Sara Bareilles talks bold political convictions, her ‘ride or die’ lesbians and meeting a ‘Drag Race’ queen
Sara Bareilles wanted to see herself be brave. Of course she summoned you to do the same atop a bop that wouldn’t take no for an answer, but she’s been a work in progress herself. She followed her own be-bold guidance for her fifth solo album, Amidst the Chaos, making timely feminist assertions (“Armor”) and using coded language to write songs that could be about love but were actually written, mournfully, longingly, with a specific loved one in mind: Barack Obama.
Amidst the Chaos is Bareilles’ first studio album in six years, the last being 2013’s The Blessed Unrest. (She also wrote the music and lyrics for Broadway’s Waitress the Musical, which opened in 2015.)
Recently, Bareilles spoke candidly about fearlessly (and finally) speaking her mind, backlash from Trump supporters who are refusing to listen to her new music and criticism that allies shouldn’t sing about the LGBTQ community. But first, drag queens…
You recently had a meet-up with Nina West, a contestant on this season’s RuPaul’s Drag Race, outside the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, home to Waitress the Musical.
I sure did.
You’re like, “I know. I was there.” You didn’t forget.
Of course not! You don’t forget that! It was amazing. I was still in the show at the time and it was the day they announced she was joining the cast, and I walked outside – I was going to physical therapy for my shoulder – and she is so fierce and she was wearing that pink, yellow, super bright dress and she’s underneath the marquee. I’m like, “Give that to me please!” So we just had this beautiful, sweet little meet-up, and then she sent a whole box of goodies and I shared it with the cast and I got my Nina West t-shirt.
You have a Nina West shirt now?
I sure do! There’s an amazing array of t-shirts. Like whoever does that merch is on point.
Now all the queens are going to send you drag queen t-shirts. You’ll have a whole closet full of them.
I’ll take it, are you kidding me? That’s all I’m going to wear this year. (Laughs)
Does this mean you’re a RuPaul’s Drag Race fan?
I am, although I’m not going to pretend like I watch it every time. I feel like I stay up to date on it because my friends watch it. You sort of keep an eye on it. Like, I love that it exists, and it makes so many people so happy and I love it.
Now, after Nina, there’s basically a gay movement to get you on the show to be a judge.
Oh my god, I would love to.
If you were a judge on the show, what kind of judge would you be? Are you qualified to judge drag?
No – let me just tell you what I know about myself: I am a terrible judge and I learned this when I was on The Sing-Off because I was a judge for one season on this a cappella competition show, and who does not want to ever give criticism? Sara Bareilles. It is not why I am on this earth! Other people are good at it; I am not. I am all about, I wanna love you up! I wanna make you feel great! I wanna pick out all the things I’m excited about who you are! I’m not a good person for, like, constructive criticism. I’m so uncomfortable. I’ll just be a really sweet judge.
Shifting to the new album, and given its subject matter, was the LGBTQ community on your mind while creating it?
Always. That community is braided into the fabric of my messaging and my intention, always. And beyond. Really, for me, the pivot point was the election and wanting to turn back toward music and talk about the way I was feeling about the world with music again, with my own personal music.
The thing that’s been so hard to witness is this total absence of compassion and inclusivity, and it’s really jarring to watch this soul-crushing nature of so much agitation and anger and blame. I’m having a hard time with it. It’s really, really hard to metabolize as a person, and so I definitely turn toward music to parse those ideas out and put them somewhere and try to make sense of it. But on a macro level and a micro level, this last handful of years has felt very chaotic.
Though they’re disguised as love songs, some songs were written about Obama, like “No Such Thing” and “If I Can’t Have You.” In turn, they’ve turned off some Trump supporters. One comment on a Variety article read, “I am deleting her from my playlist. She loves a president that literally destroyed the healthcare for my family and millions of others because he’s ‘cool.’ Another idiot who has no concept of the real world.” You must’ve known some of these songs would polarize your fan base. Why sing them anyway?
Because they’re true for me. I think that one of the things that has happened to me in the last handful of years is that I have stopped feeling fearful of displeasing people with my truth. I think as a young artist I felt very aware of never saying anything that was controversial or wasn’t sort of milquetoast-y in the sense of steering clear of anything political.
On some level, I’m not a policy wonk. I can’t break down to you the ins and outs of every point of what’s happening politically, but I am learning and I am curious and I have questions. And I’m not fearful of losing a fan who doesn’t care for my belief system. It’s OK. You don’t have to listen. I still wrote the song for you, but it’s OK. I don’t need to be angry about that at all. It doesn’t even ignite any of those feelings toward me.
I feel sad that we’re watching the healthcare system get dismantled. Whoever that person is, I want your family to be taken care of. I really do. And I just happen to believe that another system is the better way. But it’s OK. If it’s too triggering to listen to my music because I don’t have the same politics, then that’s OK.
Then there are songs like “Brave,” where you ignited a positive sense of self-empowerment within the LGBTQ community. Did that song take on a different shape and life after it was unleashed?
It did. My goodness! That was one of the greatest sort of movies I ever got to watch: Where is “Brave” gonna go? I did not anticipate that that song would be so mutable and malleable and turn into so many different things for so many different people. As a songwriter that is the deepest hope and wish for the thing you make: that it’s going to land in the hearts and the hands of the people who need it for whatever they need it.
So I love singing that song still. I love the connection it makes with the fans. I really believe in the message. I still turn to that message personally all the time, with an attachment to the outcome: Can I just be my bravest self? Can I be my most authentic? Can I be my most truthful? That’s the goal.
I read a column in The Guardian around the time “Brave” came out about Macklemore’s “Same Love” and “Brave” that addressed straight allies expressing their solidarity, and the article asked allies to “now make room for us to sing our own stories.” Is this a sentiment from the community you’ve been made aware of, and as an ally, how do you feel about it?
I think we’re in this really delicate time, understandably, of people wanting to claim their own story. My feeling, as an artist and as a writer: Your job is to sort of crawl into that radical empathy space and hopefully, with the best of intentions, just amplify a message.
It’s not that I would ever hope to take the place of an artist from the LGBTQ community, but do I certainly want to be on the team to amplify the message that inclusivity, diversity, acceptance, truth, advocacy are worthy to be talked about? Yes. To me it feels like it’s diminishing the strength in numbers if the only people that can support the movement are people who are inside the movement. Then you’re making your movement smaller.
And no movement in the history of movements has effectively moved forward with just a single group of people.
Yeah. I can relate it to the new feminist movement. One of the most important voices that need to speak up for women’s rights are men. That’s how we are going to amplify messages. So I completely understand the impulse of wanting to tell your own story. I think that’s completely valid, and in terms of who I make music with or who I bring on tour, those are the things I can pay attention to. But I think to shut me out because I am straight is maybe a slightly mixed message to me.
I really appreciate your honest and eloquent answer.
It’s hard because it’s delicate. I think it’s good that you ask those questions. But for anyone to sort of have the idea that it’s black or white, it’s so personal for everybody, and I think that’s the part of our life and our culture right now that is creating so much tension. I always refer to it as the death of nuance. It’s like there’s no room for gray area. It’s like you are or you aren’t. It’s all these really stark contrasts, and I think really where humanity exists is in that gray matter in between, just in the middle.
In 2018, you sent gay Twitter ablaze when you tweeted “It was never about a he,” referencing your hit “Love Song” and its inspiration. Gay Twitter thought you were coming out. Though you did eventually set the record straight, so to speak, how quickly were you made aware that many in the LGBTQ community thought you were coming out?
Are you kidding me? My lesbians have been my ride or die since the beginning, so I knew they were just waiting for me (laughs)… . But I also thought when I made that tweet that it’s just a story I’ve told so many times, that I wrote it about the record label and that it wasn’t a particular person, that I didn’t think anything of it. Then it was just delicious to watch the kind of aftermath of that. (Laughs)
And then your DMs filled up with messages from your loyal lesbians?
Yeah! Well, there’s been like a little campaign to get a female Dr. Pomatter in Waitress for a long time (in Waitress, the doctor falls in love with the musical’s female protagonist, Jenna), so it’s something that I find delight in, and we’re certainly open-minded about where the story goes and who gets to tell this story, so all the things are possible, I think.
Outside of Waitress, you usually write from an autobiographical place. Which song on Amidst the Chaos do you feel closest to?
So my favorite song on the record is “Saint Honesty,” but the song that I actually feel the closest to is “Someone Who Loves Me” because it deals with anxiety and depression and how you allow someone to see your pain, and that’s been a very difficult journey for me in my life. So I think that’s the song that probably feels closest to my skin. That’s the one that kind of lives the closest to my heart. But also, I fucking love “Armor.” I love getting to sing that song, so yeah, it’s hard to choose. They’re like your babies.
All artists say that, so I’m glad you were able to narrow it down.
(Laughs) That’s my answer today.
As editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBTQ wire service, Chris Azzopardi has interviewed a multitude of superstars, including Cher, Meryl Streep, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé. His work has also appeared in GQ, Vanity Fair and Billboard. Reach him via Twitter @chrisazzopardi.