Influential artists come in two groups, I reckon. The prolific ones, the ones that people universally and unanimously agree upon, that they are influential at all. Bands and artists like U2, Michael Jackson, Elvis, Adele, Queen, The Bee Gees, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, ABBA; artists that have made a definitive mark on music history and have influenced the culture of music and moved collectively the mark of where music was before, to where music is now. Influential artists such as these artists mentioned above, challenge the status quo on what genres should look and even sound like, moving outside the box as how to even approach genres that would otherwise have been overlooked and undervalued, underappreciated and even underutilised, had it not been for this particular artist or pioneer of the sub-genre discussed. Then there’s another group of artists that we would consider to be influential. No, it’s not necessarily the popular artists, though sometimes, popularity and influential do co-exist and collide. But rather, artists can be influential without being popular at all- they are just influential in the niche market they focus their music upon. An example is this- Andrew Peterson, of which I delved into a few weeks back. No, he won’t be of the same level of popularity as someone like John Legend or Jason Mraz, nor do I reckon he should be. But within the realms and confines of Christian music, especially Christian folk music; Andrew is very much known, loved, respected, and even admired for his quirky lyrics and hard-hitting imagery that speaks volumes to whomever hears it. Is Andrew Peterson popular? Definitely not. Influential? 100%- to the people who do indeed know his music, and to the ‘genre’ of Christian music as a whole.
And so, there are two groups of what could be the parameters of which to identify artists that are influential- those who impact the global scale of music, or those who impact on the individual level, who are not afraid to ask the questions that maybe some popular artists dare not touch. And so here I am, a couple of weeks after I laid down my own thoughts on Christian rock group, DC Talk; with another Momentous Mondays instalment; this time giving my understanding and thoughts to yet another artist that is not as popular as the other mainstays I aforementioned, but rather, influential nonetheless. Sara Bareilles, Grammy Award nominee, Tony Award nominee, and even an Emmy Award Nominee; is a rising star within the music industry, even though she’s been in it for over a decade (her first album released in 2007). Nevertheless, her rise to stardom because of her musical Waitress has earned herself, I reckon, into my own list of 100 influential, and while many may not agree with such an assertion; I am nevertheless reminded of how people can have an impact and influence, and still be up-and-coming. Sara’s music I’ve felt has always bordered and travelled along the heartbreak-meets-hope vibe, some songs even having a spiritual element to them. And yet here we are, 13 weeks in to this 100-post (or maybe even longer!) project; and to date, I can safely say that Sara’s music is by far (aside from her song ‘Brave’ from The Blessed Unrest) is the least known if you were to think in terms of popular music…and that’s ok.
As I’ve heard Sara’s music over the last couple of weeks (yes, I was going to unpack Sara and her music in a blog last week Monday, but instead, life got in the way!), I’ve come to notice a few things- Sara is using her music in a way that raises up a generation of people who are not afraid to be real with their emotions. For much of Sara’s music is indeed relationship based, because, I guess after songs about girls, parties, cars, the beach, being bored, loving life and just plain fun, what other songs are there? Relationship songs, be it between family members, a significant other, or even the ultimate relationship of all, between the created and the creator; are at the crux of what we connect with and enjoy, more so than any other style and theme of the song in question. And Sara’s music, upon reflection, has a lot of relationship-style songs- whether it be songs of lament, of loss, of longing, of joy and laughter. Whatever the emotion that we feel when hearing these songs, Sara has them all, and we are impressed to see a woman, this age of 40, become a pillar of influence in a community wanting to find their voice and express their hopes, dreams, hurts and failures- much of Sara’s music can be an avenue for such a voice to stand tall and speak out amongst the sea of monotonous moments of redundant day-to-day life. Sara, though only in the music game for 12 years, has nevertheless, created a platform for many to follow after her, a reminder that it is ok to express how we feel, that our feelings matter and what we believe about a situation is manifested in how we act upon (or act against) such thing we feel strongly about!
If I am completely and utterly honest, the only song that I did know going into writing about Sara and her music was her song ‘Brave’ from her 2013 album The Blessed Unrest. That’s it. Mind you, I did know she played a part in the musical Waitress (I only knew that she composed all the lyrics and music to the songs in the musical, later on), as well as playing the iconic Mary Magdalene in the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Jesus Christ Superstar in a live NBC TV production a couple of years back. Her rendition of the song ‘Tightrope’ from the movie The Greatest Showman was included in a 2017 compilation of songs from the movie, reimagined and redone; and thus, because of her achievements that I knew of (her song ‘Brave’, her involvement in Waitress, Jesus Christ Superstar, as well as her cover song ‘Tightrope); placing her in the top 100 influential was solidified. Little did I know that once I did discover and delve into her music a bit more, did I realise and understand that she indeed was deserving of a place in my own personal top 100 influential, even without me really knowing it all these months ago. Starting off her own career in 2004 with Careful Conversations, Sara gave to us her major-label debut album Little Voice in 2007, with some re-recordings from her 2004 album, along with some originals. And it was, and always will be, Little Voice that epitomises Sara’s music style and all-round message to whomever hears it. And while for me the technical prowess of an album like What’s Inside: Songs From Waitress cannot be denied, Sara’s debut all those years ago is what I reckon will continue to stand tall as the years wear on and remind us all that more often than not, it is an artist’s debut project that shows true their heart and ambition, before all the radio friendly label executives try to stamp their own imprint on what an artist should and shouldn’t be about.
And it is in Little Voice that some of Sara’s most humbling and vulnerable songs are shown to be. First radio single ‘Love Song’ starts off with a piano riff (that sounds eerily familiar to CCM artist Francesca Battistelli’s ‘I’m Letting Go’…which was released in 2008, a year later!), and is a passive-aggressive response to what radio executives wanted- a love song written by her as being the first single from the album. Sure, the song is called ‘Love Song’, but the message is totally different, where the persona is stating that the only reason to write a love song is out of free will and because they want to, rather than any other reason. A song that can connect with each of us, as we realise that writing a love song is a big deal, and should only be undertaken for the right reasons; Sara continues to give us song after song on Little Voice full of life and vigour, of purpose and intentionality. Songs like ‘Bottle It Up’ (aside from the one ‘s’ word) show Sara standing up for her beliefs about being vulnerable and singing about love in a music business concerned about sales and vapid songs about superlative things; while ‘Gravity’ is a song personal to Sara herself, about a toxic on-again-off-again relationship with a high school sweetheart that was ultimately no good for her because of cheating on his part. Yet like so many toxic relationships, both parties normally fall back into the will they won’t they relationship even though the right thing should be to go their separate ways, and thus, ‘Gravity’ is Sara’s own attempt to make sense of the relationship and should be a warning and an outlet for others who may find themselves in a similar situation. Lesser known songs ‘Many the Miles’ and ‘Between the Lines’ are also personal highlights of mine, the former being a vulnerable look into the extremes (how many miles) someone is going to go in order to pursue love, while the latter is a pondering about a relationship with someone who ‘got away’- looking upon what could’ve been before something was even possible, because they have feelings for someone else. All in all, Little Voice catalogues the powerful and emotive voice of Sara, and gives us songs of lament but also songs of hope and joy, of uncompromising and standing firm in what we believe are our values and convictions.
As the albums progress, Sara hones in and focuses on themes and messages that, may not always be comfortable for us to hear, but at times, are necessary, in order to challenge our own meaning of what we believe life should look like and how we should indeed navigate through life in a way that is to encourage the other all the while never wavering on our own firm beliefs in hope, encouragement, love, and treating others with the respect and dignity they all deserve. Vulnerability is at the centre of Kaleidoscope Heart that was given to us in 2010, with lead single ‘Uncharted’ delving into this notion of going out into the unknown not knowing, but with full expectation and a sense of excitement and wonder, while songs like ‘Gonna Get Over You’, ‘Hold My Heart’ and ‘Breathe Again’ delve into the themes of accepting that getting over a person takes time and doesn’t happen right away (‘Gonna Get Over You’), hoping and longing for someone to understand and ‘hold’ a heart in a vulnerable state (‘Hold My Heart’), and accepting that in time after a relationship is over, they can breathe again, both physically and metaphorically (‘Breathe Again’). ‘King of Anything’, one of the singles on Kaleidoscope Heart, really spoke to me a lot this last week or so, and again is one of my personal favourites.
Though the song itself is a standoff-ish melody about not asking for any assistance or help from someone who seems to be sharing his point of view in an over-the-top way, I am reminded of many fundamentalists (especially of the Christian variety) and how they want to argue their way to ‘saving’ someone. For me as a practicing Christian, I am always on guard as how to approach my own faith in a marketplace of people who may look down on religion and faith in any way. What ‘King of Anything’ has reminded me of is the fact that people don’t want to be lectured to and preached at. They themselves don’t want it when people tell them they’re doing something wrong- their parents and other disapproving people do that anyway. What is needed in situations is to just do life with the person, to love them where they’re at, and then after years of cultivating such relationships, then one has the authority to say anything relating to that person’s life, where it is thought that what is being undertaken seems to be destructive. ‘King of Anything’ reminds us that it is not in our authority that we declare the things with do, but it is in Gods. Needless to say, we ought not to go gun-ho into any situation- but rather, be tactful and shrewd, smart and wise about what to say and what to refrain from saying. Sara has hopefully allowed us all to take a step back and to realise that sometimes, hell-fire-and-brimstone is not the answer, but to live life the way Christ did- with love at the forefront and healthy dialogue and an openness to view things from a different perspective.
Which brings me back to the song ‘Brave’ from her album The Blessed Unrest, an album that gave her a nomination for Best Pop Album at the 2013 Grammy Awards. While we know that we can’t be very full-on and dogmatic about what we believe, because there is always a time and a place to share our own faith and share what we believe about certain issues, in the marketplace; we still mustn’t go through life timid and scared, never showing any opinion for fear of retribution or ridicule. We still have to be brave and showcase what we believe in a way as people come to be ok with us showing differing viewpoints. ‘Brave’ as a song aspires to be such a melody that allows people to be brave in whatever they accomplish, to be brave in being vulnerable, to showcase a side of themselves that they may be ashamed of, because they know they are in the presence of people that are going to love them as they are, never judging but always journeying alongside them and being a reminder of what the love of Christ should look like to people that may or may not have dissolution about Christianity as a whole. ‘Brave’ is a song that has awakened my own understanding of what it means to wear my own faith on my sleeve, to share Christ with people without being offensive, but then also standing firm and giving an account as to why I believe the way I do if asked. Other songs on the album that spoke to me are songs like ‘I Choose You’, a song about love and marriage (though I’m not married, hopefully I can aspire to attain and hold onto qualities sung about in said song!), and ‘Chasing the Sun’, a song full of lyrical imagery and motifs, where the main message is to never lose sight of living life to the full, to rid ourselves of apathy and laziness, and to always keep chasing the ‘sun’- a sense of hope and light, of things pure and joyous.
Aside from Sara’s 2015 album What’s Inside: Songs From Waitress, she also gave to us her 2019 album Amidst the Chaos, of which I am going to review for this website in the not too distant future. But what I will say is this- her 2019 album is one full of rejuvenation and a sense of purpose and intentionality- ‘Armour’ is a female empowerment song, while ‘Fire’ is a song of lament of the end of a relationship and using the metaphors of fire and cold as to symbolise the beginning (and middle) of a relationship as opposed to the end. The duet with John Legend, ‘A Safe Place to Land’, is a nice eloquent and quasi-spiritual melody that allows us to want to have a safe place to land, as we wonder where its going to come from, while other songs like ‘Poetry By Dead Men’ and ‘Saint Honesty’ also solidify the album lyrically as Sara continues to tread the line between relevant reflective pop and radio friendly material that can relate to the everyday person that only listens to radio!
Then there’s What’s Inside: Songs From Waitress. Released in 2015, this collection of 12 songs are part of a musical called Waitress, based off the 2007 movie starring Keri Russell as the lead character. Even though Sara didn’t have any hand in the writing of the musical, she did however write the music and lyrics to all these songs featured on this 2015 album- and what has transpired is this- we are met with vulnerable songs and heartfelt melodies that make me appreciate the musical genre a whole lot more than I myself already do. While I don’t necessarily know the intricacies of the storyline of Waitress (regardless, the musical may not be my own target demographic!), I must say these songs that accompany the musical are stellar and heartfelt, songs that evoke emotion and remind us about the struggles that can be faced in abusive relationships, growing up into people we don’t want to be, but haven’t realised how we get back to a place of innocence, from where we are right now. It is the song called ‘She Used to Be Mine’, the lone song to be ever made a single, that has impacted me over the weeks, and with words and lyrics like this, how can we not love this song, one of lament and loss, but one full of hope and looking ahead as well? Below is the music video of the song by Sara, but also a live duet with Katharine McPhee, current portrayal of the character who sings this song in the musical, as well as a piano only version with Jeremy Jordan helming the lead. Vulnerability at its crucial point, Sara showcases everything right in ‘She Used to Be Mine’, a song that is not only one of my favourites from the album, but also one of my favourite Sara Bareilles songs…ever!
Sara has undertaken what no other artist has done in her decade-long career. She has ventured into theatre work, and the result is a very well-known and aspiring musical in Waitress. Mind you, she also played a hand in the live NBC television event Jesus Christ Superstar where she played Mary Magdalene, but for me, she’ll always be remembered for her Waitress musical collaborations…and that’s ok. To undertake both a music career, and a career in theatre is remarkable; and is one of the very reasons why I respect Sara and her music. Will she be as popular as other well-known artists? Probably not. But that’s ok. In her most recent interview, Sara unveiled to us reasons why she is less concerned with sales, than she is about telling the truth. Truth often is masked by agendas, yet as Sara divulges, it is the truth of the matter that will connect us, rather than saying something that will please the masses, but hardly challenge and explore different ideas.
Does Sara Bareilles make the list for you all when you write your own ‘Best Influential Artists of All Time’ list? Is there any song (other than songs like ‘Love Song’, ‘Brave’ and ‘She Used to Be Mine’) that has impacted you on your journey through life thus far? Let us know in the comments. Till next time!
Things evolve into other things. Emotions do the same. Forever. Your best ally in all of these shifting seas is your faith in the fact that you are exactly where you are supposed to be. Stay put. Stay soft. Stay gentle and kind. Listen to your instincts. Meditate. Pray. Laugh as much as humanly possible. Pain is ok too. Say thank you for all of it. Feel proud that you have spent most of your life’s energy on cultivating a strong connection to your own soul and the will of your heart. It is leading you somewhere deeply satisfying, but never perfect.
[Excerpt from Sounds Like Me: My Life (So Far) In Song] AMAZON