The sky is dark, wrapped around the UVA Chapel, and the wind feels fit to bring down trees. Well below the deep brown, barrel-vaulted ceiling, Sarah White and the Pearls (www.myspace.com/sarahwhitepearls) are setting up to play a gig. It’s a Sunday night in November. The show was scheduled for 8pm, but that’s about when Sarah and two other bands (from out of state) begin getting ready. No one else is here. Sarah gets rid of the drum stool and pulls up two wooden thrones for Matthew Clark, the drummer, and Jeff Grosfeld, who plays bass, to sit in. Behind her a long row of votive candles flickers under a huge stained glass Jesus. The band plays a sound check that echoes inside the mostly empty room. Where she is, in the knave of the chapel usually reserved for the preacher, the music sounds perfect. The room is a stunning, if odd, setting for a rock show. Her great-grandpa was a minister, and it occurs to Sarah that she feels at home in a church. She’s wearing a black dress tonight because she wanted to dress up a bit, this being a chapel. She stands in her lucky Italian boots that she almost always wears when she performs, and stares out at the sea of hard pews on the wine-dark carpet, and then up at the stained glass windows above the arched, double doors. Counting members of other bands, there are maybe 18 people in the audience. The promotion was left up to the event organizers, and her usual Teahouse and Atomic Burrito regulars must not have heard about the show because they are absent.
Nine years ago, Sarah White opened for her childhood idols Hall & Oates at the Filmore in San Francisco. Almost immediately afterward, she backed off from her musical career to attend graduate school. With her third CD just released, she reflects on the zig-zaggy career. "I’ve always been doing this," she declares. "It’s just that now it’s working."
It’s always something.
She can’t hear what the music will sound like out there, but as she steps up to the microphone and opens her mouth to sing, Sarah White is certain that it will be heavenly.
Nine years earlier, Sarah stood onstage in front of almost 70 times as many people, at a sold-out show at the Fillmore Auditorium in San Francisco. She was wearing a black miniskirt, a black sweater, and her favorite black boots, alone with an acoustic guitar and her steely calm. She was the opening act for Hall & Oates. Five days before, sitting at the law firm where she worked at the time, she hadn’t been so calm when the call came saying that Bill Graham Presents needed an opener for the upcoming Hall & Oates concert. Did she want to do it? “Hold on a minute,” she said. She walked into the bathroom and fought the urge to throw up.
The age of reason
“Joyful poignancy” is how Sarah White describes the emotions in her music, now in Charlottesville a few days after the chapel concert sitting slightly hunched over opposite me in a booth, sipping Diet Coke through a straw and picking at a basket of fries with fingernails polished a sparkly purplish brown. Sarah is possessed of a lot of raw talent, and throughout her life there have been people, like her family, friends and fellow musicians, who have recognized that talent, and helped further it along. Yet she herself has at times seemed to have no clue what to do with it. “Everything before now,” she says, as she prepares to release her third album in nine years—prepares for what seems to me like a third attempt at a career in music—“Everything before now is the zig-zaggy lines of figuring out what works, of living.”
I sip acidic coffee while she tries to explain what from the outside looks like a hesitant and broken path. “I’ve always been doing this,” she says, eyelids slung low and gaze steady. She hasn’t stopped playing music since she was 16, she tells me, except for three years when she was in love. “I’ve always been doing this,” she declares, “it’s just that now it’s working.”
White practices with The Pearls (Matthew Clark on drums and Jeff Grosfeld on bass). How does she classify her music? "Well, I write songs and then I play them, and that’s what they sound like."
The tattoo nestled in the crook of her left arm is a redwing blackbird. When she was 3 years old, her family moved from Warrenton to Sink’s Grove, West Virginia, where they lived until Sarah was 12, on the 110-acre Redwing Farm, at the foot of Flat Mountain. She grew up surrounded by music; listening to the songs her father wrote, her mother’s Janis Joplin records, and the bluegrass and country played by local musicians like Tex McGuire, who played with Bob Wills in the ’30s and ’40s. Her father had no formal musical training, but still he taught Sarah her first chords on his guitar and instilled in her a love of old time and bluegrass music. “Put a drum behind old time and you get punk,” Sarah is fond of saying.
Sarah won’t tell me how old she is. I ask her the first time we sit down to talk, and the second time, and in several e-mails. She plays coy. “I have had people ask me how old I am before they listen to my music,” she says, “I’m like ‘fuck off.’”
“Right,” I respond. “So, how old are you?”
In an e-mail she tells me that she was raised to never ask people their religion (I asked her that), how much money they made (forgot to ask that) and how old they were. “I’m trying to figure out why it’s relevant,” she says. I explain that people will want to know. That knowing someone’s age changes how you think about what they’ve done. It tells you where they are in their life. Plus, I don’t want people to think I just forgot to ask. “You are so FRICKIN reasonable!!!!” she writes back.
“Now I feel creepy that I’m being weird about it.”
“It’s really not a big deal,” I say, even though I really want to know and it’s becoming a big deal.
“Sliding into middle age,” she says, her sunglasses pushed up on top of her dyed red hair, rattling the ice cubes around with her straw. “It’s kind of depressing.”
One day, when Sarah was 5 or 6 (no one can remember precisely) her parents came home and found her and her sister sobbing in a big yellow chair, listening to a Dolly Parton album. The album was 1973’s My Tennessee Mountain Home, Dolly’s much-loved set of songs about leaving the place where she was born. The album begins with Dolly reading the letter she wrote to her parents when she first left Sevierville, Tennessee, and its themes of home and homesickness struck a chord with the young Sarah. She still has that record. In 1995 Sarah got her redwing blackbird tattoo in Seattle, and it’s a permanent reminder of where her music comes from.
Sarah’s family moved to Charlottesville in 1983. At Tandem she played music with classmate Steve Ingham, writing poems that became songs and playing a guitar she got when she turned 16. After high school came UVA and a degree in English and creative writing and, after that, a job at Miller’s, where she learned to make damn fine apple pie (it’s all about the crust). Thus began what she thinks of as The Age of Discovery. After playing at Eastern Standard and Fellini’s with what seemed like every musician in Charlottesville, she went electric with the rock band Miracle Penny. But when Miracle Penny broke up, she found herself with a seemingly useless degree and no clear idea of what she wanted to do with her life. Her best friend was living in San Francisco, so she grabbed her guitar and went, too.
In her house in Belmont, Sarah keeps a Sony tape player loaded and ready so that when inspiration strikes all she has to do is press Record and sing. Many nights find her sitting by the wood stove playing into the tape deck, bits of lyrics, melodies and songs. Sometimes fully formed songs come to her in her dreams, and then she has to jump out of bed and get them down on tape. The house is full of tapes—100, 150—some half-started, others full. They are meticulously labeled, with songs she wants to return to circled, and tiny notes about what she liked written in the margins. She listens to them on her Walkman as she walks to and from her job at ExploreLearning, and sometimes she listens to them at work, trying to sort out the various scraps and sounds. Sometimes she writes songs as she walks.
In 1997, Sarah White’s first album was released. All My Skies Are Blue is made up of songs recorded on a handheld tape recorder and a four-track in the two years before she moved to San Francisco. All of the music of her childhood and teenage years is buried in the rough, lo-fi murk of the album. There’s an intimacy and loneliness in listening to what amounts to a musical diary—the sound of the Record button being pressed, the hiss of tape and one person playing multiple instruments on the sometimes spontaneous songs. She prefers this kind of homemade music, how private it is and how real. The first five songs are loud and fast and mostly electric, but after that the album slows down and becomes acoustic, sounding at times as though she was playing in her bedroom at 3am after drinking a bottle of NyQuil. The last words on the album are “I am crying” before it cuts off abruptly into silence. Sarah sent the songs to then Charlottesville-based indie label Jagjaguwar (www.jagjaguwar.com), and it became the label’s third release. Less than two weeks after the album came out, she was onstage at the Fillmore opening for Hall & Oates.
When she was a child in West Virginia, Sarah and her good friend Tami would have died for Hall & Oates. Their mothers drove them three hours over three mountains (Potts, Peter’s and Catawba) to Roanoke to see their first concert: Darryl Hall and John Oates at the Roanoke Civic Center, opening for Electric Light Orchestra. The girls had every album and the t-shirts and saw Hall & Oates again in 1981 when they headlined the Private Eyes tour. Fifteen years later, it is Tami who is living in San Francisco and working for Bill Graham Presents, the promotion company that books the Fillmore. “Sadie, sit down,” Tami says over the phone. “Do you want to open for Hall & Oates?”
Coming full circle, Sarah told that story of her childhood love for Hall & Oates to the crowd at the Fillmore. John Oates watched her set, as did some old friends from West Virginia, who just happened to be in town. She could see their eyes and their faces beaming up at her from the front row as she played. When she finished her set and had walked backstage, an earthquake shook the whole building. It was one of those weird experiences when it feels like the surface of Earth is sliding, drifting back and forth as if bobbing in water. Walking down the street after the show and the earthquake, someone yelled, “Hey, there’s Sarah White!” Sarah and Tami laughed about that for weeks. Sarah didn’t play in public again for three years.
Bringin’ it all back home
A recurring theme when I talk to Sarah about her musical career is that she’s never been terribly sure that she had one. “I’ve always had a job,” she tells me, “so I’ve never been the kind of person or the kind of musician that’s been like ‘O.K., let me go sleep in my car and tour around and go play everywhere for 30 days and 30 nights.’” She’s always been “a nine-to-fiver,” always had bills to pay and rent to worry about. “You know, sometimes life just happens and I just ended up working.”
“No one is conditioned for coming undone, but it’s fine…” Sarah sings in “Acres For Us.” Your 20s can be a sloppy time. You’re not yet sure just what it is you’re capable of. You don’t know who you are. Sarah felt as if she were stabbing at the wind, trying to figure it all out during that decade. She kept playing music, but only for herself. A fear of not making rent as well as a serious romance kept her from committing to her music fully. She worked at a private detective agency, writing up reports on fraudulent insurance claims, a job she found sleazy and disturbing. Music, however, was still all around her. The Age of Discovery continued, as she saw countless great acts play live. She met indie rock goddess Cat Power, who stayed at her house and played with her cat, Jimmy, who could fetch like a dog. She went backstage at the Fillmore to meet Johnny Cash, feeling, as she shook the tall man’s hand, that she was meant to be there.
The romance ended and Sarah had an epiphany. She was done with California. She wanted to return to the East. She applied to grad schools, for creative writing, for history, for pastry making, anything to get out of where she was. In one of the perfect accidental twists that seem to guide her life, it was just at that moment that she heard from the record label again.
“I didn’t think that you would ever own me,” she sings, her voice filled with an aching hardness. The songs incubated in San Francisco, songs never meant to be played for anyone, became her second album, Bluebird, released in 2000. “There’s a thousand ways a girl can fall,” she sings, as if she’d tried every one. The album got good reviews in alternative publications like the New York Press, where Paul Lukas wrote “the arrangements are so spare that they almost sound naked—there’s never a wasted note…[Sarah White sings] as if she’s not quite looking you in the eyes.” And it did well in Europe (No. 1 in Belgium?!?). Other people, it seemed, could see her talent better than she could. “Now you’ve got to tour,” they said. “You’ve got to make t-shirts, you’ve got to get your numbers up, you’ve got to play this venue.” But she didn’t know what she should do. The record came out and she entered the graduate program in American Studies at UVA.
“Now the fall has come,” she sings in “Trees Fall Down,” “you might see the sun, if you fall just right.” On September 11, 2001, clutching a master’s degree but no job, Sarah dealt with the sadness she felt after the terrorist attacks by holing up in her room trying to learn every Carter Family song (she stayed in there for about a month). Although she didn’t master them all, something about the traditional, gut-wrenching country music of the Carter Family resonated with her. In the hours after 9/11, as the world tied up the New York phone lines, the song “No Telephone In Heaven” about a child trying to call his dead mother seemed especially poignant. She still plays that song today.
While in graduate school she took a trip to the Carter Family’s ancestral home, a trip that echoed the themes of the Dolly Parton album that had brought her to tears as a child. “All of a sudden after going to school,” she says to me, “you can’t really go back to being where you didn’t know what you know now.” The trip was a symbolic search for her roots, both geographically and musically. The physical place where she grew up is important to her. She likes to own it, she tells me, to feel like, as she drives away from Charlottesville back towards Sink’s Grove, that the mountains belong to her.
Listen without prejudice
What started as a one-off show for a WTJU benefit in 2003 became Sarah White and The Pearls. Reunited with old friends Steve Ingham (who would later move to Italy) and Jeff Grosfeld, Sarah felt by 2004 that the band was a serious thing. That year they met Eli Simon, who offered to record some songs at his studio. They recorded and self-released an EP, You’re It, but by the time the EP came out, more songs had piled up. The band saved up money and went into the studio with Esmont producer Roderick Coles to work on a full-length album.
It’s not discernible immediately, but it turns out Sarah White is a perfectionist.
The basic tracks were laid down in three days. For a year after that, Sarah worked on the vocals, the arrangements and finding extra musicians to play pedal steel, fiddle and cornet. The songs started out as music Sarah had heard in her head and often laid down as four-track recordings before they were brought to the band. There were setbacks and hold-ups in true Sarah White fashion.
It’s always something.
Things take time.
But as much as she sweated over how long it took to get it right, there is nothing on the album now that she doesn’t like. It’s not discernible immediately, but Sarah White is a perfectionist.
White Light, the first full-length album by Sarah White and the Pearls was officially released on Antenna Farm Records (www.antennafarmrecords.com) last month (she will play a CD release party later this month in the gallery space at Starr Hill). The album is more confident and fully formed than Sarah’s previous albums. It is the sound of a songwriter stepping assuredly into her talents—with a band. It’s an album both spare and powerful, effortlessly and organically combining the forcefulness of rock and the soul of country. At the sonic center of the album is Sarah’s voice, the newly mature, edge-of-tears, catch-in-the-throat, flat-out heartbreaking voice.
Sarah’s house has brown wood floors and brown wood walls and is filled with antiques, odd knick-knacks, paintings and old photos. On a small set of shelves, she has a collection of fossils, arrowheads and a dog bone she found in Pompeii. At her kitchen table we discuss the problem of classification. Sarah does not have an answer to the question “What kind of music do you play?”
“Well,” she sometimes replies, “ I write songs and then I play them, and that’s what they sound like.”
It would be better, she feels, if she could just avoid the genre problem altogether. From the outside, the labels are pretty easy to apply. Singer-songwriter. Alt-country chanteuse. These are not inaccurate. But from the inside, they sound out of tune and slightly discordant. Sarah’s music (as I believe is the case with most talented artists) is defined by everything in her life that has led up to now—all of the tears, weird coincidences and homeward journeys that have laid themselves down to pave her road. For at least 20 years, and maybe more, her life has been defined by music, and her music defined by life.
At the table, as I sip wine and she drinks Diet Coke, Sarah challenges me to come up with a good label to apply to Sarah White and the Pearls. I begin to offer an academic exegesis on the meaning of “alternative country,” but it falls flat. I joke and tell her that I’ll just call her “emo,” but to her credit she doesn’t know what that means. Finally I say nothing. When people ask her what her music sounds like, the best answer Sarah can give is “Come see it. You’ll probably like it.”
Cut back to the University Chapel as Sarah White steps up to the microphone to sing, her face half in the dark and half in the light, eyes almost closed in the almost empty stone building.
“I’m fully committed to this right now,” she tells me in a conversation weeks later. “I’ve got, like, 20 other songs that I haven’t recorded that are ready to go…I don’t know if it’s the stars right now or whatever, but when it rains it pours and when it’s happening don’t fight it.”
The band plays the finger-pointing, rock ‘n’ roll challenge of “Fightin’ Words,” and as Sarah stares out over the pews at the girl twirling circles by the door of the chapel, she wonders where all of the music lovers are. What can they be doing tonight?
“It’s a fine line,” she convinces herself, “like do I want to say it’s the only thing I want in my life, because if I don’t get it, if I…I don’t want to jump off a cliff.”
Sometimes fully formed songs come to White in her dreams. She jumps out of bed to get them on tape. At this point she lives with about 150 tapes of musical ideas.
Small crowds don’t bother her; Sarah’s used to it. She’s used to cigarette smoke crawling into her throat from the bar, and drunken buffoons talking loudly behind her. She’s used to waiting around all night to collect the money, used to playing for cheese fries at 2 in the morning. But tonight, at the chapel, she feels sorry that more people aren’t here, because the show seems to be one of those special ones.
“I think [my music] comes from somewhere else and I think if you’re an open source, or an open channel, or whatever…”
“You’re a conduit.”
“Yeah, but I could be a conduit for shit.”
The sound fills the huge, sacred space, the taut snare drum and the menacing beauty of the guitar bouncing clear and loud off of the wooden beams. The air is filled with the soft shadows and buttery light of the candles. Sarah White wishes more people were here. But from where she’s standing, does it really matter? The music sounds like heaven.