feels as though it is in a desperate shadow. but...something is breaking through, like childbirth; the pushing, the patience, the pain and unbelievable breaking through, the colors of the rainbow, the flower blooming, the doors closing, and darkness into light. it is happening. Now. Even while we are in the valley. But we need reminding constantly.
Stocki - "Girl On Fire?"
Sarah - "Girl on Fire" and "She Stumbles..." sum up the hope and the hurt of the dreamlife of angels for me. both songs are stories of women who need to get out of situations of oppression and fear, but fail to recognize quite what¹s happening. "G on F" points out the inevitable deterioration of sanity when a mad kind of control creeps in between a woman and man. Genders could be easily switched, though my own observations have put the fella on the warped 'controller' side, and gals on the twisted 'please him' side. Both are disturbing and something I am personally familiar with. Don't judge.
Stocki - "She Stumbles Through the Door?"
Sarah - "She stumbles...", on the other hand, shows a girl letting go of dysfunction in faith that Hope will meet her half way. Or at least 3/4ths. Heck, she doesn¹t even know that much. She just moves on.
Stocki - The album is very varied stylistically. How do you decide when to rock and when to gently mood?
Sarah - We had a week to lay down our basic tracks. The limitations forced us to trust moments. We played until it felt good and real. Then we pushed record. Very simply put, we tried to serve the songs the way we heard them collectively.
Stocki - What is your vision for balancing the art of the new album and the commerce?
Sarah - My hope is to make myself available to talk about whatever it is the business doesn't get about the album, be it artistically or how it will sell in a marketing plan. The only chance I feel like I have is to beat everyone to the questions by providing them with explanations and directions on how to sell and place the music. I can¹t tell people how to listen to it or what to feel about it, but I want to make myself available anyway.
Stocki - What would you like the listener to gain?
Sarah - Hope, health, grace, and lives without anti-depressants.
Stocki - What 5 songs do you wish you'd written?