Background: In March, 2017, I interviewed singer-songwriter/earth scientist Sarah Beatty via email, as background for my review (in Deep Roots Magazine) of her Bandit Queen album. The interview spanned a single email exchange; I sent her the questions, and after a few days I got back all her answers. At the time, Sarah was wrapping up a tour of Europe (Luxembourg, Germany, Austria…). Because she’s been part of the music scene in the Hamilton-Ontario area for some years, I knew, I needn’t bother her with basic questions — the information would already be available from numerous other sources; consequently, I tried to ask questions which if not deeper exactly could at least be considered follow-ups to what I’d already learned elsewhere. Sarah gave very generous answers to my questions, so generous, in fact, that I regretted not being able to incorporate the whole exchange at Deep Roots. With her permission, I’ve reproduced the interview below. And of course, except for cleaning up typos and the like, I haven’t otherwise changed anything.
My questions and Sarah’s responses include numerous references to details with which RAMH readers may be unfamiliar; where appropriate, especially in case you’re looking for more background yourself, I’ve added explanatory links (which will open in new windows or tabs) and annotations.
You can read the Bandit Queen review itself here.
About Sarah herself
JES: You told one interviewer that the first time you sang publicly was in 3rd grade, singing “O Holy Night” with your classmates — and suddenly realized that (a) you were in fact singing, and (b) you were the only one singing. (The others were watching you — I loved that detail.) Had you sung privately before — at home, with family or alone, or with friends, whatever? Did you have someone “musical” in your life as a kid?
SB: I grew up listening to books on tape and songs my dad played on trips between Parry Sound in Northern Ontario and Rochester, NY, the two places where I grew up. Before public school music stuff started happening, where I really learned about music in a technical way, I didn’t have too much awareness of my musical muscles or how to develop them. One summer, when I was 5 or so, we stayed at my grandma’s in Parry Sound and she had a beautiful and out-of-tune piano that just sat there. I wanted to play it well so my Dad put me in lessons with Mrs. Gabel down the street. She was really nice, but I wasn’t as good as I could hear myself in my head, so I didn’t think I was good at all and stopped going. I didn’t know about artist development at the time. Thankfully for me, my dad really loved songs. Weird songs, sad songs, funny songs mostly… and so children’s music (Raffi, Burl Ives, Connie Kaldor, Alvin and the Chipmunks) and songwriters that my dad got excited about (Ray Stevens, Roger Miller, Johnny Cash, Jim Croce) were around all the time. With my mom, she grew up in a musical family and played French horn through high school. So, when I turned 9 and it was time to pick an instrument, my mom picked French horn for me and I joined the school choir. Before that, listening to Cabbage Patch Christmas a thousand times is likely where my own musical impulse came out — probably around the same time as those piano lessons. I drove my family completely bonkers listening to that.
JES: You’re probably sick of being asked questions about the other Sarah Beatty — you as a soil scientist — and how you work your priorities, how you see the two careers balancing out over time, and so on. But I’m curious about the overlap between the two. “The Mighty Molecule” is I think the only song of yours which lets the scientist peek through. (It may be the only song, ever, with the word “polymeric” in the lyrics.) Are there other songs of yours which you’re pretty sure were influenced by your scientific work?
SB: (I appreciate that. :-)) “Prehistoric Sludge” is the most recent experiment with the overlap, and more intentional than “The Mighty Molecule.” I wrote it in a few hours, but it took 12 years and a PhD to understand how to write “Sludge.”
JES: Does the spirit ever go in the other direction? Has music — your own, or someone else’s — informed your scientific work at all?
SB: Yeah, I think so. I have this obsession with nature and complexity that comes out in different ways depending partly on how much I can get away with at the time, and partly by what I feel compelled to share. I might not be direct about it, but in journal articles and talks, there’s definitely been overlap coming from things that I’ve learned through being an artist. And in the music, I’ll sing about things I’ve learned through my science work. Artists and scientists are not so different in this way, finding the truth or beauty of a matter and sharing that with people with the language that’s available to them, be it sonic, scientific, or something else. The wrench in this whole thing is that the truth can be hard to locate and a big pill to swallow.
JES: (I was curious enough about it that I looked up a couple papers of yours [here and here], from a 2016 EGU conference in Vienna. Read the abstracts, and closely inspected — to the extent I could — the poster you did for the one on water, ethanol, and “post wildfire soils.” They told me, kind of (laughing), that your area of specialization is the wettability/repellency of soils… But I’m damned if I can find any reference to any of that in the lyrics so far!)
SB: (Amazing. . . yeah, the science lyrics are more nebulous… and I wonder if part of what drives them is related to how much I cover a topic in science — i.e., I’ve spent a lot of time thinking/writing about repellency and so maybe that neuron is spent. LOL. I dunno).
About her music prior to the Bandit Queen album
JES: Black Gramophone included music from as far back as 7-8 years before the album’s 2012 release. Were all of Bandit Queen‘s songs written in the 4-5 years between the two albums, or did you have some that weren’t just quite “done” at the time of Black Gramophone?
SB: Bandit Queen is all new songs.
JES: I’m afraid I haven’t (yet) listened to any of the music you did with The Marantz Project, Mike Lynch, et al. It all surely influenced, in some way, the direction you’d take solo. But looking back on it now, did anything in particular stand out to you as especially instrumental in the direction your music seems to be growing?
SB: Yeah, I’m getting clearer and clearer on who I am and what that means in terms of writing songs. I learned a lot from The Marantz Project, which was a jam band at its core. Still do. The hardest and easiest transition to make was going from playing in a band with them to playing solo with Black Gramophone. My musical identity was always grounded in collaboration. To make music completely on my own? That, for me, was facing the music. Staring into the void. Mike Lynch is a bit of a different story because I met him in Parry Sound when his band (with Darren Beaton and Jay Peters) played a venue where I worked back in 2001. They played wicked country and hot bluegrass and I ended up singing with his band that night before I’d even really talked to any of them. And a thing happened that changed me forever. I didn’t know it at the time, but when things are hot and cooking, and the voices are live, some kind of spirit comes in and it’s like some other force is in the space around the players and the players are almost passive participants. That’s where great performances and moments live and that’s what I felt that night. I ended up moving to St. Catharines for school and Mike and I toured a fair bit together around Ontario before The Marantz Project started up. If you look at what I’m doing now, there’s most definitely a lineage from the time I spent with those two projects. Bandit Queen, while it generated a different confrontation with the mirror, is a homecoming in a lot of ways. Playing with horns, and multiple voices, and pianos… that’s where things started for me. So, this was a bit more like touching back on what I’d learned a long time ago, seeing what was still with me, and pulling that into the 21st century.
JES: How did your work with Kory Neely/MC Shadow come about? (Before I listened to any of his “trilogy” songs, I’d made up my mind that the Sarah Beatty featured therein had to be a different Sarah Beatty. Surprise, surprise. Your voice is pretty unmistakable, despite the surrounding sonic space.)
SB: I’d put the word out in Hamilton that I was looking for something to do other than my own stuff. Kory (MC Shadow) listened to Black Gramophone and got excited about me coming in and doing some vocals on a new project he was working on. And I was stoked about that. Kory was a pioneer in Canadian hip hop music and had his own song concept thing happening with Trilogy that I wanted to be a part of. Aside from some vocal leads I was doing with My Son The Hurricane on tour, I wasn’t terribly busy at that time. It was a good chance to swim around in hip-hop some more and Kory’s become a musical ally.
JES: Do you listen much to rap/hip-hop, or other genres outside the singer-songwriter/Americana/roots you seem to be leaning towards? (In one interview, you made a glancing reference to “math metal” — I almost fell out of my chair.)
SB: When it’s interesting or fun, yeah. Lee Reed and Mother Tareka are local to Hamilton and heroic to me. Their music says so much. The hip-hop imprint, however, came from coming of age in the ’90s. You had all kinds of mainstream artists doing and saying really interesting and important things and I listened to everything. I tended to stay away from angry hip-hop, but the more conscious stuff with artists like Common, Mos Def, and Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five was really moving. The forum seems different now. I find most modern mainstream stuff difficult to listen to. So much of it just doesn’t sound real, and not in an analogue vs. digital kind of way. It’s more like food science — where synthesized food additives are supposed to emulate flavour and nourishment, but mostly they just leave you feeling more hungry than you were before. Now, I listen almost exclusively to singer-songwriters and bands with soul or insight — and there are a bunch, you just have to go to a different grocery store aisle.
JES: Soft Geography : I guess you could call this an EP, right? Although it includes 6 tracks, there are really just 3 songs — each recorded twice: once duo (with Chris Altmann) and once, more like a full production (with Chris Bartos). As with the MC Shadow question, above, how did you and the two Chris’s cross paths?
SB: Chris Altmann and I met through Alysha, his wife, who I’d met at Folk Music Ontario. She wears these great vintage dresses, and I started talking to her. I found out she and Chris had just moved to Hamilton and that Chris, her husband, played pedal steel and pretty much anything with strings or a resonance chamber. Chris Bartos I met through an artist I barely knew, but whose work I really liked named, Jonathan Byrd. J-Byrd was playing a show at The Moonshine Cafe, this great songwriter venue in Oakville, ON. Jonathan had played a bunch of stuff from his album, The Law and The Lonesome, and I commented on it after the show. Turned out that his guitar player (Chris Bartos) that night had produced that very record. So, Bartos and I started talking and things developed from there.
JES: To what extent was the “two versions” approach an experiment, or a learning experience? I’m thinking of one of the most striking differences between Black Gramophone and Bandit Queen — straight-up acoustic, vs. multi-layered production — Soft Geography seems almost like a transitional moment between the two. (Especially since two of the songs on Soft Geography also appear in different form on Bandit Queen.)
SB: Ha. It’s all an experiment and it’s all learning. Black Gramophone was an investigation/experiment with concision. What are the essential parts of a song, and can I hang in a place where it’s just me and a microphone? A total exercise in restraint. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Soft Geography was a part of me building up different sonic and studio muscles that I’d eventually need for Bandit Queen.
JES: About the [Soft Geography] title: I found three possible references which might have supplied that. The most likely: it’s the title of Gillian Wigmore‘s 2007 poetry collection. What draws you to her work — and in which song on this recording (if any of them) do you think you might have touched on that influence?
SB: No conscious connection with Gillian’s work. I made up the title, or at least I thought I had ;-). The artwork on the back [of Soft Geography] is a Digital Elevation Model I made of Hamilton Harbour. Shoreline environments are really active and in a lot of ways, Hamilton’s been an important shoreline for me and my songwriting.
About Bandit Queen
JES: The phrase “slaves and kings” is used in a number of songs, hymns, book titles… Any particular writing you had in mind when composing your own “Slaves and Kings”?
SB: I didn’t have a particular writing in mind when I was writing “Slaves and Kings,” which isn’t to say that a reference to some writing isn’t buried somewhere in my subconscious… But I have been pretty taken with clichés as of late, and this class/hierarchy apparent separation of people based on wealth (financial or otherwise) has been on my radar for some time. Songwriting is a really interesting practice. You sit down and you reveal yourself to the world, but at the same time, the world reveals itself to you. Sometimes, in that space, especially when you’re in stream-of-consciousness territory, you don’t actually have the conscious or technical knowledge to make sense of a message or know where it came from. There’s a lot in this song that I’m still learning about and making sense of.
JES: Except for your voice, Bandit Queen seems almost like the work of a completely different artist than the one on your previous recordings (although there were hints of what was coming with Soft Geography). Production — backing vocals, band, etc. — aside, did you have any goal(s) you hoped to achieve with Bandit Queen?
SB: I really wanted this record to have stories and soul. I also wanted to confront some stereotypes that exists around female singer songwriters. How that was going to manifest in the record’s sound, I was less clear on, but as the record came into focus through the songwriting and production process, it started to reveal itself. It was going to be a feisty, difficult, fun, and whatever-the-hell-it-wanted-to-be kind of record. I struggled a lot with the confrontation that this wasn’t going to sound like my previous releases and then I gave in to how awesome and difficult growing is.
JES: From the first time I heard the “Bandit Queen” single, as I think you know, I’ve been struck by the apparent pleasure you take in doing interesting things with your voice. (I loved the video of you doing “The Mighty Molecule” for HeartstringsTV: the acoustics in the school hallway…!) You’ve cited Joni Mitchell, Ani DiFranco, and Aretha Franklin as specific influences in your early life; other reviewers have thrown in comparisons to Billie Holiday, Feist, and Regina Spektor. Is there one performer in particular who’s influenced your singing style?
SB: I was always drawn to soulful singers. Janis Joplin, Billie Holiday, and Patsy Cline are probably the big three, and in equal measure.
JES: You’ve released two singles from the album so far, “Bandit Queen” and “Dig Before You Sow.” Plans for a third?
SB: Yeah, I’ve got some plans up my sleeve, but nothing’s been decided yet.
JES: Finally: What’s up next? You’ve just wrapped up a tour of several months in Europe; upcoming tour dates are much closer to home — all in Ontario. Any plans for being on the road anywhere else, even if nothing’s nailed down yet? Or more music in the pipeline?
SB: Yeah, I’ve got some shows coming up that are cool. I’m opening for Ron Sexsmith soon, and I’m currently booking tour in Western Canada for the summer and Europe again in the fall. I really like performing over there and my German is improving. And new songs. Always.