Sara Bareilles on How a 'Rough Year' Inspired Her Most Personal Album Yet (Q&A)

"I wasn't precious at all about letting the songs become as big as they wanted to be," says the singer-songwriter who scored a massive hit with 2007's "Love Song."

Sara Bareilles’ breakthrough, 2007’s “Love Song,” has to count as one of the most ironic smashes ever. It was written as a response to her label telling her she needed to come up with a hit; her musical response, about how she had no intention of conforming, turned out to be just the blockbuster the record company wanted.

But the rebelliousness that bubbled up in “Love Song” didn’t mean that Bareilles brushed off having the hit when she got one, or that she isn’t striving to be radio-friendly in her own fashion  Her just-released new album, The Blessed Unrest, is the first of her long-players to break with her signature piano-based sound in a big way, instead favoring up-to-the-moment beats and stylings, even if the underlying sentiments are no less singer-songwriterly than ever. “I’ve always been very autobiographical in the way that I write, but that can be dressed up a million different ways,” she tells The Hollywood Reporter. On this album, she “took advice that was actually given to me a really long time ago about not being too precious about the choices you make.”

Bareilles preceded her latest album (which hit stores this week) with a solo tour of clubs and small theaters that sold out instantly. Fans who couldn’t get in can take some solace in the fact that her ecstatically reviewed stop at L.A.’s El Rey Theatre was filmed for an upcoming DVD release. In the meantime, she’s switched out her entire band in anticipation of a co-headlining tour of amphitheaters in September with One Republic, a bill that may emphasize her desire to find an audience that appreciates pure pop craftsmanship as well as personal musings.

THR inquired about her about Blessed Unrest and its first single -- a coming-out anthem, “Brave” -- as well as her intriguing involvement in a planned Broadway musical based on Adrienne Shelley’s film Waitress. Given her longstanding love of musical theater, it’s unlikely she’ll ever rise in protest against the show’s producers and compose a song based around the hook “I’m not gonna write you a show-stopping 11 o’clock number.”

The Hollywood Reporter: You’ll be co-headlining in a couple of months with One Republic. While there’s bound to be a bit of audience overlap, is  part of the idea to pick up new fans from each other’s followings?

Sara Bareilles: I’m friends with Ryan [Tedder]. We’ve done a handful of shows in the past and gotten along really well, so it’s really enticing when you can end up on a tour with your friends. And I think it’ll be a nice crossover. I don’t think it’s a total no-brainer that our audiences will be super-familiar with each other’s repertoire, but I think there’s a really high likelihood that people will be excited about the other band.

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THR: You just wrapped up your first solo tour. There was maybe a little bit of irony in you doing that right before releasing the album that sounds like your most “produced” record. It’s bouncing between bare-bones and… whatever the opposite of bare-bones would be.

Bareilles: [laughs] Yeah, very dressed up. That was an intentional choice on my behalf. I wanted to play with the spectrum.  I definitely could feel myself being fearful of doing a solo tour. My insecurities had gotten the best of me in terms of that. Some people had brought that up to me for years, and I always was like, absolutely not, I could never do it. Then over the past year, as I’ve done a lot of personal work on facing my fears and making some pretty big life changes, it came to the forefront that that was going be something that I really needed to address and put my money where my mouth is, especially in terms of a song like “Brave” and that being my messaging that’s out right now. I wanted to show up. And it was such a transformative experience for me. Then with the studio time, I had so much fun taking the restrictions off. I wasn’t precious at all about letting the songs become as big as they wanted to be.

THR: The album explores a much wider variety of production styles than you have on previous albums. “Little Black Dress” is an overt nod to ‘60s R&B, which is sandwiched between “Satellite Call” and “Cassiopeia,” two extremely modern-sounding arrangements. And the big production of “Satellite Call” directly follows “Manhattan,” which is as stripped down as your solo tour.

Bareilles: Honestly, this sort of eclectic, wide range of variation in production style has always been my favorite kind of album. But I think this is the first time I really got the chance to make that kind of record myself, where I wasn’t looking at the production style and saying “Oh, this doesn’t fit” or “There's not room enough” or “Maybe I should make this song sound more like this song, so it all makes sense to the listener.” Really, I wanted each song to breathe and get to be the kind of expression it really wanted to be… As I go, I’m enjoying being slightly unpredictable. Sometimes you swing and you miss, but I don’t want to be the kind of artist who’s afraid to take the risk.

THR: The title, The Blessed Unrest, suggests gratitude for turmoil.

Bareilles: Yeah. It comes from a quote from Martha Graham. She talks about the role of dissatisfaction in an artist’s life, and how it’s actually a sort of divinely appointed message to keep moving forward into your next creation. So it’s been an interesting time. Last year was rough for me personally. I went through a big breakup, and separating from my band of 10 years. It was really tumultuous emotionally, but I guess it was comforting when I read that quote to think of that time as something that was divinely given, that there could be some sort of method in the madness of feeling so scattered and dissatisfied.


THR: You’re dealing with issues of self-identity in a lot of the songs. “Hercules” expresses a simultaneous desire to reclaim who you used to be but find who you haven’t been yet. “December” is also an embracing-change song. It seems like you felt you'd reached a turning point.

Bareilles: Yeah. ... Letting go of your past to embrace your future was definitely a theme that I felt in this body of work, for sure. I’m 33, and I think something that happens in your 30s -- you start looking at your life in a timeline -- that maybe you weren’t conscious or aware enough to do at a younger age. I hate to say that anything morbid sneaks in, but there is an awareness at this age that I don’t remember feeling in my 20s. Looking at a song like “Chasing the Sun,” which thematically is touching on things that are much grander than the way I’ve written in the past. I’ve definitely been someone who shares a lot about intimate personal details, but I haven’t talked about life being in this way. It’s something that I felt really connected to this past year. I was looking at myself from a bird’s eye view, I guess, and how we are connected as our lives unfold.

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THR: You have breakup songs on this album, like “Manhattan,” “Little Black Dress,” and “1000 Times,” and then you have inspirational songs like “Brave,” “Satellite Call,” and the bonus track “Beautiful Girl.” There seems to be a side of you where you want to directly exhort your audience. How do you balance that impulse with the songs that are sheer autobiography?

Bareilles:  I feel like our job as songwriters is to document what’s happening and articulate emotion. And it’s not really my job to filter or edit that process. I think that’s why there’s a wide range of messaging that’s happening. I’m interested in reflecting all of that as an artist. I definitely can relate to and feel connected to the idea of a breakup song, but I also feel connected to empowerment, advocacy and wanting to encourage the human spirit and stay optimistic. That's the range of emotions that I experience, and where I find catharsis is to place them somewhere, and that usually means in a song.

THR: The song “Brave” ended up being a little more timely than you might have imagined. You were just tweeting about the gay pride parades and feeling thankful that one of your best friends can get married now. The sentiment of the song could apply to a lot of things, but you wrote it about a specific situation, wanting a friend to be able to come out.

Bareilles: I wrote it with Jack Antonoff from the band fun. He’s a huge advocate and activist in gay rights events. Especially with marriage equality, that’s a passion project for me as well. So collaborating with him on this song, that was the intention behind how the song was conceived. However, like you said, it can speak to a range of meanings and definitions for the listener. It doesn’t have to be about gay rights, but I’m happy and humbled that it’s been embraced in that way. And I really believe in the sentiment behind it. What I like about being called upon to be brave is that it’s not about the outcome, but the intention, and turning to face the fear. It’s not about quote-unquote “winning” or getting to the finish line first. It’s just about having the courage to participate in the race.

THR: You’re having the courage to undertake a Broadway musical now, right?

Bareilles: It’s a project I’ve been working on for a few months, and the announcement came out from Barry [Weissler], the producer, around the Tonys. Yeah, it’s my first foray into the Broadway world in this capacity. I’m writing words and music, and we’re making a stage adaptation of the film Waitress by Adrienne Shelley. [The director will be Diane Paulus, who most recently helmed Pippin, with a book by Paula Vogel.] It’s all in the very beginning stages of having meetings, going over script ideas, and pitching song ideas, but we’re moving. Musical theater has been part of my life since I was very young, and that’s sort of how I got into music and being a songwriter at all, so it’s really exciting for me to embark on that journey.

Twitter: @THRMusic