Sarah Blacker’s Precious Little Things delivers savvy melodic storytelling
By Nick Tsui
Singer/songwriters with an acoustic guitar aren’t exactly a rare breed, but Sarah Blacker’s bright and emotional vocals combined with incisive lyrics are keeping her ahead of the pack.
Blacker’s 2013 EP, Precious Little Things, is savvy melodic storytelling that spotlights the Wellesley native’s gift for locating a song’s nerve endings and finding a direct path to the listener’s emotions.
With autobiographical tracks like the heartfelt acoustic ballad “Shiver” to the bluesy romp “Pluggin’ Away,” the collection of six songs on Precious Little Things show how far Blacker has grown as a songwriter.
After just three-and-a-half years of seemingly nonstop writing, recording, performing and touring — she has shared the stage with America, Richard Thompson, Paula Cole and Rusted Root, to name a few — Blacker earned the title of New England Music Awards’ 2012 Female Performer of the Year.
Success didn’t come overnight with a viral video on YouTube or a Billboard hit single. Her ability to market herself successfully and remain open minded (she loves performing live anywhere and everywhere) has helped her build a strong and loyal fan base.
In 2011, she toured Germany and landed a performance at the annual festival, Musik in den Hausern der Stadt, all thanks to a woman who just happened to hear Blacker’s sweet singing on the radio.
The song “Smell of Caramel” from Blacker’s first album, 2009’s The Only Way Out Is Through, was playing on WBOS 92.9 FM. It caught the ear of a German listener staying at a Boston hotel.
“She ordered about $400 worth of my CDs and t-shirts upon her return to Germany, and organized my stay at hotels and performances in Frankfurt, Cologne and Hamburg in a concert festival,” Blacker says. “It was incredible.”
Each concert sold out and Blacker sold out of every CD she brought with her.
But playing music, she says, is more than becoming rich and famous or selling out shows. While all of that wouldn’t be so terrible, Blacker plays simply because she feels it and wants to share that with her audience.
When she picks up her six string and steps on stage, Blacker has a message to deliver and gives it everything she’s got.
“Shiver,” she explains, was written, in a way, to her inner child and was “a very important rite of passage” about growing up and getting older.
“Each time I sing it, I ask audience members to imagine I’m singing it directly to them and encourage them to listen to the lyrics,” Blacker says. “I think it’s a song that is easy to connect to for most.”
Watching Blacker strike up a conversation with a crowd while tuning her guitar in between songs, it becomes clear that she is an artist with a natural-born ability to connect with people.
That gift is reflected in her songwriting, in the way she seemingly pulls the lid off life and sings away her secrets, like in one of her favorite tracks off Precious Little Things.
“’Pluggin’ Away’ let me be aggressive and even a bit angry while singing in the studio,” says Blacker of the thumping bluesy number. “This song was written about the life of a musician — having to be on stage when at times you’d rather be in a bubble bath or eating chocolate — wanting to share your gift with an audience, but sometimes wondering if the message is getting across.”
Music has always been present in Blacker’s life. When she’s not on a stage, she works as a licensed music therapist, providing services to children with Autism and other developmental delays.
“As a young child I made up songs all day long,” Blacker remembers. “Apparently I’ve been singing ever since I could speak, at the top of my lungs. And about three-and-a- half years ago, I took the full-time plunge. I couldn’t wait any longer.”
Laura Marling. Joni Mitchell. Brandi Carlile. All helped Blacker discover her own voice and sound. Her talented band, most of whom she has worked with for years, are also a giant credit to her growing success.
These days you’ll find her joined on stage by Sean McLaughlin on electric bass, who doubles as her producer, recording and mixing engineer, and drummer Mike Levesque, who has rocked the kit with many well known artists including Seven Mary Three, the Boston-based Letters to Cleo and even the legendary David Bowie on his 1999 Hours album.
“It’s always a pleasure to play with Sarah and play her music,” says Levesque, who owns and operates 37’ Production studios in Rockland, Mass.
Blacker also regularly jams with upright bass player Bryan Worley of the Tabula Rasa, who she met at the New England Music Awards, guitarist and singer Erik White of Jamaica Plain and talented lead guitarist Chuck Fisher of Fitchburg.
“The thing that I find most impressive is the list of people that want to play with Sarah,” says Joe Graham, co-founder of the New England Music Awards. “Everywhere she goes, she’s got people who want to share a stage with her. That says so much on its own.”
Blacker and her band pushed the creative envelope and experimented more with technique on Precious Little Things, resulting in a record that feels as warm and rich as drinking a fine red wine.
“Sean and I got very creative with layering and textures,” Blacker explains. “He would mic a guitar both close up to the body, over my shoulder, and even against a wooden barrier in the studio to enhance the amount of reverberation through different woods.”
Drums were also recorded in parts, one piece at a time, to distinctively capture each sound for a well-layered rhythm section.
“If you listen to the rhythm of the drums on a Paul Simon record, there are so many call and response drum parts,” Blacker explains. “We kind of thought of things in that way compositionally, but sonically, were inspired by albums such as Ray LaMontagne’s Trouble, Kathleen Edwards’ single “Change the Sheets” and Bon Iver’s album, For Emma, Forever Ago.”
The artfully recorded production on Blacker’s latest opus allows the listener to focus on the building blocks of any good song — a lingering melody well-sung and well-played, and lyrics that carry their own weight.
Combine that with a stage presence that seems to have all the guile of a long-time pro, and you’ll find Blacker shining brightly in New England’s great big sea of up and coming singer/songwriters.
Sarah Blacker’s new EP, Precious Little Things, is now available on iTunes, Spotify and at live shows. Listen here.