Name: Sarah Williams White
Occupations: Singer, songwriter, producer, multi-instrumentalist
Current Release: Sarah Williams White's Unfathomable LP is out via First Word.
Recommendations: Journey in Satchidananda by Alice Coltrane; The Fountainhead by Ayn Road
If you enjoyed this interview with Sarah Williams White, visit her official website for more information. She is also on Instagram, Facebook, twitter, and Soundcloud.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started dabbling in writing and production with a group of friends when I was about 13 at this youth music charity funded program called community music. That was just a little bit of fun writing pop songs together and getting help recording midi tracks, pretending we were in a girl band like All Saints.
Then when I was 15 or so I managed to get a cheap PC, a copy of Cubase, a cheap condenser mic and audio card. One of the tech teachers at the youth music program helped me figure it all out. I was also starting to learn Jazz chord progressions and standards with my piano teacher who also sang. And at the same time I discovered Erykah Badu and Fiona Apple who I found incredibly exciting, very accessible and yet very varied and musically unique, being young women themselves also drew me in too.
So I started having a lot of fun creating my own ideas and recording layering sounds with all these new musical influences around me.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
In terms of my singing voice I definitely started out imitating those two artists in particular Erykah Badu and Fiona Apple. I studied their songs relentlessly amongst other artists like Stevie Wonder and would sing in their style at the piano, American accent and all. Probably took me at least five years exploring my own songs and other artists to find my own voice and singing more naturally.
However in terms of production and recording, this was always a playful space for me from the beginning, layering sounds that weren't ever intentionally trying to copy anything else but just simply what I liked making.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
That’s a hard question. I’ve always liked a lot of time to myself ever since I was a kid; to think and create stuff. I'm not sure I even have a strong sense of identity … That’s something I haven’t really thought much on. I just am.
I’ve grown up in one of the most hectic cosmopolitan cities in the world, I don’t have any cultural traditions or strong cultural heritage to pull from. But I like to drink my surroundings in, and the people around me, and take my time, and find huge stimulus and relief in the great outdoors and nature. This all influences my creativity.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
My main challenges starting out were engineering the right sounds for the music I heard in my head, working lazily with MIDI instruments that lacked quality. So I tried to work with other musicians and producers however I never enjoyed the lack of confidence and freedom I felt trying to produce music in my voice around others.
I have perhaps gotten slightly better at collaborating over time as I’ve built more confidence. I also was lucky to find one person I do fully trust with my musical voice whom I get to record my drum tracks and then mix my records to heighten that quality of sound I’m after. And guess what, I married him!
Over the years I’ve also upgraded music gear and instrumentation and I learn more with each record I produce in terms of engineering the sound I want.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
I guess I’ve already answered most of this in the last few questions, but I will say along my path of learning production I’ve always been led instinctively by what I enjoy and find the easiest to create and record my songs.
So for me, picking up a real instrument, be it my Hohner Pianet or bass guitar or maracas or vocal loop, is tons more fun and instantly creative than working in the box too much with software and virtual instruments.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
Perhaps the loop pedal, used in the studio to create percussion loops and rhythmic patterns that I can write songs to. I’ll often keep the original loops in my records because I end up loving the sound. The loop pedal again is so instantly creative and fun and can help me step out of my perfectionism.
When you record a sound and loop it, it’s like you have to commit to every mistake in that few seconds and sometimes the mistakes end up becoming integral.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
As I mentioned before, when I want to make a record in my own voice with me as the lead artist, I like to have full freedom to be instinctual and not explain my path to anyone. So at the moment my easiest way of collaborating is via file sharing and talking through ideas once I’ve had some time by myself with them.
However I also have found mad joy in playing and singing live with others on their projects, following their lead more. I’d like to do more of that, as well as writing with others towards new projects, e.g. scoring to visuals, or making records under a different name and experimentation.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
Sadly there’s not been much time for new studio creations while I’ve been working on my latest album campaign.
When I’m not doing my part-time day job or childcare then a typical alt workday morning routine after walking my daughter to nursery, would be catching up on emails, working on release artworks or videos and preparing social posts and other singles or album release admin. I don’t have a manager so I look after all that stuff. Then if I’m lucky maybe I’ll get a tinkle on the piano!
But thankfully more time should open up now the album is actually out. I’m actually planning to start my new projects while on maternity leave with my second kid! I’m hoping this next phase of record making will blend into my existing manic life seamlessly … well I can but hope!
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
‘Rewind’ from my last album Of The New World stands out to me as a moment when I felt strength to push forward more experimentation in my musical arrangement and production.
My more comfortable position beforehand was the more classic song-led pop track. ‘Rewind’ was something I created with complete freedom harmonically, instrumentally and arrangement wise. It came together very quickly. I felt proud enough of it to follow it through with a vocal and song arrangement. It was me stepping away from boundaries I had felt previously, from managers and business types I had had around me suggesting more singular mainstream paths that didn’t always fit me.
It was also me learning ways to finally combine some of my very varied influences into my own sound.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
If I’m writing lyrics or poetry then I often find my best state of mind comes when I’m outdoors or on a train or moving somehow. Motion and new spaces free up the words and allow me to reflect. When I’m creating the music, I need more peace of mind, less distraction.
Distractions for me come in the form of maybe being too aware of others, or feeling deep low self-esteem, or problems with technology. I am yet to master good strategies to avoid these.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
I’m not sure I’ve had an experience of music hurting. The creative process can definitely be painful! Music can trigger a negative memory I guess …
I think music has a magic way of triggering memories and taking you back to a specific place and time. That’s why it’s used successfully with patients with dementia. There’s tons of songs for me personally that give me deep nostalgia for a moment in time, too many to name.
Music is a great tool for escape and easing emotions, it can make you move when you didn’t think you could, or it can be comforting when you find a special voice that you connect with or words and lyrics you can relate to.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
I don’t think it’s ever ok to just straight copy another artist, or person for that matter. We can all admire and be inspired by one another but my hope is that we can all learn self pride and groundedness within ourselves to find our own voice and not excessively imitate another, especially another’s work.
We all borrow and learn how to communicate with one another by our surroundings everyday, e.g. with signs or greetings, I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with that as long as we also all show one another respect and empathy.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
I find the most inspiring overlaps of the senses outdoors when I’m quiet with nature, hearing birds singing or wind blowing through trees, smelling dewy grass, seeing beautiful cloud formations, tasting a carrot straight from the earth.
Our senses work when we need them to work, they keep us alive, they stimulate our brains. Music and art we just use as another form of this.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
As an artist I really just let whatever’s within me out. Ultimately it’s quite a selfish act. I don’t feel comfortable using my artistry as a platform to convince others of my beliefs politically, socially or otherwise. I use my art to express subjects I feel deeply about for sure, but I don’t purposefully write about things to seek more engagement from people.
I think art has to come from an honest place.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
Music has that physical vibratory connection and language between people which words do not. Words can be restrictive, they have a limit. Sometimes it’s easier to understand someone through facial or bodily expressions than words, because there is a personableness or individuality about them, you can feel the emotion.
This is the same for music. Music is limitless in its ability to communicate.