Supported by the brilliant input from her band members, Sarah Partridge is part storyteller, part heartstring-plucker and part poetess. With a background in theater, she targets the emotions with pinpoint aim. Her voice is true and gimmick-free. She swings with ease and it’s obvious that although it’s her living, this is also what she does for fun.
Sarah’s recent and fortuitous pairing with one of the queens of incredible lyrics, Ms. Janis Ian, reintroduced smart and relatable music that just sounds plain awesome.
Talent will out, and what a story about a karaoke night that got you back to singing! Was that fate?
The fate part of it for me is that I met my boyfriend (now husband) who urged me to take the plunge and sing an arrangement of “Summertime” that night. If I hadn’t met him, this whole career would not have happened. I’m really not sure that I would have considered entering into this particular new venture on my own.
Talk about performing with Doc Cheatham. How did he influence you?
Doc was a bright light that beamed for me when I moved to New York. He was the first musician to let me on stage without hearing about me. He took a chance.
We clicked instantly on a personal and musical level. His experience with accompanying a vocalist was so incredible. I mean, he worked a lot with Billie Holiday and all the singers of that time so he knew exactly what to do. It made everything so easy for me.
His relaxed manner in front of an audience was also something I noticed and have tried to implement into my live shows. He just drew people in. He had many gifts and I took them in as my own. He was also so humble, unlike a lot of overly seasoned musicians from that time period. He’d be the first to mutter about a solo he had taken: “That was terrible.” Of course it wasn’t, he just had high standards and wouldn’t let himself get away with something less than what he thought it should be.
How have you developed as a musician since your debut CD “I’ll be Easy to Find”?
In 1998 I was still in a bit of a copying phase. I was still using many techniques that I had heard from all the greats. I don’t believe I really had my own voice yet. But I think with every gig and every recording I have become more of my own singer.
When I approach a song now, I don’t have anyone in my head but me. I also started writing around 2005…something I never thought to do. That has certainly helped me grow as a musician, writer, interpreter and person.
What inspired your latest CD “Bright Lights and Promises: Redefining Janis Ian”? Were you always interested in her music?
I wanted my next project to be a salute to another singer/songwriter…not necessarily in my genre…in fact I wanted to step outside of my comfort zone and find an artist’s work I could re-imagine.
I didn’t know where to begin but I was inspired when Janis and I began talking in a Recording Academy social media group. I thought, “Wait, what about Janis?” I started listening and realized that a lot of her early work was very jazz-influenced. Her later work was not, but therein laid the inspiration, or the challenge. I knew it was right.
I had been interested in Janis’ music when I was a teenager and then lost track as I got older. My new-found knowledge of her decades of music was exhilarating! I fell in love with her work all over again.
What was it like to collaborate with her?
Beyond what I ever imagined it to be. She is an extremely generous artist. The collaboration was twofold. She eagerly embraced my interest in reinterpreting her songs. She offered up her entire catalogue, including works that had never been recorded.
Then, we decided that we should try to write a song together. She invited me to Nashville and we spent two days writing TWO songs and it was one of the most fulfilling experiences I have ever had. Janis was giving in every way. I could have been very intimidated through this process, but it was a joyous and very creative time.
How does the album show her as re-defined?
First of all, I am a very different singer than Janis and the songs take on different tones and meanings just from the fact that they are not being sung by her. The big re-definition, however, is in the arrangements. They are very rooted in jazz but hopefully make sense. I didn’t want to change up chords and have crazy arrangements that weren’t “appropriate” to the songs. I tried to stay very true to her melodies, but rhythms and time signatures are very different. These songs take on a new life with horns and percussive elements that didn’t exist in her compositions.
What were you communicating on this album; was it a counterpoint to Janis or an echoing of her sentiments?
It is absolutely both. Counterpoint in that I am reaching outside of her original ideas and expressing my own. Echoing very much in the expression of the lyrics. Staying true to the message. That mustn’t change, in my opinion.
What’s your favorite track on the new CD?
It’s so hard to choose. They are all dear to my heart. I think I have the most fun singing “Belle of The Blues.” It sparks something in me. On the other hand, “Somebody’s Child” is at the top of the list. We wrote that together and I truly feel it is a genuine mix of both of our writing, and that is very special to me.
What messages and themes are important in your music?
Some social commentary as well as very personal expression. I tend to write about current cultural feelings…not events, but sentiments. I also tend to write about my own personal experiences dealing with love, loss and sometimes family. I love to observe people, and sometimes my music is about those observations.
How do the disciplines of acting and singing overlap?
A good singer is also a good actor. In both cases you are communicating feelings or a story. Both disciplines require craft, technique and emotional availability.
Do you miss acting?
Not as much as I thought I would, but yes.
“Almost Like Being in Love” seems to be performed in a minor key (to start). How do you conceive of such changes– re-imagine it– as compared with the traditional sound of a piece?
The idea of that song in a minor key was conceived by Daniel May, a pianist/arranger I know, so the credit goes to him. I just loved it when I heard it. The song was still the song but just took on a very different and melancholy tone.
I am not one of those jazz singers who believes that you must take standards and make them unrecognizable. I think that concept is just plain old pretentious.
However, I do believe that new arrangements that make sense and are in some form true to the original concept are very cool. So, I look at the heart of the piece and ask, “Is there something else I can do with this…either with tempo, rhythm or different chords or meaning that will make this different and yet identifiable?”
The traditional sound, in my mind, should always be lurking somewhere.
How do you take care of your voice?
I’ve never had to think about that. I live a life of moderation, and by chance, have always used my voice correctly. I drink milk, eat ice cream, sometimes scream at a ball game and drink some wine. Those things that bother most singers don’t seem to affect me. I’m a big cyclist, and one thing I don’t do is ride in cold weather a day before a gig. Cold dry air being gulped in for an hour or two is not good for my vocal chords!
Who are the personnel in your band and how do you read each other? What does each one bring to the music?
The rhythm section, my brothers, the ones who have my back are: Allen Farnham: piano/arranger, Bill Moring: bass, Tim Horner: drums/percussion, and when I’m able to use him, Ben Williams: trombone.
I have worked with these brilliant musicians for the last 20 years and we read each other’s minds. Allen is not only a gifted pianist and arranger, but also a musical director. He has worked with all the greatest singers and knows how to kick off a tempo and take control. I feel so comfortable on stage with him.
I’ll never forget a very important show where I got lost in the weeds in a verse. I wasn’t sure how to get back to the right note of the next phrase…I was out there. Allen could have given me a lead in…a chord, but he laid out and went silent. I found my way back in by just pausing. He knew that was the right thing for me. That’s trust and intuition!
I can say the same for Bill and Tim. They are so “there” for me, both musically and personally. When you’re all friends, the creative part is heightened. You are able to react and read each other and take all kinds of risks. It’s just magical.
Ben Williams is a showman. When I’m on stage with him we have a lot of fun. I sing to him and he talks back to me with his horn. There is humor and pathos and everything in between when we work together. When we record, all of that is still there. It took years for us all to do a recording project together, but now we have done two albums and I think they are the best recordings yet.
“…You ain’t no thoroughbred”- the biting humor! Talk about that spirit on “Janis Ian Redefined.”
Ha! There isn’t a lot of biting humor on this CD, but that line from the song “A Quarter Past Heartache” is certainly biting, caustic and humorous in the context of the song. So much of the spirit of this album can be attributed to Janis Ian. She is one of the best lyricists ever, and that alone adds to the integrity of the album. Her lyrics cut to the quick of any subject she writes about, and it was my job to interpret her themes, find different elements in her words and music and still be true to her spirit. All I can say about the two songs we co-wrote is that there was a big spark in the room. We connected on a level that seemed like it was just meant to be. That, to me, is the spirit of the album. True connection.
Favorite venue in NYC/NJ area?
I’ll speak to New York and New Jersey.
SOPAC. The South Orange Performing Arts Center in New Jersey is a pleasure. Great acoustics, friendly staff and sound people. It’s always a pleasure.
Town Hall in NYC is the real deal. Perfect size. Perfect sound. Just the best.
Your most memorable gig as a music performance consultant? This sounds like a great way to combine acting and music.
I coached an opera singer when she was auditioning for “Carmen.” Singers of this discipline are highly trained and know several languages. However, many of them have not had acting classes or any training in performance, so it’s all about the voice.
It was so wonderful to work with someone who has this tremendous instrument…and not have that be any part of the equation. I helped her get very specific with what she was singing about, relate it to something in her own life and react off of that. At one point, everything changed, came alive. There wasn’t simply a beautiful voice, but an experience happening. To see someone “get it” and be able to use what I was giving her was SO rewarding! She didn’t just sing the character, she BECAME the character. BOOM!
Plans for the rest of 2017?
There isn’t a lot left of this year, but to me, every hour is critical. I’m in business mode. Not my favorite place, but a necessary place to be. I’m enjoying my family and setting up gigs for next year. December will be about coaching and pondering about what the next recording project will be. I have some ideas and need to spend time with them. I’m taking some voice lessons from someone outstanding, and just readying myself for the next concert.
What new and different ways would you like to experiment with your music in 2018?
I am very into my writing at this point. I plan on trying out some of my new compositions in various venues, and woodshedding.
But I also love to work on my own versions of the classics. There are some dates in the coming year simply about that. There are venues that want new, and those that want old. I plan on experimenting with old and new. Making every tune fresh every time. I hope to deliver this music in many different kinds of venues.
Place you’ve always wanted to perform?
Japan. I haven’t been there yet. For the venue, it’s a cliché: Carnegie Hall. Acoustically, it’s an amazing hall for a small jazz band.
For more information, visit www.sarahpartridge.com.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of Sarah Partridge.
(c) Debbie Burke 2017