Soulful Americana singer-songwriter Sarah Rogo joins us at Eagle Rock, CA’s original coffee bar, Swork, to discuss her debut album Smoke and Water, her experience with TEDx Talks, and the importance of showcasing your authenticity to your audience.
So you’re gearing up to release your debut album Smoke and Water! Would you care to share a little bit about the lyrical themes and instrumental elements that we get to look forward to?
Sarah Rogo: Yeah! I’m really proud of this record! I co-produced it with the amazing Mitchell Houser, and we really created a nice, unique blend of original songs and interesting covers that are kind of like dark spins on the original. The basic theme of this whole album is very much a mystical thing that plays with shadows and light, so there’s a lot of enchanting tones and a simple, raw, stripped down, earthly feel to it.
Cool! Which covers did you choose to include?
Sarah: We did a really dark, unique take on Carole King‘s “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” and also a dark cover of “Jolene” by Dolly Parton. I played slide guitar while Mitchell played piano, so that was kind of a cool take on the instrumental part. We also did Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child” that was just me and my slide guitar, super gritty and broken down from the female perspective.
Awesome! And how would you say that the recording and songwriting process for this album has been similar or different than any of the work that you’ve done in the past?
Sarah: The process for this album was really beautiful and organic. I had a basic set of songs that I knew I wanted to put out and knew I wanted to record, but from there, once me and Mitchell started to record these songs, the whole album started to take a greater vision. I ended up learning a lot about not only myself, but about the recording process and how much of a beautiful and delicate and flowing process it is. It was really like nothing I’ve ever done before, and that’s what I love about this work. When you work with different people, the experience is just completely different every time. I had a really good time recording this album and I had a really good time writing the music for it as well. Every single one of the songs means the world to me.
Which song was your favorite to write and then record?
Sarah: My favorite song to write was the first track called “Pieces.” I took a trip to Indonesia, I backpacked by myself and met a lot of really cool travelers, particularly of a bunch of young women who were also traveling solo. I met this amazing young woman from Belgium, and we sat down and had a conversation about dating and life and all this stuff. She said, ‘You know, when I’m when these men, why does it feel like they take a piece of me?’ and from there I wrote the song “Pieces.” I just loved that writing process because it was purely born from the moment and being in a whole different country.
And it’s such a relatable topic that a lot of people would be able to feel the same way.
Sarah: Yeah, absolutely. And my favorite song to record on this album was kind of an unexpected one and it’s definitely one of my favorite songs of mine called “Smoke and Water.” At first, I envisioned myself recording it completely acoustic, just with myself and my slide guitar. But once we tracked it, we started to feel other things like mystical sounding piano sprinkled throughout. Mitchell laid down some harmonies, and they sounded great, but I was like, ‘No, these need to be female harmonies like sirens of the sea.’ So we layered some female voices and it sounded like this big, beautiful cacophony of sound. It sounded like mermaids singing about a wildfire right on the ocean.
Oooh! Well we’re definitely diggin’ it already!
Sarah: Yeah! I’m excited!
And if you could choose three artists to go on a world tour with, who would they be and what would you name your tour?
Sarah: *laughs* Well, mostly speaking, I’m a big fan of a lot of artists that are not with us anymore, but two artists that I really admire that I would love to go on tour with are Brandi Carlile, I love her very much, Dawes, the band Dawes, and for the third one, if I could bring Sam Cooke back from the dead, I would totally have him on the tour. I don’t know what I’d call it, probably a play on songwriting or something. It’s all about the songs, because those musicians are really just phenomenal songwriters to me. I mean, they just completely blow me away and it would just be a blessing to share the stage or share a bill with somebody like Brandi Carlile who has such potently amazing lyrics that really stand for something.
Yeah! She’s amazing!
Do you feel that women in the music industry need to portray themselves in certain ways in order to have a successful career?
Sarah: I think women in the music industry don’t have to portray themselves in a certain way to be successful, but I feel like there is pressure to portray yourself as a certain way. So in that reality, I feel like it’s important for a woman, or really any artist, to firmly understand who they are as a person and make music and perform from a really authentic space. So whether that’s wearing sparkly booty shorts and high heels, or being an androgynous, fringy rockstar, that’s all cool and amazing a long as it comes from that really authentic space. I’ve gone through cycles of thinking I had to dress a certain way or be a certain way, I tried it for a hot minute, and then I was like, ‘Wait, this doesn’t feel like me.’ It just didn’t feel natural. Women don’t have to be a certain way in order to be successful, but I do think sometimes we feel that way, so I think it’s important to be an example for the world and for other women. That’s why I love artists like Brandi Carlile because she is just authentic and herself. And then you look at somebody like Katy Perry or Lady Gaga, they’re so flamboyant and loud in their style, but that’s them, and I love them for that as well. I think to be a woman in the entertainment and in the performing industry just really means to be as authentic as you possibly can, but what takes a lot of exploration is figuring out who you are.
Yeah. And in the end we want to see the real you as opposed to someone trying to be what the standard definition is for the artist you are trying to be.
And in an age where social media has pretty much become the main form of marketing, do you think that it’s made it easier or harder for artists to make a name for themselves?
Sarah: Social media is a tricky one. I think social media can help elevate an artist, but I think it can also diminish the spirit and authenticity of an artist if one is not careful of their intentions and their motives with it. I think it’s a great way to reach people and I think it has brought people to new levels, but it’s very challenging. A lot of the record companies and publications will look at solely social media numbers, and not even necessarily talent, like, just social media numbers. They won’t even talk to you if you’re not at 50,000 followers. That concept, like, from a business aspect, I can kind of understand it, but from an artistic aspect, it’s kind of disheartening. But if you can look at it from a positive spin as a platform that gives you a way to reach fans on an intimate level, I think that is what’s important.
Yeah. Do you feel that social media adds a pressure to constantly have something to share with your followers or even portray yourself in a certain way to your followers?
Sarah: I definitely feel pressure from social media, not as much as I used to, but that pressure is still there. You have to find new content to post, and then you have to decide if it’s the ‘right’ thing to post, and then sometimes you worry if people will unfollow you for it. All these things are things I try not to think about, but I know there are the ghosts and the voices in our heads that that tell us we’re not good enough, or that we don’t have enough content, or that it’s not sharp enough or ‘professional’ enough. ‘Good’ content for me is just authentic and real, so I try to post from that space and not from just wanting to prove anything or show off anything, but from the space of really wanting to share something. I always like the phrase, ‘Check yourself more than you check your Instagram.’
That needs to be on a sticker! *laughs*
Sarah: Yeah for sure! Check yourself! *laughs*
So you got the chance to take part in a TEDx Talk discussing how music not only helps us to open our eyes and hearts to what’s going on in the world around us, but to also be a great connector between so many different people. How did the opportunity come about and how was your overall experience?
Sarah: Working with TEDx was really meaningful, and I was so thrilled when they asked me to play and do a talk. It was actually a dream come true. I’ve wanted to do more public speaking for a long time, and the fact that I got to get up on stage and not only play my music, but really speak my mind and heart on something that I was passionate about was super meaningful. And it’s just a really professional organization, like, overall they’re very organized. All of the speakers that they had were very wonderful and poetic, and the event itself was really beautiful and it brought people together. We did it at the University of Nevada, and it really exceeded my expectations. I’m really thankful for that experience.
Did you choose the songs that you performed based on your speech or vice versa?
Sarah: So for the songs that I decided on for my TED Talk, I decided to pick songs that really told a story that were very potent in a message and an image. My talk was about music and how it helps form empathy and compassion, and music is a really good way to tell your story so other people can get a glimpse into your feelings or your life. When I listen to music I can listen to somebody’s story and situation that I’ve never been in, but by listening to them, it can help gain more perspective of people other than just me.
And how do you balance your personal life with your professional life?
Sarah: *laughs* I don’t always do a good job balancing my personal life and professional life because they’re often so intertwined that it feels like the same thing. Music is not really a ‘job’ for me, it’s very much a way of living, but I’ve definitely been working on separating my personal life and career a little bit more.
It’s definitely easier said than done. *laughs* So if you could give your younger self advice in regards to what you’ve experienced so far musically or personally, what advice would you give her?
Sarah: The main thing that I can think of is to make sure I take trips and travel outside of touring, because sometimes when you’re touring, you don’t really get to see everything that you want to see. You’re kind of busy worrying about the show or getting a band together or whatever instead of enjoying where you are, so it’s important for me to take my own spiritual trips and travel to different parts of the world. I would also want to say, ‘Just keep breathing,’ because everything is a constant learning process. You’re always going to want to be better, and you’re always going to be wanting more or feel like there is more for you to do, so just have fun in the moment and allow yourself to enjoy yourself rather than thinking about the next thing that you’re going to tackle, or do, or play. And don’t let anybody tear you down! Just keep walking, keep going, and keep playing.
What do you hope that your audience will take away from your music?
Sarah: When I write music, I write it because it’s my medicine. I write because I’m going through a specific thing, or because there’s something inside myself that I can’t quite comprehend or can’t quite grasp how to manage this emotion that I’m feeling. So I turn it into art, I turn it into song, and really, when I make this music, I heal myself with it. In turn, I feel like it does heal and help other people too. I feel like the main word that I always come back to, and especially in The TEDx Talk, is ‘authenticity.’ It’s not about creating music that I think other people will like, but really creating music that helps me and makes me feel true to myself that I feel will help others too. That’s what I want people to take away from it. I don’t want them to necessarily like me, or love me, or think it’s awesome, I would rather inspire people to be themselves and have the courage to be raw and vulnerable and stripped down. You don’t always need a seven-piece band to back up every single song, sometimes just you and a guitar on a song is just as potent as any full-scale production could ever be.
Yeah! You have to do what’s natural to you and who you are as an artist. That’s really what music fans want.
And apart from the upcoming release of your debut album, what other exciting things should we be expecting from you in the near future?
Sarah: So on top of the album, which I’m very excited about, I’m also releasing a string of singles with my other producer named David Ricketts. That’s really exciting because they’re more energetic and have a whole new flair and style to them. And I’ve just recently launched a podcast called Alchemy Through Artistry, and it’s basically a documentation of my own journey through spirituality and what I’ve experienced throughout the music industry and the creative worlds. On the podcast, I talk a lot about my creative process and my troubles and my triumphs. I also have friends, colleagues, and people who I admire, on the podcast to talk about certain aspects of creativity. Whether you’re an artist, or a filmmaker, or a dancer, or a business person, there’s something that you can take away from this podcast so I’m really excited that it’s out in the world. And on top of that I’ll be doing shows and playing a lot of music. I’m just really trying to squeeze life to its fullest and make as much music as I can.
Eagle Rock’s original coffee bar Swork is a prime (and successful) example of one woman’s motivation to bring the joy of coffee to a neighborhood lacking non-chain options. Patricia was tired of fighting the constant L.A. traffic for a good cup of joe, and from there, Swork was conceived, and she was determined to make sure the shop became a local staple in its hometown. She combined her already established entrepreneurial skills with her coffee crash course from training with Intelligentsia Coffee in both Guatemala and in the space that became Swork’s home, and with impressive efforts has happily been in business since 2001. Not bad for a little dream of opening up a local coffee bar, right?!?
Swork’s incredible story is not the only thing that makes the shop special. They’re not only the first coffeeshop to provide a kid-friendly playspace for visiting families, but also the first to have dedicated computer workspaces for business-focused coffee lovers to be able to get some work done without being accused of mooching of their free wifi. They’re very welcoming of their community, and it’s showcased in their choice of classic interior, warm color scheme, and a variety of fan favorite food and beverage recipes. I strongly recommend the Swiss Latin Latte if you’re a fan of creamy and decadent drinks, and since I’m a nut for pastries, their fresh-made waffles make for a perfect pairing with pretty much any coffee option available.
A huge thank you to the amazing Patricia for allowing us to interview Sarah at Swork! We are excited for what’s to come for the shop, so stay tuned for the good news!