14 Jul Indie Rock Musician Sarah Dunn Talks New Album, Motherhood and More
by Marisa Torrieri Bloom
There’s something about Sarah Dunn’s voice that reminds me of the first time I heard Liz Phair, minus the F-bombs. Her music enters one’s airspace with a sweet, earnest longing as it wafts atop a lovely, acoustic-and-slide guitar collage. But when you pay closer attention to the lyrics, you’ll discover a seductive depth within the stories that roll off her tongue. She gives you just enough to stoke your curiosity, coffeehouse style, while keeping her musical “cards” close to her heart.
It’s only fitting that New Haven, Connecticut’s newest indie-rock breakout star is a soccer mom and mental healthcare worker.
In these complex and trying times, listeners want substance as much as style, and Sarah’s breakout record, “Thank You,” produced by local indie-rock legend Stephen Peter Rodgers (Tiny Bunker Studios) gives us multiple helpings, with a mix of folksy, cathartic tunes like “Let Her Go” and nostalgic tributes to hot times (“Whiskey Summer Nights”).
What’s truly astounding, as I learned in reading the New Haven Independent’s artist profile last month, is that being a musician is a recent side gig she took up early in the pandemic, decades after learning to play a few instruments. Sarah’s day job is super intense — she’s a clinical psychologist who works with nursing home patients and a mom of two (ages 9 and 7) — and it was only when she was forced isolate from her two children for weeks at a time that it occurred to her to try songwriting and learn to sing.
“The only real playing out I ever did before was in my early 20s, on violin, a song here and there with various bands, or for weddings,” Sarah tells Rockmommy. “I lost myself, between grad school and desperately trying to do the work of both people to keep my marriage to my children’s father afloat.”
And this summer is only the beginning, as Sarah’s currently playing local shows and working on new music for her first full-length record, out this fall. We recently caught up with Sarah to hear more and gain a few working mom-musician balancing hacks.
Rockmommy: First off, let’s introduce you to readers. How would you describe your music?
Sarah Dunn: I think my music reasonably fits into the “folk” or “singer-songwriter” styles. A good friend jokingly calls it ‘Momcore.’ My favorite description so far was someone who said ‘Like Taylor Swift, but…. emo?’
Rockmommy: Who are some of your influences?
Sarah Dunn: So many. I was a teen in the 90s, so alternative is very important to me. For my personal style, I try copy acoustic singers from around that time, including Rosie Thomas, Lisa Loeb, and Jewel.
Rockmommy: Your profile in the New Haven Independent was really eye opening for me. I can’t believe you hadn’t been playing out before now! What’s it like coming into the music scene now as a mama, past the 20-something window of life? Were there any fears about that?
Sarah Dunn: Yeah, the only real playing out I ever did before was in my early 20s, on violin, a song here and there with various bands, or for weddings. I lost myself, between grad school and desperately trying to do the work of both people to keep my marriage to my children’s father afloat.
Moving into this season of my life, I am actually really grateful for the timeline and that I didn’t do this sooner. With each year after my 30s I give even fewer effs and enjoy myself more and more, and I’m glad that I kind of had to wait, so that I could be more authentic and enjoy myself with it.
If someone wants the music of a 20-year-old, those artists are out there. If you want essentially musical diary musings of a middle-aged person who struggles with depression, love, and gender, well, I’m your person.
Rockmommy: How did you find your voice, and your direction as an artist, when you were spending so much time alone during the initial pandemic?
Sarah Dunn: I started where I started as a kid, with piano, then moved to violin, then moved to guitar, and I started writing songs. It was vacuous and silent in my house, and I liked making the noise.
Rockmommy: When I first heard you play “Let Her Go,” I was blown away at the catharsis of that song. It was so relatable to me. Can you tell me about how that one came to life?
Sarah Dunn: Well, I think I started with the image of throwing a suitcase into the ocean, and from there began to talk about my past romantic relationships, and my relationship with my parents, and then my relationship with myself.
Rockmommy: The track ‘Whiskey Summer Nights’ has such a serene feel to it, and is perfect for the quiet moments. I like listening to it when I’m outside on my deck. Is there a backstory to that one?
Sarah Dunn: Ha, well. Um. It kind of came out of being single at 33, and trying to figure out how to date again. I had to do things like, figure out how to ask people to, you know… leave…. after… spending time together? Like, how do you say, ‘Thanks, but I need to go to sleep, can you leave already?’ It was very mysterious. I met a particularly gorgeous person, and we really did have the conversation of me saying, “I’m not sure what this means, and, you don’t have to say it back, but I think I love you,” and them saying, ‘Ok.’ Same person later off-handedly said, ‘Eh, if it wasn’t you, it would be some other girl, you know,’ and I still like to bust them about that.
Rockmommy: Being a mental health professional and a mom sounds very intense and time consuming. How do you manage to balance that with creative life?
Sarah Dunn: It is intense, especially in a skilled nursing facility where there are phones ringing, call bells ringing, fire alarms going off, ankle monitors (for residents with dementia) setting off door alarms, and residents yelling, or crying, because they are confused or upset. It’s sensory overload.
My kids are also very intense people (can’t imagine where they got that), and they have soccer, gymnastics, friends, science club, etc. Fortunately, my patients, and my children, are all wonderful people and I really like them, which helps a lot.
My color-coded Google calendar is integral to my life, as well as having an SUV, and a village of patient and kind people. After the kids go to bed, I set time almost every night to force myself to practice or write to at least do a little bit every day. I also am very fortunate to have been connected with Stephen Peter Rodgers, who can read people well and gets me, so when I record with him, he makes it easy for me to say what I want and he builds the songs, and he’s so encouraging, and gives helpful feedback for making me sound as good as possible. Its like having a professional music big brother, and I’m so grateful for his work.
[SEE RELATED: Musician Stephen Peter Rodgers’ New Record Gets Real]
Check out Sarah’s latest release ‘Thank You’ on Bandcamp and other streaming media outlets.
Marisa Torrieri Bloom is the editor and founder of Rockmommy.