Sunday, July 24, 2016

INTERVIEW: Sarah Schonert

Take classical-style piano with a flare for theatrics, blend in ambient electronics and a playful, yet thoughtful voice fed through the fluidity of the vocoder and you've got the music of Sarah Schonert. Her latest album, her fourth, spans subject matter from the simplicity of mundane daily activities to more ethereal matters. I spoke to her about her writing process, how she blends the organic and synthetic and how working on her album, My Unwinding State brings her peace.

Hi Sarah, thank you so much for talking with us today. Congratulations on the new album! 


The songs on My Unwinding State seem to be focussed on finding moments of peace in your day to day life. What brings you peace?

Music and art, whether alone or through collaboration, are my safe haven. I work full time, and I need to break away from the numbers and the meetings to be myself. Granted music has grown beyond a hobby for me, the piano bench is still my sanctuary. Chocolate helps too.

Has music always played an important part in your life?

Yes; I've been playing piano since I was eight or nine-years-old then started the oboe not too long after. Around the same time, I was also starting into local musical theater and finding my voice. I took a bit of a break during college, though I still kept practicing. After college, I ramped back into the music scene. I've been performing musically and theatrically for most of my life.

Do you come from a musical family?

Yes and no. While my parents didn't really play a whole lot in the way of instruments, they always encouraged a lot of singing early on and supported us in any instrument we wanted to play. My brother and I both played piano and then were in band throughout school. Band was a huge part of our musical and social lives until we graduated high school. My grandmother also had a lot to do with my musical interests. She was an amazing singer and pianist, and she taught me respect for the instrument at a very young age.

The organic piano and the other synthetic elements blend seamlessly on the album. Was it difficult to combine the two?

Not necessarily difficult because I use an organic touch on the digital sounds. I use a weighted keyboard and pedal to make the electronic vsts feel more natural. So I play them as expressively as I would a piano, and the MIDI records the variations in key strikes. Mixed appropriately, they fall into place nicely alongside the traditional instruments. I also record on the Seaboard, which is the best of both worlds. At the end of the day, I want people to not be sure what instruments were real and what were synthetic.

The vocoder is featured in several of the songs. It's a less brash, more tasteful use of the effect than most of us are used to in popular music. What drew you to the vocoder?

I turned toward it after hearing Imogen Heap's "Hide and Seek" and then reading a lot about vocoding and other effects. In order to get the most out of vocoders, it really helps to understand how they work. Then you can find a much more musical application than the "robot" voice. In most cases, I'm playing a synthesizer on the same notes as the piano line or chords to use as the carrier then using my voice as a modulator. With vocoder plug-ins, you can manipulate much more than just a standard keyboard synth or a sawtooth wave. In WaterWings, I took the keyboard line and applied a delayed arp to get the effect of electronic ripples traveling upward on the sung "ahs."

'Experienne' is a beautiful ambient piece. What inspired you to write it? Do you have any favourite performers in that style?

This one was born out of the same techniques that I had used on two recent EPs. In "The Kees Files" I had teamed up with Roofhare to create a collection of presets in some highly malleable vst plugins which I then could control via my keyboard. For much of "Because", I was taking improvised piano and layering and building with various synths. The song itself is supposed to feel a bit like traveling through a fantasy landscape. For similar artists, I really enjoy Air and Isotherme as well as the Final Fantasy scores of Nobuo Uematsu.

What singers do you look to for inspiration?

For singing, I tend to be drawn toward unique or even theatrical voices that carry emotion really well, such as David Bowie, Kate Bush, Art Garfunkel, and Carly Simon.

At what part of the day do you find writing to come most naturally?

For lyrics, it's not so much the time as it is the place and that I'm alone, which is usually when I'm in my car. Of course, I can't write anything down until I am parked, but I have time to think. For piano, mornings tend to be the best; that's when my ears are fresh.

With degrees in physics and engineering, do you have any plans to do an album inspired by your scientific experience? It wouldn't be the weirdest thing. Gustav Holtz did The Planets suite...

I certainly wouldn't dismiss that idea; it could be a really cool concept EP. But it's not something I am currently cooking up.

What's up next for you?

I'm currently on a mission to find small venues around Central Illinois that welcome my style of music. I'm also working on a couple of instrumental EPs, including another "Because" collection as well as a piano improvisation collection built around the ideas and images of the 1893 Columbian Exposition.