Behind the Beat with Sarah Charness
The Rose Club of the Plaza Hotel is a bit unique to be conducting an interview with an artist in a scene known for bottle-popping at nightclubs. Servers in tailored grey suits are going about their tasks, a gentle hum of Christmas music supplements the holiday decor. People far above my pay grade mix and mingle. It is fitting that I’d find Sarah Charness here, as she personifies the slight paradox I feel being in this elegant setting as an EDM blogger.
A classically trained violinist, Sarah has pushed the boundaries of understanding in both classical music and electronic music with her iconic pink, electric violin. Classical music strikes many as stuffy and outmoded; but without its rich musically technical foundations, music would not be where it is today. EDM, on the other hand, while most definitely modern in most senses, doesn’t strike most as particularly musically challenging. (Even John Dahlback can admit a good dance track doesn’t have to be the most complex). They get it. There’s a beat. There are some high hats. A synth or two. Bass. But it’s not Mozart. (unless you’re Andrew Rayel, then maybe). Sarah aims to combine the ethos of both classical and dance music in a way that forces us to question our contemporary understanding EDM. It no longer has to be solely about the computer, but about the human touch and how her pink violin can inject a variety of emotion into an otherwise more detached genre. The end result opens up the potential for a conversation about the evolving nature of dance music.
Sarah’s got plans for 2016, including a potential for “Grip.” “Things have been going really well,” she says, “the track definitely got some great attention, both from bloggers and radio, which was awesome to hear. It got some really good play and now we’re focusing on getting it signed to the right label. We’re also focusing on these other two tracks that will hopefully be released in early 2016. We are in the process of finding a good home for them.” This diverges from the strategy for Grip’s release. It came out as a promo before a single label was even contacted.
Sarah holds that taking the road less traveled was a good decision for “Grip,” however she plans to change it up with her next two tracks. The first one being a collaboration with usual suspects, the Disco Killerz. The tracks titled “Beautiful Life” and “Running for Our Lives,” feature more vocalists than usual. “Beautiful Life” features the honeyed voice of Delaney Jane, while “Running for Our Lives” features the gravelly Kat Nestel; thus creating a clear distinction between vocalists in a genre known for editing vocals down to a monotonous tone. There is without a doubt a theme one can hear throughout Sarah’s tracks that begs the question of her methodology.
“Basically, the Disco Killers and I started on a track called “We Came to Party,” and I don’t want to say it was a joke, we took it seriously, but we had NO IDEA how successful it was going to be. It ended up getting to number 48 on the Beatport electronic chart, which we had no idea was going to happen. So after we did that track, we came back to the drawing board and said ‘Alright what we’ve got going is kind of a cool thing, so let’s do a trilogy (Sarah is a Star Wars fan); three tracks that are in more of a pop genre. So we really made a conscious decision to move away from a straight EDM, instrumental side of things and do something a little more radio friendly. What we noticed with “We Came to Party” was that while it did really well on Beatport, it wasn’t as commercial of a track as these three are. So we decided we wanted to work with vocalists this time.”
Sarah methodically chose the vocalists to fit her musical vision for the tracks. “Grip had Jem Cooke on it, and these other two feature two different vocalists whose careers we had been following. We liked what they had been doing and we loved their sound. They’re both very different vocalists. Kat is a little bit more raspy and hard, if you look her up, she’s a total badass. Delaney has more of a sweet sound to her voice, a little bit more pure with less rasp, but a very different sound. I think both tracks are very fitting for their voices, but that was sort of how we came to work with these guys. We just hit them up and said ‘Hey do you want to do this?’ and that is how this all sort of came to be.”
Throughout the conversation, it dawned on me that Sarah had a very distinct approach to collaboration. While some artists have a vision into which collaborators need to fit, Sarah seems to evoke an Adam Smith, division of labor concept with her collaborators. When asked about her influence on the lyrics of the upcoming tracks, Sarah replied, “Singers write the lyrics, though they’ve had some help from us. I believe…going back to the drawing board here…who did what….we left it up to the singers to write the lyrics. You know when you commission a top line talent like that, you sort of leave it up to them, the vocalist, to do their job. It’s not so much the DJ that’s coming in and saying, alright, we’re gonna do this…It would be like someone trying to tell me how to play the violin. Let them do what they’re good at, let me do what I’m good at, and the Disco Killerz will do what they’re good at and it’ll come together in a way that makes sense.” I have to admit, after hearing the tracks, I have more faith in the concept of organized chaos (at least artistically).
Sarah, almost by necessity, has a massive number of potential collaborators. However, with someone who has played alongside world famous musicians from all genres (people like Roger Daltrey of The Who, The Jonas Brothers, and Josh Grobin, to name only a few), I had to know who her dream collaborator was. I saw in a previous interview it had been Lady Gaga and while Sarah’s collaborative aspirations have shifted somewhat, she’s also become a bit more coy about revealing her ultimate goal.
“Yes, but Lady Gaga is still definitely someone I’d love to work with, but, and Kat would kill me for saying this, but she reminds me a lot of Kat. Google Kat and you’ll get it. They both have a similar sound in their voices. I definitely have evolved a little past Lady Gaga though. There are some more producers that I’m more interested in working with now that have definitely spiked my interest a bit more.” But when asked specifically, she declined to let me know what was going on in her head. “Just think Armada label,” she laughs. (I’m personally hoping for the aforementioned Moldovan Mozart, Andrew Rayel).
It’s important to note that while Sarah is without a doubt an extraordinarily talented classical violist, she’s rooted in hard rock of the rock and roll’s glory days. While she most definitely idolizes modern day composers like the brilliant John Williams (easily one of the most talented melody makers we will ever know), she also has a special place in her heart for Aerosmith and their eccentric front man, Steven Tyler.
“I LOVE AEROSMITH! You know back when I was a teenager, 13 or 14, I was super inspired by them. They inspired my instrument. A guy came to my camp when I was a young kid and he showcased these electric violins that he had made himself. His name is Mark Wood and he’s one of the founders of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra (TSO) and funny enough, Paul O’ Neill who is also one of the founders, the creator of TSO actually, used to work for the management company of Aerosmith. So in a weird way, that’s sort of how a lot of my passions all came together.”
I pushed her on a question I face as an Aerosmith fan myself (except for their prom song; I still have my reservations about that one). Who are the better rockers, Aerosmith or the Rolling Stones? “No, no you can’t compare. Night and day.” But I couldn’t let her go that easily. “Aerosmith all the way then. I’m an Aerosmith girl. I love Steven Tyler. He’s just THAT person for me. He’s such a rock singer and a badass.” While Tyler is cool, he’s not the only one from whom Sarah draws inspiration. “Of course Madonna is, to me, just such a pillar for women to look up to. She’s done so much for women in music and she’s such a badass (the highest term of endearment from Sarah, I’ve learned), just in terms of her style, her presence, everything. She’s sort of paved the way for so many female artists; you can’t help but admire her.”
Sarah isn’t limited by genre and she isn’t limited in interests. Along with music, fashion has played a big role in her development as well. Pink violins, stylish attire, and an iconic style no doubt characterize Sarah, but also many of her idols (minus the pink violin). She’s played Mercedes Benz Fashion Week shows, bringing to life designers’ showcases in a way that deviates from the standard electronic beat that marred the musical aspects of many fashion shows in the past.
“Yeah, I’ve done a number of shows for Mercedes Benz Fashion Week, sort of helping, or I should say being privileged to, bring these designers’ shows to life. Obviously music is a big part of a showcase of a runway show and so many designers have moved away from the untz untz (just say it out loud if you don’t get it). You know that beat. Alexander McQueen was really one of the people who started to use elaborate shows with very carefully selected music and a carefully selected production team. I think that music can really help bring a production to life.”
With all this momentum, one might expect an “Aha!” moment in her career; a time when it dawned on her she had made it. However, she’s very gradual in her progression and sets near-term goals that evolve her career overtime rather than aiming to hit it big one day like a YouTube sensation. For Sarah Charness the artist, she still has her sights set on some immediate short-term goals. “You know, my next short-term goal really centers on these two songs (“Beautiful Life” and “Running for Our Lives”) and hopefully getting them to a label that will invest in them, believe in them, believe in me, and really get this stuff out there. That’s my next short term goal. To focus on these two tracks and what’s in front of me and the next collaboration.”
Transitioning from EDM blogger to cliché interviewer, I had to know where she saw herself and her career in five years. “Oh gosh, THIS far ahead….I’m such a day to day person. I would love to be touring a bit more, doing some more amazing festivals (such as her festival in South Africa with her DJ duo Surge and Sarah) and more collaborations in the future. That would be really awesome to see something new, working with really established DJ’s and producers.” She also assured me that, deviating from her previous trilogy of bright pop tracks, she is toying with darker sounding tunes and collaborations, evoking a gloomier feel. One can only hope for some kind of brooding, Kronos Quartet meets Gesaffelstein, kind of track. I suppose time will tell.
In addition to her love of fashion and music, she loves food. Sarah is a self proclaimed foodie and, living in New York City, she has the ability to dine in one of the most vibrant and diverse culinary scenes in the entire world. With the ulterior motive of finding my next restaurant to try, I had to pry into her favorite food experiences living in the city. “Oh my god, that is the hardest question….ok, my favorite food experience…this is so hard…so there’s an amazing ramen place down in the Village, near Astor Place, called Ippudo. It’s really awesome. BUT, what’s amazing there is not just the ramen (which I’ve heard from multiple sources is nothing short of legendary), but their appetizers. If you’re into Asian food, you have to try their pork buns. Literally the most amazing thing you’ve had in your life.” Noted. “I also tend to like hole in the wall places. There’s a really awesome Mediterranean place in the village called Café Mogador (again demonstrating her discerning tastes, Café Mogador has consistently been ranked as one of New York’s best brunches) and if you haven’t been there. It’s REALLY FANTASTIC. And if you want an amazing burger, go to JG Melon on the Upper East Side. It’s been there for like a 110 years. It’s old. REALLY old. But awesome.”
Foodies rarely limit themselves to just eating other people’s food. They like to cook too. Wondering about Sarah’s cooking skills, which would create a trifecta of talent between music, fashion, and food, I knew she’d have the opportunity to cook for the holidays. This year, she has the rare opportunity of taking some time off and seeing her family at home. “I’m getting to go home which I don’t get to do very often. Home is Massachusetts, but my parents bought a sort of cabin on the lake in New Hampshire, so we’re going up there and it’s just going to be a time to breathe and decompress because there is absolutely nothing around. Just to give you an image, I have to wear an orange vest when I go outside because I don’t want to be confused for a deer. It’s hunting season. That’s how rural we’re talking. I hike in an orange vest. It’s really nice. New York is just so go go go and I can get lost in my own head, so it’s really important to just go up there, chill out.”
While she’s not dodging bullets in her orange vest, she’s going to be eating a dish that has stuck with her family for some time. Superseding even her desire to cook is her desire to eat Peggy’s Turkey Soup.“Something that I’m really looking forward to is not something I make, but my mom’s neighbor makes turkey soup. You wouldn’t think this would be good, it sounds really random, but she takes leftover turkey from Thanksgiving and makes an insane soup out of it. My mom has it frozen in the freezer ready for me. Turkey soup. I’m telling you, my mom’s neighbor Peggy’s turkey soup. Life changing.” Paging Peggy and her recipe please. I’ve attempted to find a decent recipe online, but I’ll still defer to Peggy’s expertise.
Wrapping up our conversation, we came back to music. Sarah reminded me of how appreciative she is of all of her fans’ support. “I just want to thank everybody for their support and just to remind people that it’s always hard to put yourself out there. Your support is really appreciated.” As I made my way through a glass of Woodford Reserve (or two, maybe three…) it dawned on me that Sarah and the influence she has had on electronic music is essential to the genres evolution. Sarah takes what we as dance fans love and reminds us that there are still people behind the beat, an element of passion that can still be literally be translated through a traditional instrument. She’s not working in a sonically sterilized environment; she’s recording tracks on an acoustic violin in a studio. The reasons we love classic tracks today is they’re great in totality; not only are the tracks good music, but their imperfections make them human, make them relatable, and give them spirit. Listen for the Rolling Stones in the background of “Gimme Shelter” and you’ll hear them cheering on a Merry Clayton, even as her voice cracks, both instances of imperfections that certainly weren’t planned, but recorded and kept nonetheless. Led Zeppelin’s “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” has Robert Plant accidentally singing along with Jon Bonham (around 1:43). Even Michael Jackson’s track “Beat It” (around 2:45) has a knock on the studio door by a tech that didn’t know there was a recording session going on. All of these imperfections contribute to our deep and abiding love and respect for these tracks and the artists who made them. Sarah, with her pink violin at her side, has set out to redefine what we consider dance music by fusing soul with the mechanical, tradition with modernity, humanity with technology.
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