|An Interview With Sarah
The summer was almost over, but Sarah Masen's 32-city solo tour was just beginning when we caught up with her in Chicago. With an acoustic guitar, she was crossing the country, performing in bookstores, secular and Christian, to promote her self-titled second album. Sarah is young, only 20, but already has a lot to share about her faith, her art, and her ministry. The conversation started out with a brief discussion of The Phantom Tollbooth and the rec.music.christian (r.m.c.) newsgroup.
Linda - You are big in the newsgroup, I must tell you. All the guys are in love with you.
Sarah - Oh, gosh! If they only knew me outside of the spotlight, that might look a little different.
Linda - You'll probably run into some more fans from r.m.c as you travel around the country.
Sarah - I'm just getting into e-mail; I'm way behind.
Linda - Oh, no. You're right on target, really. You've been writing!
Sarah - Yeah, I've been writing, handwriting, so...
Linda - Sometimes that's best for poetry... You're a lit major at school?
Sarah - I've had to drop out of school for right now, so I could do this work. I'm very nervous about it because I can't see the future, but I think it's something that God wants me to do. I had a full scholarship, so I felt a great obligation to not quit school - like maybe God wants me to stay there. But God is so much bigger than even scholarships and those kind of things, and I can always go back. And I will. I really enjoy school very much.
Linda - It sounds like you're pretty realistic about this, that you're not going to be rich and famous forever?
Sarah - I'm learning so much about the nature of fame, the nature of the spotlight, and what the music does to you. It has to do with longevity. It's not a very lengthy career, usually. It can be, but I don't know how long it will last. I'm definitely not assuming that I can pursue it forever, only because I don't have the background; I don't have the skills that I think you should have if you're going to pursue it professionally. I couldn't teach music if I wasn't playing and performing. Maybe I could get schooling now that it's started, but I'm not equipped right now.
Linda - Do you think being with Charlie (Peacock, president of re:think records) has helped shape that perspective?
Sarah - If it wasn't for Charlie, I don't think that I would be involved in music to this degree. It is too unrealistic. Not until he made it clear to me that I don't have to do it the way that I've seen it done. Not to say that everyone's done it wrong, but the little that I have seen and heard was unattractive to me, so I didn't really plan on doing that. But Charlie presented me with a vision that was fine artistically and spiritually. So I thought, 'OK, I'll try this!" Charlie is very much who he says he is. There are no bones to pick about it. He's a man of integrity and a man who loves beauty, art, and truth. I very much agree with that, and his philosophy matches what actually happens.
Linda - And you can learn from his unpleasant experiences.
Sarah - Right! Yeah. Many people have been very helpful. Jeff Johnson was the producer of my first album, The Holding. He has been a big help to me as far as keeping my eyes open to the points I need to be thinking about.
Linda - I was wondering how you met up with those two; Derri Daugherty and Jeff Johnson don't usually produce independent releases.
Sarah - We actually called Jeff. On the back of Jeff's CD, there was a number. Not to say that people should do this, but a fella who was encouraging me to write called him up to say, 'Look. We respect your art, we would like some advice from you.' Advice blossomed into Jeff actually producing it and also a really great friendship. Jeff is such a great fella, a very big encouragement, and even mentor--a friend to me in a lot of ways that he might be oblivious to, but that's how that kind of happened. He had always wanted to work with Derri so we brought him into the project. I ended up developing a really great relationship with Derri and his wife, too.
Linda - So you were the project that brought those two together?
Sarah - Uhm, production wise. They were already together, but yeah, as far as them working together.
Linda - You've moved. You're not in Detroit anymore.
Sarah - I'm in Nashville now.
Linda - How is that for you, leaving home?
Sarah - Uhm, it's a good thing, I think, for right now. I'm definitely growing in ways I wouldn't have otherwise, but I don't think it's necessarily something I had to do. It's something I chose to do. I miss my family very much. We're a very close family. I want to experience so much of life, but sometimes I'll put myself through even bad things thinking that, 'OK, I'm getting experience of life,' which is silly.
Linda - Do you run into a lot of women in the business? Are they out there?
Sarah - Oh, yes! Actually, yeah, very much so. There are a lot of women in the music business. But as far as producing actual music, even musicians, there aren't a lot of women doing that. I don't know why that is. I'd like to find out. Is it something about how we're made, or is it that no woman has done it yet? I know that Ani DiFranco has her own label. I know that there are women who have done some production. I think Amy Grant has co-produced some albums, but I'm curious to find out why it is you don't often go into a control room and see a woman working.
Linda - You are just one of a number of women that are singing now. There're a lot of groups like Sixpence None The Richer and Velour 100 with female leads.
Sarah - Yes, but still the songs are all written by men. There are a lot of women writers, people like Sarah Jahn. She's wonderful. She's writing her own music, I believe, not that it's bad if a woman doesn't write her own music. It's for some people, but it's not for everybody. It would be great to see women out there. Cindy Morgan wrote her own album which is greatóreally good stuff.
Linda - Victoria Williams?
Sarah - Yes! And Julie Miller writes wonderful music, Emmylou Harris, Nancy Griffith. Maybe it's in the Christian market that you don't see much of it. People make a big deal out of me writing the music, 'Oh! She must be really smart. She loves books, and she writes!' There are a lot of people who do this, and no, I'm not really a genius. But it's sort of a shock to the Christian music system, I think, because it's not normal. They're used to having women who have nice voices but who don't necessarily write their own music, which is fine. It's not necessarily a bad thing, but when somebody does come along and they write music, it's just different. That's a shock. And then the comments that are made like, 'Oh, gosh! She must be very well read,' and making a bigger deal about it. No, not necessarily. People who don't write music probably are very well read, too. I kind of chuckle when it's made into a big deal. You don't see that with male writers.
Linda - What are your expectations for your audience? What do you hope they will take away from hearing you?
Sarah - Well, I don't really have expectations for my audience because there's an element of Spirit that I can't create in the music that affects different people in different ways. Musically, I hope that they have a pleasant experience with my music. That's about as specific as I can get because different people are going to grab onto different things. I hope that they're grabbing on to something, at least.
Linda - And you're giving them several different avenues?
Sarah - Exactly. I try not to look at my music as a utilitarian effort. It's art. It's hopefully very beautiful, hopefully true, and if it's ugly, it's true. Those kinds of beauty. I do hope that I make a connection with them on the human experience--relationally between the artist and the audience. I hope that I'm communicating relevantly to my culture at large. I hope that I'm not too disconnected from them, but I'm serving my audience as maybe a businessman would serve his company.
I think it is very significant to explore the role of the artist--the artist's impact on culture and how the artist can be a significant voice to society, especially an artist who claims to know truth. We should be reflecting on that truth, hopefully challenging people to think about art, the culture at large, and the issues that might bring us closer to community, closer to truth, and closer to understanding what we're about.
Linda - You said yesterday that you want to close the gap between an audience and an artist; you want to be as human as possible.
Sarah - Right. To communicate what's happening with society.
Linda - You happen to be up on stage, but you're not any better than anyone else in the audience?
Sarah - Right, but you shouldn't deny the fact that people are listening to you, and perhaps you do have something to say in gentleness and in humility. If you do claim to have the truth, you need to speak the truth in humility. Otherwise, it's not heard, or you can't be honest.
Linda - Do you think you would still be an artist if you weren't a Christian?
Sarah - Oh, yeah. I definitely would be. The only thing that's changed is my art has direction, a foundation, and an understanding of it's origins/identity which is very important. I know I would still be an artist.
Linda - Who is Veronica? (Title of encore song.)
Sarah - That's a song by Elvis Costello. He wrote it for his grandma. It's commenting on how elderly people are pushed aside. It's ironic that as you get older, you become more like a child as you begin to become frail again and in need of other people to take care of you, but we should not forget the fact that there are years and years of experience behind these eyes.
Linda - What was that last song? Was that from The Holding, your first release?
Sarah - No, that's a new song I wrote called "Rain." It's about life when it gives you a swift kick in the butt. You just can't give up. It's easy to do that, and yet I come from a world view that believes that the god who's in control of everything is good. He doesn't put bad things on us for our discomfort, for punishment, but because he loves us. Because it's for a good we might not even be able to see. It's just so hard to believe that, so it's a song about admitting that the rain is hard; it's awful, it keeps us inside and wrecks our best dresses, but it smoothes the cracks. That's the imagery I see.
Linda - With everything else that is going on, do you still get some creative time?
Sarah - Yeah, I do. I haven't written in a couple days, but I try to write a little bit every week. Sometimes I'll write everyday, sometimes I won't write for maybe a week or two. I try not to go too long without picking it up.
Linda - So where do you go from here? What about tomorrow?
Sarah - Seattle!
Linda - Seattle. I hope you're flying.
Sarah - I am. I'm not happy about flying, but... Please pray.
Linda - Do you like to travel?
Sarah - I love to travel, but I don't like to fly. I'm trying to work on it. I'm trying to psych myself out, so that I'm thinking good thoughts. I just get so nervous. It's really very silly, you know; it just shows me how much of a hypocrite I am. I believe in God and that he's in control, and yet I fear for my life when I'm in an airplane. I think this is a great picture of how frail I am, silly girl I am.
Frail indeed. Working with top names in the alternative Christian music scene, she has expressed herself very well through two releases. In her weakness, she is strong indeed.
By Linda Thompson Stonehocker