We are absolutely thrilled to bring you our exclusive interview with Sarah June, a young, up-and-coming songwriter out of San Francisco who grew up a dreamy Detroit kid busking from Chi-Town to Motown. To hear Sarah June sing for the first time is to never forget her; she’s got the kind of voice that sounds like the wind when it howls through door locks and window panes, the high-pitched and breathy wail of a drowned child’s spirit calling your name from the underworld. It’s the kind of voice you run from in your nightmares—not so much haunted as it is chilling—and the moment it raises a hair on your neck or a goose bump on your arm is precisely the moment June’s songs live in. The songs on In Black Robes, a record that made it into Culturespill’s “Best Albums of 2010″ series, are no easier to get out of your mind than the name of the one who first broke your heart. Here, June talks about how she developed her distinctive sound, the many rock ‘n roll pioneers that influenced her music, what other young bands to look out for, the work she’s doing on her third album, and much more.
CS: In Black Robes features an impressive range of influences. From the obvious nods to groups like the Jaynetts, The Crystals or Blue Oyster Cult in some of these songs to broader influences such as Eliot Smith and Dave Van Ronk or dark, acoustic records like Hurt Me by Johnny Thunders or Atlantic City by Springsteen. How did such a wide range of influences find their way into your music?
SJ: Well, first of all I’m so pleased that you heard those musical nods I gave on In Black Robes to those musicians. As far as where I got my wide range of musical influences, I was lucky to grow up in Detroit, Michigan – Motown – the cradle of one of the most influential musical movements ever in American history! The signature Motown sound inspired me from the time I was a child, thanks to my parents exposing me to this music from the time I was a very young child. I was quite infatuated with girl groups like The Jaynetts, The Ronettes, and The Supremes as a young girl, and I also loved vintage Rock n’ Rollers like Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, and Sister Rosetta Tharpe to name only a few. My parents played a lot of records when I was a child; music that has become permanently woven into my subconscious. I remember listening to soul musicians like Marvin Gaye, Al Green, and Mary Wells, as well as more 60’s and 70’s era psychedelic music like Blue Oyster Cult, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Who, Pink Floyd, and many others.
Another heavy musical influence came from being classically trained on the piano beginning at eight years old. I played in recitals and competitions, and practiced about an hour every day. Then when I was about thirteen years old I delved into guitar and banjo, and taught myself by listening to artists whose guitar work I admired, like Ani Difranco, Joni Mitchell, Elliott Smith, and Nick Drake. I worked to emulate their guitar technique, and soon I was developing my own technique. Around fifteen years old, I took formal guitar and banjo lessons. I learned to play clawhammer, and I’ve adopted my own way of meshing that style of picking with my own eccentric style on the guitar. I use a banjo thumb-pick and I play on a Jazz guitar; in a very staccato clawhammer style. But, I do not use of alternate tunings that were often employed by those I admired on the guitar. I’ve remained a bit of a purest and I only play in standard tuning. And, I still go back to those old records from childhood when I need inspiration.
CS: The songs on this record feature a lot of fascinating, macabre imagery—the Grim Reaper makes several appearances, and you really like skeletons—especially lonely ones! Can you talk about how you developed a fascination with that sort of imagery in your songwriting?
SJ: I have always been fascinated with dark imagery, but in a very lighthearted way. I loved those 1930’s cartoons of the dancing skeletons, for example. I also collect and create Day of the Dead art, whose imagery centers around skulls and skeletons. I also collect religious icon art, mostly Catholic. On In Black Robes I wanted to tackle the classic (and almost cliché) themes of death and loss, while somehow creating fresh, original, and currently relevant songs that still lie within this framework.
CS: What is your response to those who are content to characterize In Black Robes merely as a “goth” album?
SJ: It’s not a goth album. It is more of an Americana album with heavy blues, jazz, and Rock n’ Roll undertones than anything else. I think that if more young people took the time to delve into old recordings of artists who planted the true roots of Rock n’ Roll, their ideas of genre would be broadened. And I’m not talking about Elvis, which is where a lot of folks tend to name the creator of Rock n’ Roll. I’m honoring the unsung heroes who wrote Rock n’ Roll songs all the way back to the 1930’s. The early Rock n’ Roll songs were quite sparse, had complex guitar, simple hooks, and a gritty honesty. I feel that is what I capture in my music (even if I don’t have a gritty voice). I work very hard to be well-versed in Blues, Jazz, and Rock n’ Roll. I think it is important to acknowledge the roots of musical movements as well as picking the new leaves that have grown with time. These new leaves, so to speak, have deep roots.
CS: The song “Motown” displays a lot of warm affection for the city of Detroit. You suggest that Detroit will be fine even as you acknowledge the terrible struggles that city is currently going through. The song is a bit of a departure from the album’s predominant themes—why were you compelled to craft a song on the subject of the struggles that the city of Detroit currently faces?
SJ: I think Detroit is a misunderstood city by those who haven’t lived here. This city, like so many large cities, has gone through many waves of change, some that have hailed in Detroit’s Golden Era, and some that have brought in poverty, despair, and urban decay. What many people do not know is that Detroit is still a city thriving with artists, musicians, and entrepreneurs, and has a very diverse culture, is at a forefront of Urban Farming, and has a resurgence of excitement over where the city is headed. Detroit will rise above its misfortunes, and emerge again “The Paris of the Midwest”.
CS: How, if at all, did your experience playing gigs in Detroit and Chicago as a teen help you develop the kind the unique sound and songwriting that you employ today?
SJ: Well, I performed in bars before I was old enough to drink, and before smoking laws were passed. So, I had the gritty experience of playing in bars filled with smoke, getting served beer as a teenager, and having to compete with all male musicians as a very petite young girl. I quickly learned to summon a raw energy that most people wouldn’t expect of a young female performer with just a guitar and a microphone.
CS: You currently live in San Francisco, where there appears to be an increasingly vibrant music scene—bands like Lloyd’s Garage and Thee Oh Sees come to mind. What attracted you to San Francisco, and are there any up-and-coming San Fran bands that we should keep an eye on?
SJ: I wanted to live in California, but not in Los Angeles. So I chose San Francisco. I made a good choice. It is a fantastic city with so much going on. As far as music, I would keep an eye out for Summer of Glaciers, The Heavy Sugar Duo, Unwoman, and Carta.
CS: One thing you always hear about San Francisco is that it’s a phenomenally expensive place to live. How does a young songwriter get by in a town like that?
SJ: It is phenomenally expensive. I got by. I’m a hard worker, and I’ve been lucky to be able to make it as a musician. I did have milk-crates for furniture at times and bought food with pocket change, but I’ve been able to make it as a musician for the last couple of years, and for that I am so very thankful. I have incredible fans.
CS: How does the San Francisco music scene compare to the scene in Detroit, a town that has given birth to bands like Electric Six, The White Stripes and The Detroit Cobras?
SJ: I think a lot of people would like to say the music scenes are vastly different, but I don’t agree. I think that Detroit has a richer history in music, seeing as it is Motown! The music being made now in Detroit is perhaps harder to find just due to the fact that Detroit is comparatively a giant, geographically speaking, to San Francisco. In San Francisco you can walk around to different clubs and discover music fairly easily. In Detroit you have to dig. I like digging.
CS: What are some up-and-coming Detroit bands that we should be looking out for?
CS: Going back to your own music, Sarah, you’ve mentioned recently on your Facebook page that you have a lot of new music in store. What more can you tell us about the new music you’ve been working on lately?
SJ: Well, I’m working on my third album. I have a lot of the songs already written, and I’ve been doing video unplugged version demos of all of the new songs for my fans. My music is currently in a grittier phase – I am writing a lot of dark rock n’ roll songs that are much more autobiographical. I also have an official music video for “Judgement Day” (On In Black Robes) that will be released in early 2011, as well as a digital release album of remixes! And, most importantly, I’m planning a tour. I’ll be in a town near you soon!