In an era when no one's buying albums, California singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles has sold millions of them. And in a time when the Grammy for Song of the Year and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance are mutually exclusive, Bareilles has managed to be nominated for both awards.
All of this pretty much sums up Bareilles as an artist. Most chart-topping female pop singers these days don't write the songs that make them rich. Most aren't able to rise above the confines of Pro-Tools and Auto-Tune. Most don't take piano-driven songs to the top of the charts. And even fewer make low-fi music videos with Ben Folds.
Needless to say, Bareilles is somewhat of a pop oddity. Her 2007 single "Love Song" may have destroyed your radio (not to mention your sanity) from being played so damn much, but Bareilles is brutally honest about the song's genesis: It was recorded as a response to her record company's request that she compose a "marketable love song," as opposed to the anger-fueled, girl-power ballads that define a chunk of her work.
Bareilles is a difficult artist to get a grip on. She has a familiar yet soulful voice and an ear for easygoing hooks, but her songwriting skills hint at something bigger than the candy-coated artist-you-should-know spotlight she frequently falls under. Her latest album, last year's Kaleidoscope Heart is filled with plenty of the frilly pop songs she's now known for (check out "King of Anything," "Uncharted"). But there are tons of exciting shake-ups on the record, like the minute-long title track — an all-too-brief excursion of psychedelic vocoder harmonies that journeys through chords and emotions you never expected.
Kaleidoscope Heart is a rewarding record, a tease of the adventurous places Bareilles has the capacity to explore. But it wasn't an easy album to make. Frustrated by major-label pressures and burned out on the whole notion of songwriting, Bareilles scrapped all but four of her original demos for Kaleidoscope Heart, demanding more time for the songs to bloom naturally. "For me to consider a song to be good, I have to feel some kind of connection to a creative spark," she says.
"Not every song I write is going to be my best work, but the hardest part of getting good at anything is trying to see the good and the bad and what I still have to grow from."
Bareilles is well aware of her cotton-candy image and realizes that some of her critics are willing to write her off based solely on "Love Song" and her other pop-minded singles. On Kaleidoscope Heart, she says she took the time to make an album she wanted to make. "It's a record that has a lot of depth to it," she says. "I don't want to put out fluff songs, I don't want to just fill up a record. I really want to care about what I have to say, and luckily it ended up coming around."
But she didn't fall back on familiar ground. Working with Neal Avron, a producer best known for his work with emo kings Say Anything and Fall Out Boy, Bareilles challenged herself as both a musician and songwriter. "What was so intriguing about [working with Avron] was that it didn't feel like it was such a natural fit," she says. "I thought that would be a really cool thing.
"It's more fun to work with people who are excited to work with you. I have no desire to eke my way into some producer's repertoire who doesn't give a shit about what I do. It was very clear to me that this was something Neal was very passionate about."
Thankfully Bareilles isn't sick of Kaleidoscope Heart yet — convenient since she'll be on the road the rest of the summer playing shows across the country. The busy tour schedule hasn't left her much time to think about a new album. But she says she'll cross that bridge when she comes to it. Forcing songs isn't really her style. "At the end of the day," she says, "if you can't strip it all away and just play a good song, it's not very meaningful stuff anyway."