An Interview with Indie Musician Sarah Dossey
This past fall, my good friend Sarah Dossey put out a captivating album called Diamond. Her newest creation is a grand experiment in which she hangs up her folk hat (pictured above) and sings boldly over haunting ambient sounds. If you haven't yet, you must listen to it. Sarah has been working as a musician for longer than I've known her, which I think is nearing eleven years. We spoke in January about her new album (yes, I know it's now May) and she entertained my mountain of questions. Here is an edited and condensed version of our conversation which I know will be a treat for music lovers and anyone pursuing a creative dream.
On Diamond, the first album from her solo project Dossey:
"People might be surprised by the record because I’ve mostly done folky things. I had this vision to do something crazy and I talked to my two producers, Jacob Hildebrand and Kevin McCollough, about it and they were excited to do the electronic thing. Working together, arranging songs together and figuring out instrumentation, we landed on this really neat sound that’s not necessarily EDM but a little bit further away from pop as well."
On teaming up with new producers:
"Every musician has their own way of approaching music. Every songwriter has their own way of approaching writing a song. Some people come up with the melody first and some come up with the lyrics first or the melody and lyrics at the same time. That’s the same when you talk about musicians or producers. Kevin and Jacob have a different experience and history with the music they’ve made before and so creatively they have a different vantage point [than producers I’ve worked with before].
The recording process is so fun because you get these ideas and think “Oh I heard this and it sounds cool on this record. I wonder if we could recreate that in our own way?” It’s a lot of trial and error especially at the indie level. It’s fun. I could never imagine doing it on my own. Staying up super late, getting the vibe, you know. Working with other people. That to me is probably the thing that separates creative fields. It happens in community."
On the most important decision in creating a record, choosing a producer:
"When you’re first starting out you don’t realize that your producers, if you let them, have a major voice on the record. I’ve felt like that with every project that I’ve done.
Kevin and Jacob together have a really creative outlook and when we were in the recording process I would say, “Hey, does this sound weird? I don’t know. I can’t tell if I’m just being weird or not.” And they would say, “Okay, let’s try it.” It would always come out not exactly like we thought but better. I think that is because of the rapport that I had with them. I’ve known them both for a long time and I felt comfortable in the room with them and that’s so important.
It would be so difficult to make a record with somebody you didn’t know. Because you kinda have to stand naked in front of them. Creatively, you have to let some puppies die and you have to be okay with more voices than just your own and trust the person. I liked what I heard them do before. We talked about our musical influences a lot and decided what we were going to focus on influence-wise. They both have songwriting credit for all the songs because I felt strongly that their voice is heard so much, especially arrangement- and instrumentation-wise. They had a lot to do with the way the record sounds."
Advice for hiring a producer for the first time:
"A lot of it is word of mouth. Asking people who they worked with and what they liked about them. Really doing your investigation work on the person before you even engage them and then when you do engage them it’s important to have some hang time before you record because… it’s not a cheap endeavor, first of all, so you want to make sure that it’s a person you feel comfortable with. If you are totally not on the same creative wavelength it’s not gonna work out. The heart behind your songs is not going to be communicated as well as you want it to be. I think it’s having patience and also asking questions and getting to know the person. It’s the most important thing.
I’ve worked with people that I didn’t know before we started doing a record together and it was a lot of back and forth like “Okay. I’m into this. I want the record to sound kinda like this. What are you into and why? Okay, here’s a song. This is what I like about this song. What do you think about it?” Just being open and willing to get to know a person and let that person get to know you. It should be a pretty intimate relationship."
"Songwriting is an ongoing thing, for me at least. I’m never [in a season of] not writing songs. I need to have the creative juices going at all times. If not every day, then every other day or once a week sitting down and thinking about what could be, what I could create.
I know that some people, their creative process is different. I know someone who is a very successful songwriter and he sits down one day and says, “I gotta write a record.” And he does it in like a month. He writes all the songs. And then for the next two years just tours with those songs and doesn’t write anything until it’s time to write for a new record. That is so frightening to me! But that works for him. For me, it has to be a constant dialogue."
On the daily ritual of creative work:
"I wake up. I get a fresh cup of coffee, I sit down at the piano and start fiddling around. A lot of times it comes out of what I’m reading in the Bible or something that inspires me. I journal and sometimes a phrase or something will stick out to me, something I wrote or somebody else wrote. I’ll sing it out and play it out on the piano or try to come up with a good melody. It’s an internal dialogue I have going all the time. I try to act on intuition. I try to listen to myself. If I come up with something when I’m out and about, I try to pay attention and write it down or sing it into my voice memo in my phone."
When an idea or a song isn't working:
"It becomes obvious. You don't have to kill it… just put it to bed for awhile. I’ve don’t think I’ve ever completely thrown away any songs. I’ll type ‘em up and sometimes those songs that I haven’t found a use for I’ll take to another songwriter and say “Hey, I have this song or I have this verse or I have this chorus. It’s not going anywhere.” And that other person can help create something new possibly or even just use a phrase.
I had a song that wasn’t going anywhere but I loved like four lines and I read it out to a friend of mine who’s a songwriter and he was like “Oh my gosh, that’s the verse that I need for this song. The verse I have kind of stinks.” It was interesting how it fit perfectly so I gave it to him. You never know."
On answering the impossible question, “What do you do?”
"Every time I wonder what I’m supposed to say but what I decided recently is that it’s all in support of playing music. It’s all been about trying to make the music thing a more full-time thing. And so what I’ll say is, “I am a musician and I also do graphic design.” I do more than that but music is my main priority. Everything else falls in behind it. It may not pay me as much as other things do but in my mind it’s the priority."
On the solo side of a creative profession:
"A lot of it is about challenging yourself. You can kind of get stuck in a rut after awhile when you’re alone, kinda going back to the same melodies, the same kind of concepts for songs. What I’ve learned is that if you just challenge yourself, looking at other writers and other musicians and saying, “I wonder how they did that?” and trying to figure it out— that usually serves up something new creatively inside of you.
Or going out and doing something that inspires you, eating a good meal, or going to a museum or reading a good book or whatever. It’s good to take stock in those things and pay attention to them and actually do them. If you aren’t spending time expanding your mind and expanding your vision of the world, your songs or whatever you’re working on aren’t going to grow."
On how she challenges herself creatively:
"If I am in a rut with creating, I will set up a challenge for myself, sometimes with a group of other people. I will do a 7 in 7 [seven songs in seven days] or I will try to write a song every day for a month. Usually, the month thing, nobody wants to do with me. The 7 in 7 thing, I can usually get some other friends that are writers or song writers to do with me.
The last time I did a 7 in 7, I had a friend who is an illustrator that did it with me. And at the end of the day, you send your work over to the people you’re in a group with and then without any worry and covered in humility you critique each other’s work. Even if you’re like, “Ah, I came up with this… it’s the worst.”
Actually some of the songs that I wrote for this record came out of a challenge that I was a part of. That usually spurs me on, gets those creative juices flowing, challenges me, scares the crap out of myself. It’s pretty daunting of a task. It’s hard to do a challenge like that on your own. Cause if you’re not sharing it, there’s no accountability, right?"
On rest, when you work and play and rest all at home:
"What’s important for me to get good work done is to have a schedule and stick to it. And that helps me rest. When I have the most output is when I’m sticking to a regular schedule. Like I wake up at a specific time, I go and do yoga, come back, have a cup of coffee, I take a shower and get ready for the day and then I sit down and start working. And then I’ll stop at five or at six.
Rest wise, I would say doing yoga is very helpful for me. It helps me not only rest but workout, too. It gives me the freedom to release any stress or thoughts about the day or thoughts about yesterday. When I’m not in a practice every day or on a regular rotation I feel kind of off kilter and ultimately I’m not very productive. I enjoy spending time with friends. It’s very restful for me to cook with some friends, or drink some wine and just hang out and talk."
On life as an indie musician:
"I’m very business-oriented. I’ve started a couple businesses, one of them being pretty successful. So I naturally look at my music as a business, which is good in some respects but also debilitating in others because in a creative field your output is never predictable according to your input. You can never predict who’s gonna like what you do, if anyone. You can never predict what shows you’ll get put on, or how many people download your music. You just can’t. Especially now, doing it on our own, which is 99.9% of musicians out there. We’re doing it on our own. We don’t have this force behind us that has a set “we’re gonna spend this much money on your record, and this much money at the promoter” and all this. You just don’t have that."
"It’s a struggle. Especially in my career choice, right? There’s always this pressure or this feeling like I have to perform at a certain level. There’s a lot of comparison, unfortunately, in art. I mean in any career, but in art your heart is in it too so I think it hurts more when you haven’t reached the goal that you’ve set for yourself.
I have to be forgiving of myself if those goals don’t happen because I’ve heard it said before that “comparison is the thief of joy.” I believe that wholeheartedly. If I look at someone else and think “I wish that my music was like that” or “I wish that I had the opportunities that person had,” that discounts the good that my music is or the way that God has blessed my music or blessed other people through it.
Contentment wise, this year especially, I’ve had to hold everything out in front of me and let God do what he’s gonna do. Music wise, this whole Dossey thing was sort of an experiment. I’ve listened to it from this vantage point of, “This was from my heart and I’m gonna experiment with this and I’m gonna do it. But if nobody listens to it except maybe one person—which is you, I know you’ve listened to it, Sara, and if it blessed you and made you think about something differently. That’s a success. That’s what my investment is worth.”