[Cover photo credit to John Carluccio]
Singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist Sarah Elizabeth Haines recently released her second solo album, Castaway, Produced by Kevin Salem. Haines is a classical viola/violin player in the touring musical show Hamilton, and though she has spent much of her life honing those abilities, she started branching out into personal creative territory through working with a Chamber group and alongside bands both Folk and Rock. Her latest collection builds on her explorations and also displays some significant technical developments for her as a singer/songwriter: She engineered and tracked much of the album from home and working remotely with Salem. On making the best of the situation, she clearly chose to focus, in the words of Emily Dickinson, on “dwelling in possibility”.
Though some of the album’s songs have been in the works for a couple of years, the downtime brought about by the pandemic just as Haines came home from an extensive tour really shaped sonic and thematic directions and contributed to the overall statement of the album. Relationships take center stage, whether it’s the upbeat breakaway track “Liar”, the softer but insistent message of “Belong”, or even the nuanced and definitely dreamy final track, “Castaway” where Haines speaks as much to herself as to someone resisting connection. Through a wide range of genre elements, Haines crafts an edgy and often unexpected album which discovers new angles to talking about relationships.
I spoke with Sarah Elizabeth Haines about acquiring her new skillset, making the best of isolation to build the sonic world of Castaway, and the many different ways in which relationships challenge us to find new ways of thinking about ourselves and others.
Hannah Means-Shannon: How much did working remotely need to play into recording the album?
Sarah Elizabeth Haines: I work with a Producer up in Woodstock and we were actually able to make a lot of it happen on FaceTime. I learned how to engineer myself and I actually did a lot of it in my bedroom. The songs span the past four years. Most of them had been started before the pandemic, and a lot of them got finished during that time. It’s several years of thought processes.
HMS: I saw that you are in a chamber group as well as touring with Hamilton and have connections to a couple of bands including Folk and Rock. How far back does songwriting go for you? Was there a time where you decided to do this?
SEH: I’m a classically trained string player and it’s not really something that classically trained string players do to create their own music. I actually came to it fairly late. I think I wrote my first song at 23 or 24, and that was because of those bands that I’d found myself becoming a member of. I got inspired by the people around me to try this. It’s very frightening to look at a blank page as someone who is used to interpreting other peoples’ stuff!
HMS: I agree that it’s not at all a given that a string player would sit down and write individual compositions, or if they did, that they would be lyric-driven.
SEH: It’s funny because it’s a part of the classical world to be a composer, but it’s considered a different thing. There are these arbitrary lines that get drawn so it’s an interesting thing to recognize that I don’t have to fit into a box simply because it exists. I think it’s a lot easier now that it once was to go from being a performer to being a composer. Most composers now are performers, but I think there’s this idea beat into you from a young age that you have to intensely focus on only one thing to be good at it. It can be hard to take yourself out of that box.
HMS: It’s been an interesting time for people going back to school or taking up new skills, like you have with getting into engineering.
SEH: I love recording studios. Some of my favorite gigs have been turning up to studios for indie bands and I never thought that I’d be the recording studio, but that arose out of necessity. I went from being a full-time performer to not having that option for 18 months. A lot of the paid work that I was getting during that time period was people asking if I could record things remotely, so I had to figure out how to make it work.
I’m so grateful that I did, because it’s given me more of an opportunity to be a composer, in many ways. Now I know that I can just set up my microphone and start noodling, and then maybe something will come to me. I write by doing things rather than by writing sheet music. Early in 2020, I got myself an interface, and it was a very good move for me. This album wouldn’t have come together otherwise. I was able to work on string arrangements that way, whenever I felt like working things out, but the flipside is that you have to know when things are done, and not overdo it.
HMS: That sounds really familiar. The danger of having the access to creating all of the time is that you can drive yourself crazy. How did you make demos in the past?
SEH: Some of my demos in the past are the worst things you’ve ever heard, but at least they are the full take of the chord ideas and the lyrics. Some of them are me finger-mashing on the keyboard until I find the right chords. I’m not a keyboard player, and that’s always been an area frustration for me. That’s why I got a guitar and started doing more on the guitar, though it’s my fourth instrument.
HMS: I’ve seen that you’ve done some live performances of your own work. How does it work with you performing vocals as well as other instruments like viola?
SEH: I have done both vocals and instruments at the same time before, but it’s not my favorite thing. If I do live performances without a band I’m working with, I use a loop pedal very heavily to create more textures. A couple of the songs on this record were based on loops that I wrote, so they are easier to get a full picture of those, live. But it’s fun to go into the studio and not be confined to loops.
HMS: I’ve heard of Kevin Salem’s great work before up in Woodstock.
SEH: He is great. I worked with him on my last album and on this album. He’ll tell me if he thinks a song could be better. There’s one song on this record that I wanted to put on my last record, and he said he didn’t think it was done yet, and he was totally right. He’s an excellent Producer because he’s a straight shooter, but he’ll also never say, “No”, to a crazy idea. He’s always willing to explore, which I love. He played a fair amount of guitar on the record.
HMS: Did you intentionally develop sound directions for Castaway that are distinct from your previous work?
SEH: Yes, my previous record was very spare, and for this one, I really wanted to lean into some of that fuzzier, heavier sound. There was two weeks where I listened to nothing but Horses by Patti Smith. Then I called Kevin and asked if it would be crazy to put a spoken word piece on this record. He said, “Let’s do it!” He’d also send me songs and references to sound worlds we wanted to explore, like Velvet Underground. He has different tastes than I do sometimes, but a lot of times we are very aligned to pull on influences.
HMS: Will you perform the spoken word piece?
SEH: Yes, I actually just performed the whole record for the album release, and I did that. It’s definitely a strong open for the album. It grabs peoples’ attention right away.
HMS: “Liar” is one of those songs on the album that has heavier elements than I might have expected, but also a Soul sound. That feels like a jump into new territory. I also saw the lyric video, and though it’s a lyric video, I’m sure a lot of work went into it.
SEH: Yes, and the editing of that took a while. I’m not at all a pro video editor, but I had time. Just timing the writing with the song itself took a while.
HMS: I find it interesting to see the words playing out while hearing the song. The video reinforced my sense that the story that the song is telling is not something far away, from a distance, but very immediate. It’s still close to home for the speaker.
SEH: That story is pretty much true. I laugh about it now, but I basically dated a guy who had another girlfriend the whole time we were dating for nine months. I had seen some red flags but it’s hard being on tour and dating anyway. I think what I wanted to do with that song was, in a playful but firm way, say, “You’re an asshole. I’m better off without you. This is fine. But let’s make it fun.” I wanted a dancy vibe to it. I didn’t want it to just be angry because I’ve never gotten over someone so quickly.
HMS: The energy and attitude behind the vocal layers really suggests that. The song feels more about life energy than a darker energy. A flipside, maybe related song, would be something like “Belong”, which reflects on a relationship with a softer approach. It’s definitely from a position of strength, too.
SEH: I think “Belong” is about the idea that when you’re with someone, you don’t want to belong to them, you want to be with them. You want to be partners with them rather than in dependence. I look at relationships as three parts: me, the other person, and the relationship. You are a whole thing together rather than making someone else whole.
HMS: It seems pretty conclusively true that preserving your own sense of individuality in a relationship is really important to real happiness. I think people talk more and more openly about these things, but it’s significant to hear a woman talking about these things because women are often the more yielding party in a relationship.
SEH: It’s something that society often ingrains in us from an early age, that we have to make room for other people. Other people are not necessarily being asked to make room for us, though. So it’s kind of about holding your ground.
HMS: The song “In the Morning” has a big video to go along with it. This is a song with a lot of angles to it and the video is interesting because it plays out different types of scenes. It’s dreamy and sweet and even though it’s about separation, it’s not about wallowing in depression over that. I think you can have a kind of wistfulness that brings positivity to your life.
SEH: I specifically didn’t want to wallow in this song. [Laughs] I think there’s a sweetness to longing. That anticipation and looking forward is there, rather than it just being about what one doesn’t have. Part of this record is just revealing all these different sides of the same thing. You can stand your ground in a relationship, but you can also miss someone and want to be with them. I’ve been on the road for four and a half years, so I have experience with missing people, and it’s not just romantic relationships. Absence is felt all across the board. I spend a lot of time on the phone, and thank goodness for things like FaceTime! To have the ability to see peoples’ faces really does make a difference.
This video was made by my friend John Carluccio, who also did the album artwork. I’ve known him for a long, long time. We’re both from New Jersey, and the diner setting is a nod to New Jersey diner culture. He found a diner in LA that he loved and that became part of the video.
HMS: The song “Castaway” has a lot of possible approaches, too. The sense of isolation will be very relatable to audiences, but the speaker in the song might actually be volunteering to become one. It depends on who you think the castaway is in the song.
SEH: That’s definitely a significant part of it. This song is so interesting to me because it’s meant different things even after I finished writing it. It’s definitely reaching out to someone who has cut themselves off and is incapable of letting other people in, but I also realized that I’m kind of speaking to myself a little bit. I was on the road for so long, then immediately when I was back from being on the road, the pandemic hit.
All the things I was excited about doing when getting back to New York and back to my life got put on hold indefinitely. That felt crushing. The song, ultimately, is something that I wanted to be an olive branch that expressed a lot of gentleness and forgiveness to someone who couldn’t be gentle and forgiving with themselves. Whether that’s me or somebody else? It’s probably a little bit of both.
HMS: I think the song explores both perspectives and could change for audiences depending on their point of view in life. Did the music or lyrics come first for that song?
SEH: The first thing that came to me about that song was the lyric, “You’re the king of your own island, population of one.” At first, I wanted to make it more groovy, but I was noodling on the keyboard and I came up with this very insistent two chord thing that still felt gentle. From there I just looped this progression and wrote the rest of the lyrics over that.
HMS: That’s definitely the strong foundation behind the more drifting feelings that come up in the song.
SEH: I told Kevin when we worked on this song, “All I want for this song is for it to sound like you’re in the middle of the ocean by yourself. Whatever that means, that’s what it has to sound like.” I think we got there.
HMS: I think an unhelpful paradigm can be the idea that someone needs to be saved by someone else, so I really like this line in the song, “I don’t want to save you.” Rather, it’s some other kind of relationship factor at work.
SEH: Right, because you can’t save someone who doesn’t want to be saved. People can also feel undeserving of the gesture, so there’s a lot of ways things can go wrong there.