Sara Bareilles has lived the life one of her favorite TV characters, Felicity Porter, might’ve if she had stayed in California. Both the Grammy-nominated singer and the Felicity TV character grew up in comfortable Northern California households. Felicity, set up on a pre-med Stanford path, fled to New York City to pursue art, only to quickly go back to her medical studies. Bareilles, on the other hand, grew up a community theater performer but stayed on the West Coast to study communications at UCLA. There, she immediately hopped right back into the theatrical saddle and has been riding the musical track with great success ever since.
Then, suddenly, six years ago Bareilles had a “mini-meltdown,” shoved her entire Los Angeles life into a storage unit and fled on a month-long “little rumspringa” to New York. In 2013 and at 33 years old, Bareilles finally lived her Felicity Porter fantasies, staying out late with friends, frequenting Broadway and even taking a few business meetings—including one that brought her face-to-face with the creator of her beloved show.
“I met J.J. Abrams a few years ago. He asked, ‘Have you ever considered doing something for television?’ I really hadn’t even considered it, but I’m sitting across the table from J.J. Abrams,” Bareilles, 39, told The Daily Beast over the phone last month. Felicity was “deeply important” to her in college, so she only had one answer for the show’s famed creator: “Sure, what do you have in mind?”
What he had in mind was Little Voice, a forthcoming half-hour dramedy featuring original music. Bareilles and Abrams are co-creators of the Apple+ streaming show currently shrouded in secrecy. Thankfully, Bareilles shared some information. The premise: “A young woman who’s a songwriter who’s sort of finding her voice in the spirit of Felicity but deeply musical.” The release date: “We don’t have a release date set yet.” The state of completion: “We’re currently in production, so we’re making it.” The format: “I wouldn’t say it’s a musical. All of the performances will be reality-based.”
Finally, the why: “At a certain point in my life I had to start saying ‘yes’ to the things that felt scary.”
Her latest album Amidst the Chaos, which dropped Friday, is the manifestation of Bareilles’s past six years saying “yes” to career opportunities. Following the success of The Blessed Unrest (which garnered her a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year), Bareilles took time off her solo career to work on collaborative projects. She wrote a New York Times bestselling essay collection called Sounds Like Me in 2015; signed on to adapt Waitress, the movie starring the real-life Felicity, Keri Russell, into the smash-hit musical; and recently took the stage herself as Mary Magdalene in NBC’s critically acclaimed live musical special Jesus Christ Superstar. Along the way, she racked up Grammy, Tony and Emmy nominations.
“I learned from just even a few album cycles in my career, oh, I’m going to get bored really fast and feel kind of uninspired,” Bareilles said. “I’ve been very fortunate that there has been the kind of mechanisms of ‘work begets work’ in my life.”
Part of the lifestyle shift included realizing what’s going on outside of the recording studio and offstage. Bareilles has been vocal about how the 2016 election left her hopeless. She watched the results roll in from the comfort of her Manhattan apartment accompanied by a friend visiting from Nashville. They hugged. They cried. And they woke up. “It’s something I’m grateful for in this fucked-up way,” Bareilles said. “Truthfully, I have been disengaged, paying attention to other things and kind of got lazy and took for granted things were being taken care of on some level. That’s not the truth, and so here we are.”
“The truth is in some ways I am naive,” she said. “I still, like so many people, just want to be committed to being part of the conversation—to learn, to ask questions and to hopefully lend my voice where it can make sense. It’s a process, I think.”
She’s lent her voice quite literally, channeling her newfound activism into song. Amidst the Chaos is heavily inspired by her love for the Obamas. At a Los Angeles concert last month, Bareilles told the crowd her new, bluesy song of thanks “If I Can’t Have You” and her feminist rally cry (released early in response to the Kavanaugh hearings) “Armor” are partial responses to no longer having her favorite First Family in office.
But Bareilles isn’t always in the business of writing protest music. A masterful songwriter, she often sneaks political undertones into her signature love songs—or anti-love songs. Her first big hit, 2007’s “Love Song,” is her “fuck you” to her record label for road-blocking her songwriting style. Then came her second major label album, Kaleidoscope Heart, and the tongue-in-cheek “King of Anything,” a searing retort to mansplaining. With 2013’s The Blessed Unrest, she turned her frankness toward her loved ones, with that album’s smash single, “Brave,” inspired by a close friend’s struggle to come out as gay. The only person Bareilles hadn’t brought to the hot seat yet was herself. Cue Amidst the Chaos.
“There was a deep connection between the personal and the political in this period in my life,” Bareilles said. “So that’s what needs to be reflected in the music because that’s my job: to take a snapshot of where I’m at.”