Award winning songwriter and jazz singer Sarah Sharp has steadily been forging a path and making a name for herself as a solo artist. She’s won numerous awards, has been featured on NPR’s “Song Travels With Michael Feinstein” and has had her songs featured in numerous ad campaigns and TV shows. Formerly part of the beloved Austin swing-jazz band Jitterbug Vipers, Sharp departed the band after the death of guitarist and band leader Slim Richey, who she thought of as her artistic ally. After entering a new era of self-growth and creativity, she is releasing a series of 4 EPs, the first two having been released on March 9th and June 8th. When making these EPs, Sharp explored writing across different genres, with each EP encompassing a different theme and sound. Having been a recipient last year of one of Austin’s Black Fret grants gave Sharp the money she needed to release her EPs and jump start her career as a solo artist. Aside from performing shows and recording, you can also find Sharp every Tuesday at her Tuesday Happy Hour residency at the famed Austin jazz venue Elephant Room. Our staff writer Emily May spoke recently to Sharp via email about her new EPs, embarking on a solo career and recording with producer Phoebe Hunt. You can stay up-to-date on Sharp’s upcoming EPs and tour dates on her website, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. You can purchase her music on Bandcamp, Apple Music and Amazon Music. You can stream her music on Spotify and SoundCloud. Check out the song “Right Through Me” below, from her second EP Dream.
When your artistic ally Slim Richey passed away, you experienced an awakening that led you to a period of self-growth and creativity. What can you tell me about that journey and how it led you to where you are now?
Slim lived the shit out of his life and he left me with an urgent desire to make the most of every moment and to live in the present and in constant, fearless gratitude. That’s what I aim for now.
You are releasing a series of 4 EPs, the first of which, Wake, was released on March 9th. Your second EP, Dream, was released on June 8th, with the remaining 2 still to be released. I read that this is your first solo venture in a decade and that you have begun writing across different genres. What can you tell me about the inspiration behind the EPs, as well as the idea behind the album names? Does each EP represent a specific phase of your creative journey or was each one a way for you to satisfy the different sounds you wanted to represent?
Yes, each EP is a different phase. I suppose “Wake” was the yearning, longing, loss, & grief phase. “Dream” is is more about learning, loving, celebrating and transition. I need to decide the title of the 3rd EP (like today). It’s the most Jazzy EP, the most like what we do every Tuesday at the Elephant Room. There are 2 Jazz standards, two covers that are not traditionally Jazz, but with our unique spin and two original songs that would have fit perfectly in the Viper Jazz band that I sang in for years. The Fourth EP is with Yaniel Matos, who we talk about in a question further down. That was an enormously significant chapter for me. I met Yaniel and went to write with him at his home in Brazil only a few months after Slim passed away.
How did you meet and come to work with producer Phoebe Hunt?
Phoebe and I go pretty far back in Austin and I adore her. Actually, the last record I released when Slim was alive and I was still singing with him in Jitterbug Vipers was called “Phoebe’s Dream” because of her. One night, we were trying a new viper song I had just written and I wanted to use a 1930/40’s sounding name like “Maude” in the introduction, but it needed to be two syllables. When we were playing it live for the 1st time, Phoebe happened to walk into the club. Right as I was singing the intro, ”Did you ever hear the story of dear….” I filled in the name “Phoebe” as I made eye contact with her. That song ended up being the title track to the record. I played a show in Arkansas where Phoebe was the band leader and her players were the house band for a handful of songwriters all on the same bill. I loved playing with her band so much. Phoebe also knew and understood a lot about the transition I was going through and where these new songs were coming from. We decided in Arkansas that I needed to get to Brooklyn to make a record with her.
You recorded your EPs in both Brooklyn (where Hunt is located) and in Austin, capturing the musicality of each location. What do you feel that each location brought to the recording and creative processes?
The players from the Brooklyn and Austin sessions were completely different. In going to Brooklyn to record with Phoebe and her players, I wanted to step out a bit from the deep grooves of my Austin band’s approach to my songs and the way we play them, mostly at Elephant Room every week. This was especially important to me for the songs on the 2nd EP, “Dream”, because those songs are the furthest from the Jazz which most people associate with me. I did not get a full record from the Brooklyn sessions, so I decided to book a day in Austin with my beloved Austin players to get two particular songs and then see what else we got out of a whole day in the studio. We got 8 songs that day. I ended up with 3 Eps from the two sessions. This most recent release, “Dream”, is all from Brooklyn. The Jazzy one coming out next is all from Austin.
You were one of the winning recipients last year of Austin’s Black Fret Grants, which has helped you tremendously in helping you to jump-start your solo career. How did that come about for you and what has it been like for you to have access to so many of Austin’s music industry professionals?
I was on the radar of the Back Fret community because my previous band had been nominated. I was invited to play their Valentine’s show in 2017, which was a big night and a really amazing opportunity to showcase for the members. After that, I was lucky enough to be one of 20 bands nominated for the year. We were given access to their board of advisors and I made the most of it. I met with or spoke with almost every advisor and what I learned from them influenced my plan for releasing these EPs. When I found out in December that I had won the grant, I already knew where the money was going and was ready to hit go right away on my release plan. It’s been such a blessing and such well-timed encouragement as I transition into being on my own.
You have a Tuesday Happy Hour residency at Austin’s famed Elephant Room! How did the residency come about and how has the response been?
I love playing the Elephant Room. It’s legit, old-school Austin and usually a true music fan mecca and listening room. It is my weekly soul fill-up and my players feel the same. Stanley Smith had the Tuesday residency for something like 26 years and when he moved away last year, they gave me his gig. So far, so good and we have every intention of keeping it going!
You worked with guitarist Mitch Watkins on various tracks on your Eps. He’s been called your current musical soulmate. How did you meet and come to work with him and why do you feel you work so well together?
I mailed Mitch Watkins my 1st EP in 2002 and wrote him a letter telling him that I had great appreciation for him as a musician and producer and that I had ambition to work with him someday. He was very kind. He called me on my land line (back when we had those) and was very encouraging and friendly. We didn’t play together until 2015. He was kind enough to sub for Slim when Slim was going through Chemotherapy and couldn’t play. Our very 1st gig was at C-Boys in February 2015. We opened for someone we had not yet heard of, named Leon Bridges. Plenty of other people had heard of him, as they lined up all the way down the street. We were excited to play for a packed house until we realized we had no bass for our bass player Francie to play. She had accidentally left it at our gig the night before at the Elephant Room. None of the rest of the band had a car we could fit her bass in, so they locked it securely in the storage room at the Elephant Room and our sub drummer offered to pick it up for Francie the next day. Our drummer that night arrived late to the gig, having forgotten to pick up the bass on his way. He went back to Elephant Room for it, but the storage room was locked and the person with the key would not be there until after out gig. So, Mitch’s and my first gig together was actually the gig from hell, ha! We pulled something out of our asses as a duo, having never played together or rehearsed until I asked Leon’s band if we could use their bass. Francie didn’t play electric bass, but she said she had “played one at a party once.” She sat on an amp and figured it out and the 2nd half of our show was actually pretty great. I followed up with Mitch to apologize for the chaos and beg his forgiveness. Instead of being annoyed, he marveled at the grace under pressure he witnessed from me and tipped his hat about the whole thing. We were bonded from then on out.
I read that you worked with Yaniel Matos, a Cuban musician who lives in Brazil, traveling to his home to write and record for the 4th EP. You wrote 8 songs and demoed them in 72 hours, which sounds like a whirlwind experience! What was that experience like?
The whole thing was cosmic and spiritual. That is a running theme for my last 3 years. I think Yaniel is going to come to the States to help me release that record. He’s such a virtuoso and amazing singer/songwriter and jazz pianist and cellist. I’m crazy lucky to get to play with him and all of my players.
You recently took a trip to Honduras! How was your trip?
It was a really meaningful trip. My dad is part owner of a house on a tiny island in the Bay Islands of Honduras. I started going there when I was 12, but until this recent trip, I had only been once in the last 20 years. I finally got to share it with my children. It’s a magical paradise and my kids are such nature and animal geeks, they were my guides. I think they remember everything they’ve ever watched on Wild Kratts, Planet Earth, etc. We had a baby stingray, a trumpet fish and many barracuda hanging out near the dock. They held a pink boa. There were huge Iguanas and it was the time of year where ripe mangos are falling every few seconds. My kids were already pretty eco-conscious, but now they are truly concerned about plastic and they say, “No straw, please.” if they order a drink somewhere. Their generation gives me so much hope.
What can people expect from your next 2 Eps?
EP 3 is Jazz. EP 4 is a collaboration with Cuban pianist/ cellist, Yaneil Matos. Kind of in the Norah Jones Territory, but with a Cuban pianist! THANK Y’ALL so much for your time and interest.