There’s nothing pedestrian about Sarah Walk. The singer, whose debut album is out on Bjork’s One Little Indian label later this year, writes and performs powerful, moving songs that don’t disguise their emotional intensity or massive hooks.
Then again, the Berklee College of Music graduate has had plenty of practice.
“I’ve been writing since i was really little, I have old home videos of me banging on the piano when I was like 4 or 5 trying to make something up,” she remembers.
“Then, when i was about 8, I started a rap group with my best friend and we would write about things we saw going on in the world and trying to make sense of it: poverty, 9/11, drugs. We really went for the heavy stuff.
“And then I created a rock band in my early teens. The songs turned more introspective and personal once I had my first love and heartbreak.”
One of those more introspective songs, ‘Prettiest Song’, is now part of your setlist.
I think I was like 15 when I wrote that one; it was my first love and this was a song for her. I didn’t end up finishing it for years though, it was only one verse and a chorus – probably because we broke up. But then when I got to Berklee I played it for my bass player and he told me I had to finish it. So I wrote the second verse like eight years later. Sometimes you need a lot of space to get perspective on something.
You’re the latest in a long line of Berklee graduates to appear on the scene with their own unique voice. What’s in their water?
I’m not sure if it’s Berklee so much – I think most people that go in with a unique sound have it before they go to school. But being in a place like Berklee definitely connects you to other people in such a powerful way. I think I improved my playing and my sound just from committing to being a full time songwriter and living in that mindset. i also played with a lot of people that were better than me which was a really good thing.
Your songs clearly come from a very personal place. Do you ever feel you’ve revealed too much of yourself?
I think I’m actually quite guarded in my personal life, but for some reason in my songs it doesn’t feel like they are too revealing or only relative to me. I guess once you finish a song you give it away and invite people in. It doesn’t really feel like it’s mine anymore.
What’s it been like to “give away” such personal songs to someone like your producer, Steve Brown?
Steve has always made me feel like my songs are in very good hands – I always felt like he “got” me and what I was trying to say. There were a few songs I had previously recorded and so redoing them took a little bit of letting go, to trust where he wanted to take it, but I think the record really has a vibrancy and rawness to it that I love. Steve isn’t about playing any games or over-thinking anything, which actually was a great balance for someone like me. He’s amazing at bringing out the best in an arrangement and I learned that very quickly.
Is there one song that best sums up what you or the album is all about?
I think there’s a lot of diversity on the record – there are a lot of different layers and perspectives but it still feels whole and collective to me. I always say it feels like the layers of the human heart. And I guess, in that sense, the song ‘Little Black Book’ might be somewhat of an overarching theme, as these are all songs that were written in my book and I draw parallels between the book and my heart and relationships. I also chose it as the opening track for that reason.
When people listen to songs like ‘Little Black Book’, what do you hope they’ll get from the experience? Your songs have big hooks, so do you mind that a lot of people might not be listening to the lyrics?
I don’t mind people not knowing what to pay attention to or what draws them in. There are so many different things I love in music: I love rhythm and grooves, interesting textures and parts, catchy melodies, honest lyrics. So I just try and create something that feels interesting to me and hopefully it connects to others too.
Someone famously once said you have your whole life to make your debut album. How does it feel to be on the brink of releasing these songs into the world?
I can’t wait to put it out there. It’s definitely been a long time in the making and I definitely think there will be a big sense of relief once it’s out there. I’ve already been busy writing for album number two, because I’ve heard that saying a lot too and don’t want to be struggling for material! I’m already looking forward to getting going on that one.
You’ve played some massive shows – like supporting Travis – even before the album’s out. How, if at all, have those gigs helped you grow as a live performer?
I feel really fortunate to have had those opportunities because it really has been a learning experience. I had never played venues like that before and I do think it takes some getting used to – how to interact with a crowd that size and still make it feel personal. And, as an opening act, to engage people that probably haven’t heard your music.
I definitely learned quickly and felt myself feeling so much more comfortable and confident with every gig. and I also felt more connected to the audience which is really important. I just hope people leave feeling like they saw something real.