Bright Lights and Cityscapes

As I write the last entry for Once Upon Another Time I’ve come to this conclusion: The over-arching theme of the entire E.P. is trust.

Song one, the title track, Once Upon Another Time was all about realizing you can trust in yourself. Stay promotes trusting in the moment. Lie To Me is all about trusting your instincts. Sweet As Whole celebrates the mental release that is the result of trusting in letting go about what others think. The trust from the finale song Bright Lights and Cityscapes comes from the idea that through friendship love will find a way.

Hollywood movies and television sitcoms have plenty of examples of the opposite sex best friend syndrome. When Harry Met Sally and Friends, Ross and Rachel being some of the most notable. Sarah’s heroine watches her best friend make repeated bad decisions in love. Despite her disapproval, she supports the friend, stands by them, encourages them, comforts them. She compares his dysfunctional lover to the city’s bright lights with the shiny objects that can distract one from the moment. All the while Sara’s heroine is wishing for him to notice her. It’s a painful emotional roller coaster of emotions. For she is the one true love. She would need no second chance because relationship failure is not to be if they would be together. She just needs him to come around and see that she has been standing beside him the entire time.

On a side note: Bright Lights and Cityscapes was the encore song on her 2014 Little Black Dress Tour. She sang this a capella with three other women tight around one microphone. It’s stunning in its simplicity, and the heartbreaking nature of the words were amplified. In case you didn’t get to experience it live it’s on YouTube and can be viewed below.

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Sweet As Whole

To date, this is the most bizarre song in Sara’s entire collection.

If you’ve ever seen Sara in concert you know she has no problem dropping the f-bomb. The juxtaposition of her sweet demure exterior, Catholic upbringing, beautiful voice and smile with a self-deprecating personality and raunchy potty mouth is rather fun to experience. Sweet As Whole is Dr. Demento after dark and a song I listen to when I need a good laugh. In the lyrics Sara takes everything you’ve always want to say to someone, and says it with a Richard Pryor filter.

A confident personality, realizing self worth and not taking someone’s shit are consistent themes in sara’s lyrics. Another common theme is passive aggressive communication laced with severe bitchiness. In several songs Sara masks dark topics with happy and bright compositions. In Sweet As Whole (Punny for Sweet Asshole) she abandons all the passive aggressive pleasantries and gets right to the point.

That guy’s an asshole.
That girl’s a bitch.

I would guess that her time on tour with Ben Folds has given her the confidence to write, and record a good a old cuss and pirate song like this. Ben Folds is no stranger to a “explicit” label on the songs he writes. Army, Rocking’ the Suburbs, or his cover of the Dr. Dre Bitches Ain’t Shit are just a few. Ben Folds is even singing vocals on the chorus with Sara, and the end of the song gets a bit silly. It’s not to hard to image them all huddled around the baby grand piano with frosty mugs filled with some hoppy IPA all swaying and rocking as they sing. The fact that Sweet As Whole resides on the e.p. doesn’t shock me either. An e.p. can be an artists opportunity to release hold over material to satisfy the ravenous fan base before the next full length record. They’re also a good opportunity for experimentation. So on the e.p. this song sits nicely. If Sweet As Whole was not on Once Upon Another Time and left to a full album release like The Blessed Unrest, it would stick out, kinda like that guy who’s an asshole.

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Stay

Imagine an evening where you meet someone.

Perhaps at a simple bus stop, at a summer outdoor garden, a crowded bar, or a random Saturday night party you weren’t going to attend because it’s on the roof top of your eccentric co-workers apartment complex. (Let’s call him Steve, you know, the one with the OCD, the affinity for video games and the knack for hanging around far too long? Yep, that one.)

But this random evening, say at Steve’s apartment, you do meet someone. You lock eyes, and for no logical reason you know there’s a connection. Their gravitational pull is intoxicating and you walk up and say “Hello.” Introductions are superfluous because in another lifetime you’ve already known each other. Your souls, connected centuries ago, you both just need to be reminded how. You never leave each other’s gaze. You talk like old childhood friends that flirted but never went steady, and you get consumed in the company while witnessing true beauty.

Before you know it two hours pass, and your rides have left.

Four hours pass, and so too has the buzz from the Manhattans.

You hold hands, maybe you kiss. Maybe your heart beats faster than you thought it could.

By now the birds are starting to wake, and it’s their chirping that ushers in the sun. With sunshine comes reality—You have to get back to your normal life. A normal life that doesn’t include this rekindled soul mate.

Stay is a song that has a very powerful message: Sometimes it’s only tonight that matters. Not the consequences. Not the ramifications or even the meaning. Sometimes this type of moment between two people defies all logic and is more than needed, it’s necessary, because what has transpired is bigger than just love at first sight. It’s a reconnection of souls. It’s a moment that yearns for a run at the airport gate, or standing outside a house raising a boom box over your head. But time is the enemy, because no matter how much we plead with each other to stay, responsibility creeps back in, we have to return to our respective lives and then the moment is lost forever.

Gonna feel it baby
Oh I don’t wanna cry
I know we’ll get to tomorrow and say goodbye
That’s why I’m asking for
Tonight


Stay tonight
Don’t come morning, don’t come light
They may be lies, but say that we’ll be alright
Say that we’re gonna be alright
Tonight

I encourage you to listen to this song several times in a row and at each listen focus your attention on specific instruments that make up the composition. They each represent how in-sync the two people are in Sara’s lyrics. The strings, light piano, rhythm guitar and even the backing vocals are all musical layers that work in concert with each other while contributing to a crescendo that is the overall magic and message of Stay. By the end Sara’s passionate vocal exudes so much pain, heartache and love, it’s easy to identify with her thoughts, especially if we connect with the words. The way she holds out “tonight” before the final chorus, conveys those aforementioned emotions, and just like the night we don’t want it to end.

#andrepeat this song again and again and it never will.

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Lie to Me

Lie to Me is one of the more direct songs Sara has written in her entire catalog. Ben Folds get co-writing credit here, was the producer on the track and provided the string orchestration. Upon first listen one might gather from it’s upbeat tempo and pop-like structure that this song is happy and destined to climb the charts of bubblegum pop. But to truly understand the song, it’s necessary to read the lyrics. This is not a happy song. In fact it’s rather dark, taken from the perspective of a person who has been burned one too many times by a certain someone, and now is fully expecting failure from them at every interaction. The song title is not “Lie to me because I want to be kept in the dark about the reality of our relationship”, but instead she knows it’s coming. It’s juxtaposed from the previous song on the record. In Stay she needed the lie so the night would never end. In Lie to Me she’s fed up with the person’s deception. She’s prepared, and doesn’t accept the behavior anymore. The first part of the chorus could really be a parenthetical addition to the song title (So I Can See You) Lie to Me.

This song is very different in structure. It has more of a traditional pop radio feel. There’s heavy sustain on the vocals that is a signature point of style on the entire EP. There are gritty loops, lots of electronic additions, and melancholy strings that make this song quite unique. I would guess this was the last song written for the EP, because Lie to Me feels like it was the proof of concept for songs that found their way on to the next album The Blessed Unrest. The drums in particular seem like a stepping stone to Brave. In Lie to Me the drums are the lead instrument. Not the piano. Not the bass, not even the loops.

I bet we all have a couple people in our lives that we’d love to breathe red when they start to fib. Watch out liars. Watch out Rollins Band, and Lance Armstrong. Look out Pinocchio. If Sara had her way you’d all be breathing red.

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Once Upon Another Time

Once Upon Another Time is the title track of her 2012 EP. The EP was produced by her friend and fellow singer/songwriter Ben Folds and was recorded in his Nashville studio. Sara explained to American Songwriter Magazine why she named the record after this song: “The title track is really about loss of your childhood,” she said, “and letting go of your past, and that’s a part of my life right now, a journey I feel like I’m on. It felt befitting to name the album that.”

So that said, the song really needs no other explanation.
But what’s the fun in that?

When I hear this song, I see a grandmother with her grandkids on a covered porch.  For the sake of this post let’s name her Grandma Sara. It’s a warm summer afternoon, and there’s a porch swing, daisies in a vase and lemonade on the side-table. Grandma Sara was pulled by her grandkids to re-tell a story they heard dozens of times, but never gets old. The kids sit in a half circle around her as if it’s kindergarten story time and they squeal, “Tell us again Grandma, tell us again!” “Tell us the story of when you left home and got to be an adult!” Wide-eyed and attentive they sit. Ready to hang on her every word. And with that, Grandma strikes a match, lights a citronella candle to keep the bugs away and starts to sing…

Mmmmmmmmmm,
Once upon another time
Somebody’s hands who felt like mine
Turned the key and took a drive
Was free

“ooooh”, and “aaaaahs” emit from the half circle and now the grandkids are hooked again and begin to lean in. Smiles from ear to ear. The youngest takes a sip of lemonade and squints, because the drink is a bit too tart.

I recall the sun sank low
Buckley on the radio
Cigarette was burning slow
So breathe

“Woah, Grandma smoked? No way!” “What’s Buckley Grandma?” “Not what? but who, Grandma? Who’s Buckley?” “I don’t understand? Get to the part where you let the sun kiss you every day. I just love that part.” “Grandma Sara, you’re so cool!”

Sara has this unique ability to create new music that feels feel vintage and sophisticated. Sara’s sound has been described as everything from Norah Jones to Fiona Apple, and I’d even throw Ella Fitzgerald in the conversation. People like to make comparisons, because comparisons allow for an easy introduction for the unfamiliar. But while Sara is inspired my many, she is as individual as they come and has forged her own path with raw talent, hard work and years of determination. At the beginning of the song, Sara starts a capella and just shows off.  The vocals are sick. Lyrics are sick. In summation this song is sick. Flat out angelic. A bit too much sustain overall, but that’s a theme for the entire EP and not just this song.

The first section is retrospective of what she thought life was like during a time when she though she had it all figured out. She’s alone to experience life. No enemies yet, no porch light (read: address) or family to tie her down. She’s free in her solitude and her singular voice is the metaphor. In this moment she had it all, but Sara’s perspective in the story telling (Remember, Grandma Sara is telling this story to her grandkids) is of a wiser self who realizes this was a time of necessary naivety. It’s only until the strings, other voices and ambient sounds come into play where she transitions the story to a girl who starts to dream, and with that dream comes outside forces which would pull at her while she’s on her journey.

I saw myself in summer nights
And stars lit up like candle lights
I made my wish but mostly I
Believed

“Grandma Sara, after you tell us about how awesome it is to drive a car, can I have some more lemonade please?”

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