Sarah and The Safe Word songs are haunted by edge-of-your-seat pop hooks and gothic textures. They’re a collective of pop smiths that craft tunes that will remind you as much as the raw anthems of Taking Back Sunday as they are of the stadium sheen of mid 80’s Journey. Lead singer Sarah Rose joined me for a brief chat about the band, their writing process and the perfect chorus of Fleetwood Mac. Their debut record comes out next month.
SC: I’ve always admired your ability to write choruses. They’re always unique from one another—“Don’t Ask Questions” a refrain that dovetails into group vocals, “Lucinda Walsh” changes keys on the outro and the closing cut “Love Come Again” is a melodic repetition of “someday love will come again”. How do you approach writing a chorus? Are your first drafts similar to the final product? Or do you go through multiple drafts trying out different approaches to each chorus? Are you considering how intensity and dynamics can color meaning? Or is it more intuitive?
SR: I grew up in the school of pop music. Arguably, some of the best pop choruses came out of the 70s, and thanks to my mom, that’s the music I was raised on—Fleetwood Mac, Elton John, the Doobie Brothers. There is literally no rock band that can write a chorus better than Fleetwood Mac. They have such a withstanding influence on how I look at the meaning behind song structure and dynamics.
Funny enough, more times than not—the chorus is actually the first part of the song that usually comes to me, because the music usually has a pretty intuitive voice about the identity it wants me to give it. “Don’t Ask Questions” really started with the little climbing and falling riff on the chorus - we tried a few different words over it, and “don’t ask questions” just stuck—and the rest of the chorus, and
eventually the lyrics, built itself around it. More times than not, the instrumentation already knows what vocal melody it wants, I’m just there to listen to it and help it get there.
SC: What function do you think a chorus should serve for a song?
SR: Music is unique because I think it’s the only form of art that can invoke an immediate emotional reaction in its consumer as frequently as it does. A song should be like a little story that you get lost in, the lyrics should set the stage, introduce the characters and the setting and the tone to you—but the chorus should be what grabs you and digs the emotional heart of your story home.
SC: What was your writing process like for “Don’t Ask Questions”?
SR: The lyrics were initially about something entirely different. I was trying too hard to write a “story” song that had nothing to do with anything personal and it wasn’t clicking. I think even at one point we considered scrapping it because it just felt cringey in its first incarnation.
I was going through a really bad breakup at the time, and at some point I just said, “Eh, fuck it.” and rewrote the lyrics to channel the anger that I was feeling. That in itself was really cathartic, because it was the first time in the months following that I was capable of finding some humor and light in the situation I was in. It was also a pretty cool moment in the writing of the EP, because it was when the lightswitch came on and I realized that it was okay for me to sing about what I was going through and have it be reflected in the music. That “a-ha!” moment in writing Don’t Ask Questions shaped the lyrical direction of the rest of the EP, honestly. I realized that I could still be my typically weird and insane self and also talk about how I felt.
“Don’t Ask Questions” was one of the first songs we wrote as a band. It was one of those moments where we were just getting together in a room for the first time, and had to ask ourselves “Okay, what do we want this group to be?” - because I hadn’t really played or written music with other people since my old band basically disbanded a year or so prior. When we wrote this song, it’s like all of us immediately knew the trajectory we wanted the band to go on. Now it’s the song that people most associate with our band—and the most fun song to play live.
SC: How often do you write? Do you keep a songwriting schedule or do you wait to be inspired?
SR: In my old band, Go, Robo! Go!, I’d initially sit with my acoustic guitar in my apartment and come up with the “core” of each song and its lyrics whenever something hit me - and then I’d take it to the rest of the band at practice to be fleshed out and colored in and expanded upon. I’ve never been a schedules person.
This band is different because it’s a much more collaborative, structured effort from the onset with myself, and Kienan, our guitar player. We’ll set a day of the week out where he’ll come over, and then we just riff on song ideas for a few hours, spar back and forth on lyrics and structure. It’s a whole new way of approaching songwriting for me - and I have a lot of fun doing it. It’s an awesome mental back-and-forth and forces me to think on my feet.
SC: How does your community of songwriters influence your writing?
SR: We’re going through an interesting time in Atlanta. We always joke that music exists in Atlanta in spite of the city, not because of it. You see venues like The Masquerade basically clinging on for dear life because so many gentrified communities would rather have another wine tasting bar or expensive restaurant in the city than honor decades of musical history—and I think a lot of that struggle, that push and pull to keep passionate music alive in this city, is reflected in its artists. Our band certainly draws from it. This city has some of the best musicians in the world, and it seems like all of them right now have their backs against the wall and are making the case for why they’re here.
It’s also amazing to see so many young, eager queer musicians being out, and open, and proud in the music scene in Atlanta. Ten years ago when my first band was playing around, it was a novelty in and of itself to be a queer lead singer. Now, I really feel like our band is contributing to a growing chorus of lyricists and musicians sharing their own worldview.
The Sound Connector is an online magazine for songwriters. We feature songwriting challenges, monthly interviews, and the opportunity to discover new songwriters. We are interested in all things related to the craft of songwriting.
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