Q&A: Sarah McGowan talks 'For Whom They Sing'
Sarah McGowan

Sarah McGowan is a talented singer-songwriter whose ability to experiment with style, genre and sounds has already garnered her advance praise on her forthcoming, debut album For Whom They Sing. Throughout the release, McGowan finds inspiration in her own life as well as the world around her as she tackles such topics as love, marriage and the beauty of being an outcast.

AXS got a chance to ask McGowan a few questions about her songwriting style and her musical background.

Laurie Fanelli (AXS): Congratulations on your new album For Whom They Sing. What are some of the overall themes of the release?

Sarah McGowan: Thanks, Laurie! I think the overarching theme of this album is growing up and figuring out who I am both as a person and an artist. I wrote this album over the span of three years – 20 to 23 years old – in which I experienced a lot of growth. I graduated college, traveled, navigated relationships and tried to figure out what to do with my life – that last part is still an ongoing process!

This album has also been important in helping me figure out my musical path. Every song on For Whom They Sing has a different sound or musical style—usually a blend of rock, pop, and folk. While writing the songs for the album, I hoped to zero in on the style which I wanted to pursue. After a lot of thought, I decided that I didn’t want to tie myself down to a singular style, so I let myself write freely. I know this is a bit unusual, but I think that the subject matter and my voice will tie together the collection of songs on the album. I think I’m on my way to creating my own unique style.

LF: Do you have a favorite track off the album or is that like choosing a favorite child?

SM: Well, I am clearly my parents’ favorite child, so I feel ok choosing a favorite song – Just kidding! “Desperate As You” is definitely my favorite song to sing because I get to let out my bitchy side and really make my performance campy. Lyrically, I am most proud of “Young Bride.” I think it’s the most profound song I’ve ever written. But it is hard to pick a favorite. And I think that the song I like today may not be my favorite tomorrow. It depends on my mood, and also how people respond when I perform it. For example, people usually start dancing and singing along when I play “Williamsburg Boy,” so that makes it one of my favorites.

LF: Do you consider your music to be more autobiographical or do you take more of a story-telling approach and develop characters for each song?

SM: It’s a mix! Every song is rooted in an autobiographical event, but I typically take some poetic license and dramatize the heck out of it. For instance, “Young Bride” is inspired by the constant engagement announcements that assault me on Facebook. Personally, I know that I am not mature enough to get married at the age of 23, so it fascinates me seeing all these young married couples. I’ll admit that the chorus is a bit dramatic, “I will never be a young bride.” But for me, that just means that I don’t envision that life for myself yet – it is not because I am depressed and lonely. “Indian Summer” is an instance where the song is not completely autobiographical. I have never been hurt so badly that someone was “my life…and then…cut me like a knife.” That’s a bit harsh. But I can imagine feeling that way, so I took on this emotion and wrote a song about it.

LF: The video for “When I Come Home” is visually striking. Did you have images in mind when writing the music or did that come later in the process?

SM: I did not have any clue what the music video for “When I Come Home” would look like when I was writing the song. I guess I pictured something soft and romantic to go with the folk-pop sound of the song. Thank God for my wonderful director, Josh Hammond, and producers, Katherine Paige and Scott Schuler. They had a crazy, technicolor dream for this music video and I think we nailed it. It took a lot of time and re-shoots and late nights making props out of cardboard, but I am so happy that we made a beautifully unique video. It’s getting a lot of great feedback, and I owe it all to them.

LF: You have such a wide variety of influences from The Strokes to The Ronettes, how do you incorporate elements from all your favorite genres into your own style?

SM: I also co-produced this record, so I’ve learned that it’s important to have sonic references in mind while building up the track. It’s often difficult to do when writing the song on guitar or piano, but when it comes to recording a demo, I always try to add some layers (either a drum part, background vocal, etc) that points the track in the direction I want. Then when I bring it to the studio, I give references to specific songs from these artists and it helps everyone who works on the track interpret my music and give birth to the sound that I imagined when writing the song in my bedroom. As for how I manage to incorporate sounds from such different types of artists—it’s all about not sticking to a rigid musical style. Why shouldn’t one song sound like a “wall of sound” and another reference pop-punk? That’s part of the fun!

LF: You are still young in the grand scheme of life, but you are a veteran musician having began to write songs at the age of 14. How has your songwriting style evolved over the years?

SM: I’ve definitely experimented with a ton of styles since I started writing at 14. And I’ve improved a ton – hopefully! When I first started writing, Taylor Swift was still in her sweet country-pop stage, and as a teenage girl, I wanted to be like her. As I grew older and entered my twenties, my songs grew a bit edgier and darker. You can hear this on the first song I wrote for For Whom They Sing, “Molly.” That was a huge break from the style I had been playing for six years. From that point onwards, I started focusing on making my songs sound a little bit weird and edgier – and attempting to never have two songs sound the same. I hope to never stop experimenting with new sounds as I continue my songwriting career.

LF: Will you be touring in support of For Whom They Sing? Where can people see you live?

SM: I’m hoping to put together a tour of the Northeast in early 2016. But for now, you can see me at my album release show at Arlene’s Grocery in New York City on November 14th. I am so pumped.

LF: Is there anything else you would like to share with AXS readers?

SM: I hope you enjoy my debut album, For Whom They Sing. Share it with everyone, sing along and be happy.

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Get happy by watching the video for “When I Come Home” by Sarah McGowan above and click here to pick-up tickets to see her live at her album release show in New York, NY. Keep reading AXS for more music news, reviews and exclusive interviews.