By Larry May
Talent is a subjective term. While most like to believe that talent resides within each of us, it is usually up to strangers to decide if our attempts are attention worthy or ephemeral dreaming. There is a school of thought that acclaim is earned through hard work, persistence and some God given talent. Such is the case with Nashville’s Sarah Siskind. She has been writing since she was eleven, and recorded her first album at fourteen. Her parents weaned her on a palate of bluegrass and an esoteric record collection that included traditional gospel and Celtic music. She has had songs recorded by Randy Travis and more famously, by Alison Krauss. Krauss’ version of “Simple Love”, garnered a Grammy nomination. Sarah plays piano and guitar, and wrote and co-produced every song on her new record, “Say It Louder”. The CD is full of songs of personal strife and spiritual guidance that both sooth and transport with each listen. Siskind brings those elements home to a space as peaceful as the squeaky glider on your grandparent’s porch.
Her new album will hit store shelves on May 26, and should continue to attract new listeners through the year. The Americana acolytes will champion this album early, as well they should. But these songs deserve a place on traditional country charts and pop radio stations, and will undoubtedly earn a slot on numerous end of the year critic’s favorite album lists. That is not to say that the more casual fan won’t appreciate an album like this, in fact, they are the ones who need this record more than others. “Say It Louder” is an album that will sound as good on a sorority girl’s stereo as it does on a hipster’s computer. It is an album for everybody, and that is exactly who should hear it.
II. How would you characterize yourself as a girl during your childhood in North Carolina?
SS. I wasn’t painfully shy. I was a bit of a girly girl. But I was also into sports. At age ten, I played soccer. But I wasn’t really outgoing, or overly shy. In school, English was my best subject. It was what I was most interested in, therefore it was the one I made the best grades in.
II. When you finished high school, did you give college a try?
SS. I went for one semester of college, just to try it out. I knew I wanted to play music for a living, and be a songwriter and make records. I was home schooled in high school. I graduated a year before the rest of my class so I decided to audit a semester of college at UNCG. It was fun, but it wasn’t for me.
II. Did your parents conduct the home schooling?
SS. My mom did the majority, along with a couple of other people for some subjects.
II. Was music part of the curriculum?
SS. I played so much any way, it was just me and my music. There was no need to have music built in, because I played everyday for hours. One of the things involved with my home schooling was getting a job playing at the food court at our local mall in the afternoons. I used that money to buy recording equipment and a keyboard. She didn’t have to include it in my studies because I was already so interested.
II. Are your parents musically talented?
SS. They are. They were professional bluegrass musicians in the ‘70s. They still play to this day. I played on the radio this morning with my dad and his band. I sat in with them and played guitar and sang harmonies.
II. What kind of records did they play around the house while you were growing up?
SS. My dad is an avid record collector, and I heard everything from gospel to jazz to modern jazz to traditional Appalachian folk music. He also had some singer songwriters, and Celtic music. He has a knack for finding weird things like solo Hawaiian ukulele players. There was a lot of Middle Eastern stuff.
II. You mentioned gospel music. Did you play much in church while growing up?
SS. I did play a lot at my church, but I always played original music. I was also in a lot of children’s choruses when I was young. It was at after school programs.
II. When you left North Carolina, where did you go to get started?
SS. I took a little bit of time to just go be a teenager. I moved to Seattle with some friends when I was eighteen. I needed a change. I went there with the intention of being a musician. I was there for two years and realized it wasn’t a good fit. I wanted to be part of a large collection of songwriters, and that’s how I ended up in Nashville. The neat thing is that at the same time I decided to move to Nashville, my parents also moved here. So now my whole family, including my brother, his wife and two children all live here within a mile and a half of each other. That was eleven years ago.
II. How did you get your songs recorded by Alison Krauss?
SS. I met her through a mutual friend, another songwriter named Julie Lee, who had hired my dad to play fiddle on her album. He told her about me and she came to see me play. She really felt connected to my music and we went to have coffee two mornings later. We became instant friends and she asked me if I had ever played my music for Alison. I told her no, I hadn’t met her. She asked me for a CD to pass on to her, and that is how Alison found “Goodbye Is All We Have”. We kept in touch over the years. I try to keep her up to date on my songs, and that‘s how she came to record “Simple Love”. She had heard me sing “Simple Love” at a birthday party with my parents. I have to give all the credit to Julie for passing on my music to Alison.
II. Is there a central theme for your new record?
SS. They’re all very personal. But there is a full range of subjects.
II. How did something like “Dress Me Up” come about?
SS. That is a very spiritual song for me. It’s a prayer for me, and it’s about some really hard times I went through. I realized that even when you are really happy about your relationships, each one carries some hardship that must be dealt with. I wrote that when I was going through it and asking for grace and forgiveness.
II. How about “One Step Closer”. Is that also a religious song?
SS. When I wrote that song, I wasn’t intending that. But I have had people ask that. That’s the thing about songwriting, you can tell your story and other people can interpret it how they hear it. And I’m okay with that.
II. I imagine you met Jerry Douglas through Alison Krauss. He plays on the album and sounds great.
SS. I’ve known him for a number of years. He was talking to my engineer, Jason Lehning on the phone and asked him what he was working on. He told him he was working with Sarah Siskind. Jerry offered to play on it. That was amazing to hear Jason call me and tell me “Jerry Douglas wants to play on your record”. That’s huge for me because I was a huge fan of his when I was a teenager. I actually discovered Jerry before I discovered Alison.
II. How did you hook up with Bon Iver?
SS. I made a record in 2002 called “Covered”, which is not a covers record. Bill Frisell played on that record. Justin, their bandleader, is a big Bill Frisell fan and researched that he had played on it. He didn’t know who I was, but he was a big Bill fan and wants everything that Bill plays on. He bought that record and the one after it, and followed my career. The last one had “Loving’s For Fools” on it and Justin started covering it in his live shows. Someone saw a Youtube video of him covering it and forwarded it to me. I actually got in touch with him, and I knew he was coming to play in Nashville. I was so honored that he played the song, and I wanted to meet him. I sat in with them when they played my song and we’ve been great friends ever since.
II. You obviously have a gift for writing. Do you write other things beside music?
SS. I started a fiction novel when I was very sick with pneumonia seven or years ago. I was in bed for weeks, and I started writing. That really interested me. I also write poetry, but it doesn’t usually go that far, because I want to put it to music. I love developing plots, so it wouldn’t be too far fetched that I would put together a screenplay. But I really would like to finish that book.
II. Your record is coming out. What’s your mood?
SS. I’m really excited. I feel a little like I’m having a child, even though I don’t know what that is like. It’s something I’ve been carrying around for a while. I’m ready to share it with people who haven’t been involved with it.