Monday, November 30, 2009
Minneapolis-based singer-songwriter Sarah Pray is coming to Chicago for a set at Underground Lounge on Thursday, December 10 (8 p.m., 952 W Newport Ave.), and we recently caught up with her for a Q&A to preview the show.
Pray has been touring extensively and getting ready to release an album, Empty Words, in the coming months. The tracks up for preview are diverse in style - from alt-rock ("Thank God") to nostalgic 50s-styled doo-wop ("Still Here") to acoustic folk ("One Night Stand") - but the one constant is her passionate, soaring voice. Her singing grabs hold right away and allows her material to fully shine. With a songwriting ability and delivery that are both genuinely impressive, Pray's live show should be well worth checking out.
LISTEN: Sarah Pray - "Thank God"
Q&A with Sarah Pray
WCR: First off, tell us a bit about your history as a musician. How and when did you start writing and performing?
SP: Actually my dad taught me piano out of the womb and that's where I learned the basics and a love for music. I never considered writing my own songs until about four years ago when I starting playing the guitar. I don't know why exactly, but the unfamiliarity of strings against my fingers made me want to unbottle feelings. Though, lately I've been writing more and more on the piano. My earliest shows were at various bars around the Twin Cities. The 400 Bar in Minneapolis is where I gained the most experience and confidence in performing.
You're currently working on an album, Empty Words, for release in 2010 to follow-up your debut EP. Tell us about the recording process so far and what we can expect to hear in the material.
Yeah, I've been recording with a great producer, Bill Maynard, at Paradyme Productions in Madison, WI. The process has been pretty organic and exciting, I think because of our openness to try anything and let the song take its proper course. For example "Still Here," which I wrote while working at a nursing home and from the perspective of some of the folks there missing their spouses, became a song straight out of the 50s. We degraded the sound quality, added record hiss and a horn section. I might add a spoken word section too if I can pull off that sexy voice thing girl groups had back in the day. But some of the songs we're recording are more alt-country and even a little R&B, so I intend the record to be diverse as possible.
Of all the songs you've done so far, which is is your favorite - or at least the one you'd like people to hear the most - and why?
I have several songs that I can't wait to record, but so far I'm most proud of "Thank God." The first line is "paid my rent last time," which is what I did at the beginning of this year. I decided to move in with a friend and quit my jail-like job so I could afford touring and playing music full time. I remember writing the lyrics on a napkin during my work break a few months before I quit. I think the song really motivated me to actually do what I was daydreaming about at work and I hope the song captures some of the frustration on behalf of so many people I know who feel trapped in their lives, whether it be a job they can't quit or a dream they can't pursue. It also features this dude named God, and he told me you should all listen to the song.
In terms of influences who do you think people would most likely be able to hear in your music, and also who might they be surprised to learn has been an inspiration?
I like the bitchiness of Fiona Apple and PJ Harvey, the prettiness and mellowness of Sarah McLachlan and Patty Griffin. What else...actually, I was Linda in a Linda Ronstadt tribute band for a while so I really appreciate the strength and power behind her voice and the 60s and 70s rock genres that she was a part of.
You were last in Chicago in October for a show with Jim Lauderdale at Uncommon Ground. How did that go?
Great. Jim is an amazing songwriter and has written songs for the Dixie Chicks, Patty Loveless and many great female artists. He played a song called "Why Do I Love You" that night that made me cry just a little bit. The song is no longer in circulation so I think it would be cool to revive it and possibility include it on my album. Jim gave me the OK so we'll see! I like the idea of songs having a life of their own, starting in their creator and then passing through each generation, crossing genres, and hopefully living on forever.
You're getting set to return to Chicago soon for a December 10 show at Underground Lounge. What about Chicago and its music scene stands out to you or differs from Minneapolis and other cities you've played?
I grew up in Madison, WI, so Chicago was my first big city experience. I've always been intimidated by it ever since I got dropped off in downtown Chicago for a middle school band trip and didn't know what to do for the day. I think I'm still recovering from the traumatic experience, but I will say I've met some great Chicago bands and visual artists through playing festivals around Wicker Park and Lincoln Park. The music scene here feels similar to that of Minneapolis and many cities of its size in that it's pretty eclectic and always changing.
It's obvious you put a lot of effort into performing in various states and cities outside of where you're based, with a list of past shows that spans everywhere from LA to Atlanta to New York. Why is it important for you to get out on the road and how do you think it's impacted your time as a musician so far?
Yeah, traveling is what makes me happy. Even though it makes me lonely and smelly at times, it feels like living in the moment. For me that directly translates to better songwriting and better performing. It allows me to stumble upon and reach out to inspiring people and inspiring music. It also allows me to play and write songs every day because I don't have anywhere else to be but on the road. Also, the driving really calms me down and gives me space to think, which I sometimes forget to do!
Where has been your favorite place to play a show?
Probably at the Basement in Nashville. It's a venue in the basement of a record store called Grimey's and very cool indeed. I'm not even that into country music, but I've never been so blown away by the talent while walking up and down Broadway Street. I would definitely consider moving there for a while just to be around that environment.
Apart from the release of your album, what can we expect from you in the coming months? Are there any additional projects or live dates in the works?
Well, actually I'll be on my first European tour December through February. Hopefully I'll be technologically savvy enough to update MySpace with pictures and videos. I must say I'm a little nervous about the whole thing, but obviously excited. I'll be playing a bunch of shows in Germany, but hitting most countries in Western Europe. When I get back the plan is to finish recording the album.
Where can people go to find out more about you and your music?
www.myspace.com/sarahpray is the most updated source for shows, new music and news about the album release. I love to make Twitter friends with people, too (http://twitter.com/sarahpray). Facebook is just as addictive at www.facebook/sarahpraymusic. I'll have some songs available on iTunes by the new year, too!