Tuesday, 17 January 2012

The Sara Dennis Interview: Part 2

The Sara Dennis Interview:  Part 2

Photo © Gary Mockler

Some time ago, we presented the first part of a major interview with singer/songwriter Sara Dennis. A second part was promised, covering Sara's influences, but it took a little longer than originally planned.

As Sara will be performing at our forthcoming musical evening, it seemed a good time to resurrect the interview. There will be a part three too and it will follow very soon. Then there will be a brand new interview to bring Sara's story up to date.

I’d like to talk a little bit about your influences now. You’ve name-checked a couple already: Nick Drake, Natalie Merchant. I’ve got a list here which I found on your website which I’d like to talk about, one at a time. Let's start with Paul Weller…why does his work strike a chord with you?

I’ve liked Paul Weller for a long time; since I was seven or eight. That was back in his Jam days. My cousin was a mod and a big Jam fan, so I heard it through him. I had all the Mod gear and things – a little Mod! I just loved his music. I followed him when he went into The Style Council and when he went into his solo career. 

I met him once. In 1991 I was working in Lloyds drugstore. I had a Saturday job there. One day this guy walked in and I thought, I don’t believe it – it’s Paul Weller! He came walking down with a toothbrush. I asked him: ‘Are you Paul Weller?’ and he said, ‘Yes! Did you come to the show last night?’ and I didn’t even know it was on. He said, ‘Oh - it was great!’ He was lovely. I asked him for his autograph and he said, ‘Of course!’ He waited while my friend got a pen. His Dad was there, and he was quite important in his career and he was talking to me too. Paul Weller said, ‘What’s your name?’ and I said ‘Sara – with no ‘h’ ’ and he looked at me and said, ‘Weird!’ That was a great day. 

I’ve seen him a few times and whenever you go and see him it’s kind of like he’s playing in your living room; it’s all chilled and laid back. There’s no pomp and ceremony. He’s such a nice guy.

Which era of his work do you prefer?

I loved the stuff he did with the Jam. He was very much ahead of his time – very talented. 'Down in the Tube Station at Midnight''English Rose' is a beautiful song…I love loads of stuff that he did in that time. And then his solo stuff he did a while ago, like 'Stanley Road', that was really excellent stuff. He still does good stuff now but I think I prefer the stuff from the early 1990s really but every now and then he’ll bring out a gem.

Jeff Buckley…

He was just a genius, who again wasn’t that famous at the time. He only made one album and then sadly he died. His voice can just bring you to tears and I think he’s quite underrated as guitarist as well. But in terms of song writing, with a song like 'Grace', it’s just a stunning song.

How did you discover his music?

I can’t remember…I don’t think I discovered it until after he died, actually. Probably in the late 1990s. I came across ‘Grace’ and I loved it. There’s no other song in the world like 'Grace' – it’s such an unusual song. It’s an amazing falsetto voice and there’s no words to describe his range, it’s just amazing. He can sing quite ‘rocky’ songs and then he can sing beautiful, tear-jerking songs. One of my favourite live albums is 'Live at Sin-é'. He used to play in a small Irish club in New York and he’d literally just go there with his guitar and just set up and play in the café bar. They recorded him one evening. There’s so many great songs on there – covers of Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen songs and it’s a truly moving piece of work. His Dad was famous too – Tim Buckley – but he didn’t really have a relationship with his Father and his songs reflect that. There’s quite a lot of angst in some of them.

You like sad songs, don’t you?

Yes – I’m a misery guts!

Michael Stipe is next on the list.

Oh, yes! We’re getting higher up the list now. REM are one of my favourite bands. I’ve been a fan of them for 20 years. I love the songwriting, his style, their music…everything about them, really. He’s an influence on me because I love his singing style. I came across them just before they became really famous in the UK. I used to get the NME when I was at school and I was reading about this interesting band in America called REM and that got my interest going. Then I heard some of their music and obviously the broke big in the very early 1990s. I became a big fan, collected bootlegs…I’m still a big fan now. I didn’t get to see them though until 2003, which was a big occasion for me.

Was that the only time you saw them?

So far, yes.

So they’ve never been in to buy a toothbrush?

No – if Michael Stipe came in I wouldn’t know what to do!

Maybe one day you will sing a duet with him…?


Natalie Merchant.

I came across her in the 1990s, from when she was in the 10,000 Maniacs. But when I heard 'Tigerlilly' I thought she’s just amazing. I remember when I heard it I thought, if I was a singer, that’s the style I’d want to emulate. She’s not famous in this country, is she? She’s such a great songwriter and she’s got an amazing voice.

I agree with everything you say. There’s an enormous quality about her and some of her songs really get the emotions going; they seem very personal to the listener. It was an amazing concert she did at The Sage…

I couldn’t believe it! When she came on started doing that…it couldn’t have been more perfect for me: 19th Century poetry and Natalie Merchant – it’s just too good for words! That’s the first time I’d seen her as well. I was really pleased with the response from the audience. They all seemed to enjoy it. It’s funny isn’t it, when you to a gig and everyone in the room has heard of her and knows her work - it’s just such a lovely feeling, isn’t it, when you’re with people who know the work of someone who is maybe not as famous in the mainstream. I loved the way she was just so laid back and said, ‘Right, what would you like?’ She was just so professional that anyone could say, ‘Oh, do ‘Wonder’’ or something and she would just do it. To have rehearsed all of the songs just in case somebody asked was just fantastic.

Natalie Merchant at The Sage

It was remarkable. I can’t imagine anyone else getting away with what she did, coming out and giving a history lesson before each song. It’s hard to imagine any other artist doing that and risking losing the audience.

No, absolutely. I’ve got some gigs coming up and I’ve been researching all of the songs and I’m going to talk a bit about them. Not for as long as Natalie Merchant did! Just a little bit about each song, where it come from and the story behind it. I’d quite like to do that.

Sara and I were both at the concert, quite coincidentally

I think it’s a fascinating approach. We’ve seen that it works, so why not? How many Natalie Merchant songs are in your repertoire?

I do a cover of ‘Wonder’ which is a beautiful song and quite a few off ‘The House Carpenter’s Daughter’ which aren’t her songs, admittedly, but it’s where I heard them first. And ‘The Letter’.

I think the song ‘Tell Yourself’ is one of my favourites of hers. Have you ever considered doing that one?

I can’t remember that one…which album is that off?


I haven’t got 'Motherland'.

Haven’t you?

No, I need to get Motherland. I must pick it up. But somebody said to me once – and I totally understand it – it was something about Shakespeare we were talking about and they said, ‘Don’t read everything at the same time, because he’s obviously not going to write any more. Take your time reading them’. And I love discovering things, so I’ll purposely not read something so I can spread things out.

It’s an excellent idea, but there’s a slight problem that we are not here forever either.

Well that’s true, yes.

So you might miss out in something.

True! But people have said to me – with books as well – ‘I’m just reading so-and-so for the first time’ and I think, oh, I envy you so much! You are reading that for the first time!

Top of your list: Eddie Vedder.

He’s my musical hero. He’s an amazing songwriter and again, I’ve found not so well known in this country, I don’t think. In America here’s really famous but not so much over here. He’s just been such an influence on me because I can really relate to what he sings about. I think he’s got the most amazing voice and I like the way he handles himself; to me, I don’t think he’s ever sold out. I like the way he just seems so down to earth. Pearl Jam are my favourite band and their music just really resonates with me. He’s an icon for me as a singer.

Have you seen Eddie Vedder live, with or without Pearl Jam?

I’ve only seen them twice so far. I saw them at the Leeds Festival in 2006 and I saw them in 2009 at Manchester. They were amazing. They don’t tour the UK a lot and when they do it’s only one or two gigs.

It seems to be a running theme through the people you like – they don’t come here very often.

Oh yes – that is true, isn’t it! Or they are dead…

Yes, that is also a slight problem.

That’s a sad thing. I’ll never see Jeff Buckley play.

That’s why I think it’s very important when people do come around, to make the effort to go and see them, otherwise the chance could be gone for good. In addition to those influences, there are some non-people influences in your life. For example: the colour purple. Why purple?

I don’t know. It’s always been my favourite colour. It sounds daft but I always say that purple is an experience, not a colour. You have purple friends, I say…there’s some people I know who love purple; everything they have has to be purple. There’s just something about the colour. I think it’s quite a spiritual colour. It’s just one of those things!

The sea and surf appears to be a recurring theme in your life.

Whenever I’m sad or just need time to think I’ll go to the sea and if I’m writing I’ll sit on the beach and write to get the influence of the sea. I love the smell and the atmosphere there. I think there’s something quite special about the sea; the rhythms, the ebb and flow and the links to the moon. It’s just such an inspirational thing for me the sea. A lot of the songs on my album are linked to the sea in some way.

And your poems, which we’ll talk about a little bit later on.

I’ve written a lot about the sea; I do love the sea.

Flock wallpaper is the next influence on your list.

I love the black and white flock wallpaper. I don’t know if it’s something that reminds me of my childhood; it’s something that my Grandmother always had. I love the feel of it and I love the way it looks. I like black and white things. It might just be the pianist in me!

Black, white…and purple! Pretty notebooks…

I’m really, really terrible for stationery. I’ve got hundreds of notebooks. I like the penguin-themed ones as well.

So you have a house full of notebooks?

Yes and they’re all filled with bits of writing, poetry and all types of thoughts. Everywhere I go I have to buy a notebook.

You’ll have to hide them all in a writing desk…

…until I die, yes!

…but tell me where they are first! Do you use one notebook per job? One just for music, one for poetry…?

Yes, I do, but sometimes there’ll be a crossover; I might turn a poem into a song. So I do, yes. I’ve never thought of that before actually!

Asparagus soup?

That’s my comfort food. Asparagus cup-a-soup.

Fast cars…?

I love fast cars.

Do you drive fast cars?

I’ve got a Mazda RX-8, which is pretty speedy. It’s a very nice car.


Yes – I’ve been there twice; it’s like living in a fairy tale. The first time I went, I was 15. I went with my Grandmother. I probably wouldn’t rush to go back there; there’s other parts of I want to see.

Violets. Is that just the purple theme continued?

No, it’s just…I love the smell of violets and I love Parma violets. Oh – and violet crèmes.


I laugh all the time. I laugh when I’m happy, I laugh when I’m sad, I laugh when I’m nervous…

Why when you’re sad?

I just laugh all the time! It’s like a nervous laugh, I think. I always think my laugh will get me into trouble because I’ve got a really loud, quite raucous laugh, really.

Your piano – we’ve talked about already. We’ll talk about your Granddad again later on when we talk about your life. A few of your influences are connected, such as cards, runes and crystals. Do you live your life by the turn of a card?

Not really. I do enjoy them, just out of interest. Before I worked for the libraries I used to work for Adult Education and an interesting spin on basic skills was to do something based Tarot card reading and the origins and history of it. Numerology, which is based in maths, and runes, which used a different type of alphabet and things like that. It was all about reading, learning and listening. So I taught that for quite a while. It was mainly the history, the origins and the meaning of it; why people believed that type of thing, how people use it and how they used it in ancient times and things like that. I just like it out of interest, really.

So it’s more the historical side you are interested in rather than the mystical side?

Yes. But I do enjoy the spiritual side as well.

Fancy coffee. How fancy does it have to be?

Not that fancy!

A latte?

I like a nice, decent filter coffee or a nice, decent cappuccino and I like it with a bit of Amaretto syrup in or something.

Which of the many coffee shops in town would you recommend?

I usually just end up in Starbucks.

Red wine.

I love red wine; it’s my drink of choice. Especially a nice Merlot.

Nice people.

I think I’ve been surrounded by a lot of not-nice people in my life and as I’ve got a bit older I’m surrounded by more nice people than nasty people.

That’s a good balance to have. Are nice people hard to find or easy to find?

I used to think they were hard to find but I’ve met so many nice people over the last five or six years that I think I’d been stuck in the wrong world.

There are some recurring themes coming out of all this…

To Be Continued….

Part Three should be available in the very near future.

Meanwhile, to read more about Sara's music and writing - as well as keep an eye on her gig dates - pop along to the Sara Dennis website.

A full revue of the aforementioned Natalie Merchant concert can be found here.

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