Somehow it would not have been quite right for Sarah Gwen to give her debut CD any other name but her own. “Yes, every song here is autobiographical,” Sarah Gwen definitively admits. “When people come up to me at my shows and say, ‘It’s so real’, I think, well, what is it supposed to be? I was naïve and clueless,” she continues, “I didn’t even realize that people wrote fictional songs until everyone seemed to think it was weird that every one of my songs was true. I will never understand people writing songs about riding trains when they weren’t on them.”
While it is true at a certain level for all debut records that the artist went through a lifetime of experiences to create that work, Sarah Gwen’s story is more literal than many.
Inspired by Nirvana then at their apex, Sarah taught herself to play guitar and start writing songs at 15, in the small Idaho town where she grew up.
A decade later, in her mid-¬‐20’s, she found herself divorced and living in Portland OR. “I didn’t play music while I was married, but when we broke up, I moved into an apartment and it was all I did. I would come home from a bar and couldn’t sleep, so I had this window to write and record songs between 1 and 3 a.m. It was always a private thing, a cathartic outlet, and a way for me to express the things I was pissed off about but didn’t know how to say to people. All these songs were written about my ex-¬‐husband and two guys I dated after that.”
Enter Portland guitarist and songwriter Scott Weddle (Amelia, Storm Large, The Flatirons). “I never would have made this record without Scott,” says Sarah. “I would have been happy to play the songs alone in my bedroom at night. But Scott introduced me to people, helped me get some shows and encouraged me.”
That push led Sarah Gwen to Portland’s Dead Aunt Thelma’s Recording Studio with Scott Weddle, multi-¬‐instrumentalist and engineer Mark Orton (Tin Hat Trio), and somewhat remarkably, two friends of Weddle’s and one of the most highly regarded rhythm sections in Americana music – drummer Jay Bellerose and bassist Jennifer Condos – on a brief hiatus from touring as Ray LaMontagne’s band (The Prairie Dogs) and various high placed sessions jobs (Robert Plant / Alison Krauss, Aimee Mann, Joe Henry, Paula Cole and a near endless list).
They knocked out all 12 songs in two days. Sarah Gwen: “It was all kind of a blur. But it was awesome to hear these songs sounding so complete, professional and beautiful. The players on this record are insanely great. I’d never had a bass player before, but it worked so well with the songs, made them sound so much fuller. “
The songs vary quite a bit in flavor from country (“King of France”, “Good Girl”), Tom Waits-¬‐ish blues folk (“Come Get Me”, “Woods”), soul (“Don’t Mean To”, “Ready”), pop (“Be Mine”) to a couple of terrific ballads (“I’ll Show You”, “Elephant”).
But it’s all about Sarah Gwen’s warm, expressive, deeply passionate voice and unflinching lyrics (“Another woman’s baby on my hip / She cries all damn day / Guess I’ll join her”). You immediately sit up and listen in “Impossible” when she sings “Your hands on my neck / you said spread your legs / You kissed me so hard I thought my teeth would break.” No one would guess that such a newcomer would possess the power, control and confidence shown in “Impossible” to repeat a simple line and just ever so slightly turn up the heat as she proceeds: “Are you jealous?” “Are you jealous?” “Are you jeall-¬‐louss? Do you get jealous?” Sarah Gwen is a natural, blessed as both a writer and singer with a controlled intensity and authenticity that you can’t teach.
The one song here that Sarah Gwen did not write is an unlikely cover – Genesis’ “Misunderstanding”, about as far from the tough Americana tone of this CD as one can get. There is zero irony in this slowed down, aching version of the song, which Sarah Gwen against all odds transforms into something genuinely moving.
Ask Sarah about her influences and she gravitates not to the female singer-¬‐ songwriters she sometimes gets compared to (Lucinda Williams, Liz Phair, Polly Jean Harvey), but Tom Petty. “Oh man, Tom Petty. I wish I was that tough and a rocking guitar player like him.”
I find it fitting she would use the word “tough” because one of the main reasons these songs resonate so strongly for everyone who hears them is their rare combination of bare vulnerability and undefeatable resilience. As one friend of mine leaned over and said to me three songs into the set the first time he heard Sarah: “Goddamn, she is bad ass.”
From here, Sarah Gwen is looking forward to finally putting music first in her life, out from the cover of the middle of the night and into record stores and live music venues across the US. Her goal is as simple and direct as her songs: “I want people to hear these songs as authentic genuine music.”
So is Sarah in the same space as when she wrote these songs? “I am happier in my personal life now,” says Sarah Gwen. “I don’t feel as vulnerable as I did a few years ago. But when I sing the songs live, I easily tap right back into what was part a big part of my life. And I will probably always write about things that bum me out. I have tried to write a love song but trust me, I am not very good at it (laughs).”
When You Motor Away music blog