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Sara Bareilles was enjoying a bite at a Boston restaurant recently, and on her way out, the manager stopped her. He wanted a hug.
Inspired by her empowering anthem “Brave,” this particular young fella, she says, felt compelled to express his gratitude. “As a teen growing up in Oklahoma,” Bareilles recalls him telling her while they hugged, “thank you for your music.”
The urge to give the “Gravity” singer a big squeeze is, of course, unavoidable – she’s like a friend, and her voice has literally saved lives (in her newly-released memoir, “Sounds Like Me: My Life (So Far) in Song,” Bareilles tells the story of a fan whose suicide attempt was thwarted when her song “Hold My Heart” came on the radio).
The hug-friendly fan, then, would certainly be happy to know that Bareilles has new music; her latest, “What’s Inside: Songs From Waitress,” is a mix of previously unheard tracks and songs Bareilles wrote for the film-turned-Broadway musical “Waitress.”
In a recent interview with Bareilles, the lovable singer-songwriter opened up about another longtime passion of hers: LGBT advocacy. During the chat, she recalled growing up around her gay “big brothers and sisters,” and also shared her thoughts on whether celebrities should come out, why she can’t be anything other than herself and her hope for females in pop music.
How do you react to stories like the one from the Boston restaurant manager?
It’s still hard for me to understand the impact the song is having. I wrote it as a love letter to a friend who was struggling with coming out as an adult, and it was such an intimate story. It was also so impacted by (fun. guitarist) Jack Antonoff and all the incredible advocacy work he does in the gay community. So, I’m so grateful that the song has taken on a life of its own and is speaking to a message that I deeply, deeply believe in. I’m so proud that it brings either comfort or anything helpful to anybody out there.
As an ally, how and when did you become so passionate about LGBT rights?
Growing up, my mom had a lot of gay friends, and so people in the gay community were, essentially, big brothers and sisters to me all my life. I never even thought twice about it until I got older and realized that that wasn’t the norm – it wasn’t everyone’s experience to have an open-hearted and accepting family unit toward a community they weren’t necessarily a part of. To me, it’s about being accepting of an idea that we’re all the same community; it’s almost like, I can’t believe we’re still having the conversation. It’s how I feel about it sometimes. I’m like, “Everybody fuckin’ get on board already! Relax!”
But it’s such an exciting time. It really, really is. And so I feel really grateful that I was raised with the mentality of being an open-hearted and accepting individual. I feel sad for those who weren’t given that opportunity as a child, but I think those patterns of thinking can be unlearned, and I think that’s what’s happening.
It might surprise some people that you grew up in an open-minded environment. You grew up Catholic, right?
Yeah, I did.
How did you and your family reconcile religion with the gay “brothers and sisters” you grew up with?
The way my parents always dealt with that was… (Laughs) I suppose we weren’t the most devout Catholics in that way. Certainly, it was distilled into this idea that you treat everyone the way you want to be treated. Period. And there are no exceptions to that rule, and that’s the kind of religion that I want to be a part of.
Regarding “Brave,” you once said in a webisode, “It’s important to be brave because by doing that you also give others permission to do the same.” How do you react, then, to people in the limelight who are hesitant to come out but could potentially inspire so many people if they did?
(Sigh) That’s a really hard thing to speak to. Honestly, I understand both sides of it. Everyone is on their path, and I really believe that, at the end of the day, people are doing the best they can with what they’ve got. Not everyone is comfortable enough to step into a leadership position and you can’t really judge them for that.
I would love to see everyone step into this holy space of carrying the torch of bravery – it’s just not everyone’s role. If you make someone feel bad because they’re not (out), isn’t that similar to punishing them because they’re quote-end quote “different” in the first place? All of that is a form of judgment. I would rather hope that everyone’s doing the best they can and that eventually people feel safe to be exactly who they are. It’s just so hard. You can’t know what’s going on behind the scenes – why someone is as complicated as they are – and I just wouldn’t want to judge someone’s experience.
In an industry where authenticity isn’t easy to come by, you have always remained true to yourself. Why has it always been important to give the public your most authentic self?
I have to give my family a lot of credit. I don’t really know how to be any other way. My whole family – we’re all very bad liars. (Laughs) We don’t know how to do it! There are people out there who are much more graceful and adept at navigating social situations; I just think I default to awkwardness, because when I feel awkward I have to just be awkward. So I give them a lot of credit. But also, those are the kinds of people I relate to. When I see someone being honest in the media, I’m so grateful for it.
I think everyone has vulnerabilities and everyone feels messy or shameful or not good enough, and I would rather share that and hope to create connection than pretend my life is a highlight reel. It’s just not. It’s human. Celebrity or otherwise, there’s no human out there that has some sort of plateau of happiness – it just doesn’t exist. So, I would rather speak to the highs and lows of what it means to have a dynamic lifestyle and a dynamic life than pretend I’m fucking happy all the time. I’m a mess. (Laughs)
You featured a lesbian couple, Aly and Andrea, and their surprise proposal in your video for “I Choose You.” How often are you asked to do gay weddings now that’s it’s legal?
(Laughs) Well, I am asked to do a lot of weddings, and I love weddings, don’t get me wrong. But yeah… it’s really fun. It’s so beautiful to have made a statement with a song that’s really just about love at the end of the day.
The song was inspired by a guy who came up to me after a show and said, “My wife and I wanted to use your music in our wedding, but everything you write is so depressing.” (Laughs) I thought about my catalog of songs, and went, “Wow, I haven’t really said anything positive about love yet.” (Laughs) So that song was sort of inspired by this backhanded compliment. But to be with Aly and Andrea – they were so courageous; they didn’t have the full support of their families, and Colorado was a hotbed at that moment. Not for our video shoot, but there was a lot of conversation happening around this issue at that time.
It was just really beautiful. Those girls stepped out into this very public space with their love, and it was really a beautiful thing to witness. I felt so privileged to be there with them.
What songs on the “Waitress” album do you think your LGBT fans might relate to most?
The lead single, “She Used to Be Mine,” speaks to the idea of anyone’s character and the parts of ourselves that are multi-faceted, the fact that we all can be messy, we all can be forgotten and lonely and strong. That message is not even a female-centric message; it’s more about taking a look at who you’ve become and who you thought you were going to become and juxtaposing those two images. I don’t know if it’s a gay or straight thing – it’s more just about a human condition experience, which I think that song really speaks to.
For “Waitress,” how much pie did you eat to get in character to write those songs?
(Laughs) There was a lot of pie! But I love pie. I mean, I didn’t use the pie to get into these characters, but once the rehearsal process started, there was a lot of pie: pie-making seminars, and gifts from fans and friends of the community bringing pies to the rehearsals and performances – oh yeah, a lot of pie.
Are you a cream pie or a fruit pie gal?
I’m a fruit pie gal.
What kind of fruit?
My favorite is blackberry. I used to make blackberry pies with my mom growing up, so I have this very visceral memory – it’s so nostalgic to me. There’s actually a scene in the show and in the movie where she (the waitress, Jenna) is making blackberry pie and that scene always stuck with me because that’s exactly what I used to do with my mom.
How does writing for a musical compare to writing your own songs?
The biggest difference is that within my own music I’m telling my own story. My songs tend to be very autobiographical, and so it was a challenge to find my way into telling the story on behalf of another character. But it ended up being one of the most delicious parts of the show for me, that I got to play with the psyche of these characters. I got to challenge myself to find my way into how the crotchety old man who owns the diner would speak to our lead character (Jenna). What would he say to her? What would he want her to know? How does his life inform him as a storyteller? It was a really cool and very exciting challenge to find my way into these characters, and in a way, there was a kind of instinctual impulse I was following with writing for the show and that was very similar to the way I write for myself, except I was telling someone else’s story for the first time.
When “Brave” came out in 2013, Katy Perry was criticized for releasing “Roar,” a song some said resembled “Brave,” shortly thereafter. How much of the “Brave” vs. “Roar” debacle was the result of women being pitted against women? And in general, what are your feelings on the way women are treated in this industry in comparison to their male counterparts?
We’re in the middle of a really exciting time for feminism. I think it’s going to take on a lot of different shapes and faces within kind of any industry. My issue with that particular experience was the idea that music is a competition, that there isn’t enough for everybody. That’s part of the philosophy behind the creation of music – that there’s always more to draw from, with the intent of creating a bigger and broader music community. And so it was a strange experience to watch people get so angry on my behalf and to pit us against each other.
Women, as much as we can, should continue to build up a sisterhood. That doesn’t mean you have to like everybody out there either. It’s a little kumbaya to think that we’re all just gonna hold hands and wonder off into the sunset. But I do think that being treated with respect and fairness and equality is really important to me, and being a woman who wants to feel that my opinion and my creative ideas are accepted as equally as any man or any other human in the room – it’s something that I will continue to walk toward expecting that it will be there. I don’t walk into a room and expect not to be heard. I am surprised when I am not heard.
Speaking of “sisterhood,” you’ve been one of Taylor Swift’s many surprise guests on tour when you two duetted on “Brave” in 2013.
Taylor was beyond welcoming. It’s one of the things she does so well. She really champions other artists with this idea that there’s enough for everybody and you don’t have to pit yourself against other artists. We can celebrate each other’s art and then let people decide who they gravitate toward, but it doesn’t have to be based on a feeling of competition.
Does this mean you’re in her squad now?
(Laughs) I don’t know what the squad rules are. I don’t have a T-shirt or, like, anything.