The Adorable Wisdom of Sara Bareilles
The ‘Brave’ singer tells the stories behind her biggest hits, talks about overcoming her own body image issues, and her life (so far) in song. Try not to fall in love.
“You know, I hesitate to lead anybody down the path of believing that I have any sort of wisdom.”
Sara Bareilles has just released her first book, a collection of essays about her life and career called Sounds Like Me: My Life (so far) in Song, in which she recounts battles with insecurities, body image issues, and learning how to love herself. There are bouts with heartbreak—more than one—and record executives—more than the heartbreaks—and a pseudo-existential fight against the “big bad pop monster.”
The Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter is best known for Carole King-meets-Taylor Swift hits like “Love Song” and the blockbuster empowerment anthem “Brave,” which has scored countless inspirational commercials, viral videos that will have you weeping in your chair, more personal moments of strength than fans could possibly share, and even a civil rights movement, with the LGBT community happily appropriating it as they continue their landmark crusade.
Bareilles is 35, with life experience beyond those years and the kind of ambition that would exhaust the greater masses: Her million-plus records sold and four Grammy nominations are gold and platinum linings on a career that’s included a stint judging the once-popular reality TV a cappella competition The Sing-Off (an apparently fraught stint, at that), a book that has just charted on the New York Times Bestsellers List, and a full-blown Broadway-bound musical for which she wrote the musical score.
But with an earthy giggle and a knack for casual profundity—seemingly light conversation that, even days later, doesn’t soon leave you—she’s a natural voice alongside the likes of Lena Dunham or Mindy Kaling, whose brands of “glamorous relatability” effortlessly harmonize with fans’ desire to bring superstars down off their pedestals, make them their BFFs, and learn and grow with them.
In fact, Bareilles may be the most natural fit yet for such a role, with a catalog of songs that have already so deeply and directly spoken to the pain or joy in listeners’ own lives, whether it’s journeying through the brutality of heartbreak in “Gravity”—a song “I will probably be playing for as long as I live,” she says—or reveling in the blissful peace that comes with finding your soul mate in “I Choose You.”
When a singer-songwriter writes from as personal and autobiographical a place as Bareilles does, people start to assume she has some great wisdom on matters of life, love, and heartbreak, especially after she releases a book detailing the stories that inspired those songs. But Bareilles balks at the weight and pressure of such a role—even while every day, as her fans know, she’s living it.
“I feel very ill-equipped to be giving anyone advice about their life,” she says. “I’m mostly a mess and I hide it pretty well a lot of time.” But then comes that… thing. That thing that makes her not just another pop star or yet another interesting, thoughtful girl earnestly singing interesting, thoughtful things, pleasantly guitar-strumming her way into irrelevance. It’s that honesty. And that mess: “I share it pretty well some of the time, too.”
There are many pop stars with presumably exciting lives, what with their #squads, their #flawless-ness, and their #bornthisway individuality. And there are singer-songwriters with beautiful, resonant things to sing about. But an announcement that any one of them is writing a book about their lives would be met with eye rolls. Yet there’s something that actually made Sound Like Me an exciting and, now that it’s out, worthwhile venture.
“I’m sure there was some eye-rolling going around,” Bareilles laughs. “But you know what I’d like to say is that I spent a lot of my energy on trying to build a career around what I feel is authentic to myself and based around honesty,” she continues. “So I think hopefully people would have been excited to hear something truthful, at least.”
She acknowledges that among her biggest fans, there’s an understanding of entertainment value—Bareilles’s quick wit shines during concert banter. But it’s the truthfulness, most of all. “I always feel really proud when someone connects to my honesty because it’s super important to me.”
That honesty manifests itself especially in the Sound Like Me chapter “Beautiful Girl,” which chronicles her scars of self-doubt and insecurity instilled from years of childhood bullying and being made to feel less—which never really go away.
The chapter is therapy of sorts. Bareilles pens letters to herself at different stages of her life when she felt defeated and small. The refrain of each letter: “You are so beautiful,” with an empowering revisionist message about why the Sara of the past was actually stronger than she thought she was.
“It was painful, but it was more about the catharsis of it,” Bareilles says about reliving those memories. “It felt like a good pain. It’s like how going to therapy is painful, but I’m a big fan of therapy.”
Each letter deals with the same issues: wanting to feel like she is enough, and wanting to hear that same thing her entire life.
“It’s not that there was a lack of anyone saying that to me,” she says. “It’s just something that we have to learn to give ourselves as we grow. But you know it’s tough. I’m 35 and I’m sure I will feel that way again at 40 and 45. I hope it diminishes. It’s been interesting to watch what I have grown out of and what sticks around.”
The book’s final sentence, then, is a poignant one: “You are beautiful,” she writes one last time. It’s an affirmation that’s ringing in the ears of fans that have crowded book signings in the week since Sounds Like Me’s release. And after all these years, does Bareilles finally believe it’s true?
“I think on a good day, yes, absolutely,” she says. “I also think that concept of what it means to be beautiful, gosh, that comes out of such an internal state, as opposed to any way you relate to how your physical being is in the world. So I think on a good day I can really celebrate myself. On a bad day, I still have to work really hard to not beat myself up.” She laughs at herself. “I didn’t fix that part.”
Sounds Like Me is not a Hollywood tell-all by any means—“I don’t want to be an asshole,” she tells me—but Bareilles does detail the exhausting and exciting journey to music superstardom, stopping to detail as many disappointments as triumphs on the way.
She takes great pleasure in dispelling the legend that has haunted her career, that her breakthrough hit “Love Song” was some petulant slap in the face to record executives.
The story that’s so often repeated is that her record label was pressuring her to write a love song for her debut album and, as a middle finger to the demanding suits, she wrote the lyrics “I’m not gonna write you a love song / ’Cause you asked for it / ’Cause you need one, you see.” The rest? Chart-topping, Grammy-nominated history.
The cheeky tale is the stuff great magazine profiles are made of. It’s also not true—or, at the very least, it’s an oversimplified version of the truth. The song was born out of creative frustration. Her label kept insisting that she partake in writing sessions with proven hit-makers, many of whom were pompous, cruel, and most of all, uninspiring.
After months of bad meetings, confusion, and doubt, she drove herself to a small rehearsal room one morning and, defeated, prayed for some divine inspiration. She wrote the song in 30 minutes. Then the rest was history.
“It was so much bigger than those two lines to me,” Bareilles says of the short anecdote the real story is always reduced to. “So it’s nice to have it on paper somewhere.”
Sounds Like Me also features the origin story of Bareilles’s biggest hit to date, “Brave,” a song that has morphed from a radio hit into a musical life raft of sorts for many people. Unlike those torturous writing sessions earlier in her career, it came out of a blissful one with Jack Antonoff, the guitarist for the band Fun. and the writer responsible for some of your favorite Taylor Swift songs.
Antonoff played Bareilles some unfinished demos, including the now-famous drum loop and plinking piano that starts “Brave.” She fell in love immediately, and dashed into the next room to write the lyrics, which were inspired by a friend who was gathering the courage to come out to her friends and family.
She writes in Sounds Like Me that she knew instantly it would be a hit, but she concedes to me that she “never imagined that it would take on this life of its own in this particular way.”
Maybe it shouldn’t be a huge surprise that the song was so successful. It is undeniably the most pop-sounding song Bareilles has released as a single—and it was almost even poppier. When she first recorded it, it was mixed with a slick, shiny production that she hated. “I have spent my whole career worrying that the big bad pop monster was going to eat me when I wasn’t looking,” she writes. In this instance, she was staring the monster right in the face.
She and the monster have a long history together, too. “I wasn’t Britney Spears or Jessica Simpson,” she writes in Sounds Like Me. “I wasn’t Tori Amos or Norah Jones. Nobody knew what to do with me.”
In the case of “Brave,” she spoke up and some of the arrangement was stripped back. It was still poppy. But it was also her.
But now that the singer-songwriter has a bonafide pop superhit, has her relationship with the big bad pop monster changed?
“That’s an interesting question,” she says. “I say that facetiously, ‘big bad pop monster.’ I’m someone who—the Taylor Swift record is the one I listen to the most of anything right now. I love pop music. I absolutely adore it. ABBA is one of my all-time favorite bands. It is pop at its best. So I grew up loving pop music.”
But admiration for and self-identification are two different things.
“It was more about the pop image that I couldn’t quite find myself—I felt like I would be selling something that I didn’t own, in a way,” she says. “It would be false advertising. There are times that I’ve tried it. I’ve tried things that are more stylized, whether it be a production standpoint in a record or a production standpoint in a live show, and I always just feel like I’m a wearing someone else’s clothes, and they don’t fit that well.”
Finding the balance between feeling like the songwriter she is while not being too precious about that title, or depriving herself of a certain playfulness in order to express that, is another of her constant battles.
“I think there have been times that I’ve fought really hard against something that I didn’t need to fight that hard against,” she says. “I wasn’t turning into—I don’t want to use names—but at the end of the day I’m still riding that line and finding that line between pop and traditional singer-songwriter music. I kind of like that it’s a blurred line at this point.”
It’s what sounds like her.