Some of the greatest art in any format comes to us from intense times of suffering, depression or frustration in the life of the artist. Examples can be found all around us, and Sara Melson‘s latest album, A Million White Stars, is one of the most recent. As the songwriter explains, the “silver lining” of the last few years of her life has been the amount of writing such events have spurred on.
We recently took out some time to chat with Melson about her journey between albums, what she’s learning as a songwriter and how it’s okay to put the most personal pieces out there after all.
SSv: I’d love to get a sense of the space and time between albums. What kept you releasing a studio album since 2008? What other interests were you pursuing?
Sara Melson: Well, in fact there were some personal factors that made me need to get off the train for a little while. I got married and only a year and a half later, my then-husband and I ended up realizing that we weren’t really the right mates for each other. We had fallen in love with each other musically — he’s an amazingly talented singer-songwriter as well — and had equated that with romantic partnership.
We’re friends now, 3 years later, and still get together and write occasionally. In fact, “Show Me A Rainbow” off of my new record is a co-write with him! In any case, at the time, it was an emotional whirlwind. It did spur a lot of writing, so I guess that’s always the silver lining. I kind of hibernated in the studio, for much of that time. It felt like a safe place to be. And I was really inspired to sing and record.
I’ve also come to realize that sometimes a song that I think is so personal to me that I might even think it’s self-indulgent, can end up being interpreted in a totally universal way, and other people can completely relate to the thoughts in it.
I actually recorded 36 new tracks in the last couple of years. Eight of those were the re-records of my Dirty Mind masters, which comprise the EP The Beachwood Canyon Sessions, and 12 of course made it onto the new full-length, A Million White Stars. But I have 16 other fully mastered new songs, which I plan to release at some point in the next while here.
SSv: After the divorce, was that the most prolific you’ve been as a songwriter?
Sara: My songwriting inspiration goes in spurts and waves. It’s not super steady. Sometimes I stay up all night for weeks at a time and am churning out song after song, sometimes one hits me like a wave, and other times they sort of creep into your consciousness. It’s not a very predictable phenomenon, so I have to seize the moment when the opportunity strikes!
I think as far as breakups, sure, they always spur a lot of writing activity since you’re sorting through all sorts of emotions. To be frank my heart was broken even worse by the person I saw just after the divorce. That’s who “Rare Find” is about. In any case, thank goodness for my songwriting, because I at least get something out of these failed relationships! I’m ready for less inspiration, and more stability in my lovelife. [Laughs]
SSv: As you look back at the cycle of recording, releasing and supporting Dirty Mind, what was the greatest lesson learned as a songwriter?
Sara: Probably learning to let go of my preconceived notions of how a song is supposed to take shape and be open to the evolution of the songs over time. It’s really important not to be too wedded to your words or melody or chords just because that was the first thing that popped into your head. Sometimes you have to challenge yourself to think outside of the box.
I’ve also come to realize that sometimes a song that I think is so personal to me that I might even think it’s self-indulgent, can end up being interpreted in a totally universal way, and other people can completely relate to the thoughts in it. I got an amazing email from the mom of a girl who was undergoing a lung transplant. She told me that her daughter had my song “Feel It Coming” playing on her headphones the entire time she was in the operating room, up until the moment she went under.
SSv: What about the business side of things?
Sara: I learned a lot about putting out a record, and while I was on a label [Nettwerk] at the time, I had to take much of the initiative myself, or things just wouldn’t get done. So that was definitely a wake-up call. That was a good record that unfortunately had next to no real promotion from their end.
So the trade-off of giving away my copyrights may not have been the best bet. Luckily I got my re-record rights back a couple of years ago and was able to re-track many of those songs. That’s why I decided to put out The Beachwood Canyon Sessions; because a lot of those songs are gems, and no one ever really heard them the first time around.
SSv: Do the songs on A Million White Stars go back for some time? Are they all new tunes or were you writing all through the last several years?
Sara: I’ve definitely been writing through the years. Some of them are brand spanking new. Others are older ones that I’ve never released, so I rescued them from the archives, dusted them off and tweaked ‘em, and voila! “Some Days” and “Take Off” are two of the first songs I ever wrote.
There are quite a few new co-writes on this record as well. That was a really fun process, something I definitely plan to do more of. It’s so great to collaborate with someone else; each person brings his or her unique vision to the table, and the two parts usually make something better than what you might have come up with on your own.
Working with Rich Jacques and Ethan Gold for “What Are You Waiting For” and “Kiss Kiss” also stretched my vocal style in a direction I might not have tried without their urging. They’re both great producers and engineers, and encouraged me to step outside my comfort zone on those tracks. It made me want to do more of that.
SSv: What made you decide to open that door to co-writing?
Sara: I’m just really ready to stretch beyond my own style and writing habits. It’s so valuable to gain new perspective from other people’s sense of rhythm, melody, and lyrics, and to see how theirs fits with yours. It’s a really fun process.
SSv: What specifically was the vision for this batch of songs? Did you have something specific you wanted to work toward? A grand idea? Or is it more about piecing together some threads from the last few years?
Sara: A little of both. Even if loss or love or lust might have motivated the initial writing of the song, usually the conclusion I get to revolves around the overarching theme of inspiration, growth, and faith. I also write a lot about nature on this record. I feel at my purest, happiest, and best whenever I’m surrounded by the natural world.
SSv: Can you give us an idea of what your summer and fall will consist of?
Sara: I’m hosting a very cool event here in Los Angeles in early June, a songwriters’ circle in the round, kind of Nashville-style! It’s really fun. I’ll be joined by some very talented artists. Later this month, I head to the East Coast, to play in New York and Boston. I’m going to stop off in Cape Cod after that for a little family reunion, which will be awesome.
When I get back, the rest of July will probably be devoted mostly to finishing up the two videos I’m trying to get edited… One for “What Are You Waiting For,” and the other a really cool live piece for “My Own Most Beloved Child.” Those two songs couldn’t be more different from one another—one’s a driving rock anthem and the other is a spare, melancholy piano ballad—so it’ll be great to have both videos done.
I’d like to play more shows in Northern California, Oregon, and Seattle, so my next tour will probably be along that route. This fall, I plan to do a bunch of playing out and co-writing with other songwriters. I’d love to sing on some electronic music too. I’m at some point I’ll be gearing up to release all those other songs I’ve got up my sleeve!