Sari Schorr Speaks To SonicAbuse

I have been privileged to interview a number of artists for SonicAbuse over the years. Some seem worn down by the game, and it is hardly surprising given the number of interviews that musicians are expected to do, but others maintain a buzz about them, as if even talking about their art is an engagement with the creative process itself and a source of excitement.

Sari Schorr is one such artist.

From the moment she answers the phone with a bright and cheery greeting, there’s a glow that flows down the line, as if she’s been mainlining electricity and the sparks are flying. When Sari laughs (and she laughs a lot) it’s with an infectious joy that is absolutely irresistible and, over the course of our talk, I quickly realise that Sari is absolutely as effervescent a personality off stage as she is an electrifying performer on stage. She’s an absolute delight to speak to and, if you’ve heard anything from the massively anticipated album ‘a force of nature’, you’ll know that there’s much to talk about.

Not only a remarkable singer, Sari is a lyricist of depth and passion and her storied past (which includes a good deal of humanitarian work) has provided her with enough material to fill volumes. It is that life experience upon which ‘A force of nature’ draws, and the result is an album that fizzes with invention. Couple those intelligent and evocative lyrics with some of the best blues rock you’ll hear this year and you’ve got an album that is going to capture the imagination of the world, not least because Sari’s voice is both intimidatingly huge and beguilingly intimate, drawing the listener in one moment, screaming from the rooftops the next.

It is always a privilege to interview an artist whom you respect, but it’s rare to walk away from an interview with such a buzz, but Sari just inspires such emotions, whether it be directly through her music, or through conversation and I am very proud to present this interview with an artist who is poised to take the music world by storm and deservedly so.

Photo : Rob Blackham

Photo : Rob Blackham

You must be doing a lot of these interviews at the moment I’m guessing

Yeah, and the funny thing is, when you’re in the heat of the battle, making – trying to make – a great record, you don’t think about coming out the other end of it and how nice it’s going to be meeting so many wonderful people and getting such great feedback. So now I know what to expect on the next record and that’ll get through the tough times. It’s been wonderful.

It seems that this record was a substantial challenge to get made and one of the songs that you wrote, ‘cat and mouse’ I think, details the nightmare you had with the original producer on this record.

[Laughs] God, I wish I could tell you his name, it would be such revenge… but I’m really aspiring to be a Buddhist and I’m grateful for all of this… experience is everything – the good stuff and the challenging things that come into your life. Without those experiences I wouldn’t be where I am now and, honestly, making this record with Mike Vernon was just meant to be. It was not intended that I would make this record with anybody else and, you can’t plan for these things. Sometimes you just have to… The truth is I can be a little bit too controlling in my life… my family would say “A little???” [laughs] But, I’m learning to just trust the greater plan and fate. I believe, strongly now, in destiny. Things that are meant to be, happen. And when you have to push too hard for something then you have to step back and think “wait a minute… Is this really what I’m supposed to be doing? Am I surrounded by the best possible people? Is this a really healthy situation?” Those questions are kinda hard to answer honestly when you’re blinded by the goal that you’re trying to achieve. You make all kinds of excuses for things that you shouldn’t tolerate. You think, “well, I’m paying my dues” and you overlook people’s idiosyncrasies and bad behaviour and you focus on the job but, you know, at a certain point it’s just not healthy and you have to remember that the ultimate responsibility that we have to ourselves is to be happy, and be good to other people… just be good to each other. It’s not that complicated is it?

You’d like to think not!

You’d like to think not, exactly!

You mentioned this idea of being controlling – surely it’s in an artist’s nature to try to control so many elements of what they do because ultimately they’re putting themselves out into the world?

Yes… That’s a really sensitive subject right now. This came up in the last interview I did and I have to honestly say that I think that one of my strong points is that I have finally recognised how to put together a great team and when you have great people on your team, you have to give them enough freedom to work at their greatest potential and allow them to succeed and not be overbearing. For example, in the studio with Mike Vernon – Mike doesn’t make bad records and the perfect example was when he suggested “stop in the name of love”. That was 100% his idea – I didn’t hear it and one of the guitar players we were working with, a Spanish guitar player, he desperately tried to talk me out of it. He said “Come on, you’re the recording artist – stick up for yourself!” It made me feel as if I didn’t have a voice, but it wasn’t that at all. I said “You know what, I’m working with Mike,” because I trust his vision and I trust him to see in my blind-spots and have better ideas than me – otherwise I’d just produce the record myself.  And because I felt I had nothing to lose, I told Mike that was willing to try any idea he had, but I couldn’t see how I was going to be able to make any kind of meaningful contribution to that song.

So I went in and recorded it, just giving it my all, without any fear because I really thought it wasn’t going to work and it ended up being the final album take. And, afterwards, everybody, even the guitar player, was saying that Mike was right. So that’s the key – to work with people you respect and people that you trust.

And when Allen Robinson came on board form Manhaton Records, he had a different idea about the release schedule. And I really didn’t agree with it, I wanted the record to come out several months earlier and he said “Look, you know there’s a build-up and there’s a strategy and this is what we do…” And I thought, of course he’s right – this is what he does, trust him. And he was absolutely right. All the groundwork to prepare for the release has just been invaluable – building an awareness of the record so that people actually care when it’s released. Otherwise no-one would have known to have even recognise it. So, there it is, it’s all about sharing the experience with the right people and then you don’t have to be good at everything.

You mentioned ‘Stop in the name of love’ and, certainly for me, what I look for in a cover is that the artist takes it and makes it their own. Of course the other big cover on the record is ‘Black Betty’, and it’s amazing how you’ve taken that song and given that dark, gothic, chain gang vibe to it and I wondered how you wanted to approach that song because I think it’s amazing.

Ah, thank you so much.

When I was asked to perform at the Lead Belly festival at Carnegie Hall, the producers chose that song for me and I knew the Ram Jam version and I knew that I had to find a way to make it my own. So, first I lived with the lyric and I meditated on what the lyrics meant to me. And I knew all the different interpretations of the song, but for me, it was very clear what the song meant and once I was clear in my mind the intention behind the vocals fell into place very easily – I knew exactly how I needed to perform that song. And I’m so grateful, although… I will tell you honestly that this song scares me every time I have to do it. In fact, the other night I said to Innes, “You know I just don’t think I have the strength to do it tonight,” and he smiled and nodded his head and said “OK, if you’re not up for it, we’ll all understand.” And I thought “You know what, he’s given me a pass to take the easy way out…” and I thought “no, no, no! I’m going to do it!” [laughs] I think just because I felt I had a choice, I had the strength to tackle it.

I love it! And, of course, you’ve done this dark, southern gothic video for it as well. How much do you like to involve yourself in the aesthetic of the videos and how much you leave that to a trusted team?

Well, it was really a collaboration of everybody. Initially the band was not going to be in the video – they were going to have some really interesting actors. But I really felt that this was our first video, it was a chance for me to establish an identity for the band. So it was really like a branding. I wanted to make a statement – this is the Engine Room – I’ve given this band a name because I want them to have an identity and I want them to be recognised for the tremendously talented musicians they are. And when everyone agreed, then it was a question of what we wanted to look like in the video. And that was very easy – it just sort of fell together. I wanted to wear something that was not too over the top, but a little bit of a twist on what you’d expect a female blues rock singer to wear and it all seemed to fit together so… That was one of the easier… We’ve been really lucky, even with the album cover. That was a last minute photo shoot and it was so easy for me because we thought we already had the cover. The cover was originally going to be the photo on the inside which is of me dancing, and that was shot by Amy Cohen in New York, and that was originally slated to be the cover. So when we did this addition photo shoot, it was just to get some additional publicity shots. So there was no pressure. I wasn’t even prepared, it was a last minute thing and I wore the clothes I happened to be wearing and I think that’s why it worked so well.

The blues as a genre has never been afraid to tackle social issues and it’s very interesting to me the way that you have incorporated a lot of your humanitarian work and understanding into the lyrics that you’ve written and I was wondering how long it takes to develop your themes and lyrics?

Ah, that’s a good question. Well, first of all, the music comes very, very quickly, but the price that I pay for that is that the lyrics, I really work… toil over. I have no concept about what I’m going to write until the melody is formed and while I’m creating the melody, there are nonsensical, place holder words in there. Basically it’s just a bunch of gibberish. But occasionally just a word or phrase slips through, I think it’s from my subconscious, and I go back, and I record everything, and I listen to all the different takes and I find the melodies that are working and I splice it all together and I realise that there are some hidden gems among the rubbish, and I pull those out and the song tells me what it wants to be about – it’s in there. I mean, ‘demolition man’, that was in the very first idea of the melody. I was just rambling on “doo doo doo demolition man…” [laughs] So, don’t ask me where these things come from because honestly I think it’s not even right for me to take credit for the lyrics because I think they’re better than I’m capable of doing. I think that I somehow managed to tap into some higher creative force that’s out there floating around all of us, but, because I dedicate my life to trying to tap into it, I find it more often that someone who’s too busy saving the world or doing a real job [laughs] so that’s the difference.

Photo : Amy Kerwin

Photo : Amy Kerwin

It’s so hard in the modern world to stay informed and keep an eye on the issues that surround us. Musicians have a unique position to be able to be able to inform as well as to entertain, and I was wondering if you ever consider the line between those two things and wonder if you’ve drifted too far one way or the other?

Oh, excellent! I love the way you put that – “to inform and to entertain” – that’s exactly been the struggle for me. Early on in my career, I stopped singing for many, many years because I felt that it was too self-indulgent and I felt guilty about it. It’s what I love to do, but what was I doing to create value for other people. And that was how I got involved with social work and then I felt like a complete failure, in India and Haiti and not being able to solve the monumental problems that these people faced. It was like putting a Band aid on a giant disease. I alleviated some discomfort for a short amount of time, but I left people in the same condition that they were in and, when you’re dealing with that kind of poverty, it’s beyond what any one person can do. Then… I was doing a performance at a small club in New York and this women came up to me and said “Why don’t I know who you are? With a gift like you have… it’s a sin that you don’t share that gift and you were given that gift. That’s a gift and you must share it.” All of a sudden I got it – Through my voice I could actually be creating value and something meaningful and when I started to think of it that way it didn’t feel selfish anymore – it started to make sense and I realised that that was the reason why I’m here – I’m a vehicle to serve the music and to deliver this music and the messages that I create to an audience that wants, or needs, to hear it. That’s all it is. It’s not about me, at all, when you look at it that way. It’s what I can give of myself to make the world, in my own tiny, tiny way, a more comfortable place.

It’s remarkable what an artist can achieve, I think, and many of the artists I admire the most from a range of genres are those who can successfully incorporate a social message into their work – because music is a universal language…

Yeah, well we have a platform to deliver a message to a much broader audience and with that comes a responsibility, in my mind, to do something that is relevant and significant and to talk about issues that are uncomfortable. To talk about things in a very honest way and the way I see the world is that there is really no such thing as good and bad in black and white terms. Everything is shades of grey and when you talk about, like, domestic violence, as I do in ‘damn the reason’, it’s a much more honest discussion about domestic violence. There’s a woman and she’s trapped in a relationship with someone that she doesn’t want to love, but she loves him and… the love doesn’t make sense. And the situations we often get ourselves into are completely illogical, but they exist and… not being afraid to address these things in a more realistic way. I think it’s important to talk about these things and let people know, who are suffering with these issues, that they’re ok. We’re all connected to each other and this is just part of the human experience.

It’s an interesting way that you approach the message, and particularly the issue of domestic violence, where you juxtapose love and the physicality of abuse. It’s very interesting, but it’s also never preachy and I think that’s a very fine line to walk too.

Thank you! That’s my greatest fear – not to be preachy… people stop listening. No one wants to hear that, so you have to approach it from a much more personal perspective and I think that people are then more receptive to a message. They don’t want to be told how to think or how to feel.

Perhaps that’s the line where the entertainment returns because, as important as the message is, it mustn’t be forgotten that your band, the Engine Room, they absolutely rock! They are smoking throughout the album…

I am so lucky to be working with these guys. Innes Sibun, our guitarist, whom I’m sure you know, is just… he’s remarkable. The most gifted guitar player that I’ve ever worked with, and we have this way of communicating with each other that is really extraordinary. He said to me the other day that, if his guitar could sing it would sound like my voice and I said the same thing back to him, If my voice could play the guitar it would sound like him. What’s great is that, when you have this kind of rapport with someone, you can take a lot of chances in a live show and the whole band… we’re so connected, we can do stuff that I wouldn’t dare try in a different situation with different guys. We love to take risks and we love to go right to the edge and see what happens. It’s like “let’s go here, and maybe we’ll find something fabulous!” So that’s what, I think, makes our shows so exciting, because sometimes we don’t even know what’s going to happen. Everyone is just in the moment, and completely invested in what’s happening and the audience feels that.

Photo : John Bull

Photo : John Bull

I really just have one final question which is that you’ve got a lot of live dates coming up and, obviously the albums just on the cusp of coming out but what do you fee is next for you and the band?

Well, we love the touring and we want to continue touring as much as possible It’s really the reward coming out the other end of making the record which really is a lot of hard work and being able to get out there and meet like-minded people who share our love of this music is really the greatest reward to the work. We’re going to start working on the next album, there are plenty of songs that didn’t make it onto the first album and Innes and I have been working on some really exciting things for the second album… See you have your whole life to make the first album and then you have to finish up the second album very quickly! We’re preparing in advance because hopefully people are going to want to hear more from us and we don’t want to disappoint anybody!

I can’t see you disappointing anybody – the first album really is brilliant!

Well thank you so much, Mike Vernon and I are going to be making the next record together… well the next two or three. We kind of joke about that, he says that at some point he’s going to have to take a vacation!

 Sari Schorr will be touring the UK throughout the Autumn – Dates below:

 AUGUST

August 26 Norden Farm Centre for the Arts, Maidenhead, UK
August 27 Varenwinkel Festival, Herselt, Belgium
August 28 Seacroft Double Festival, Norfolk, UK
August 29 Great British RnB Festival, Colne, UK

SEPTEMBER

Sept 5 Half Moon Putney, London, UK (Album Launch)
Sept 9 Darlington RnB Club, The Forum Music Centre, Darlington,
Sept 10 Blues Club, Devizes, Wiltshire, UK
Sept 11 Winchester Discovery Centre, Winchester, UK
Sept 14 The Tunnels, Bristol, UK
Sept 15 Southern Pavilion, Worthing Pier, West Sussex, UK
Sept 16 New Crawdaddy, Billericay Town FC, UK
Sept 17 Old Town Hall, High Street, Hemel Hempstead, UK
Sept 23 Selby Town Hall Yorkshire, UK
Sept 25 Hope Tavern, Caistor Rd, Holton-le-Moor, Market Rasen, UK
Sept 28 Vonnies Blues Club, Cheltenham
Sept 29 Cranleigh Arts Centre, Cranleigh, Surrey
Sept 30 B.A.R Festival, France

OCTOBER

October 1 Hereford Blues Club, Booth Hall, Hereford, UK
October 5 Bar Brunel Bridgewater, UK
October 7 Deux Rivieres Blues Festival, Brittany, France

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