Flying High

Sarah White has been making and releasing music since the ’90s, her hard to categorize sound straddling indie rock, folk and even pop. But from the bent-note blast that kicks off the first cut in her newly released album, listeners are clearly in the world of exceptional twang. 

Photo courtesy of Sarah White

For too long, Sarah White thinks, her music has been branded as “quirky.” “People would say, ‘She’s weird,’ or ‘It’s not straight enough.’ But with this new record, the curves got straightened out a bit. It’s pretty straight-forward.” 

Issued nationally in August, the singer-songwriter’s new release, High Flyer, was produced by former Agents of Good Roots bassist Stewart Myers at Richmond’s Montrose Studios. The 11-song disc is a landscape of both familiar and uncharted territory for the soulful White, a Central Virginia mainstay who has leapfrogged from folk to lo-fi pop to indie-rock to country in her troubadour’s journey. 

“Her songs have some of that early ’70s California country rock vibe,” says Myers, who has worked with the likes of Jason Mraz, Liz Phair and Mandy Moore. “I was just trying to draw it out and augment it without changing it too much.”

On High Flyer, previously released White compositions such as “Already Down” and “Sarah Arizona” have been dramatically recast. But the songs remain the same. “If you’ve known me for years,this is sort of a greatest hits album,” she says. 

It’s the album White always wanted to make, a yearning set of anthemic love laments and tighter-than-tight dustups strong enough for Rolling Stone magazine to choose her as one of its “Ten New Country Artists You Need to Know” (while acknowledging the fact that she’s not exactly a new artist). The magazine compares her smoky voice to Lucinda Williams and Brandy Clark and praises the “introspective lyrics and delicately crafted arrangements” of her songs.

When it came time to record the mid-tempo ballad, “Sweetheart,” probably White’s best-known song (it won the 2007 Mountain Stage song prize), the singer asked Dave Matthews, an old pal, to join her. “Sarah’s music kills me; beautifully from the ground up, no plastic,” Matthews told Billboard Magazine when “Sweetheart” debuted as High Flyer’s teaser single in June. “I’ve known Dave since he used to play at Fellini’s,” she says. “We played a couple of shows together in the old days at Live Arts, and our paths have crossed over the years.” 

Born in Warrenton, White grew up in West Virginia, in a place called Sink’s Grove (“because there were so many sink holes”). The family moved to Charlottesville when she was a teenager. “There was always music around,” she says. “My dad played guitar, so I picked up his guitar. He wrote songs and influenced my love of bluegrass. In high school, I got my own guitar and started writing and playing songs.” She got her undergraduate degree in English from the University of Virginia and went straight to work at the Charlottesville restaurant/venue Miller’s (“that’s an English degree for you”), all while rocking out in scruffy indie-rock outfits like Miracle Penny—“I still have about 500 of the Miracle Penny record, if my mom didn’t throw them out”—and honing her songwriting skills.

White soon found herself in San Francisco, trying to get her music heard. She had one memorable gig there in 1997 at the famed Fillmore, warming up the crowd for her girlhood “musical crush,” Hall & Oates, before coming home. “They wanted a solo female singer to open, and I was available,” she says, still beaming. 

Back in Charlottesville, she got her masters in American Studies, and worked on home demos. “I did two albums for the Jagjaguwar label, the first was all 4-track recordings, very lo-fi, weird, I loved it. But people want to buy it today and I warn them that it isn’t what they think it is.”

After that, she cut Bluebird and, with a new band, the Pearls, White Light, albums of steadily-maturing work that established her as a singular regional voice, straddling indie-folk and even hard rock with increasing doses of country spice. A few years ago, C-Ville Weekly called her “the de-facto first lady of Charlottesville rock ‘n’ roll.” 

“I was exploring,” she says. “There are some songs on those albums that I love, but others that really make me cringe.” When the Pearls broke up, she needed direction. 

High Flyer

“I was playing around Charlottesville, putting out an EP here, a 7-inch single there,” she recalls. “And then I met Stewart Myers.” 

She confided to her future producer that she wanted to record an album but hated pitching record labels. “He asked why I didn’t want to do a Kickstarter? And all my life, I’ve never liked asking for help. I like for people to think I’ve got my [act] together all the time. I don’t, of course, but I didn’t want to beg.” 

High Flyer’s campaign prompted in her “a major shift in consciousness and awareness” about crowdfunding. “It was amazing to see how people wanted to support it and participate in the process,” she says. That included $500 from a random stranger who helped her reach the $15,000 goal before the deadline. Her old friend, Michael Bishop, of GWAR, also helped her to obtain signed photographs of the Richmond shock-rock band to offer as premiums. “So I had GWAR fans contributing, although I don’t think they wanted the CD,” she laughs. 

“When you’re around for 20 years,” White says, humbled, “I guess you do have some fans out there.” 

This article originally appeared in our October 2018 issue.

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