It has been one week since Joyful Sky, the new album from Sari Schorr and Robin Trower, was released. Two outstanding artists, one sublime album, the songs here find the pair roaring and purring in equal measure. Sari is on tour in Europe, and she took time to talk to MetalTalk’s Paul Monkhouse.
Sari has been travelling from Paris to Belgium, to the Netherlands, to Germany, and soon will be back in the UK. It’s clear that people in the UK and Europe have welcomed her with open arms.
Sari says she is beyond grateful. “I remember the first time I came to Europe was with a boyfriend and a backpack,” she says. “In fact, we broke up because he wanted to go back to New York. We were in London. Our little backpack adventure ended in London. I said, you know what, I’m not leaving. He had to call my father to ask what do I do with your daughter? She’s not leaving. Fast forward, and now I’m here working and able to share my music and getting just wonderful support for it all through the UK and Europe.”
I suggest to Sari that we appreciate good songwriters and good artists. Sari’s approach is very fresh, with a traditional element to what she does. With her classic songwriting and classic performances, I say that’s part of the reason why she has been embraced so warmly.
“That’s a really big compliment,” Sari says. “To be accepted by the UK audience is a massive thing for me. You guys reintroduced the blues to us back in the States. From the very beginning of my career, I always wanted to be a good songwriter. That was the vehicle for me to be a singer. First and foremost, it was about writing good songs. I always believed that if a song plays well with a voice and a piano or voice and an acoustic guitar, then you’re on the right track, as opposed to having to layer a lot of production tricks into something to try to make it sound good.
“You don’t know if you’ve got a good song until you strip everything away. That’s always been my philosophy and my approach to songwriting. Everything starts with a voice and an acoustic instrument and then grows from there.”
Five Octave Range
Sari Schorr is a lady with a five-octave range. “I was studying with a teacher from The Juilliard School Of Music, and she was begging me to go into opera. She said, ‘You’ve got a gift. I can’t train people to have more than a five-octave range, and you’ve got it. I can’t train people to have the kind of power you have, and you’ve got it.’
“But I didn’t have the discipline. I was much more of a free spirit. Songwriting was the best way for me to express myself because I was quite shy. I figured out at a young age that through my music, that shy girl was accepted. I’ve always used music as an entry point to feel comfortable with other people. So I was really committed to being a songwriter even before honing my craft as a singer.”
And telling your own story rather than that of Verdi or Mozart?
“I was so into improvisation as well,” Sari says. “Writing your own songs, there’s a lot of freedom. You don’t have that luxury when you’re doing classical music. Everything is very nice, and I really admire the artist who can do that, but it’s a very different mindset. I was a huge Miles Davis fan, and my earliest influences were all jazz singers. That freedom was just what really appealed to me.
“Using my voice as an instrument was always my concept of how to use my voice as the vehicle for the songs. I was always thinking of my voice as an instrument, which would drive certain producers totally crazy because I could shape my vocals depending on what the musicality was informing the vocals to do.
“That was really the greatest thing about working with Robin Trower. There is something inherent in his guitar sound that just places my vocal in a really comfortable place that allows me to be very, very expressive. That synergy doesn’t always exist. It’s a magical combination of ingredients where it happens or doesn’t happen.”
That mutual respect that Robin Trower and Sari Schorr have really shows on Joyful Sky. It’s a great album. Robin has worked with some incredible people, as Sari has. Sari has worked with Walter Trout, Taj Mahal, Carly Simon, and all these incredible people. To have a musical partner like Robin Trower, the songwriting process must have been fascinating.
“It all started with three songs,” Sari says. Allen Robinson, who manages Sari and Robin Trower, asked the guitarist to write three songs for Sari’s next album. “Robin really dove deep into my catalogue and decided, yes, he would like to contribute three of his songs.
“So he initially sent me acoustic versions, and right there, we go back to the foundation of a good song. It was just Robin singing and playing acoustic guitar. Three great songs right off the bat. We did a session when I got off of tour in Newbury, and it went so well. Robin said, you know, if you wanna make a world-class record, let’s do a whole album together. He was working on a solo album. I was working on a solo album.
“But we decided let’s put both of our solo albums on hold so we could come together to do this project, which became Joyful Sky. It happened organically. It happened so naturally. We both recognised this synergy that we had and the fact that we were really inspiring each other.
“I would do a vocal, and he would say, you know what? That gave me the idea to do a slightly different thing on the guitar. He would record guitar, and I would say, oh, now I hear something else. I could do this part there. We just kept raising the bar. There was just a lot of enthusiasm and excitement.
“The greatest thing for me was to see Robin happy. That’s really all I wanted. I just wanted to honour him and honour his legacy by doing something that he would be proud of. I put so much pressure on myself in the beginning, telling myself you gotta be good. No, you gotta be great. No, you gotta be the best you’ve ever been.
“I was building up the fear and the expectation. I said, just stop because, with this kind of fear, I’m not gonna be my best. But as soon as I got to the studio, Robin was just so cool. He was laid back. I talked about the song and the approach because what he does so well is blend different genres of music together. There are elements of blues, rock and soul. I said to him, ok. So, do you want me to lean the song in a more rock direction? Do you want me to take in more soul? He said, you know what? Just do what you do.
“That gave me so much freedom and confidence. He likes to do one-take performances. He wants the overall vibe to be there, and working with him just allowed me to just focus on the creative process of it all.”
With Robin giving Sari carte blanche, this must be liberating for an artist. Allen put the pair together, but he knew it would be a really good match. Robin had confidence in Sari and knew she would be great with him. He wanted that spark she has.
“It caught me off guard,” Sari says. “To be honest, I never expected it. I’ve worked with a lot of producers in the past that have very definitive ideas. They want what they have in their mind, whether authentic to the artist or not. Because I have a lot of control over my vocals, I’ve worked very hard to have that. I can usually give a producer exactly what they’re looking for, sometimes losing myself in the process.
“Luckily, I didn’t have to do that with Mike Vernon on my first album, and I didn’t have to do that with my current producer, Henning Gehrke. Once again, with Robin, it was just such an inspiring record. It was just beautiful working with him.”
The pairing of Trower and Schorr does work brilliantly. The Circle Is Complete has such a great story arc, with the different parts blending to make the whole thing come alive. There is a real soul in the album.
“What really is amazing about the way Robin is writing these songs is the lyrics are very accessible, but they’re very profound,” Sari says. “He is saying a lot in accessible language. He’s using a lot of wonderful imagery, and it makes it a joy for a singer to deliver those words. I can see the picture like a little movie in my head when I’m singing the songs.
“It really is as if he got inside my head and knew exactly what I wanted to say. He really did his homework, and he really knew where I was in my life and what I would be inspired to sing about. I can’t wait for you to hear the songs played live. We filmed the live concert, and Robin was just spectacular. People are gonna be blown away by what he did.”
Flatter To Deceive is another immense song, the invasive quality of pop culture. Something that started with body image in magazines has, with the internet, become a huge presence in people’s lives, especially with social media. It can be positive. But we also know it can be very destructive.
“It’s terribly destructive,” Sari says, “especially for young women. We are putting much too much importance, and we’re investing too much time there. I don’t think at the end of anyone’s life, they’re gonna say, I wish I had more time on social media.
“Because there’s nothing social about it. It’s not bringing a better quality of life, and so much of it is not honest. There are some days that I want to share the worst of my songwriting experience. But I don’t want to feel like I’m burdening my fans and being negative. I feel as though there needs to be more honesty because, generally, we’re all just putting the images out there of the most positive moments in life, and it’s distorting our perception of reality.
“TikTok is a very different thing in America than it is in China. In China, it’s an educational-based platform, completely different to the mundane, mindless content that they are constantly pushing in the States. So, something to consider.”
A Spiritual Person
Having met Sari at HRH Blues in Sheffield, she seems to be a spiritual person, not necessarily in any sort of religious way. “Well, I do believe that there is a purpose for our lives,” she says, “That we all have something to contribute and that we’re all spiritual beings having a human experience. We need to recognise each other that way and see how we’re all just so connected.
“We have so much more in common with each other than our differences would lead us to believe. Learn to agree, to disagree with respect, and have conversations. Stop focusing on the false concept of celebrity, which Robin talks about in Flatter To Deceive.”
“We’re so obsessed with it. Everything is celebrity. TV and social media influencers. The people around us every day are the people that are worth investing our time with. We go through life and don’t even see people. We’re on our phones to connect with people on social media. We’ll ride an elevator and not say hello to the person standing next to us in a little box and idolise a celebrity, and yet not even thank the bathroom attendant who is working a miserable job to make our life a little bit more comfortable. We really need to shift our perspective and stop seeing people that are valuable as invisible.”
Blues music is such a wide thing, I say. Mood-wise, traditional blues might be ‘My Baby Left Me’, but now also upbeat blues. It covers that whole thing but in such a raw way as a genre.
“That’s the beauty of blues music,” Sari says. “I fell in love with it because it’s about real people. Real stories about real people played by real musicians. I mean, how much more honest and authentic can you get? It’s just a question of reinterpreting the music.
“I can sing blues music with my own authentic voice, incorporating my own life experience. That’s why when I sing a song like I Just Wanna Make Love to You in the first line of the song, Willie Dixon writes, ‘I don’t want you to be no slave’.
“Now that was literal. So now, I have to reinterpret that, so I changed the arrangement of the song so that it can feel honest from my perspective and my life experience. The same thing how I had to reimagine singing a song like Black Betty [Lead Belly] and Where Did You Sleep Last Night (In the Pines).
“I think that is what helps keep the genre alive and vibrant because everything changes as we change. It’s the same in fashion and in food. Every art is constantly evolving, depending on how the times inform the artists that are creating the art.”
A Real Afterglow
All human life is in the blues, I say. One of the most striking tracks on the album is I Will Always Be Your Shelter. That power touches people. It’s slow, soulful and warming, and I think it can mend broken hearts. There’s a real afterglow about the whole thing. Titanic is possibly not the right word, but it is just an epic, incredibly soulful song.
“When it came time to record that song, that one presented the biggest emotional challenge for me,” Sari says. “In order to get into the right headspace, I had to allow myself to be emotionally vulnerable. But every time I was rehearsing the song on my own, I would break down. You can get away with that in a live performance if it’s real. But for an album, I knew I had to give a more controlled performance.
“But there’s a really fine line between being really honest, open and transparent and having that control where you’re not going too far. You don’t want to be sobbing all over the place.
“That was a really hard one. But, you know, I focused on Robin’s guitar, and it felt like it was just like a wave carrying me somewhere safe, and I just stayed there. I was very happy when we got it on the first or second take because I was really concerned.”
It’s a fine line. An artist wants to capture that genuine soul, but if you’re in floods of tears all the time, sobbing down the mic, it does not make for a good take. “I’ve made that mistake,” Sari says. “I tried to sing at my father’s funeral, and I never made it through the song. I was a sobbing mess, and I had to be escorted off the platform. I knew that things could go wrong very, very easily. I don’t know how I’ll ever be able to sing that one live. We’ll see.”
A Mouthwatering Prospect
There is the mouthwatering prospect of hearing some Joyful Sky songs live alongside Sari’s own material.”We are rehearsing songs already,” Sari says. “One of the first songs I want to introduce into the set is Joyful Sky. It sounds like a James Bond theme to me. I’ll Be Moving On is another one that is interesting because it is so Robin. It’s just quintessential Robin, how he is blending these different genres of music so exquisitely. It is just this beautiful piece of art that is very unique. I would love for people to hear that song as well.”
No pressure on her guitarist, then? “We’ve had discussions about it because Ash [Wilson] is a huge Robin fan. Ash said, ‘Look, no one can do Robin Trower. Everybody tries, but nobody can. So I just have to find an approach that honours the song, but that is very much him.’ It’s really a mystery. I’ve spoken to many guitar players. Nobody can quite figure out how Robin Trower does it. It’s extraordinary.”
It must have been incredible being in the studio and seeing Joyful Sky build in front of you. “Honestly, it was incredible to watch Robin work because you realise you’re watching a legend at work,” Sari says. “He strives for perfection but in a way without conflict. There’s no stress. It was joyful. He approaches it with so much love and appreciation. He really loves playing the guitar, he loves recording, he loves being on tour, he loves music.
“I’ve seen other musicians get frustrated. Then they bring anger, and then it becomes this battle within themselves. But Robin is cool. He works very deeply, and his concentration is enormous. He can outlast anyone in the studio with his focus. I was sitting back watching him work, and when you think he’s achieved the greatest thing possible, he will take it one step further. He never rests until he is absolutely convinced that, yep, we’ve got it. I love that.”
Inspire And Encourage
Separately, Sari Schorr and Robin Trower are incredibly strong. Together, evidenced by the new album, there is magic that happens. Did they inspire and encourage each other? “Yes,” Sari smiles. “We had fun making the record. We really had fun, and at the end of every day, it was, wow, that went fast. I can’t wait to do it tomorrow. Everyone would get to the studio early. That’s a good sign. The last day was a really sad day. But we said, look, there will be more. We’re gonna do more work together. It was quite bittersweet. We knew we had accomplished everything that we needed to, and it’s time now to deliver the album to the record company.”
As for new music from Sari Schorr, there is a plan. “I’ll be recording my album. I’m going back into the studio next month as soon as we are done with this tour. Hopefully, the record will be finished sometime in December for a release early next year. I promised all my agents and management that, yes, the record would be ready.
“Press doesn’t write about tours. They do write about new releases. On the artistic side, I feel I am ready with something to say. So I want to put out a record, but on the promotion side, the agents and promoters want a record because we need tour support. But our goals are aligning.
“I’ve played some of the songs to make sure that they’re working exactly the way I want to. That always helps getting the audience’s initial reaction to the songs. I’ve rewritten half a verse on one of the songs called River because it wasn’t quite settling the way I wanted it to. But now that’s done.
“My producer said I could probably have a long player for each song that I’ve written because I have so many different versions and different lyrics. One of the songs I’ve been working on for six years. It’s done, and we’ve been playing it live, so it is finally ready. I really am very, very excited about this record.”
Robin Trower/Sari Schorr – Joyful Sky is available from here.