A singer-songwriter whose influences range from blues and folk to Texas tejano and ’90s hip hop, Sarah Dashew ’94 has released three critically acclaimed albums and is a favorite artist of actress America Ferrera. She sat down with The Argus to discuss her signature blend of “Americana Soul,” her post-grad path to the music industry, how travel and romance have shaped her latest album, and her advice to aspiring musicians.
The Argus: What did you study at Wesleyan?
Sarah Dashew: I was a sociology major. Mostly by process of elimination: trying lots of different classes, going, “Nope, no, I don’t think I want to major in that…Hang on, I’ve got some [sociology] credits, and I like those professors!”
A: Were you involved in the music scene on campus?
SD: I was! I went to this very small public high school that had terrible music, aside from the fact that we all listened to music all the time, because that’s what you do. It wasn’t until I got to Wesleyan that I started even playing guitar. I started singing in Ebony Singers, the Gospel choir on campus, because my frosh roommate dragged me to a fall concert in the Chapel—much against my will because I was studying for midterms—and it blew me away. I knew I had to do it.
A: What was your favorite music venue on campus?
SD: You know, I feel like campus and Middletown in general have gotten a lot cooler than when I went there; I’m not sure if I’m right about that or not. When I was at Wesleyan, there was stuff that went on at [the Allbritton building] all the time….On the third floor there was the multipurpose room; there was an area where you could hang out or whatever, but they also had a stage. It was where I played my first show ever, actually. And sometimes students would perform….People would hang out and get coffees and watch it, and it was cool.
A: So skipping ahead a little bit, what was your plan for after graduation?
SD: My initial plan for after graduation was freaking out….The reason I wanted to go to Wesleyan in the first place was I had fallen in love with it when I was doing all the campus visits. It was this beautiful spring day when I was doing the tour, and this dance ensemble was doing this kind of impromptu, roving performance where they were all pretending to be, like, wheels and butterflies, and they were just running all over campus and through the tour group. And I just remember thinking, “This is amazing, this is incredible,” and I couldn’t stop talking about it when I got home. My reason for going to college in the first place was to have that kind of experience…[and] to be exposed to things I had never thought of studying before and would probably never experience again.
Whereas most of my friends were taking LSATS and GRE exams and going to grad school…I didn’t know what to do. So my other friends who weren’t going to grad school were all interviewing with J.P. Morgan, all the investment banks, so I did that a bit. Nobody was calling me back, I think obviously because I was just completely uninterested in that idea. What I really wanted to do was music…I went to the Career Counseling Center and talked to this woman, and she said, “Well, what’s your passion?” And I said, “Music.”
I had studied abroad in Spain my junior year, and that’s where I had started taking guitar lessons and singing on the streets of Madrid and Santiago de Compostela with some friends. And I knew it was what I wanted to do. I had this little four-track recorder that my dad had sent me that had two metal cassette tapes, and you could record up to four tracks at a time. When I came back from Spain, I had a little efficiency [apartment] in High Rise, but I had it to myself at least, so that was good. I would stay up to three o’clock in the morning when I should [have been] studying or finishing a paper, and I would be writing a song and trying to lay it down, put down harmonies. Anyways, my senior year I was living in a house with some friends, and we had a basement, so I had a band and had rehearsals and stuff. And it was just the only thing that really I loved…
So the counselor said, “Write some letters to some alums who are in music. Here’s a list of all the alums we have who are entertainers, producers, songwriters, and everything. So write some letters.” And I wrote, like, 20 letters to people who sounded interesting, and every single one of them wrote back, which is amazing. When you get out into the real world, you realize that most people aren’t that engaged. But every single one of them said, “Don’t do it, it’s awful; you’ll lose your soul, it’s nothing but bitter defeat after bitter defeat, there’s no chance, it’s a horrible road”…except one. This one guy, who was an engineer and a producer—I can’t remember his name, but I wish I could, because he’s the reason I continued on—wrote to me…I had sent a demo tape along with [the letter]. He wrote to me and said, “I heard these two songs, and I think they’re lovely. I think you’ve got something, and I would say, if your soul demands it, if it’s your passion, you have to do it. You must never do anything else. And yes, it’s a challenging road, but everything in life is challenging, and you might as well be doing what you love.” And it was that one response that gave me the courage to call my parents and say, “Thanks for this wonderful education…guess what I want to do for a living!” My dad’s a boat designer, a boat builder, and I had grown up spending seven years sailing around the world. [My parents] were people who lived outside the box; they were really supportive.
A: So your dad is a boat designer?
SD: My dad is a boat designer, yeah. He grew up sailing and was building boats in the backyard as a teenager, and then he took us all sailing around the world; we left when I was 4, and we came back when I was 11.
A: What felt like your first “big break” as a musician?
SD: After I graduated from college, my dad was building a new boat, and I knew I wanted to have some experiences. So I said, “Can I apprentice for building and then go cruising with you again?” He said, “Sure!” So I worked really hard at that, and then cruised with them down to the South Pacific to New Zealand and then hitched around with my best friend, who had graduated from Wesleyan a few years before…I wanted to try to follow in my dad’s footsteps until I realized that was not what my passion was. So I moved to Austin, Texas because I met some people and visited them, and I had fallen in love with it, because it was this big live music town.
Honestly, my first big break felt like—and this is going to make you laugh—the very first gig I ever got that was paid. [It] was this university coffeehouse near [the University of Texas at Austin]; it was this horrible, horrible place, where the guy who owned it had a pinkie nail that was like six inches long, presumably for coke. And there were, like, five people in there except for random junkies, who would go in and lock themselves in the bathroom for an hour. I played for three hours without stopping, my fingers were bleeding, and [the owner] paid me $10 and told me, very nicely, “You know, you’re allowed to take a break.” I was so naive, so excited about the fact that I was having a paid gig, that I didn’t even realize you could take a set break. So that felt like my first big break.
My next big break felt like it came when I by chance met this very famous producer named Chuck Plotkin, who had produced for Springsteen and Bob Dylan and was just this incredible guy who happened to be a sailor. And [I] met him by chance in the Marina, and we became friends, and he started mentoring me when I moved back to Los Angeles and really taught me about writing a successful song.
[Chuck Plotkin] produced my first real solo album. He brought in a group of people who all adored him and would work for nothing to be the backup musicians, because I was just playing by myself. I walked in the first day, and it was Gary Mallaber on drums, who was Van Morrison’s drummer, Bruce Springsteen[’s], you name it… and the Muppets’ drummer. The drummer for the Muppets, and when I heard that, I was like, “Forget it, oh my God.” The bass player was Jennifer Condos, who again—Tom Waits, Bruce Springsteen, everybody—Ray Lamontagne, and then the lead guitarist, Mark Goldenberg. These people who played with these legends, they came into the studio, and they were complimenting me on the music. And I went into the bathroom and I broke down sobbing, because I thought, “That’s it. It’s never going to get any better than that.” It turns out, it does get better. [laughs] And it gets worse, and it gets better, you know. But I would say those are the two biggest moments in my music life so far.
A: Who or what have been your biggest musical influences?
SD: Well, when I was growing up, we had all these tapes on the boat, and my parents were really into blues….We listened to a lot of Aretha Franklin, and Chuck Berry, and Bob Dylan, and some Led Zeppelin and Janis Joplin, and Otis Redding. And then when we moved back on land, I started listening to more pop; I went through a huge Beatles phase in high school….Then when I got to Wesleyan, I fell in love with hip hop, and it was the early ’90s, so it was all Prince (which is more R&B and not hip hop), De La Soul, and Digable Planets, and the Fugees, the Wu-Tang Clan….Being on the East Coast, in New England in particular….I mean, it was so cool. De La Soul played one Spring Fling, Digable Planets played another Spring Fling, but anyway…it was that kind of a scene.
A: The headline of your bio is “Americana Soul.” What does that mean to you?
SD: Oh God, that’s a really good question. I think what it means mostly is that I get asked so often what genre I am, what kind of music I write, and I never know how to answer it, because….You just heard me list my influences, and I didn’t even get into the whole country and roots and folk stuff, and Paul Simon and some of the international stuff…“Americana Soul,” it kind of incorporates folk and rock ‘n’ roll and singer-songwriter storytelling, but it also implements some of the R&B and blues stuff that I love. And I sometimes break into a little bit of freestyle sermon-preaching at the end of my shows, so there’s that element that’s definitely not folksy. I kind of made [the term] up, to be honest…hopefully it ends up being appealing, ends up tasting good at the end of the day.
A: Speaking of “tasting good,” you’ve described your latest album “Roll Like a Wheel” as “a package of Los Angeles flavor.” How has your music been shaped by the places you’ve lived and traveled to?
SD: Listen, as humans in general, we’re shaped by the places we’ve lived and the places we’ve traveled to. That’s just the nature of us; we’re this sort of bundled up combination of DNA and life experience. So musically I don’t think it’s any different. One thing I would say is that…I was exposed to so many cultures and rhythms as a kid, sailing all through the Solomon Islands and New Guinea and South Africa and the Caribbean, places that most kids don’t get a chance to feel and soak in…Being in so many different places growing up allowed me to write without worrying about the rules, because I knew there were so many different ways to do things. I knew that in the Solomon Islands, you might hear, like, insane five-part harmonies on the beach out of nowhere for no reason while some yachtie who brought a guitar ashore is playing a Beach Boys song, and it works.
I didn’t worry so much about the rules. Maybe that makes me make more mistakes. Maybe that makes it take a longer time, because I never really knew the rules, because I never really studied it that way. But it’s the thing that’s influenced me the most.
A: I have to admit, I did a little Instagram stalking, and I saw that you got married this year. Congratulations, first of all!
SD: Thank you, I did! At Thanksgiving, yes.
A: I also noticed in your bio that you had found “true and everlasting love” and that it had been an influence on your album. Could you share some of the stories or feelings behind your new songs?
SD: Sure! It’s a funny thing…I’m one of the few people who lives in Los Angeles who doesn’t shy away from the fact that I am my age: I’m 43. And one of the wonderful things that comes with that, I’m here to testify, is that you get to a place where you’re really comfortable with who you are—I mean, no one is ever completely comfortable with who they are; you’re always shifting and growing and changing, hopefully, and there’s discomfort in that—but you accept it, and you care less about what other people think. And so to be that age and find a partner at that age is a really cool thing….When you get to the place where you find somebody who’s willing to meet you on your ground, who’s willing to do the work, because you’re both old enough to understand that that’s what it’s about, that it’s not about mistaking drama for passion, then all of a sudden it’s like, “Whoa…”
And so I was in that perspective of awe, actually, when I was writing for this album. It was this combination of being in this house on the East Side of Los Angeles and having a lot more friends who were Mexican and El Salvadoran and speaking a lot more Spanish and eating a lot more papusas, and experiencing that whole rhythm of life, and falling in love with someone who’s also creative….My partner is an interior designer, and in my opinion, super-talented and amazing.
The reason I called the album “Roll Like A Wheel” is because that’s all you could do; you just start rolling, and then it’s like, whoa, all these amazing colors are coming off of the spokes and the rubber, and okay, you’re hitting bumps and flying into the air, but that’s exciting, too…It gave me all this joy, it gave me all this excitement about the work as well as the sweetness, and I’ve never known anything like that before. So the album to me feels like it’s more joyful, and it’s more laid bare.
A: What’s been one of your favorite memories of the past two decades of playing music?
SD: Oh my God, two decades! I’m telling you, any minute, the 20-year overnight success…
Playing in Italy in the ruins of a medieval castle, to about 3,000 people singing along to [my] music. That was really cool. That was in an old band that I had when I lived in Austin. That was amazing. I’ve never experienced anything [like it] before or since.
A: Having just released a new album, do you have any idea of what’s next?
SD: I’m actually already writing. First of all, we’re in 2016, so…you just kind of have to be constantly throwing content out. But one of the things my mentor always said was, “You’re just constantly juggling these three things: you’re writing, you’re recording and playing shows, you’re thinking about what was missing from the last thing you recorded and played and you’re implementing that in your next writing… and writing, and recording, and playing shows.” It’s just like this constant, constant, constant cycle.
Every time after I finish an album, I’m terrified that I’m never going to write again. Literally every time, and I’ve been doing this for a while. And it always scares me just as much….And then something happens, and the well starts to fill, and you wake up in the middle of the night with this little tag that won’t leave you alone until you sit down and write. And sometimes you write a bunch of crappy stuff, until something decent comes out. The way you know it’s decent, for me at least, is that it comes out fully formed, quite quickly, the music and the words together. And then you just follow it.
The thing I’m figuring out at this point in my life is not to work it too hard, not to try to think about what might make it for me, what might sell, what might put me over the edge. And instead just follow it where it wants to go and respect that, and make sure I work….So the next thing is, I’m playing a show out in LA, I’m writing; I would love to do some more touring.
A: What advice do you have for singer-songwriters still at Wesleyan? And is there anything you wish you’d done differently during your college years?
SD: The only thing I wish I’d done differently during my college years is take more advantage of the resources that were offered…you don’t know that when you get out into the real world and real life, that not everybody wants to bend over backwards to help you realize whatever it is you’re passionate about. I wish I’d taken a little bit more advantage of that. But overall I think I sucked the life out of Wesleyan pretty well.
The advice that I’d give for singer-songwriters, and for writers in particular…is to learn how to play the stuff that breaks your heart, the stuff that you can’t stop singing….Learn how to play it, because it’s going to imprint itself on your subconscious while you sleep, and it’s going to teach you…while you’re not paying any attention and think that you’re not doing the work, that you’re just having fun. That’s the secret.
A: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
SD: I miss [Wesleyan]. It’s such a cool place.
[Also], I’m living the dream, and I love what I do. And I would encourage anybody who loves it to do it, even though the whole music industry has gone out the window [and] is still figuring out what it wants to be.