Today, it is with complete JOY that I share with you a little piece with Sarah Buxton. Sarah, is one of the most exuberant, gutsy, and absurdly talented women I know. And she also just happens to have one of the most unique, identifiable voices in Nashville. We’ll talk about identity, Stevie Nicks’ advice to Sarah at 17, songwriting, label deals, bro-country, and taking your own path.
It’s kind of half interview, half just me and Sarah having a conversation because initially, I just asked her…”What do you want to SAY?” Sarah was signed to a record deal from 2006-2008 and released several songs including: “Innocence”, “That Kind of Day”, and “Space.” She is also a hit songwriter, having co-penned songs like Keith Urban’s “Stupid Boy,” and “Put You In A Song.” As well as several other hits including “Sun Daze” by Florida Georgia Line. She’s had numerous songs on the hit TV show, Nashville. Also, Sarah, Jesse Frasure and I wrote a song called “Thousand Days Of Summer” that will be on my record. This isn’t the album version, but this is the demo Jesse produced the day we wrote it. (Me singing.)
[As a side note. I feel a little self conscious because I left some things in the interview that Sarah said specifically to me about my career. So rather than edit them out, I just left them in so you could get a real sense of our conversation. And a real sense of how encouraging Sarah is; her heart for other musicians. Just insert your own name there too if you need a little love.]
So that’s the backstory. But here’s some of Sarah’s story as told by….Sarah.
SB: Music is not a freaking puzzle to be solved. Not something to be sat around and thought about… No! Just put it out. When you have fearful partners it screws you. You have to have somebody who has their hand on the trigger, that has permission to pull and actually shoot, that isn’t scared. That’s why with new artists, it’s like, “Look at her, ‘New Artist A’ look at her. Oh, she’s just doing so damn great.” Well, that’s because nothing has gone wrong. Yet.
[Before I pushed record on garageband, Sarah had been talking about the power of being “untarnished” which is wear the “new artist A” comment comes from.]
KB: That “untarnished” thing, it’s kind of like the “buzz” thing. Before you have any tarnish on you, and start coming up against the world, the sky is the limit. Same with buzz. But I’ve just never felt like I’m a “buzzy” artist. I’m not a hype person.
SB: Well, neither was Little Big Town. Chris Stapleton wasn’t either. I remember the way people talked about them [Little Big Town] early on. They had a little bit of momentum and then they lost it and people were like “It’s so sad, they’re such good people. They’re probably gonna break up.” And slowly but surely…The four of them decided a long time ago what they were about, and they never wavered from it. They’ve only gotten more precise, and more precise about what they’re praying for and what they’re all about. And as they become more precise about what it is that they are, we become more precise about we understand about them.
They have not wavered. On this record [Painkiller] I remember people specifically saying, “Well I don’t know…we’ll see if they have any hits” when it came out. Or “They’ve made a mistake, they could have been a huge arena act.” Well, guess what? They just won song of the year. And they’ve got the respect of everybody and the cheers of everybody.
Looking back on my past, I did have a buzz. I did have that thing at the very beginning. I mean I had 6 or 7 record deals offered and it was on. And I was so excited, and I was like “How can I lose? I have so much passion for this, and obviously there is passion coming back at me, and this is going to happen.” And there’s all this joy and possibility and wonder and creativity, and then as soon as I started…[trails off] In my inner circle I chose a manager who was best friends with my label head. And he was president of the CMA at the time, and I thought, “This makes perfect sense. He’s a power guy, and this is gonna be huge.” And then all it takes is a couple slips and everyone is like “Ooh, I’m a big player I don’t wanna make a mistake.”
And then I found myself in the middle of all that going, “wait wait wait!”
In the end the thing that made me stop doing it, was that I knew that I wanted to get married. And I knew that I wanted to have kids. And I was approaching 30, and I thought, “I just don’t see myself doing this…being a mom at the success level that I have, with the amount of money that I have, I just don’t see myself doing that.” And so I just said, “I’m not gonna do it. I don’t know what gonna do, but I’m not gonna go and do the same thing. Beat my head against the same wall wall, with all these same stigmas, and the same groups of people.”
I have some friends that quit being artists, that became writers that said ,“I just knew I found what I was supposed to be doing. I just knew that I wasn’t an artist.” And I don’t have that, I still feel like an artist in ways. I do have something in me that still wants to make a record
KB: Oh hell yeah, hallelujah. Please make a record
SB: The performing part of it is not as interesting to me as it used to be, but the actual making of the music really still is. And you know, when you have a label you have so much money to work with, and so there is that aspect of it. Do I spend my own money? Do I find someone that wants do it with me? That kind of stuff.
But I think if I could go back and re-do those years…I would have had more fun with it. I would have not taken on as much responsibility of what wasn’t working. I would have trusted the team. I wouldn’t have just “power play” chosen my team, like “Whose the biggest and most successful team?” I would have chosen a real team, that really was like, “We’re with you no matter what, you be you.” And I would have just enjoyed myself making music, and having a team around me that believed in me. And I would have just enjoyed it. Because I look at these young artists and I’m like, “You guys have people paying you to make music!”
KB: Yeah, that’s an incredible thing.
SB: It’s huge! And I don’t have that anymore. When you just love making music, having money to make music is just…HUGE. I mean, that in and of itself is just GREAT. Know what you’re about. Make music that comes form your heart, that you know that you’re gonna be proud of for your whole life. That you can see yourself singing for your whole life. And then everything else, just kind of works its way in. And you have to take risks and you have to be yourself. Everything just goes to shit when you start worrying about everyone’s expectations of you. That’s my perspective.
KB: So on the note of making music that you’re proud of… like if you only get to play one song, what is it?
SB: I have a couple. The first one that comes to mind is a song called “Every Time I fall In Love” which Harry Connick just recorded…It’s just such a true sentiment and the melody is just so fun to sing. There’s usually not a day that I don’t feel like singing that song. I love that song so much, it’s the kind of song you can sing in your pajamas. It stands up, it does the work for itself. That’s how I felt for years about “Stupid Boy.” I felt like it had everything, it has truth and honesty, but it rocks.
[Here’s video of Sarah singing “Every Time I Fall In Love”]
KB: You wrote “Stupid Boy” around the time you were doing your artist thing, right? So can you talk about the decision to not put that out yourself?
SB: Yes, when we wrote it, I didn’t have record deal. We wrote it in 2004. I wrote it with Deanna Bryant and Dave Berg and they were a little unsure of naming it “Stupid Boy,” and having that be the main hook. And I was just like, “This is awesome,” and they were like, “Ok, but what are we gonna DO with this? Who’s gonna record a song called “Stupid Boy?”
KB: Oh Man!
SB: I mean this is before Gretchen Wilson even came out, this is in Jamie O’Neal days. It was very forward at the time. I said, “I’m gonna get a record deal, I’ll record it.” And they were like, “Haha, ok.” And then before we left they said, “We’ll just pitch it to The Dixie Chicks, and see what happens because maybe they’d record it.” And they didn’t.
KB: They would have been baddass on that song, too.
SB: (Laughs) Yeah, totally. But I don’t know if they ever heard it. And then I ended up getting a deal. And I put it on my record, and we recorded it without a click. And I remember not caring that we weren’t aiming towards radio with it. I wanted that song to be my “art” song on the record. The way that I approached my first record was I wanted people to really see what I could do. I wanted all kinds of different kind of songs. I wanted to show all sides of me. I wanted it to be the way Rumours is, the Fleetwood Mac record. I wanted it to have…
[And then she actually starts singing, so I have to include this so you can hear what she was doing. It was so great.]
SB: I wanted all these different types of songs, you know? I didn’t want just one side of me. I wanted that song [Stupid Boy] to be the ‘Gold Dust Woman’ of my little country Sarah Buxton thing. And Dann wanted it to end after the “long gone, long gone” part. And I was like, “No! this is my art song! There has to be a long solo on it, this song has to be at least 5 minutes long.” So he’s like, “Ok fine.” So we put the solo on it.
KB: Who produced this? Is this Dann Huff?
SB: Dann Huff. MmmHmm. And Craig Wiseman was the co-producer. But I didn’t think about putting it out as a single on me. I don’t know why I didn’t think about it, but I just knew how I wanted it to be recorded, and we did that. And Keith [Urban] ended up wanting it, and I was like, “That would be amazing, he’s a great guitar player, and there’s an awesome guitar solo at the end of the song. That would be perfect for him.” So I guess there was a part of me at that time that was already a songwriter. I wasn’t like, “No you can’t have it, this is my song.” You know, I just didn’t feel that at all.
KB That’s interesting.
SB: I don’t know if it would have been a hit if it had come out on me at the time…maybe it would have.
[Here’s the album cut of “Stupid Boy from Sarah’s project. B/c of UMG rules…you have to actually click through to play on youtube…but just follow the directions.]
KB Oh girl! I have played that out in my head so much. I hope that doesn’t freak you out. Because I think about you as and artist and I’m like, “what happened?” You’re THE person that I think had the opportunity (whether things were set up well or not) and you literally had EVERYTHING, every single skill, all of it. You know I admire you so much. And I just remember looking at you at the time and watching it go down and thinking, “well shit, if can’t happen for her….who can it happen for?” Because you have this authentic really sexy thing, you’re very compelling in person, you sing your ass off, and you have a specific sound…like no one is confused who’s singing . It’s like, “that’s Sarah Buxton.” And that song [Stupid Boy] is just so huge to me—and maybe it’s because I knew that song after it was a hit on Keith—but to me that song is so undeniable, I just think, “how would that have not worked?!”
SB: Well thank you for that. That is so sweet. Let me just tell you that I think…I don’t mean this to sound arrogant, but I think I would have made it if I would have kept going. And I knew what I was doing when I decided to quit. I think if you stick with it, and you have talent and you’re making good music, it’s going to happen. Stevie Nicks told me that when I met her when I was 17. She said, “If you know you that you’re here to be a singer, and you’re not here to be someone’s secretary, or cleaning someone’s house, or blah blah blah.. if you know you are here to sing, then you will make it happen. And if you believe in yourself, I believe in you.” And I was 17, and I was about to die..she’s like my ultimate everything. And I think it’s true. If you know that that’s what you’re supposed to do, then you will do it. And while I knew that maybe I had the talent, I didn’t know that I wanted to be a “country singer.” I didn’t know that in my 30s I would rather be out on the road doing that, then be at home raising kids. I think if I had started 5 years earlier, and had 5 more years to figure it out, I could have made it. I think that, Kelleigh, if you keep making great music and you get more and more specific about what you want. Then, you will do it, because you have talent. And you put talent with really hard work and then a great product and it’s going to happen. It’s just a matter of when.
KB: Thanks. Thank you for that.
[Here’s Sarah all amazing in her BMI medal a couple weeks ago at the BMI Awards.]
KB: Change of subject… Do people ever trash your songs that you’re aware of? Since I have to be on social media all the time because of my artist stuff, I’m just aware when people say hateful things. It’s in my face…but I was just wondering, do you ever have that? And what do you do about that?
SB: I’ve had that, sure I’ve had that. Not very often, but I could say one time this last year this guy tweeted @sarahbuxton something about “Sun Daze” and then I clicked on his twitter and the last tweet was, “Just found out one of my favorite writers wrote the worst song ever.” And I went off on him. I said, “You’re rude, and I had more fun writing that song than you’ll ever have in your entire life.” Or something like that. And then I erased it because I’m not gonna do that to this person. I deleted it. I don’t know if he ever saw it.
KB: It makes me think we should do an Music Row episode of Jimmy Kimmel’s “mean tweets.
SB: (Laughs) Yes! I don’t really focus on what peoples’ opinions are coming back at me, because the only guy who hears all my songs is Matt Tuner at Big Loud Shirt, and he loves me, so we’re doing good. He’s happy with it.
[Here’s a really fun song Sarah sent to me to share with y’all. “Drunk Dialin'” (demo, Sarah singing.)]
KB: Let’s use that, actually, as a way to talk about publishing. Talk to me about that relationship.
SB: Well, I have a lot of different friends who write all different kinds of music, and there’s a common thing among some of my more artistic friends. By “artistic” I mean the people who value art, and believe me, I do too. We can sometimes forget that our publishers have a bottom line. My dad is a salesman. So I’ve always had respect for the people that are writing my checks because they don’t make music, they’re writing my check! And “Thank you, by the way, for letting me occasionally shop at Whole Foods if I want to, with this check! Thank you for this money that I otherwise would not have without your belief.” I do see it very much as a partnership. I don’t see it as they’re working for me. I’m always trying to check with them and make sure I’m meeting whatever their expectations are. And there has to be a balance. Sometimes they’re like, “Look, I really want you to do this write.” And I’m like “Ok.” I can’t do all the writes that they want me to do, I also have to say, “I need more of this in my life, these people, even though they aren’t the people that you have on your agenda. I have to have these people to be happy.” And I think it’s always business is business, music is music. When you’re dealing with business people, think business. When you’re dealing with music people, think music.
There’s a lot of people that seem to be not as happy in their deals right now. There’s a lot of big companies, and people feeling lost. I’ve always been at smaller companies so I don’t know what that would be like. I like the smaller companies. I would rather take a smaller draw to work with people that have the belief and passion, than take a bigger draw. (I’m not saying my draw is small.)
KB: Sure. If that’s the equation we’re looking at: less money + passion equals a more appealing situation than big check+ less attention/passion. The other thing that I really love about what you said is (and I get some criticism for thinking this way), but it’s so trendy right now to tear down what’s happening in county radio. And I do think there’s gonna be a correction or a change. Right now country music is dominated by this one flavor. And it’s a fine flavor, I just wish that there were a few more flavors too. But my point is, I think that people love to hate on that dominant flavor. And I also think that “commercial” is this kind of dirty word. But “commercial” really just means people will spend money on it. So don’t we all wanna make commercial music, whatever the flavor? So I find it refreshing to hear you talk about that. I mean, you’re a songwriter who’s written some very impactful songs, but you’ve also written songs that are just very fun and commercial and I think there’s a healthy balance somewhere in there as an artist or as a songwriter, where you’re not a sellout; you’re doing both. I mean there are songs on my record, that if it was the ONLY song I was gonna be judged by EVER, it’d feel incomplete. I don’t want to be only judged by one song. It’s just a song I wrote because it was fun, and we were being playful, and we thought people would enjoy it. And what’s hard as a new artist is you’re judged one song. at. a. time. And that’s a complicated aspect of it.
SB: I hate that.
KB: I just wish we could have a little bit more “both/and.” You don’t have to hate Luke Bryan, to love Chris Stapleton.
SB: Yes! Thinking as a listener! I mean, you look through my (ok I was about to say CD) collection, you’d think, “This is a hodge podge.” I’m so in to old school Patty Loveless. But I also love Madonna. And I also love the Grateful Dead, and Bonnie Rait. There is tons of music that I’ve studied, note for note. I mean, I get what they’re saying, but I’ve just always been a fan of all kinds of music. And I still am. Florida Georgia Line’s “Shine On,” I mean, standing side stage and watching Tyler and Brian sing that song, just makes me so happy. It is SO THEM. And I don’t know about bro-country, who’s bro and who’s not, but I know Florida-Georgia line is considered bro-country. But when you see them do their thing, it’s like “Ok, yes.” I don’t know about some of the other people that try to do what they’re doing. But when I see them do it I think, “That’s baddass.” Then, when I see Chris Stapleton do what he’s doing, I’m like “That’s Chris Stapleton.” No, Chris Stapleton should not do what Florida Georgia Line is doing, but Florida Georgia Line should not try to do what Chris Stapleton is doing. It’s not them. That’s why I just want to go back to artists doing what they do. That’s what makes it interesting. So, the reason it’s not interesting [on country radio] is because the labels go “Oh! This is working, now you need to do this too.” They’ve always done that. Even when it was Nirvana, and Pearl Jam, and people were like, “What’s going on with all these grunge bands?!” It’s been going on forever. It’s nothing new. All it takes is artists that have the balls to be themselves, and then everything will get ironed out.