ART AND MUSIC
by Robin Umbley
Sarah RabDAU, the piano-playing half of the piano-and-drums duo Sarah RabDAU and Self-Employed Assassins, has invited me to conduct this interview at her home on the Malden/Medford line. She lives in what they call a “mid-century” brick ranch style house whose basic, somewhat plain brick exterior belies the colorful interior. Inside, artwork is everywhere. There are wall-sized canvases and small framed drawings. One entire kitchen wall is a giant blackboard with doodles and notes written in colored chalk. In the living room, an ancient grand piano with yellowed keys stands at the far end. Stacks of music and notes lie on and around it. (The piano, she explains, actually belongs to her housemate—and now fiancé—the uber-talented Peter Moore.)
Singer-songwriter Sarah RabDAU has surrounded herself with visual art. It inspires her music; on her MySpace page, she mixes in artists Gustav Klimt and Robert Rauschenberg among her musical influences such as Chopin, Debussy, and Satie. Sarah explains that visual art is important to her musically: “It’s a huge influence. Both my parents are artists. My stepmom is an artist. Visual art has always been a huge part of my life. When I was a kid, we’d go to art museums; I also did a lot of theatre as a kid. I definitely connect with visual things. Those things make me feel. While I’m listening to music, I’m usually thinking about other things. For me, just to see a painting… I remember being eight or nine years old and seeing a Monet for the first time…and that was the first time that I really felt like I connected with something…how abstract it is… there’s definitely something… it’s so complicated…. Even today, I get choked up when I see the Water Lilies or something. Visual art affects me in a very deep way. Because of that, somehow it seeps into the music.”
For the record, even Sarah’s unusual choice of typography in her last name—the last syllable of RabDAU is printed in all capitals—is the result of visual art that turned into an unexpected pronunciation aid: “People have always pronounced my name wrong. And we were designing a logo about four years ago, and just as a design, my friend capitalized the last three letters.” Then she noticed that people started pronouncing her name correctly (which is RAB-dow, accent on first syllable despite the caps on the last three letters, and rhymes with cow on the second) so she continued with the practice.
Despite her love for the visual arts, she is admittedly not very good at it herself: “I’ll doodle and sometimes I’ll try and do something but it’s definitely not my talent. I think I’m better at drawing. I always wanted to be a painter or a sculptor—both my parents are sculptors—but clay and I do NOT get along.”
Instead, piano and voice are her creative media: “I started officially taking piano lessons, at, I think eight. We always had a piano at my house. It was always very much part of my life. I’ve tried to play other instruments and every time I do it, [it doesn’t work out.] I’ve tried to play guitar; I can play three or four chords on it, and wow, my fingers REALLY hurt!”
Despite Sarah’s sensuous singing voice, which is rife with emotion and rich tones, she says that it required a little development: “I always sang, but I always hated my voice. Like piano, I was encouraged do it, but unlike piano, and after hearing old tapes, I really wasn’t any good. I have no idea why people encouraged me. But as I started to write more songs with voice around 13 or 14, I realized I had to get comfortable with my voice. So I started practicing by looking in the mirror to see how my voice would change with different mouth movements. I took some lessons here and there, but never anything really intense. I also realized that character would be really important for my voice, something that separates me and makes me stand out instead of being generic. I always want what I don’t have, so I had to figure out what would work with what I had.”
Sarah credits Peter for helping her on her latest recording: “When working on the album though, Peter would do warm-ups with me and he really gave me so much more power. I thought I had power at the time, but now things come out much easier and my pitch has improved.”
Sarah the person and Sarah the performer seem like two separate entities. Sarah’s speaking voice is soft and demure as if she’s afraid of causing any commotion, but her performing voice has a huge range of expression. Physically, in person Sarah has a quiet, unassuming way about her. Her performance, however, is very animated and physical. She contorts and leans and sways all over her keyboard. She explains the difference between what she admits is her “dorky” everyday existence and her extroverted performances: “I think Nick Cave said it best when asked if he feels like he’s acting on stage. His answer: ‘No, I don’t, actually. It’s more like the other way around. When I’m NOT singing the songs, I feel like I’m acting and trying to work out how I’m supposed to be. But on stage I feel this overwhelming sense of being that person I always wished I could be.’”
Her upbringing in theatre also has an impact on her present-day piano/vocal performances: “I did theatre from when I was eight until I was 18, and growing up I was always very shy and moved around a lot. Being on stage let me act out on my imagination and all these wonderful stories that were outside of my life. When I stopped acting though, music made me so naked and vulnerable on stage and it was terrifying. The only way I could overcome that, I think, was to just put everything into like I did when I was a character. But all the energy, love, pain, and exaltation had to come from me instead of another source. I had to put out all the stuff that I kept inside out, and it felt great.”
But Sarah doesn’t attribute her artistic achievements to herself alone. In her blog, she writes, ““I’m really not all that great on my own; it’s the people around me that bring me to life.” Two very important people in her project are Peter Moore and drummer Matt Graber. She says, “I love collaborating with people. I was solo for so long, and always missed that something that wasn’t there but knew could be. Working with Peter was fantastic. He knew my favorite styles of music, and could do all of those things that I heard but didn’t know how to do. And he’s so meticulous and thorough. He’s used to recording himself playing everything so he has all these tricks that make it much easier for a singer, and since he’s done them a billion times, it’s all very fluid…. This album is exactly what I wanted it to be because of his skills. The songs were there, but he brought them to life.”
Sarah is also grateful for Matt being half of the duo. Matt’s collaboration with Sarah came to be in an unusual way: he approached her and inquired if she wanted to play. He tells how this happened: “I grew up in New Jersey; I came to Boston in 1998. And within a year or two after that, I started playing in lots of different local bands. I met lots of people. In 2004, I went away for about two years and I was in Israel for a while. I knew that I was coming back [talked to Ad Frank] ’ ‘Hey, Ad—I’m coming back. If you know anyone…’ We played tons of shows together… not on the same band but on the same bill… ‘and if you know anyone good looking for a drummer, let me know.’ He said,‘My friend Sarah is looking for a drummer; I think you’d like her music.’ I went to her MySpace page, checked it out, it looked good, I wrote her and said ‘I’m coming to Boston in a month or two. I’m moving back. Would you be interested in playing?’ So we started playing. We had a show, I think not even a month after I came back.”
Sarah was both surprised and grateful. She said, “I was always looking for a drummer. Always. It’s really, really hard to find someone who wants to play with a singer-songwriter but it’s not even just that; I didn’t want to be limited to just being a singer-songwriter. I mean, I don’t play guitar. I don’t play folk. I don’t play in a specific style. I needed to find [a drummer] who has the sensitivity but can also…[voice trails off]. It’s really imperative for me to have someone who understands the nuances of the music. The music isn’t really all that complicated but I might emphasize something a bit differently. And around here, most drummers are rock drummers.”
But Matt is also a rock drummer who plays drums in Mascara. He explains that Sarah’s nuanced style and Mascara’s harder rock style allow him to be versatile: “It works out great for me because I get to play two different ways. I get to do different things.” He adds that “neither is really straight 4/4. They’re both pretty unique. The main difference is that Mascara is much, MUCH louder. There are a lot of quiet sections, too, but in rehearsal, it just hurts. With Sarah, I don’t play as loud—although it seems like I do. With Sarah’s music, there’s a lot of dynamics. We shape things; we have a little more… orchestral type touches.”
Sarah and Matt have just finished their new CD. Logistically, their touring will be a bit limited, though, because Matt is in the midst of the master of music in music education program at Boston Conservatory. They plan on playing localized dates and mini tours in the Northeast.