Gold Coast singer-songwriter Sarah Head was a grand finalist in last year’s Toyota Star Maker. This year she returns to Tamworth to launch her EP, Nothin‘ But Love, which was written and recorded over nine weeks in Nashville.
Sarah plays at Good Companions Hotel on Saturday 25 January at 11.30 a.m.
I spoke to her recently about the trip, her EP and her gig.
You spent 9 weeks in Nashville working on your EP – how did you plan that and and it?
I got in contact with my producer, BJ Lowrie, just basically through a mutual friend, and we got talking about me going to Nashville for a project. I went over initially in May to meet with BJ to just see how it would all pan out if it were to happen, and see what the connection was like. And from that first meeting we knew that we could work together and that we were on the verge of something good. I then decided to plan a 9-week stay – that fit in with my schedule. I didn’t have any bookings for that part of that year. That’s why it wasn’t 8 or 10 weeks. And I literally got off the plane [home] and had a gig the next night. So it was booked around my gigs.
A lot of it was organised by BJ. I sent him samples of my songwriting and ideas that I had and he picked people who he thought would work with me stylistically. We had a general plan of what was going to happen for the 9 weeks but the specifics all happened when I was there. It was a lot of going with the flow. The idea was to songwrite for the first half of the stay and then record, so we had a pretty strict deadline. So I was just doing as much as I could every day to make sure that by the time of the recording phase I’d have enough songs to choose from.
Is it strange to walk into a room, meeting a songwriter you don’t know and work with them? Is there any chitchat or do you just get on with it?
There’s a bit of chitchat, just getting a feel for the kind of artist you are because they want to know a bit about you before they start writing songs. And being Australian over there is a bit of a novelty, so we always started with a bit of a get to-know-you kind of session. It’s definitely daunting because it’s like every session you wear your heart on your sleeve. You have to go into a room full of people you haven’t met before and share your deepest darkest feelings and hour experiences and thoughts. It’s daunting but equally rewarding, and you just have to realise that there’s no room for shyness and ego. You’ve just got to get in there and say you’re prepared to say everything. You might give nine bad ideas and one brilliant one. The calibre of people they are – they’re just so professional and so welcoming I didn’t once feel like I was saying something silly or that I didn’t deserve to be there.
Is it more daunting to do than step in front of a crowd?
Definitely. I’ve been working on my songwriting for 12 months so I’m relatively new to the game, whereas I’ve been performing for 10 years. It’s just what you’re familiar with and comfortable with. Now I’m at the stage – because I’m about to release the EP – where I’m nervous and excited again, because I’m about to present these songs to a whole new group of people. It’s a constant whirlwind.
You went to the College of Country Music in Tamworth. Did that prepare you to have the kind of experience you had in Nashville or even to get on stage and enjoy it?
Yes, definitely. I went there in 2007 and that was really at the start of my career. I didn’t start singing until I was 17 or 18 – I started relatively late – and then I went to the college. It really does prepare you for the industry and learning how to not only network but hone in on your skills and work out who is there to help you and who is there to make you a better singer-songwriter or performer.
The thing it couldn’t have prepared you for is crowdfunding. You crowdfunded your trip to Nashville. Is that a route you’d recommend?
It’s a rewarding experience but it’s equally exhausting. You’ve really go to put in so much time and effort to promote it because if you don’t get the promotion out there people won’t stumble across it. It definitely helped with my funding. I also received a grant from Arts Queensland and that helped significantly as well. Crowd funding definitely something for people to try. It’s a really good way of using the internet to market yourself. Not only are you giving yourself the chance to get funding for a project but you’re increasing the chance of getting a bigger fanbase.
And you’re essentially pre-selling your CD. People who give money get something tangible.
Exactly, and that’s so much ore meaningful than just asking people to donate. And it’s really positive to see the mount of people who support you. I was humbled every day to see the amount of people who were willing to come on the journey with me, and I think that also keeps up your spirits when you’re doing creative projects.
To the EP – the single that’s out is ‘Gypsy Soul’. Have you always had a gypsy soul?
It’s definitely come about with my music career, so as I’ve been focussing on becoming a more professional music artist I find that I’m constantly travelling and I just love the idea of always pushing for the next best thing and following my dreams – not sort of settling for anything less. It’s definitely something that’s come about recently, I think, and I guess it’s about that point in your life that you realise that you’ve been underestimate and you’re ready to show the world exactly who you’re supposed to be.
Who are your biggest musical influences at the moment?
Definitely Miranda Lambert. I recorded at the studio where she’d just recorded so that was really exciting for me. She actually went to the studio the day before I was there and I was so gutted – I should have scheduled one day earlier. Kacey Musgraves as well, who’s written a couple of Miranda’s songs. I go to see Kacey live in Nashville and that worked out really well because it was just before I was recording. I think stylistically they’re artists I aspire to be like.
Is it sometimes hard to avoid being too influenced by some people? As a young artist it’s important to forge your own identity.
Definitely. I think the main thing with being successful is being yourself. If you stick by that you can’t really identically be the same as someone else because you’re always going to have your own influences and your own style. So what I try to do to steer clear of that is be true to myself and make sure my own personality comes across when I’m performing and writing songs, because that’s something no one else can copy. If you’re yourself, no one else can be you.
Last year you were one of the four grand finalists for Toyota Star Maker. What was that like for you?
That was really a pivotal moment for me in my career, I guess because it instilled that flame in me and gave me the confidence to actually keep reaching for my dream and keep going. It was a really big turning point. It made me think for this year I’m going to dedicate my time to being the best singer-songwriter I can be and really work on my skills and what I need to do for the next step in my career, and that was to record the album. Everything that happened last year – the couple of award nominations and the actual trip to Nashville – all stemmed form that week in Tamworth.
And it gave you quite a bit of experience performing in a high-pressure environment.
Definitely. On the first night when I was on stage they announced that it was so great to have everyone here tonight, and Kasey Chambers is here. They said this when I was on stage ready to sing and I was like, ‘Oh my god – thanks for that!’ And then in the grand final we were waiting backstage with the McClymonts and Lee Kernaghan and I was starstruck – ‘I’ve gotta go and sing and they’re standing in the wings!’ They said they expected a crowd of 10 000 people or something. To be at the early stage of your career performing at your best in front of the best names in Australian country and in front of a crowd that big is a pretty big stepping stone. It’s a good decider as to whether you’re going to make it or not.
How do you find living on the Gold Coast – do you feel isolated from the industry?
I travel a lot. Being on the Gold Coast is a really good base for me, but I do actually use it as a base and I travel a lot. I travel back to Dubbo, where I’m originally from, and Tamworth about every six weeks. I’m constantly trying to do new gigs in new places. I do play pretty much every weekend in pubs and clubs up here. There’s definitely a number of clubs that are supportive of country music and new artists.
Your gig is on the last weekend of the festival. Does that mean you’ll spend most of the festival rehearsing or feeling nervous or both?
[laughs] Yes, pretty much. It’s my birthday on the Wednesday of the festival so I’ll be celebrating that. But other than that I’ll be doing just a little bit of practice, obviously, to get ready but mostly I’ll be going out and seeing other artists and catching up with everybody. Tamworth is the best place to see everyone in the one spot – other artists that I haven’t seen for a while.
It will be quite a different festival to last year, as you had Star Maker.
This year’s festival will be much more relaxed. Last year was mindblowing – I can’t even remember if I slept. Every day was so busy. We were constantly doing interviews and little stand-up spots. That was another thing about Star Maker – having that week of promotion was something that was unbelievable at such an early stage in your career to get that exposure for a week in Tamworth was so cool.
Sarah plays at Good Companions Hotel on Saturday 25 January at 11.30 a.m.