Vocalist Sarah Elizabeth Charles just released her newest album Free of Form at the beginning of the month. Co-produced by Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah and featuring her long-time band SCOPE (Jesse Elder [keys], Burniss Earl Travis II [bass], John Davis [drums]), Free of Form is a protest album stemming for the current social and political unrest in the United States. I caught up with Charles to discuss the release.
Sebastien Helary: Your press material is adamant about Free of Form stemming from issues such as mass incarceration, political ideology, police brutality, addiction, war and historical context. With titles such as “March to Revolution”, “Change to Come”, and “The Struggle” this album is undoubtedly a political and social manifesto. Can you elaborate on your inspirations for this album, your creative process and the message you are trying to convey?
Sarah Elizabeth Charles: The largest inspiration for the material on this album is bravery. For a long time, I think I was nervous about commenting too directly on social and political ideologies. With this record, I’m facing that fear head on and choosing to be honest about my views and my experiences. The largest catalyst for this shift is my teaching artist work through which I’ve been given the opportunity to teach in many different settings to a diverse array of individuals. I was lucky enough to experience the bravery and honesty present in individuals that were facing circumstances that could so easily yield another result. But this wasn’t what was happening. These student artists were instead choosing to dive head first into their creative journey and I wondered why I was having trouble doing the same.
Another motivation behind this album had to do with acknowledgment. I have been working as a professional performing artist for almost 18 years now and during that time have had a microphone through which and a stage on which I could say something. About three years ago, when I started writing the music that is now included on Free of Form, I really started to ask myself what I wanted to say with that given time…with the stage that I’m lucky enough to stand on. When I honestly asked myself this question, the answer seemed clear. I decided that I wanted to respond to what I was directly experiencing with my music and my creative process then began to shift. Rather than running parallel to my teaching artist work as it had before, my compositions began to be directly inspired by my educational work, the populations of people that I was working with and the issues that directly affect them and all of us daily.
Writing music that was a reflection of racism (both systemic and social), the issues with our criminal justice system as a result of this racism and poverty, the ills and familial effects of addiction, humans becoming desensitized to violence in our world, issues around social media and the never-ending battles around women’s rights and stereotyping seemed to be a place to start given my observations at the time. The message behind this music is meant to be a reflection of how I see the world in relation to these issues as an artist living in this time. James Baldwin spoke a lot about art reflecting the times in which it is created. He also said, “not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” This is the idea and the message that I hope for people to take away from this project. SCOPE is the possibility and the opportunity to deal with something. My “somethings” right now are enveloped in this album and the issues that it attempts to lay bare. My message is simply to start the process of dealing with them by recognizing our own bias within them and our own capacity to empathize in relation to them. At least that’s where I hope to start.
SH: Your cover of The Cranberries’ “Zombie” is simply brilliant. How did you get the idea to cover a 1994 protest song by an Irish band? I think you’ve succeeded in making the song your own. How did that come about?
SEC: I appreciate your words. We actually have two covers of the “Zombie” track. One is the band version that is on the album and the other is an a cappella version that we used for the music video. The a cappella version is the arrangement that came first. Similar to many of my more motivic and harmonically simplistic arrangements, it started with the layering of simple ideas on my loop pedal. I started with the bass line motif that you hear throughout and some simple ideas for long tones and harmony underneath. When I went into Jesse Fischer’s studio (Electrik Indigo) to record it though, I wasn’t sure what it was going to be quite yet. I scrapped most of my original ideas except for the bass line and listened over and over again while writing new parts. Jesse also mixed the track and really helped to give the song the shape that it was meant to have.
This a cappella version feels almost mantra-like and is really meant to embody the fact that we have become used to violence in a crazy way. We have become used to war, mass shootings and horrible events that no one should ever become used to. Therefore in a way, we’ve all become zombies within the context of our complacency. Just to be clear, that’s not meant to sound like preaching as I’m speaking to myself when I say this too. Every time I perform this song, whether it’s with my band or solo, I realize this again and again. I think that this is also a potential first step. We’ve got to be able to acknowledge the things we don’t want to exist before figuring out how we can shift them. We’ve got to be able to acknowledge that things are screwed up and that we want them to change. I think that this is a difficult first step for many people who would prefer not to think about the fact that we have record numbers of people dying all of over the world every day. It can be a depressing thought. But what if instead of letting it be depressing, we saw the potential power that we have to change it. If we all could just say that we won’t support it, so much could be different in our future. When Delores O’Riordan wrote and released the song in 1994, it had the potential to have a lasting effect on the Northern Ireland Conflict and it’s outcome. We seem to need many songs like this in order to address what is happening in our country and world now around gun violence, nuclear conflict, civil wars, religious wars, etc. So with this one cover, I hope to bring light to that need in a broader sense yet again as we seem to have not yet learned our lessons about being destructive to one another yet. As we have in the past, I hope that through music and art we can show how powerful we can be to initiate change.
SH: Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah co-produced both this album and you last album Inner Dialogue. You’re also the first artist, other than himself, to be published on his imprint, Stretch Music. How did you become his protégé? What is your relationship like? How involved is he in your creative process?
SEC: I am so grateful to be working with Christian and that we’ve been able to cultivate the type of relationship/partnership we have over the past four years. We were first connected through Luques Curtis after he gave Christian a copy of my band’s debut album Red. We spoke on the phone and he mentioned that he’d love to work together one day. When it came time to search for a producer for our next project Inner Dialogue I hit him up and his response made me realize that I had found the right person to partner with. He said he would not produce the record, but that he would co-produce it with me. He told me that I was already producing my own material and that he would be happy to work together to both act in that role. That was a really huge experience for me and a testament to what Christian and my relationship is to this day. We are partners in music, in vision, in composition and in exploration and he has given me a lot of confidence to trust my vision and my message.
Within the context of my creative process and how it has shifted with Christian’s involvement, the order usually goes like this: I write, re-write, workshop with my band, re-write, workshop with my band again, finish the song and then bring it to Christian in its finished state to brainstorm ideas together about shape and new ways to potentially give the song(s) different life. One new part of our creative process that goes the other way and that I’ve also been loving is playing with his band and co-writing with him for his music. It’s been so cool to have the chance to enter his sonic world and carve out a space for myself in it.
It’s hard to put it into words, because I just so appreciate that Christian is just as committed as I am to cultivating this relationship as creative collaborators, friends and family. I truly think that we found each other at the right time in our individual experiences and can’t wait to see where it takes us and the music.
SH: You teach at both Carnegie Hall’s Musical Connections program within the Sing Sing Correctional Facility, and at Rise2shine, an early childhood education nonprofit in Haiti. Can you tell us more about those two organizations? How did you get involved with them? What have you learned from working with them? How did it influence this album?
SEC: I’m extremely lucky to be linked both with Rise2Shine and with Carnegie Hall’s Musical Connections outreach program. Both of these connections happened fortuitously. I met a Rise2Shine board member at a performance in CT and after hearing me sing in Haitian Creole, she asked if I had ever been to Haiti and gauged my interest in helping to design an early childhood music education program (which was extremely great). I met members of the Carnegie Hall Staff backstage at a Battle of the Boroughs Competition at WNYC that I was in about four years ago. This interaction has led to being involved in songwriting, lullaby and musical development projects at Sing Sing Correctional Facility, Rikers Island and with a wide array of music workshop participants from all over New York City.
Working with Rise2Shine has taught me so much about humanity and allowed me my first opportunity to physically go to Haiti. My father was born and grew up in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, but before 2013, I had never been. Through Ris2Shine, I not only have been able to go to Haiti one to two times per year, but have met some of the most amazing people and have had some of the most eye opening and grounding experiences of my life. Working with children allows for the potential for a major perspective shift and seeing their joy, hardships, talent and generosity up close has been such the most amazing gift. There’s so much value in the world seen through a child’s eyes.
Carnegie Hall has afforded me a vast array of experiences. The bravery that I spoke about above really stems from my ongoing work with them throughout the past four years. I’ve realized what the purpose of music truly is: to bring people together. It probably sounds super cliché, but it’s crazy how true it is. The power that we have as human beings and music makers is immense and you can learn so much about yourself if you attempt to remain open and to receive the gifts that it allows for. This is definitely not always easy and requires acceptance and openness. I have seen this acceptance and openness more from participants in Carnegie Hall’s programs than I ever have from us professional artists. Through this work, I was able to stop taking myself so seriously as an artist and relax into the process of creating. This has been a huge gift as well.
It’s pretty cool how much of a student of life you can become when you start teaching. The work with Rise2Shine, Carnegie Hall, Decoda (a non-profit Carnegie affiliate who I also do music workshops with at Lee Correctional Facility) and also with my private studios (through independent work, The Larchmont Music Academy and The New School University) has colored my recent creations in an enormous way. All of the issues that I’m attempting to shed light on in Free of Form were directly drawn from my life and my experiences in relation to this work. I’m forever indebted to it and cannot wait to see what self and world explorative journey it brings me on next.
SH: Now that the album is released, what’s next for Sarah Elizabeth Charles? What are your goals and aspirations as an artist? What are you trying to accomplish next? What keeps you motivated?
SEC: Right now, I’m trying to just keep putting in the work and breathing…a lot. The balance of those two things are really important for me. Without that balance, I tend to tip over so I’m just really focusing on that. With Free of Form, I’m excited about continuing to hear testimonies from people who are listening and to continue to tour and share the music whenever and wherever we can.
I’m also super curious about the music that I’ve been writing over the past year and to see how that manifests itself in the coming six months to a year. I’ve never been in a place where I’ve finished a project and had another totally different project waiting in the wings so we shall see what happens with that as well. Stay tuned.
SH: As a nod to Pannonica, if you had three wishes, what would they be?
SEC: Great question. Here I go…
1. I wish that we could all take the time to begin the process of self-exploration, acknowledge our individual bias and choose to do something to shift.
2. I wish that music and art were valued in the way that money, gold, power and other things are valued. I think this could change the world.
3. I wish that we all took more time to close our eyes and breathe. I also think that this could change the world.