Sara Niemietz’ fourth album, Superman, represents a reinvigorated era in her artistic continuum born from small, vulnerable moments brought on as a result of lockdown, and seismic, non-pandemic life changes. The album introduces the listener to a fresh collaboration with co-writer, co-producer, and ace guitarist Linda Taylor.
The twosome quickly found themselves nurturing a signature blend of soul, sonics, and story with emotive vocals and prominent guitars. Some of their artistic touchstones included Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Janis Joplin, and Brittany Howard. The resulting album is a mosaic of soulful sounds, spanning sensual blues ballads, smoldering soul, snappy jazz-pop, and indie rock. Superman, out Oct 28th, is indeed a heroic effort as it is both uncompromising genre-bending, but also cohesively musical.
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With the release of your upcoming album, Superman, due out October 28, share with us the inspiration behind the music and what fans can expect.
I grew up listening to rock records. Sister Rosetta, The Who, Alabama Shakes — all the different shapes and forms of the genre. I’ll never forget hearing Janis Joplin for the first time and having my mind blown. There’s a depth and honesty that has always spoken to me. I’ve never been a one-genre kind of person, though. I love jazz; Bill Evans is a musical hero. I love soul. If I had to take a record to a desert island, it may well be D’Angelo’s Voodoo. With Superman, I wanted to let my influences run wild. It’s an indie rock record if I had to use specific genre terms, but there are many more musical undercurrents. Linda and I are acting as a record label, so we figured, hey – go for it! Want to have 5/4 bars? Take ripping jazz solos? Why not?
You co-wrote and co-produced the record with Linda Taylor. How did you two meet, and what led to your collaboration?
Linda was someone I’d seen play in LA. When I heard her, I was so impressed by her ability to play with an artist rather than all over them. Accompanying a singer really is an art! At the same time, Linda didn’t fade into “hired gun”; she had this way of injecting her own personality into the music and elevating it. LA is so full of hustle-bustle, though. I saw the show, went home humming, and then got lost in whatever was dominating my attention at the time. Gigs, to do lists, all that.
Fast-forward to 2020, Linda and I were both asked to play with Tony-winning composer Jason Robert Brown at his show in Los Angeles. I love Jason’s music and had starred in his musical 13. When I got to soundcheck/rehearsal and saw Linda, I was psyched! During the show, we traded and had special musical moments. I was reminded of how darn good she is. A few days after that show, the world locked down… and just kept on locking down. Linda and I connected online and started writing a few tunes together. It was instantly a match. We hit it off from the get-go, and I loved creating music with her. After several singles, we decided to go for it and make an album!
What did that process look like during COVID?
The writing process was unique, to be sure! Linda and I collaborated entirely digitally, sending files back and forth via Dropbox. We both have our own studios, so it was very easy to get ideas down the moment they occurred. I felt instantly at ease and able to express myself in a new way — being able to work from home. During lockdown, we wrote the songs and created very produced demos, so that by the time the world started to reopen and recording together was possible, we were ready to go.
And what about the recording process; where was the album recorded?
The album was recorded at Robby Krieger’s Horse Latitudes Studio here in Los Angeles. It’s a dreamy spot full of great vibes and tons of Doors memorabilia. As a huge Doors fan, it was wild. Going into the studio, Linda and I knew we wanted a very “live” sounding record. I love older records when you can hear and feel that everyone is recording in the same room. You’ve got drums bleeding onto vocal mics, vocals bleeding onto guitar mics. It’s magic. We built a little “fishtank” of plexiglass around my vocal station to cut down on some bleed. Not too much, though!!
Taylor (guitars), along with Léo Costa (drums), Ed Roth (keys), and Daniel Pearson (bass), are bandmates for this album. How did you bring this crew together?
Working with Léo, Ed, and Dan was a first for me, so that brought something entirely different to the sound. They are all musicians Linda had worked with in the past, and from the first chord of the first song, I knew we had the right folks for this record.
Music and acting have been a part of your life from a very young age. Can you tell us a little about your musical background; how old were you when you started playing guitar, and what inspired your musical desire?
I come from a family of music lovers. My dad sang in Chicago rock bands. My mom sang in church and played accordion. My uncles had a polka band. Music is in my DNA, so my becoming a musician didn’t shock anyone. One of my early gigs was singing at NAMM around the age of eleven. I felt like a kid in a…. guitar store? I relished walking around the different booths and drooling over the instruments. My parents got me my first guitar then, and I never looked back.
Besides guitar, you also play bass and piano. What was the progression of your musical instruments; which came first?
Piano was first. I took lessons as a kid, as so many do. While I enjoyed the theory basis it gave me, I wasn’t quite ready to be a student of piano. In my twenties, the romance was rekindled, and now my keyboard is an important part of my studio and writing process.
I started playing guitar at eleven, and it was love at first strum. I remember listening to Who’s Next on vinyl and playing sections over and over again, just relishing the process of learning. So empowering!
Bass followed around thirteen or so. First electric, and then as I got a bit older, I picked up a hundred-year-old German upright bass at an estate sale. It is a lovely instrument! You never know what you’ll find.
Originally from Chicago, when did you make the move to Los Angeles?
Pretty young. I moved to Hollywood with my family when I was seven. There was that expectation versus reality clash right away. In my child mind, I saw myself swimming every day and just living the California dreamin’ life. We got to LA, and it was El Niño and some of the worst rain Los Angeles had seen for many years. They say many dreams come to die in LA, but many dreams are also made reality here, so it’s all about keeping a level head and not taking yourself too seriously.
You’ve had the opportunity to work with so many great entertainers. What was it like to work with the music icon BJ Thomas?
BJ Thomas was a wonderful singer and an even better human being. When I was four, my parents took me to my first concert: BJ Thomas at the Chevy Chase Country Club in Wheeling, Illinois. They’d been playing his CDs in the car when we drove around, and since kids are little sponges, I’d soaked up all of BJ’s lyrics and vocal stylings. Come showtime, I was sitting in the front row and singing along. I think he was surprised to see a kid belting his tunes along with him, so he called me up on the stage — unplanned — and I got to duet on “Hooked on a Feeling.” My life up until then was all macaroni necklaces and learning the alphabet, so this was a revelation. From that point on, I was always trying to sing in front of people. As I got older, BJ and I stayed in touch. I’d see him in concert when he came by on tour, and he invited me to sing with him at the Grand Ole Opry and record on one of his last albums. He was one of a kind. Humble and wise. Man, I miss him.
And you played Young Helen in the Broadway show Hollywood Arms, which is Carol Burnett’s memoir. How did you tackle that role?
I love theatre people. That community is incredible — hardworking, resilient, and so much fun to be around. When I auditioned for Hollywood Arms, I’d never done theatre before and didn’t know stage left from stage right (hey – it’s not what it seems!). Hal Prince directed, and we had so many greats in the cast: Linda Lavin, Michele Pawk (who won the Tony for our show), Donna Lynne Champlin, Frank Wood — it was a masterclass. Even though I was nine, I wasn’t cut any slack. Whatever age you are, if you’re in a Broadway production, you better be ready. You better know your lines. I learned so much about professionalism and preparedness.
I know there are probably many, but can you share a few stand-out moments from your career thus far?
Starting in 2016, I went on several world tours with Postmodern Jukebox. At that point, I’d never left the US. Getting to tour in over thirty countries and at venues like Sydney Opera House, the Roundhouse in London, and Radio City Music Hall was a dream come true. Travel is my favorite pastime after music.
Singing with BJ Thomas at the Opry was another highlight.
Who are some of your major musical influences?
Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin, Bill Evans, D’Angelo, The Beatles, Steely Dan, Tom Waits, Andrew Bird, Ella Fitzgerald, Imogen Heap, Randy Newman, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, Michael McDonald. (in no order)
What musicians are you listening to today?
I have been playing Brittany Howard’s last album to death. She is such a force of nature. D’Angelo is always on repeat on my stereo. There are the old standbys for me, too — whatever I’m going through in life or wherever I may be, I am ALWAYS in the mood to listen to Aja.
What makes you most proud in your career?
I’m a Midwest gal, so I’ve always been pride-averse, but when I get home from a session or a gig and I feel that I’ve tried my best and had great musical conversations on the stage, I’m content. I try not to build my “career identity” around tentpole moments, because that can take the wonder out of the day-to-day and it’s not necessarily representative of who I am. For me, musical identity is forged daily. I try to keep learning and moving.
Do you have a favorite album or single that you’ve written or performed that speaks to you?
Superman! I know that is the “right answer” because it’s the album I’ve just made, but wow — do I mean it! This album is new sonic territory for me. It’s more raw, more intimate, and very reflective of who I am.
Let’s talk about your instruments. What guitars and basses are you currently playing and why?
I thought you’d never ask! Woo! I’m a Taylor person when it comes to acoustics. I’ve got a GT K21e that I use most frequently. I love the warmth and playability. I use that most often for writing and live. There’s also a Grand Pacific I’ve had for years that I love and an 814 that’s been with me on quite a few tours. In shows, I play my PRS McCarty 594. The sound is just fantastic and it’s such a versatile guitar. Then there’s “Annie,” my Gretsch country gentleman that I’ve had since high school. She’s like a sister to me!
I enjoy sitting down without any preconceived notions or ideas.
When it comes to tone, what do you look for in your instruments?
I love a warm, clear tone. I’ve not gone deep into pedal territory (thank you, says my wallet), so I love a guitar that sounds clean and even on its own.
For songwriting, do you have a favorite instrument?
Strange as it may sound, I like to start with just vocals. I enjoy sitting down without any preconceived notions or ideas. I’ll just start singing. Sometimes it’s nonsense syllables which evolve into words. Other times, I’ll sit down and whole rhyming stanzas come out. After ten or fifteen minutes, I’ll step back and analyze what’s come about in that burst of inspiration. Then I’ll grab my guitar, determine what key I was singing in, and start to build a demo in Logic.
You’ve had so many great experiences in your career. What’s the best piece of advice you would offer to a young aspiring musician?
Every gig is an opportunity. All that I’ve learned about music, I’ve learned listening to others, either through recordings or on the gig. I see folks look down on smaller gigs or casuals. “This isn’t my style… this isn’t my bag…” For me, it’s been the tiny gigs that have led to huge opportunities. Learn all the music you can — even if you don’t feel like it’s your genre, it’s improving your vocabulary and your ear! Speaking of learning, always be prepared for the gig as much as it is in your power. Say yes to opportunities! Knock on doors! The worst that can happen is people won’t respond, but you just never know. I love a good cold call. Be kind. We are all just trying to figure this thing out. We are all here because we LOVE music. It’s a small, small circle so you never want to burn bridges. Be you. It’s cliché, but that’s where the art is. We’ve all got something inside that only we have. Each combination of experiences and personality is unique. Embrace that and tell your story.
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