With the excitement surrounding the return of the Sag Harbor Music Festival this year, one artist stood out in the lineup: Sara Hartman. She’s not your typical local artist. She is a SHMF veteran, performing at the very first one when she was just 15 years old. She grew up in Sag Harbor and attended Pierson High School. She took lessons at the famous Harbor Music Studio in Sag Harbor, and in 2015, she signed a record deal with a major label, moved to Germany, and toured the world opening for acts like Ellie Goulding, Clueso, Kelvin Jones, and many more. Her song “Monster Lead Me Home” off her Satellite EP has over 34 million Spotify streams. The US premiere of her new album “Start Somewhere Dark” will take place at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor on Saturday, September 30th. It seems things are coming full circle for Sara.
She spoke to Hamptons.com about her musical beginnings, Berlin, and new album ‘Start Somewhere Dark.’
Take us back to the beginning of your musical journey. How did it all start?
I grew up in Sag Harbor and took lessons with Paul Chapin at Harbor Music. It was a little lesson space near Sag Town Coffee way back in the day. I got a drum set for Christmas and really fell in love with it. I’m sure my neighbors were not as in love with the instrument as I was haha. I was really grateful to be working with Chapin as a teacher. He taught me a bit of piano, bass, guitar, and ukelele as well. That led to me writing songs in my bedroom as a way of dealing with a bit of a chaotic home life. It was therapy for me to be able to express myself through songs. I was adopted by the East End music scene after playing a show at Crossroads Music in Amagansett and soaked up all that I could learn. I was really supported by my family and my teachers at Pierson. Without all this, I wouldn’t be where I am today.
What are some artists that inspire you, and how have they influenced your sound?
I discovered Amanda Palmer when I was a teenager, and her songwriting really inspired me. Her lyrics were honest, to the point of being a bit abrasive. I appreciated this. Of course, I was also inspired by Ingrid Michaelson and Sara Bareilles, which is probably why I drove all around the Hamptons as a teenager with a ukulele. My car didn’t have an aux cable so I ended up going through my parent’s CD collection. My mama raised us on 90s art rock, Radiohead, David Byrne, and Bjork and my dad was a bit more punky, the Clash, Green Day, System of a down. Recently, I’ve been listening to old jazz records. Music is incredible. I am quite a nerd, and it makes me happy to find something new, random, and inspiring. My favorite song changes pretty much every day. Today, it’s sound and color by Alabama Shakes.
It must have been a huge change moving to Berlin in 2015, signing with a major label, and touring around the world. How was the process for you?
Long story short, it was the dream. The dream is not always what you imagine it to be. I got to experience things that most people don’t get to. I played stadiums all over Europe, got a festival crowd of thousands to clap along to my songs, was on TV shows with a translator in my earbud, really incredible stuff. But I found that the amount of pressure involved with that level of a music career doesn’t always make diamonds. Things become a lot more about business than about music. It really wasn’t for me. I wasn’t ready for it. I’m grateful for the experience, but I’m much happier playing electric guitar at tiny, sweaty shows full of people who really appreciate what I do and are there for the music. I learned a lot. It took me a long time to realize that making music for the love of it is the only way that I really can do it. I lost a lot of my love and curiosity for my craft in the major label system. I’m going in a different direction now, and not only is it better for my mental health but it feels like people are really resonating with it. Audiences really want to support artists. The system that artists have to work in is not always the best at doing that.
“start_somewhere_dark” is your first album release. What or who inspired this album?
This album is dedicated to my mother, Kerrie Sundara. She has been very ill for the past few years. The album was my way of dealing with this. Music can be therapy. In the past, I wrote and produced my songs with a team of people. During the pandemic, I decided to learn how to produce myself. it was a long process, but these songs are the fruits of that labor. I wrote and produced these songs 100 percent myself. I then reached out to a friend at Fox Lane Records who agreed to help me bring them to the next level. We added more layers of production to create what you can hear now. We worked in basements in Berlin, apartments in Vienna, and a trailer in Steinfurt across from a cow farm to make this music a reality. With no budget and whatever time we could steal, wherever we were allowed to make noise. The songs correspond with the stages of grief. From Denial to Acceptance, I always play the songs in the order of the stages. This repeated process has helped me a lot. Loss is profoundly difficult, but mama was an artist and taught us how to make beautiful things out of challenging times.
You’ve performed at the Sag Harbor Music Festival in previous years. How does it feel to be back and premiering your first album at this year’s festival?
I remember playing in the corner of Grenning Gallery at the first-ever SHAMF when I was 15 years old. This festival has helped me more than I can say in the past years. As a broke artist AND an expat, it can be quite difficult to get back home sometimes. This festival has allowed me to bring what I’ve made overseas back home. Most of my shows and life is in Berlin so it means a lot to be able to show my family and hometown a glimpse of what I’ve been up to. Playing Bay Street is a big deal as well! SOOOO grateful to Kerry and Kelly for supporting and believing in me from the very beginning. It’s a rare thing.
Berlin is such a cool epicenter of all different types of music. How does the Berlin music scene differ from the Sag Harbor music scene?
Berlin is a creative confluence of weirdos from all over the world. of course, their biggest export is techno, but I became quite involved with the underground jazz scene. Theres a little bit of everything for literally everyone there, which can be overwhelming in the beginning but once you find your people the city really opens up to you. Sag Harbor is a warm and open scene, which I do miss a bit in Berlin. But the Berlin scene is constantly pushing boundaries, combining influences, rethinking performance, playing punk shows in abandoned buildings, a breeding ground for the next new, cool thing. I find Berlin most exciting when it comes to the redefining of performances in general. When you have an audience in a space, you can quite literally do anything, and the possibilities are endless. I find this really inspiring.
You play multiple instruments like drums, guitar, bass, and ukulele. Which one do you resonate with the most?
Recently, I’ve rediscovered my excitement for the drums. It’s funny everything seems to be coming full circle recently, back to where they began. I really think that I approach all of the instruments that I play like a drummer. It’s the heartbeat of the band. Really excited to be playing with James Bernard at Bay Street. He’s one of the better drummers I’ve ever played with.
Can you walk us through your songwriting process?
Songwriting is a funny thing. Ideally, you sit down with the right instrument on the right day, and the song just flows through you. These are the magic tunes. All you can do to prepare for those kinds of songs is to sharpen your tools. Learn new chord shapes, learn new vocal techniques, read lots of books, and then when songs come to you, you are ready to make it the best it can be. On the other hand, there are work songs. I write songs for German Radio artists and EDM DJs to help pay the rent. This is a much more collaborative and rational process. Thinking about internal rhyme schemes, finding a chorus melody that is memorable but accessible, and writing lyrics that are universal yet specific. I prefer the more emotional way of writing. Songs usually start with lyrics for me. I always keep a notebook with me so I can catch those magic ideas when they come around.
What are your favorite Hamptons spots with us?
I haven’t spent much time out east in quite a long time. I suspect a lot of my favorite spots are not there anymore. I will always be a huge fan of Kites of the Harbor. Good people running that shop :).
One of my favorite things to do out east was getting pizza or a foccacia sandwich from Cappellettis and eating it at Long Beach on the tailgate of my dad’s truck. That secret sauce they have is the BEST!
Big Olaf on the Wharf also has the best waffle cone in the world.