There’s an old adage: Reap What You Sow and if putting in the hours, being unafraid to take risks and sticking your neck out to get noticed is what it takes to get to where you want to be, then blues rock sensation Sari Schorr is in line to harvest a bumper crop of recognition with her upcoming debut album, A Force of Nature (Manhaton Records).
In January 2015, Mike Vernon – whose production credits include Fleetwood Mac, John Mayall & the Blues Breakers, David Bowie, Savoy Brown, Chicken Shack, Eric Clapton, Peter Green, Christine McVie and Ten Years After – was in Memphis to receive a Keeping the Blues Alive Award at the prestigious International Blues Challenge. It was there, in full ‘Don’t Ask / Don’t Get’ mode and desperate to work with such a legend, that Sari Schorr introduced herself.
Having already gained much acclaim for her blustery vocals and emotionally charged live performances touring with the likes of Joe Louis Walker and Popa Chubby across the USA and Europe, Schorr so impressed Vernon he agreed to produce A Force of Nature and set in motion the process by which arguably one of the finest blues rock albums of the year is set to be released this September.
“It was kind of fated, I guess,” Sari explained. “First of all, I wasn’t even supposed to have been there. Then a friend of mine, Michael Frank who owns Earwig Records in Chicago, asked if I was going because they were honouring Producer of the Year, Record of the Year, Label of the Year … the whole thing. The problem was that the ticket was very expensive but when I heard that, I didn’t care: I just wanted to be there out of respect for those guys behind the scenes who make everything possible.
“Mike had announced that he was retired and living in Spain, so I thought this is the one guy I should not try to get to produce anything. The thing was that the desire to meet him and to tell him how much his work has influenced me, even though I knew there was nothing he could do, well, that was impossible to ignore.
“There were so many people wanting to speak with him I had to squeeze myself through the crowd. I think I spoke about two sentences, turned smartly on my heel and left before he could even say anything. That night I was singing at The Daisy Theatre in Memphis and Mike came along. That’s where we really connected because he recognised that the crazy person on stage was the same one who had left without letting him speak.
“Looking back now, I honestly think that if I’d just gone up and done the whole ‘Hi I’m a singer and here’s my card’ thing, he’d have most likely torn it up. It was definitely in the stars and I’m so lucky to have him produce A Force of Nature.
“What Mike does is bring the best out of the people he works with. He allows the artist to find their way to the best version of themselves and he does it without forcing his own sound onto anybody. He has such a clear vision it’s like he has complete picture in his mind even before he’s been properly presented with a blank canvas.”
If anybody is going to recognise talent when he sees it, Mike Vernon is that person and he was incredibly proactive in getting her into the studio. Having only met Schorr in January 2015, the album is ready despite Sari having to travel back and forth between Spain and America to record it.
“He had me send him a few songs I’d written and then asked for a few more, which I took as a good sign,” Sari laughed. “He then invited me over to Spain to work with the guitarist Quique Bonal. I landed on the Saturday, was told Saturday night and all day Sunday was for writing and that on the Monday we would go to Sevilla to record what we’d written. I think it was a kind of test to see if I could write under pressure and, you know what, three of those songs – Letting Go, Oklahoma and Cat and Mouse – ended up on the album. Even though I only finished the lyrics on the way to the studio, there they are. It was just such an amazing learning curve.”
What really shines throughout A Force of Nature is that Sari Schorr is clearly having a ball and the vibrancy of somebody thoroughly enjoying themselves genuinely resonates. “I think it’s because we all realise what a privilege it is to be able to do what we love. When you couple that with the fact that we’re not doing this solely for ourselves but also for an audience who hopefully want to hear what we have to say, to feel that we are giving them what they want, that’s the happiest thing.”
Along with the launch of the album on September 2nd, there are gigs across the UK beginning in late August and stretching through to October and beyond. Autumn as a whole is set to be a busy period and it’s not bad for a woman who always knew being a singer was the only way to go.
“Mom has always said that I could sing before I could walk or talk properly, so I guess I’ve always been destined to be a singer,” Sari explained with a giggle. “I swear I’ve been doing it my entire life and started, aged seven, charging people money to come hear me in my parent’s living room. Honestly, I would turn the couch around and use that as a stage in the total belief that our neighbours wanted to hear me. The truth being that my parents must have been twisting arms to get people there to listen.”
Unlike many singers or musicians, Sari does not come from a particularly musical background. However, with that said, there is one person to whom she feels her talent might well be owed. “My grandmother desperately wanted to be a singer but her father didn’t approve, to the extent where they got into terrible fights: at one point he knocked out one of her teeth. Her father – my great grandfather – only ever wanted her to be a bookkeeper, which is what she became and met my grandfather as a result, fortunately for me.
“One of my strongest childhood memories is of her having us all sing to see if one of her grandchildren would be able to do what she’d wanted to do her whole life. Of course I didn’t know that at the time, but deep down she must have had a vested interest. Sadly, she passed away when I was only ten years old but I honestly feel now that she is with me, guiding me on. When I read some of the lyrics I’ve written, I realise that I’m nowhere near smart enough to have done so on my own. So yeah, sometimes I wonder maybe if it’s Bertha using her influence. I genuinely never knew how hard it would be or how long it would take for me to find my footing though.”
The songs on the album make for an expressive mix, with some deriving from personal understanding and others from Sari closely observing what’s going on around her. Damn the Reason, for instance, tells the story of a young woman she spotted on the street.
“Driving to a writing session on Long Island, I saw a girl walking on the side of the road. Stopped at a red light, I had a chance to look closely at her. She had such a lovely face, but it was filled with deep sorrow and as I drove off, I couldn’t stop thinking about her and imagined this tragic story version of her life; of her being trapped in an abusive relationship.
“Before I ever write anything I try to relax and think about all of us being spiritual beings living out a human experience. In that mindset, a tremendous amount of empathy fills your body and your heart and soul and you can connect with other people’s experiences. That’s the how I can write songs like Damn the Reason or Aunt Hazel because I’ve been close enough – sometimes too close – to these subjects through people I have known. You can be personally connected to a song through the actions of others without having to personally experience the exact same traumas yourself.”
On Damn the Reason there is a special guest appearance from RavenEye’s Oli Brown on guitar and there is also a song on the album written by and featuring Walter Trout. “I originally met Walter at a festival in Oklahoma and then again performing the Lead Belly Festival where he heard I was recording and graciously said he’d love to contribute. He told me about the song, Work No More, that he’d written for a woman named Irene who’d meant a lot to him and had passed away. I knew straight off it was a clear choice for the album.
“Working with people like Oli and Walter, you learn that artistry on the highest level is about sharing and integrity. It’s about being so invested in the moment that you can give completely of yourself with no judgement. These guys don’t worry about whether they are good enough because they are completely committed to the moment. For them it is all about channelling their talents so as to be able to share them with their audience. Artists on that level are very, very giving and very generous so that when you’ve been in their company long enough, you feel like you can fly.”
Aunt Hazel, given its subject matter and evocative lyrics, could so easily have been stripped back to being acoustic. Recording it as a juxtaposed, out-and-out rocker however was always the intention. Aunt Hazel, by the way and in case you didn’t know, is urban street slang for Heroin.
“You know, I’m so pleased that you picked up on that duality because the complexity of life means nothing is all good or all bad but always somewhere in between. Heroin is such a major problem because it makes its users feel so damn good and allows them to remove themselves from their suffering and pain, Personifying Heroin as Aunt Hazel allowed me to create a sense that heroin enjoys a villainous satisfaction when its victims suffer and I think that you feel it most in the line: ‘Aunt Hazel’s laughing as my words get slurred’. A lot of my songs have a duality running through them which, I hope, represents the Ying and Yang of existence. There is no black and white, there’s only differing shades of grey.”
So with having such insight, it could be assumed that writing comes as no difficult task to Sari Schorr. As with most assumptions, however, this would be wrong. “I find it incredibly easy to write music but incredibly difficult to write lyrics. The melody always comes first so that when I’m working on that, I tend to ramble nonsense. Out of these mumblings certain words appear and stick around long enough to kind of form a framework that’s then further developed into the finished song. My songs are all written from a basic premise and based around an often nonsensical stream of consciousness. Up until now, it seems to work out okay in the end.”
Along with Walter Trout’s written contribution there are also two cover tracks featured on A Force of Nature. Lead Belly’s Black Betty and The Supremes’ Stop! In The Name of Love. If you’re going to cover a couple of tracks then these are two monster songs that many might be daunted by singing at all let alone recording, particularly on their debut album.
“Black Betty came about because I’d been honoured to be asked to play the Lead Belly Festival at Carnegie Hall and that particular song was chosen for me. Then it was a question of digging in and finding out what it really meant to me. Although there are many interpretations, for me the song has always been about a slave, a rape and the cracking of a whip. It soon became clear how I wanted to approach it, which is exactly what I went out and did once Innes and I had come up with the special arrangement. It was actually Mike Vernon who suggested we should include a studio version of the song on the album.
“Following Kiss Me, Black Betty is the next single and it’s a song that’s just so painful to go in to. Just the other night, in fact I said to Innes Sibun, my guitar player, I didn’t think I would be able to do it because I was too afraid.
“When I told him that, though, he just smiled and nodded, knowing full well I’d have to sing it because I was afraid. I don’t want anything to be easy. Nothing in my life has ever been easy. Why should singing or performing be easy? It’s important to me as the story teller to bring very relevant issues to the fore and never shy away from them and particularly not through being afraid.”
“As for Stop! In The Name of Love, that was completely Mike’s idea and I would never have thought to have done it. In fact when he first suggested it, I immediately told him I would never in a million years be able to do it justice. Yet, somehow, by some using kind of mind trick and a whole lot of subtle manipulation – in the way in which only the very best producers can manage – he slowly but surely convinced me to go into the booth and sing it straight through.
“I was thinking it’s just a trial run and I’ve nothing to lose so, all in all, I was feeling pretty relaxed and just went for it. That trial run turned out to be the final take on the album version and it’s that innate ability to make his artists believe in themselves, among so many other attributes, which makes Mike Vernon such a visionary and legendary producer.
“Speaking of visionaries, I should also mention Alan Robinson, President of Manhaton Records. It takes courage to take a chance on a relatively unknown singer like me in these days of tight budgets and limited resources. To put his own and so many other people’s reputations on the line in order to get A Force of Nature made is really humbling. Mike, myself and the guys in The Engine Room may have put together a great album, but without Alan and his record company nobody would ever get to hear it. It’s like I was saying earlier about Oli and Walter being so generous, everyone fully gets that it isn’t all about them and that it takes a team to get anywhere in any walk of life and especially in the arts.”
To throw a cliché into proceedings, if there is one phrase to best sum up A Force of Nature it would undoubtedly be that listening to it subjects the listener to ‘A Roller Coaster Ride of Emotions’. Yet the closing track, Ordinary Life, epitomizes just how comfortable Sari Schorr is at the moment.
“That song was the hardest of all to record because I could not for the life of me keep it together. I wanted to get to a place of complete honesty and vulnerability but knew I couldn’t be sobbing and weeping all over it. I was singing it live when Jesús Lavillas came up with that gorgeous piano intro which, when I first heard it, just brought me to tears so had to go back in and rerecord the vocal.
“It’s a deeply personal song about being aware of what it’s taken to get this far, about appreciating that although this is a great place to be, understanding that this is by no means the end. A lot of thought has gone into the running order of the album so that it flows and takes people on a journey. Closing out on Ordinary Life makes us all particularly proud of the end result and also feel excited for the future.”
As well as being a prolific songwriter, performing across Europe and the UK and, of course, promoting the album, Sari is also a fervent advocate of human and animal rights as well as being a keen marathon runner. It’s a wonder she manages to find the time.
“First of all, I don’t win marathons and, truth be told, I’m a very average runner to the extent where my cousin once pointed out that fifteen thousand people had come in ahead of me. Naturally I pointed out that fifteen thousand came in behind as well. I’d finished slap bang in the middle and, I tell you, I hate being average at anything,” she laughed.
“My husband managed to catch my show in Edinburgh, but has now gone back to New York to look after our three pit bulls. He’s a chef and ideally he’d be able to travel with us, particularly as the band loves his food, and he’s not too bad at giving massages either!
“But you know if anybody were to ask whether I would prefer to have more time or more money, then I’d certainly choose to have more time. There are so many important things to do and to be done. That’s why I have to prioritise. I don’t have kids. I don’t spend my time watching TV. I don’t spend the time that I would like with family or friends but, you know, that’s the trade off. I work very hard to strike a balance.”
So if there was one musician that Sari would like to interview who would it be and why?
“Oh my word that’s so hard to answer. I think it would have to be Mamie Smith though and I’d ask her how she dealt with being the first black woman to record a blues song … a song that sold 75,000 copies in its first month, by the way.
“This was not only a woman living in the 1920s and 30s but a black woman, with even fewer advantages. How did she survive that? I wonder if she realised how significant that song, Crazy Blues, was going to be; that because of it she was to be forever considered the Mother of the Blues; the historic value of it. She’s just such an incredible woman.”
So, what’s next? “Mike Vernon and I have agreed to work on two more albums together so Innes and I are currently writing songs for the next one. I do have some songs that didn’t quite make A Force of Nature simply because we had so many written … something like 50 or so … which we had to narrow down to the twelve we have. We have a lot to do but, you know, we also have an awful lot to say, an awful lot to be grateful for and an awful lot to look forward to. I honestly couldn’t be any happier than I am right now.”
Interview by Chris High
Sari Schorr’s A Force of Nature is available to buy or download from September 2nd. For more details and UK Tour information: www.sarischorr.com