Sari Schorr, American singer songwriter and musician chats with Kevin Cooper about her band The Engine Room, working with Mike Vernon, her debut album Force Of Nature and her forthcoming appearance at The Great British R&B Festival in Colne
Sari Schorr, American singer songwriter and musician will release her debut album later this year after several years of touring the USA and Europe with Joe Louis Walker and Poppa Chubby. After being inducted into the New York Blues Hall Of Fame, she has gained worldwide recognition within the blues world.
In January 2015 legendary producer Mike Vernon (Fleetwood Mac, John Mayall, Blue Horizon) was invited to receive a Keeping The Music Alive Award at the prestigious International Blues Challenge in Memphis USA. This award was not the only highlight of the weekend for Mike; the second was witnessing the performance of one of the most amazing female blues singers Mike has seen in years, which turned out to be Schorr.
Mike was so knocked out with her performance that he offered to come out of retirement and produce her debut album. Already a consummate songwriter, with tracks on major labels, Schorr has written or co-written most of the songs on this album.
To tour, Schorr has put together her own band; The Engine Room featuring British guitarist Innes Sibun, (formerly with Robert Plant), Kevin Jeffries on bass (Roger Taylor, Jeff Beck and Mike Oldfield), Anders Olinder on keyboards (Glen Hughes and Peter Gabriel) and Kevin O’Rourke. Together they will celebrate the release of Schorr’s debut album in September 2016 and undertake a European wide tour.
Whilst getting ready for her appearance at The Great British R&B Festival in Colne, she took the time to have an honest and frank chat with Kevin Cooper and this is what she had to say.
Hi Sari how are you today?
Hi Kevin I’m great thank you, how are you?
I am very well thank you and let me just thank you for taking the time to speak to me today.
It’s my pleasure. Thank you so much for your support.
How is life treating you today?
Well, I have to be honest with you and tell you that my life always spins in extremes and right now I am definitely on an upswing. I am finally realising that the most important thing is gratitude and to just be grateful for everything that is happening. I have worked really hard for a very long time in order to reach this point and so I am now intending to just relax and enjoy it whilst being grateful for all of the people that I am currently working with. Because without them none of this would have happened. A couple of years ago I was really quite lost and struggling with depression which I had bought on myself simply because I didn’t know how to get out of my own way. The worst thing was that lots of people who I had previously been extremely loyal to were finding it funny to trip me up. However, I am really lucky right now and I am currently in a good place.
You mention that you have been doing this for a long time now so what I want to know is where have you been hiding?
Part of my problem is that I have always enjoyed slipping into someone else’s band and becoming a part of their family. The music business isn’t ego driven for me; I absolutely love the joy of singing and the joy of making music. It was very easy for me to be in a secondary role supporting someone else’s musical vision like when I was working with Joe Louis Walker and the times that I have worked with Poppa Chubby. I never felt that I needed to be involved with a project of my own but I have to finally admit that it pretty much was my destiny (laughter). I used to feel very selfish; dedicating so much of my life to music and then I suddenly realised that it was a way in which to create value with a gift that I didn’t really appreciate.
Part of me thinks that everything in life has to be a struggle and in my view singing came a little bit too easy for me. I simply didn’t recognise that it was a gift. I wasn’t using that gift as it had been intended, I wasn’t servicing it properly. I began to realise that I could in fact make people happy by doing something that I loved and that it didn’t necessarily have to be a selfish thing. That was one of the reasons why I had got into social work; I didn’t like the attention being on me, I wanted to do something meaningful and important, but working in the places that I had gone to I soon realised that there was so little that this one person could do to really deal with the problems that the kids were facing in such poverty stricken places.
I realised that I could make people’s lives a little more comfortable but I wasn’t solving the major problems. That left me extremely frustrated and I realised that I needed much bigger resources to take on the things that I wanted to deal with like water projects, education and housing issues. So that is what I have been trying to do for most of my life.
But all of that changed when you met Mike Vernon?
That’s right, the moment that I met Mike in Memphis it literally changed everything for me. I suddenly found myself in the company of someone who has such great vision and someone who knows just how to bring out the very best of all the artists that he works with without imprinting his own particular brand. I don’t know how he does it but he becomes transparent in the process which is amazing and he really is a genius. Working with Mike gave me a lot more confidence.
How does it feel being the most talked about artist of the moment?
The first thing which surprises people is when they see just how reserved I am compared to my stage persona but I have a genuine love of people; I really do love people. It makes it more comfortable and I really feel like we are all so connected to each other, it really does feel as though my extended family is growing and growing. When we are on tour and I get the opportunity to meet people after a show I really do feel that my family is growing. I feel like I am just part of the whole collective group of people who love the same music that I do and that we are experiencing the joy of this music together.
On the subject of music I suppose that we really should speak about the album (laughter). I have to say that I have been playing Force Of Nature to death and I absolutely love it.
Thank you so much, that is so kind of you to say that. I have to give Alan Robinson of Manhaton Records so much credit because he came out and took a chance on a new artist. Mike and I could have made a great record but without Alan saying that he thought that the world needed to hear the album it would have just disappeared into obscurity, similar to how my career had been going previously. When I first started gigging locally around New York City I would be playing to an audience of only twenty or thirty people but at the end of the night I would feel so completely satisfied, I didn’t need more people. I felt as though I was doing something meaningful.
I would always tell myself that if you want to change the world, you change the world one person at a time. It didn’t matter that there were only thirty people in the room, in fact there were times when the band would outnumber the audience and what you have to remember is that we were only a five piece band (laughter). However, we would always say that we were not bigger than the music; you always have to respect the music and remember why you are doing this. I am always reminding myself that it is a privilege to do what we do and it is not about us, it is about the audience and what we can give to them. It is now the case of making more people aware of what it is that we are doing.
There is a great reward in that because you feel that you can make a greater impact and that is what it is really about, it is about trying to create something of value in people’s lives and if you have the chance to do it for more people it simply becomes even more rewarding.
Are you happy with the album?
Yes I am, I am so happy and proud of the work that we have done. The thing about art is that it is a living, breathing thing and in the moment that we made this record that was the best record that we could make. We worked very, very hard to achieve our best work. Whenever we play the songs live they are never the same. As human beings we are not the same people we were a day ago. Whenever new people come into your life bringing with them new experiences, all of those things leave their mark on you. We are constantly evolving and because of that the performances are always evolving, the songs are constantly taking on different shades of meaning and so yes, I am very happy with the album.
In the past I have made plenty of records that have never been released and have never seen the light of day. I had a deal with a label in Detroit and the record never came out because the label shut down half way through the album but they did send me a watch with the record company logo on it (laughter). I’m going to put in on eBay one day (laughter). I then had a deal with Mercury Records over in France and that label closed down two weeks after we had got our deal so I really am so lucky right now (laughter).
You have briefly mentioned Detroit so I have to tell you that I have been collecting Motown records for over forty years now and I honestly think that you have recorded a very interesting interpretation of The Supremes Stop! In The Name Of Love. How did that come about?
That was completely Mike Vernon’s idea. When he told me about it he didn’t try to persuade me to do it, but I did not hear it at all. I said “Mike it’s such a classic I don’t know what I can do to add anything more to that song” but Mike was so clever, without me even realising it he motivated me to just go into the studio and to just have fun with the song. So without anything to lose and thinking that I was going to do the take and that Mike would agree with me that the song simply wasn’t for me, I did the one take and that is the take that you hear on the album. I think that because I had told myself that I had nothing to lose I just went for it (laughter).
Everyone in the control room were sitting there with their mouths wide open (laughter). I came out of the recording studio and asked them if they thought that the take was okay and all that they said was “are you kidding” (laughter). That is the thing about working with someone like Mike; he has the vision to enable him to see exactly what the artist can be, even if they haven’t realised it themselves. He knows just what the album should sound like. The guitar player who I was working with in the studio at that time was trying to convince me not to do the song by saying to me “you are the artist, you just tell the producer no. You have to speak up for yourself” (laughter).
I just looked at him and said that it wasn’t about being an arrogant artist, it was about realising that you were working with a living legend and the reason that you are doing that is because he has ideas and you don’t (laughter). That is why I am always so open to Mike’s ideas and fortunately that is why I was lucky enough to move my own doubts aside and follow his lead. I am so glad that I did (laughter).
I really do like Ordinary Life. I think that it shows off a much softer, warmer and gentler side to your voice.
Wow, thank you that really does mean a lot to me. That is a fabulous compliment so thank you so much. I will tell you something about that song and I think that you will appreciate this. For me that was the hardest song to record on the entire album. I did more takes of that song, maybe twice as many as any other song on the album. I had such a hard time holding it together, it is such a powerful song but I kept losing it. I always want to deliver an honest performance. However, nobody wants to hear the singer sobbing and sniffling through the whole thing (laughter). I would get half way through it and just lose it. I was so embarrassed, I really was embarrassed so we had to completely turn all the lights off in the studio.
I didn’t want anyone to be able to see me. But I am so glad that you like it Kevin, it seems to be resonating with a lot of people and I am just so grateful for that. So thank you very much for being so sensitive to choose that song. It is one of my favourites as well.
They always say that you should never believe your own publicity but when Mike Vernon is reported as saying “this project has been the most rewarding of my career” that must make you feel special?
Yes it really does and I hold on to those words and I pull them out when I am feeling a little more fragile than I should, times when I need a little confidence boost. I resort to those words and they really can get me through a lot. I am really grateful and I have to say that Mike has changed my life, there is no doubt about it, in fact Mike saved me.
You have written and recorded Letting Go, a moving tribute to Mike’s late wife Natalie. What was Mike’s reaction to that?
Mike was very, very moved. He was sitting across the table from me when I wrote the song. What had happened was that he had invited me to his villa in Spain to work with him and a guitar player who he does a lot of collaborating with named Kiki Noval. I think that Mike wanted to see if I really had any song writing skills and he wanted to see first-hand how I worked and what my methodology was. Kiki and I went in on a Saturday afternoon and Mike casually said “here’s the plan, we are going to spend Saturday afternoon and Sunday writing. We have the recording studio booked for Monday and we will record whatever you have managed to come up with” (hysterical laughter).
No pressure there then (laughter).
Exactly (laughter). I was smiling and said great but inside I was having a heart attack (laughter). I thought to myself that I had this incredible opportunity which I was now going to blow because I was going to be too nervous to come up with anything. At that point Kiki said the worst thing to me that he could ever have said. He looked at me and said “do you have any ideas” (laughter). I asked Kiki if he would play a progression which he did; I started singing along with him and looked over to the shelves where there was a picture of Natalie. I knew who she was after having a previous conversation with Mike and this photograph of her kept grabbing my attention.
It was strange for me but I wrote Letting Go right there and then. That song was fully formed and is the fastest song that I have ever written. When I look back on the experience I really wonder if Natalie somehow had delivered the song in its entirety to me as a gift. I think that is why it touches Mike so much. And then we wrote Oklahoma and Cat And Mouse, and recorded all of those three songs and they all found their way onto the album. I actually finished the lyrics to Cat And Mouse in the car as we drove over to the studio. Luckily for me it was a two hour drive and I was just finishing off the lyrics as we were walking into the studio (laughter). Talk about a heart attack (laughter).
Does writing come easy to you or is it something that you have to work at?
To be honest with me it’s both, it is both easy and difficult (laughter). The music and the melodies just flow whereas writing the lyrics is agony (laughter). However, it is an agony that I absolutely love. It is both mentally and emotionally exhausting but after I feel I have found something incredibly energised and elated. It takes me a long time to write a good lyric because you try to write something that has been said a million times before but in a completely different way, and which is still going to resonate with people. I always try to write something that goes pretty quickly through the head and goes straight to the heart. I want to write about subjects which I feel are significant, important and not be too preachy which is always the danger when for example you want to write a song about domestic violence or drug addiction. You can get preachy very quickly.
My approach is to represent more of the reality of life in that not everything is just good or bad, life is all colours, all the different shades of grey and the truth always lies in the middle somewhere. So that is the approach that I take.
Every single day that you write you are trying to redesign the wheel.
It’s funny you say that because I worked with a producer who once told me some years ago now not to try to reinvent the wheel (laughter). He told me to always try to keep it simple but for me I really need that complexity in that I want to deliver music that people can live with; music that will take on a different meaning as the listener continues to listen to that music over a period of time. You have to work so much harder and be poetic much more than lyrical.
Amongst others you have got Walter Trout contributing to the album. How was it working with him?
Walter and I had met years ago in Oklahoma when we were both on tour out there and we reconnected at the Lead Belly Tribute Festival at Carnegie Hall in New York. He is just so supportive and for some reason he really does love what I do. When he found out that I was recording with Mike he made it known that he would love to be on the album. I wanted to ask him, but I couldn’t figure out how to because I didn’t want to impose or to put him on the spot, so it was so wonderful that he stepped forward and was so gracious. At that point I thought why don’t we do one of Walters’s songs so we had several conversations about which song and he lead me to Work No More because it is a very important song to him.
It is about a woman named Irene who really rates Walter and she wasn’t perfect, she was a little rough around the edges but she had a heart of gold and she had a huge impact upon Walter’s life. As a matter of fact it was Johnny Winters favourite song. I thought that this was clearly the song to do. Walters’s guitar solo was also a one tack solo; he just killed it. The only thing that was left to be said was that is a wrap (laughter).
May we speak about your band, The Engine Room for a minute because they really do have some pedigree between them don’t they?
(Laughter) yes they do don’t they (laughter). I am really proud to have them on the road with me. These guys are just great. They are one of the best bands that I have ever heard and I can’t believe my luck; they are my band (laughter). That’s why I gave them the name The Engine Room because with that pedigree how could I not want to allow people to focus on the band, that’s why the first thing for me was to make sure that the band had its own identity. I have got Innes Sibun on guitar who has played with Robert Plant. As soon as I had Innes on board I knew then that this band would be something special.
The first thing that Innes did was to bring in his long-time friend and drummer Kevin O’Rourke. Shortly after that he bought in bassist Kevin Jefferies who has played with the likes of Roger Taylor, Jeff Beck, Mike Oldfield and Steve Harley to name but a few. Kevin is the whole foundation of the band and he really knows just how to lock into whatever it is that the rest of the guys are playing. And finally we have Anders Olinder on keyboards who brings a kind of jazzy blues to the music. Anders has previously played with Glenn Hughes, P.P. Arnold and Peter Gabriel and he brings a whole new dimension to the table. It’s just as though he is sprinkling fairy dust on the top of the music that we are making.
I know that it is an old cliché but we really do all fit like a glove. We can do all kind of crazy things musically that you would never want to do; we really do take it to the edge. When we are together we all feel as though we are able to take chances and make the shows as exciting as is humanly possible. We try our best to make the shows unique and different for the audiences. When the audience see that we are inspired it inspires them too, so it is very special.
And you get to play with them every night.
Just how lucky is that (laughter). But let me tell you, I sound terrible without them (laughter). They truly are wonderful. It really feels like they are my brothers; they are my family.
You have mentioned the Lead Belly Tribute Festival at Carnegie Hall in New York. How was that, did you enjoy it?
I totally loved it. The few days before I was really suffering with a bout of anxiety, because they had chosen Black Betty for me. Of course I knew the Ram Jam version like everybody else and I knew that I had to find a way to make the song my own. When I really dug into the lyrics I knew that there were a lot of different interpretations about just what the song means, but to me there is a very clear meaning to the song. It is an emotional and heavy song and it scares me every time I hear it, it sets my heart racing. The other night I turned to Innes (Sibun) and I told him that I didn’t want to do Black Betty and that I wanted to drop it from the set.
He nodded and he smiled and he said “okay don’t worry, if you’re not up for it then it is okay. People will be disappointed not to hear it but if it is easier for you” (laughter). He knows that I will never choose the easy way out so I did the song (laughter). All that you have to do in order to get me to do something is to tell me two things; tell me that it is impossible or tell me that it is difficult and I am on it (laughter). So as soon as he said that I knew that I had to deliver a perfect performance at Carnegie Hall and the song is so emotionally exhausting, there is a lot that can go wrong when you sing that song and I often make mistakes (laughter).
At the sound check I screwed up the song and at every rehearsal that we did I screwed up the song and a few days before the festival I was thinking that I had to step out onto one of the world’s greatest stages where some of the greatest artists who have ever lived have stood, and I am going to screw up one of the most important songs (laughter). And then of course there was the wardrobe malfunction. I had decided that I wanted to get a very simple black gown however everything was all very last minute and I only managed to try the gown on a few hours before the show. Just to make sure that all was good I put the gown on and I took a selfie (laughter).
It was the only selfie that I have ever taken and I sent it to my niece, the fashion guru of the family. She called me and said “don’t move, I am in a cab and I am on my way over to you” (laughter). She said that the gown looked hideous and that I looked awful (laughter). The next thing that I knew clothes were flying out of my closet and she picked something that was one of the oldest jackets that I had and she said “this is what you are wearing with those pants, done” (laughter). I was complaining that they were my old clothes but she just said “they are you now, shut up and wear them” (laughter). So I did and she was so right, I felt so comfortable in my old clothes.
Thank goodness that once I was at Carnegie Hall I was really feeling quite confident, that was until I found out that we were going on between Eric Burdon and Buddy Guy (laughter). However, when I finally got out onto the stage I have never felt so relaxed in my life and I felt that it was a calling for me to do this. It was not about me, it was about the song, it was about Lead Belly, and I became invisible, I didn’t matter. I gave the best performance of that song and there were no mistakes (laughter). It really was a totally flawless performance and it will always be one of the highlights of my career.
You are about to tour the UK. Do you enjoy being over here?
Yes I do, I honestly do. I love touring the UK. I am currently in Bath and I really do enjoy spending time over here in the UK. We will be touring through September and October and I am really looking forward to that. I really do love being here but it is a strange thing when you live out of a suitcase. Some people find it very hard whereas I find it really easy. I love being on the road and I honestly always feel at home wherever I am. As soon as I connect with some of the people locally that instantly gives you a sense of home, a sense of belonging. Then I am okay. I just love the adventure of meeting so many wonderful people. That’s the reward for all of the hard work that it took to get to this point.
On Monday 29th August you will be playing on the International Stage at the Great British R&B Festival up in Colne. Are you looking forward to that?
That’s right, we are going to be there on the Monday night (laughter). We are really looking forward to that. That really is going to be great. I love performing for English audiences; there seems to be a greater appreciation for the music that we are doing. I just find everybody so warm hearted and funny (laughter). In fact I am currently being schooled in the virtues of Father Ted (laughter). I am slowly working my way through the whole box set (laughter).
Have they mentioned pantomime to you yet?
No, but I guess that will be next, I’m sure of that. I can’t wait, I have a lot of homework to do (laughter). There are somethings that simply defy description and I feel that pantomime is one of those things (hysterical laughter).
You were recently inducted into the New York Blues Hall Of Fame. That must have felt good?
I have to say that was a real honour for me and quite a surprise really. At that point I was just knocking around with my own band playing small gigs and I didn’t really think that people were noticing what we were doing. So it is always nice to be recognised by your peers, it really is. It really is a nice feeling, it really is.
I keep reading about you being the new Janis Joplin, the new Tina Turner. Does that not get you down; surely you would much rather be recognised as Sari Schorr?
To be honest with you I would have to say no, not at all. It really doesn’t because we all need a frame of reference in order to process new information and it really helps when you have that frame of reference to understand something much more clearly. And then that thing that is new and different is much easier to digest. That is why I don’t understand it when a lot of artists get bent out of shape when they get compared to someone else. I really don’t in the least mind, not at all (laughter).
In that case I will add my observation to the list (laughter). Having spoken to you now for a while and having spoken to this lady last year, I would liken you both as a person and as an artist to Beth Hart.
Oh that is such a wonderful thing for you to say, thank you. Beth and I love each other. She is a terrific woman and such a great person. I have to give Beth a lot of credit because I know just how hard it is for female artists in the music business. Beth has dedicated herself to doing this and for that I give her the utmost respect and credit. It is not easy and when you see someone doing it at such a high level you have to admire that. I really do admire Beth for that.
What I found refreshing is that Beth is a totally different person off stage to the one that you see performing on stage.
Yes she is, she is quite different. I’m going to say something that I have never said before. It has just occurred to me and I think that I will have to think about this some more, but maybe it’s because the less ego that an artist brings on to the stage the more different they are off the stage. When I was living in Germany I produced some pop artists and for them it was all about being a pop star and either on stage or off stage they didn’t know the difference (laughter). It was a persona that they were selling. So for me, someone like Beth Hart goes onto the stage and leaves her ego behind. She simply delivers the best performance that she can for her audiences. See, you have made me smarter today (laughter). Ouch that hurt (laughter).
Who were you listening to whilst you were growing up?
I suppose that coming from New York I too was listening to a lot of Motown. After that I got into jazz and the likes of Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, and I learnt a great deal about phrasing by listening to and studying all of these great jazz singers. I then wanted to dig a little deeper in order to find out just who were their influences (laughter). It led me back to the classical blues singers like Bessie Smith and Mamie Smith, and this lead me to realise that these women really were the pioneers of the blues. You tend to think of the blues being a male dominated, guitar driven genre of music but these women started to incorporate the blues into their vaudeville shows. It was fascinating to learn all about them.
All of a sudden I began to realise that this was the place where I could put my voice and be more comfortable. I was criticised a lot as a jazz singer despite me trying so hard to be a good jazz singer, I was constantly being told ‘we know that you can sing five octaves but do you have to use all five octaves in the first line. Also, we know that you have such a big voice but do you have to use all of your power?’ (laughter). I was trying so hard all of my life to be demure and petite (laughter). Finally a friend of mine who owns a jazz record label in Manhattan said to me “honey you are a big girl with a big voice, you are a blues singer”. I finally embraced who I was, stopped hiding from myself and accepted who I was. I was finally comfortable in my own skin, and when that finally happens so much is possible.
Who has inspired you along the way?
If we were talking about inspiring me personally and I had to pick just one person then I would have to say Emily Elizabeth Dickinson who was an American poet and her poetry really does inspire me. On the other hand if we were speaking musically then that would have to be my dad. He is no longer with us but he would always inspire me with his fearlessness and his passion for life.
Testing your memory what was the first record that you bought?
That is a really good question, simply because I don’t really have an answer for you (laughter). Back in the day I used to buy so many albums at the same time that I actually had an account at my local record store. I would go in, buy in bulk and settle my account at the end of the month. Every time that I would go into the store I would buy twenty albums (laughter). I have to tell you that at that time I was working at Burger King and the reason for that was that they had a microphone (laughter). That was my very first experience of singing whilst using a microphone. I would literally sing the orders into the back and everyone loved it.
So in answer to your question I would always be buying box sets and I think that one of the first that I bought was either by Billie Holiday or Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac. Before that I was borrowing records from the local library. It was terrible because I would have to collect the record, take it home, record it onto cassette tape and then I had to return them to the library. Taking the records back to the library always made me sad (laughter).
Who did you first see playing live in concert?
That would have been The Eagles at Madison Square Garden in New York.
What was the last record that made you cry?
To be honest with you it was just the other day actually and it was Casta Diva from Norma sung by Maria Callas. It is such a wonderful song that it made me cry.
If there was one song in the world that you could have written, what would it be?
That’s easy, it would have to be Let It Be by The Beatles. I really do love that song.
Do you have any thoughts as yet regarding a second album?
Yes I have because you have your whole life to make your first album but it is a hell of a rush to make your second one. Innes and I are already working on new material plus there are some great songs that didn’t make it onto the first album simply because there wasn’t room. They really are fantastic songs so I would expect that some of those will be on the second album too. The great news is that Mike Vernon has agreed to produce the album so we are all looking forward to working with him once again and we are looking at recording the second album early next year.
Will you be introducing some of the new songs to the audiences on your UK tour?
Absolutely, that is exactly what we will be doing. It also helps to keep the shows fresh and gives us the chance to mix up the material which is really helpful. If I get the chance I always try to perform new songs in a stripped back way; just an acoustic guitar and vocals. Then you really do know whether or not a new song is working.
On that note Sari let me once again thank you for taking the time to speak to me and I am hoping to catch you on your UK tour later this year.