On singer-songwriter Sarah Dashew’s latest album, Roll Like a Wheel, she takes the listener by the hand and guides them on a heartfelt journey through the musical styles and genres that have helped to shape her unique sound. From Texas tejano to Southern gospel to blue-eyed soul with a generous helping of Los Angeles flavor, Dashew lays bare her musical and personal history, singing of family and spirituality and love and, in the process, drawing comparisons to legendary performers such as James Taylor and Janis Joplin.
A native of Los Angeles, Dashew’s family left California when she was four and spent seven years sailing around the world. Music was a constant companion on the boat, either playing over the stereo or performed live by locals who had come aboard. After returning to the mainland, Dashew attended Wesleyan College in Middletown, Connecticut, where she sang in a gospel choir and, after graduation, formed her first band.
Roll Like a Wheel is Dashew’s fifth album overall, following on the heels of her 2006 debut, Jealous Girl, 2010’s Where I Belong, a self-titled LP in 2013, and 2014’s Something in the Weather. Additionally, her music has been featured on the hit NBC sitcom My Name is Earl and she has toured with the likes of Cowboy Junkies, Michelle Shocked, Suzanne Vega, and Pancho Sanchez. Along the way, Dashew has established herself as one of the music industry’s most consistent talents.
How did your time sailing around the world as a child help to shape who you are today?
First and foremost, it taught me that there are a million different kinds of people living a million different kinds of ways in this world. And most of them are really nice. But always floating on water and moving also made me yearn for roots, for place, for foundation. Which influences my writing in a big way.
Growing up, who were your biggest musical influences?
Ha! The million dollar question! The first album I remember loving is Stevie Wonder’s Inner Visions. I think I was four or five. We had the tape on the boat. We also listened to a lot of Chuck Berry, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, James Taylor, Willie Nelson… Later, when I got to university, I dove headfirst into Prince, De La Soul, Tribe Called Quest. I think I’m fairly well-rounded in that sense!
What are your fondest memories of your time at Wesleyan University?
Wesleyan University in Connecticut is an incredibly special place. The campus, professors, students, all combined to facilitate exploration. We were encouraged to think outside the box, to ask questions, to experiment, which I loved. But hands down, the most important thing to me while there was singing in this Pentacostal gospel choir called Ebony Singers. It was led by this incredibly flamboyant music director/ minister, who only ever preached love. To this day, I do a kind of free-styling love sermon at the end of every show.
How have you grown as an artist and a performer over the years?
Funny enough, the older I get, the more I think I go back to the beginning. We start a certain way, all of us, no matter who we are or what we do, and that way is usually based on blind instinct. We don’t know the rules yet. We just know we need to try something. Then, as we learn and are taught and influenced by rules, we question ourselves, we find our edges, we feel our insecurities and we go through the maze of experience. And it seems to lead us, it has lead me anyway, back towards the beginning. Instinct. Doing something because I want to, because it feels good, not because I’m concerned about how it might sound or if it will succeed or not. But with all that experience and understanding in my gut. It’s very freeing.
What was the recording process like for Jealous Girl? How did it compare to that of Roll Like a Wheel?
Oh, jeez, well Jealous Girl was completely overwhelming. It was my big solo debut, you know? And I was working with these legends—not just Chuck, but all the musicians playing on the record. Folks like Gary Mallaber, Mark Goldenberg, Jennifer Condos, people who regularly play on records by and tour with the likes of Bruce Springsteen and Jackson Browne and Van Morrison… I spent a lot of time in the bathroom sobbing! But it was also a lot of fun. Exhausting. I was paying such close attention to everything that it felt like being submerged. I’d come up gasping for breath at the end of the day.
In contrast, recording Roll Like A Wheel was just so easy. I had my band with me, who I know and love and have toured with, spent time in hotels and houses with, we get each other. I had a lot of albums under my belt. A lot more life. And we were in a new city (Seattle), with the kindest, most amazing engineer and facilitator Eric Lilavois… It slipped together seamlessly. It was lighthearted. I wasn’t overwhelmed at all. We worked hard, but it was really joyful work.
How did you initially meet Chuck Plotkin, and how did he help to shape your sound?
I met Chuck because my mom took his dock lines when he was bringing his boat into Marina Del Rey! My parents had just brought their boat up through the South Pacific from New Zealand, and were in Los Angeles visiting for a while before heading up to Alaska. It turned out Chuck had my parents’ books, and they started chatting and my mom said, “You know, my daughter is a musician…” Talk about kismet!
The single most important thing that Chuck taught me was how to write a good song. He told me to start playing the songs that move me the most, that break my heart. Play them on guitar, sing them. He taught me that the structure of those songs would embed themselves in my subconscious, and show me how to structure my own compositions… He was/is right. He also taught me not to be afraid of going deep, of feeling the scary feelings, of telling the truth, whatever truth it might be at the moment.
How do you know when a song you’re writing is done and ready for public consumption?
Ha! I have no idea. My favorite songs usually come fully-formed. If I get out of the way, they can come out and it’s just a feeling. They come out very quickly. The ones that I have to work, those are trickier. Sometimes I don’t know. The only way to tell for sure is to play them for people. Then, instinctively, I know if the thing works or not. Sometimes before I feel any kind of reaction from an audience. Just the act of putting it in front of another human will let me know if it’s there.
What goes through your head in the moments before you walk out on stage?
Be yourself. Don’t try too hard. Have fun. Breathe. Panic. Love. I hope I’m good. Why am I doing this? I can’t wait to do this. The usual. :)
What do you like most about living in Los Angeles? Is there anything you don’t like about it?
I love L.A. partly because people like to hate it so much. I feel like the 10 million of us here are in on a secret. Yes, there are annoying people, like there are in every big city, and crime, and pollution and traffic, etc., etc. But there’s also a lot of light. A lot of creativity. A lot of passion. A lot of acceptance. And the ocean, the desert, the mountains. I always tell people that Los Angeles is a terrible place to visit but a wonderful place to live. Because it’s so big, so spread out, there are a million little neighborhoods and niches where you can find your nest, but that takes time.
As far as what I don’t like about it—the usual. Traffic. Smog. Sanctimonious Hollywood. Too much plastic surgery.
What are you working on next?
The one thing I’ve never done is work on getting other folks to record my songs. I’m in a place in my life now where I would love to see what other artists do with my words, how they would interpret them. So I’m reaching out for publishing! A completely new path! I’ve always been very territorial about my songs. Now I’m getting excited to share and see how that feels!