The S&R Interview: 22 questions with Sarah Lewis of Jag Star
I remember distinctly how I first discovered Jag Star. I was snooping around on eMusic for new bands and was using the old triangulation method – who sounds like band X? One of my favorite bands is VAST, and Jag Star turned up as a “Similar Artist.”
That was both a great moment and a confusing one. On the one hand, I immediately liked Jag Star’s music. I’ve long loved Power Pop, and while you wouldn’t exactly slot Jag Star in with other bands in the contemporary disciples of The Beatles / Raspberries / Who / Big Star / Badfinger Pop Underground scene, they write great hooks, play really well and aren’t at all afraid to turn up the volume. Not only that, they’re doing it on their terms, the establishment and labels be damned.
On the other hand, I can’t for the life of me figure out how they got into the “Sounds Like VAST” queue.
I recently got a chance to interview songwriter and lead singer Sarah Lewis. I thought I’d begin with the VAST question.
SS: Any ideas why you’re listed as being similar to VAST? You’re both great bands, but aren’t really much alike at all. Do you know VAST?
SL: I have no idea why VAST is listed as a similar artist. I have seen that before and it’s actually on a bunch of Web sites that are connected apparently. We did not put that up and I have no idea who did.
We’ve had some other weird comparisons, and I remember Jeff Buckley being one of them. We also are listed as “explicit” in a lot of places. We get so frustrated with wrong information constantly being out there about Jag Star.
Oh and by the way, I do like VAST. I have their album from maybe 2001? [Ed. Note: Music for People, released in September of 2000? Outstanding CD.]
SS: The press release for your new CD, Static Bliss, begins with this headline: “Pop-Rock Quartet JAG STAR Return With Their Fifth Studio Album; As Heard On ABC, A&E, CBS, E!, FOX, MTV, NBC & The CW.” The lead then begins: “Having been heard on every major broadcast and cable outlet over the course of their 10-year career…” And toward the end there’s a long list of TV song placements. But nowhere is there any mention at all of radio. So let me put this next one the way one of my old professors would have done it: Television is the new radio. Discuss.
SL: Jag Star has definitely gotten a lot more support from television networks than radio stations. (Although, for an “indie” band, we have gotten a little bit of radio support over the years, including some Top 40 and hot AC stations.) Everybody knows that radio is a “funny” thing. I could go on about that “funny” thing but it bores me at this point. (Let’s just say we can’t afford radio support, and the one Top 40 program director who broke the “rules” and put us in rotation without compensation from the band got fired.)
I’ve always been fascinated by music set to pictures, and in fact, from the time my feet dangled over the piano bench and couldn’t yet touch the pedal, I’ve wanted to score music for films, commercials and television shows. That was my original music dream, and although Jag Star songs getting placed on different television shows isn’t exactly the same as “scoring” for that particular scene, it’s exciting for me to hear my songs that way.
It used to be uncool to allow your music to be used to promote products. And now every other commercial is Bono, The Stones or the latest popular group. I don’t know what changed peoples’ minds but as fun as it can be to hear your song on the radio, television excites us way more these days. A lot of the shows have avid followers who immediately download everything they just heard right after the show. That is extremely helpful for a do-it-yourself band like us.
SS: Once upon a time female artists in the music business had very little autonomy. But over the course of the last generation women have been able to assert greater control over both the creative and business components of their careers. Have there been any women whom you regard as being particularly important to your ability to dictate your own professional course?
SL: I started my career so young, that honestly, I was clueless about how the industry worked and who had done what, male or female. I didn’t really care because all I knew is that I had the ability to write songs, and I just did it. I knew I wanted to be in charge of myself and never was trusting enough of other people to want to do it any other way. I’m not sure that is completely a good thing, not trusting people, but I’ve always kind of just stayed in my own head.
I’ve taken it so slow since the very beginning, and thinking, “ok, I’ve got some songs… need to record… ok, got that… maybe I’ll call a club and see if I (we) can perform these songs…ok, people actually came, maybe they’ll come back… ok, they did, so maybe I should call the next city over…” I have always just ignored the “rules” and music world around me, and just jumped in and it has just grown over the past decade into a decent little indie career.
I’ve met with labels along the way, and got tired of all of the time they wasted of mine (ours). It’s like, they weren’t sure if they were going to sign us, but didn’t want anyone else to, either. I’ve been told dozens of times, “you’re too nice… you need to make everyone in the room know you’re better than them.” Problem is, I don’t think I’m better, and I’m from Tennessee, so I’m gonna be nice, dammit!
I think the real reason we never signed a deal, other than the fact we’ve never aggressively tried to make that happen, is that I’ve never been a “diva” or remotely acted like one. I understand the whole “star” thing, but I’m a regular girl that is a little on the modest side. A lot of label guys don’t like that. And that is their problem.
Gene Simmons once came to a show after starting his own label. He was considering signing us and approached me after the show, asking who wrote the songs. He didn’t believe me when I said it was me (as if a woman couldn’t do it). He also said I had too many clothes on. I politely told him I disagreed and wasn’t going down that road. It’s such a typical, sickening part of the pop music world that irritates me to no end. (I have gotten way off base from the question, but I’m attempting to explain why and how I’ve had control over my own career!) 🙂
SS: Let’s follow up on this a bit. It seems to me that you’ve come along at a difficult moment in history musically. Some years back there was room for a self-driven pop artist, but these days it’s either indie or American Idol. You’re very much a DIY/indie kind of artist, but you don’t sound remotely indie. Your songcraft is very radio-friendly, if I can use that term safely, and your production values are the furthest thing from low-fi. Do you personally feel like you’re caught in a no-woman’s land? If so, does it bother you?
SL: I do know what you’re saying… “no-woman’s land”… and yes it does sort of feel that way, although it’s not at the top of my mind. I’d say the most frustrating thing for me is that the word “pop” can get such a bad name, and I think it’s because there’s not a lot (if any) well known pop “artists” that write their own songs (that really write them, not changing “the” to “and”) who started out driving around the country in a van making $50 to $100 per night and staying in sketchy hotels. But like I said before, I’ve never paid too much attention to what’s going around me (and neither has the band), and I’ve just stayed true to what I do. There’s really no other way to handle it, unless we tried to change something that we can’t change or tried to be something we are not. I am an indie artist, putting out pop music, and to me, that is the most natural thing I can do.
SS: Maybe you were just born in the wrong place. The Brits have historically treated “rock” and “pop” as pretty much the same thing, but here in America there’s always been a lot more artistic credibility associated with rock. Rock was art, pop was product, in other words. But you write your own songs, you play your own instruments, and the result often feels a lot more rock than pop. All of this is to say that you’re straddling a lot of boundaries. Why have you approached a middle path, and do you think it works for you or against you in the long run?
SL: I might have touched on this a little bit before. I wouldn’t say we’ve “approached” a middle path, because that would mean we did something intentionally, when, like I mentioned before, we are just doing what comes naturally. We are real musicians who play instruments, and I’m just writing whatever comes to my head.
The funny thing is, I think the reason we’re called a pop group most of the time (a lot of times we are still described as a rock band), is because of the sound of my voice. I sound very young, and if you replace my voice with a dude’s voice or different sounding female voice, we might not be called pop. That might be a stupid thing to say, but I just think some of our songs off the past few albums are pretty heavy and do fit into the rock musical genre instead of pop. But when my voice comes in, it lightens it up.
I try to change things up on a record though. I know I have my “sweet” moments, but I like to “strong-voice” it and rock it out, too.
SS: You’re an absolutely spectacular songwriter. I listen to your records and think how about 75% of your songs could easily be top ten hits if radio – which you discussed a little above – had a damned clue. You’ve got several songwriting contest wins to your credit, so it’s not just me who thinks this way. Do you feel like your best path to success lies in your ability as a performer or a writer? Or as a makeup model? J
SL: Wow, thanks for the compliment. I think my strongest suit is definitely songwriting. Well, it probably depends on the day actually. I can have a bad writing day filled with writer’s block but have a really strong voice day, so on that day I’d say performer. But in general, my thing is writing songs, and it’s a really good day for me when I have a new one to add to my catalog.
And no, I don’t consider myself a makeup model. That was just a weird fluke but a fun experience! 🙂
SS: I’ve danced around this so far, but let’s talk about the thing that I’ve never quite figured out about you. There’s a recipe for rock/pop stardom in the US. You need a look. You need to be able to perform. You need good songs. And it doesn’t hurt if you can sing a little. As I see it, you’re pretty enough to be a professional makeup model. You’re great live. You’re an award-winning songwriter. And you’re an outstanding singer. Why the hell isn’t Sarah Lewis a household name yet?
SL: Thanks! I guess if you were in charge of things I could be a household name? Dr. Slammy for President! 🙂 [Ed. Note: You’re working up some material for a comedy routine, too, looks like…]
Hmmm, not sure how to answer that question. The thing is, there are a lot of talented musicians out there that have lots of fans that still no one has heard of. I think if you’re not part of the huge “machine” that hits the public over the head constantly, every day, than you’re just not going to be out there on that level.
Now, if you’re talking about why those corporate companies haven’t grabbed us up, well, there’s a dozen reasons I believe. They either didn’t care about our kind of music, or if they did, it just didn’t work out for one reason or another. I remember being so confused walking into Columbia Records to perform for them (this was an arranged meeting) only to hear the head A & R guy say, “you don’t even really have to perform…. I’m already a huge fan of yours….” And after much communication we never officially got offered a deal from them. I found out a month later, our main contact had left the label.
There have been a lot of “almosts” such as that instance, with about four of the majors. At the time it was very frustrating, because we were dumb and didn’t realize we could keep making records on our own and have a career without them. We couldn’t be on MTV without them but that was never the goal anyway. (And look at MTV now… YUCK.)
We may not be a household name, but I’m so glad we stayed independent because we could’ve gotten ourselves into a really bad deal or gotten shelved. The weirdest thing for me is, we’ll get letters and e-mails from fans in other countries, yet there are tons of people in our own hometown who have still not heard of us. It’s a weird thing, being independent. Some people think you’re “huge” and others haven’t even heard the name.
SS: Okay, let’s change gears for a second. We always ask some compulsory questions when we interview people, so let’s do a couple of those now. First, what’s the greatest makeout record ever recorded?
SL: I guess I’m “supposed” to say Marvin Gaye, but there’s got to be something better than that. I’ll have to think on it.
SS: Next, what’s your favorite barbecue place?
SL: I will gain haters for this but… I HATE BARBECUE! 🙂 (Sorry, Dad.) [Ed. Note: Poor girl grew up in Tennessee where they don’t have real barbecue. I bet her answer would have been different if she’d been raised in North Carolina.]
SS: Back to the serious questions. You’re a mom now, I believe. How is that affecting your development as an artist? Are the demands of caring for a daughter complicating the task of building a career that requires a huge time commitment?
SL: First, I have to say, I am blown away at how much motherhood has changed me. I always dreaded the day that was going to be the end of Jag Star, or any sort of music career, because of having to choose between family and music. But having Sofie really puts things into perspective and honestly, is so much more exciting to me than anything my career has ever brought or could bring. That sounds cliché, like it’s something I’m “supposed” to say, but it’s true.
On the other hand, having Sofie is actually making me “enjoy” my career more. It doesn’t feel as much as a struggle every day, because honestly, I just don’t care if someone says “no” or doesn’t like us. It would kill me before, but her health and happiness is the real important thing now.
And yes, it’s extremely hard to put as much time into our career as before. (Look how long it took me to finally get around to this interview. Sorry!!!) But we’re still trying to make it work. It just has to be second priority now. I’m hoping we have a good enough foundation that we can still exist and be heard out there in TV Land and Internet World, because doing a big tour right now would not work.
We have a fantastic publicist who has given us a ton of ideas that we are excited about, and we feel these ideas will help us to balance keeping our family and music careers going at the same time.
And by the way, did I mention J and I have a BOY coming in July? 🙂 [Ed. Note: No, you didn’t. Congratulations.]
SS: We have a reader-submitted question here from our friend Ubertramp in California. He says that your music reminds him a lot of what Liz Phair was trying to do when she famously sold out a few years ago, except that where she came off as desperate and artificial, your work seems a lot more real and organic. Okay, so that’s a statement more than it is a question, but have you ever thought about yourself with respect to someone like Phair and what comment would you have on the similarities or differences between your work and hers?
SL: Thanks for the question, Ubertramp. I’m not super-familiar with Liz Phair’s work and never heard that particular Liz Phair album but I do remember her “sell out” single (“Why Can’t I?”). I remember being shocked when I heard it and knew it wasn’t who I thought Liz Phair was.
I actually just looked this up on Wikipedia (you made me curious), and apparently she had submitted a record and in typical major label fashion, they (Andy Slater) didn’t like it and offered her more money to try again only if she’d record with songwriting / production team The Matrix (Avril, Britney, Kelly).
Ahhhhhh… now it’s all making sense. That is the curse of the major label relationship: getting turned into something you are not. That is why it was such an obvious sell out.
As far as similarities or differences between her and myself, I’d have to be more educated on her work to answer that. I do know that I do not like the “sell out” song and I hope people don’t think of me when they hear that. 😉 I understand why you say it though, because it is a catchy pop song and that is what we do.
SS: The first few bars of “Talk to Me” and the guitars throughout the song: is that an intentional riff on The Cult or did it just come out that way? If so, we approve, because we love The Cult and like the dynamic edge it gives the song.
SL: I guess I should know what you’re talking about but I don’t. What song from The Cult does it sound like? Nope, no intentional riffing… [Ed. Note: We were mainly thinking of “She Sells Sanctuary.” Adam Schmitt does something similar on “River Black,” and we’ll ask him the same question if we ever interview him. In any case, we love the riff, wherever it comes from.]
SS: Tell me about the best concert you ever saw. Then tell me about the best concert you ever performed.
SL: Well this is going to sound lame, but for being an artist myself, I haven’t seen that many big concerts in my life. I remember wanting to see some and missing them because we were on tour (I missed U2 in Atlanta and I’m still sad about that). I saw Michael Jackson when I was little and I was in awe. I still remember where I sat.
I’ve mostly seen smaller shows, and one of the groups J and I would always go see is Jump, Little Children. Their shows were amazing and we were blown away by their songwriting and musicianship. They really were a big influence on us as far as going down the indie career path and believing it was possible. They have a lot of haters for some reason, and I’m not sure if it’s jealousy because girls swooned over them, but their music really touched me, especially hearing it live!
For the best concert we’ve ever performed, I’ve been asked that question and I can’t come up with the answer. I remember different moments in different shows, where if I could put them all together it would make the perfect Jag Star show! I don’t know if there is one single best, because we’ve played so many, but one that right now is coming to mind is (ironically) a Top 40 radio-sponsored show in Kentucky where we played this big outdoor stage. I remember feeling so much energy on stage, and everybody knew our music because they had our single in high rotation at the time. (I also remember tripping over a cable that night and my belt flying off… I caught myself and everyone yelled for me. 🙂
SS: I’m a huge fan of songwriters. Tell me which songwriters you admire the most and who you think most influenced your own songwriting.
SL: Billy Joel was my first musical influence, believe it or not. My dad had the cassette tape of Innocent Man when I was tiny and I LOVED it. I would play it over and over and his songs really spoke to me, even as young as I was. To this day I’m a huge fan. One of my favorite tracks of his is “And So It Goes.” The melody is just beautiful.
SS: I’ve got this running list of incredible bands that never “made it,” or that haven’t made it yet. And by “made it,” I’m talking about a level of popular and commercial awareness and success that would make them known to the average fan instead of just hardcore types and insiders. Tell me about somebody you know of that fits this description (and tell me how I can get my ears on them).
SL: I mentioned the band Jump, Little Children earlier. They had a huge indie career for many years and then signed to Atlantic and never really broke into the mainstream. It’s hard to describe their music because they’ve done a little bit of everything but I recommend Between the Dim and the Dark, and also Jay Clifford’s solo project Driving Blind.
SS: Another obligatory S&R interview question: what are the last five CDs you bought and what else have you been listening to a lot lately? And what were the last three books you read?
SL: Oh, I haven’t bought a CD or downloaded in forever. (I know, I need to get my head out of Sarah world and start checking out what is out there.) I have lately been compared to Lights and Lily Allen so it did make me curious about them, and I really like both of their latest records. I also love The Killers and their whole vibe. Somehow he makes it work even when he’s off key. No auto tune on that record, for sure.
As far as books, I used to like to “escape” with a good ole mystery. I’m a James Patterson fan for sure. Lately though, I’m reading Baby 411 and Toddler 411. Now how rock star is THAT?
SS: Most of the questions here are Sarah questions, but in truth Jag Star is a lot more than your backing band. At least, that’s true for your guitarist. Still, I imagine a lot of people treat it that way. Tell us about the band dynamic and how you see it evolving in the coming years.
SL: During the recording of the last record, I remember getting into an argument with Travis’s assistant. He called Jag Star an “artist” and not a “band.” But he called other bands in this town bands, even if the lead singer was the only songwriter. I think because I’m a girl backed by dudes makes it easier for people to see it as a “solo” thing. I can’t take all of the credit for the successes of Jag Star though. When I’m on stage I’ve always got three (sometimes four) guys behind me rockin’ it out.
When I’m in the studio, I don’t sing until the drums, bass, and guitar tracks are recorded by the guys. We are definitely a group, and I am lucky to have guys that will play the music I write. (It helps that I’m married to my guitarist. 🙂 ) I see it as we are lucky to have each other, and we all push each other to make it work. They are very supportive of me and don’t get jealous. Brad always jokes, “if you want to sell records, don’t put me in the pictures!” I hear a lot of guys in other bands try to jump in front and be the rock star.
If I wanted a solo career, it would be called “Sarah Lewis,” but I love the idea of a band and having that sort of “team” feeling. I don’t like all attention on me and never have. It’s so much more fun doing this with friends around me having the same goal and feeling like it’s just as much theirs even if most of the attention is on me. They definitely have their fans too though and it’s fun watching the girls swoon. 🙂
SS: If you would, take a second and hate on someone for us. Who out there absolutely drives you crazy? We don’t care who it is or why. Just thump someone for us.
SL: This is big for me. I don’t hate on people outside of my own head. But here it goes for you, Dr. Slammy. Currently I’m hating on The Kardashians. I’m extremely fed up with reality stars known for nothing but sex tapes. It’s getting to be cliché. So sad. I’ll name two more… John Mayer and Joe Simpson. I feel dirty just thinking about them. [Ed. Note: Did she just bust John Mayer? Yes, she did. Man, I love her even more than I did before.]
SS: You guys hail from Knoxville, which is also home to another of our favorites, Superdrag. However, that’s a part of the country most of us would associate with Country & Western. How do you become a pop band in that kind of environment?
SL: I get this question all the time. Truth is I’ve just never been a country girl. Living in Knoxville is not just a “country environment.” In fact, I don’t think living in Knoxville is more of a country music environment than any other city in the U.S. (Remember, I’m saying Knoxville, not Nashville, which is a three-hour drive from here.)
I remember when I was little and would go on a trip with my family, we’d meet other kids from anywhere else in the country and they all thought we lived in barns with chickens and only knew country music. That drove me crazy. Anyway… back on track… I guess since Nashville is in Tennessee, the rest of the country assumes all musicians from the state of TN are country artists. I just happened to have been born in Knoxville, TN with pop music in my head. Simple as that I guess.
I actually think there are more rock musicians living in Knoxville than country musicians. It’s a pretty big rock scene.
SS: Most of us have musical guilty pleasures, things we like but aren’t necessarily proud of. Is there anything in your CD collection that you hope people won’t notice when they come over?
SL: Two words: Spice Girls. (Oh and I did see that concert… and had a damn good time!) You definitely know what you’re getting with them. It’s like cotton candy (the pink kind) in music form.
SS: What’s your favorite song on the new CD to play live?
SL: I would’ve never thought it would be this one as we were recording the album, but I really like performing “Why Do I Miss You” live. Brad (drummer) said it’s his fave, too. Maybe a tie would be “Talk to Me.”
SS: Home stretch. Ask yourself a question that you wish I had asked but didn’t, and then answer it.
SL: OK, here are two…. What do you wish you could do that you haven’t done yet in your music career? I want to score a dramatic movie. Problem is, now that I’m a mommy, it’s seriously tough putting the necessary time into it. Except that’s really not a problem. Because my little girl rocks and like I said, I’m lovin’ mommyhood.
What do you wish would happen today that would help advance your musical career? I wish Apple would call to tell us they want to use “Pressure” for their new iPod ad. Oh, and we’re going to be air banding in the commercial. Can you make that happen President Slammy? J [Ed. Note: You dramatically overestimate my influence. I can’t even get my dog to come to me unless I have a treat in my hand.]
SS: Finally, tell everybody where they can get their hands on some Jag Star tunes, if you would.
SL: People can download our albums at iTunes, Rhapsody, Amazon, and Napster (and tons of other places but these are the main ones). If they want a hard copy, they can be ordered at our Web site and MySpace page.
SS: S&R extends its thanks, Sarah. This was a long list of questions and we know our readers appreciate the effort you put into answering them all.