Issue #164: Little Voice by Sara Bareilles
June 3, 2019
Released On July 3, 2007
Released By Epic Records
Typically, the way I approach writing my portion of the greater Off Your Radar newsletter is listening and evaluating with a theoretical and structural focus. Some might think of this as the extra nerdy section of the newsletter and that’s fine — it’s my comfortable place of thinking for a reason. That said, Sara Bareilles’ Epic Records debut LP, Little Voice, isn’t one I selected purely for analytical reasons or for the intent to highlight a less than mainstream genre of music. This album initially came to mind for a reason that was primarily timing related. Prior to the time of this issue publishing, Bareilles’ sixth outing, Amidst The Chaos (Epic Records, 2019), had just came into the light at the start of the prior month on April fifth. Every time an artist begins a new chapter, it’s fun to take a mental refresher lap around everything leading up to that point because who doesn’t love musical growth? And what more significant showing of change that looking between the sonic bookends of the first to the most recent of an artist’s records?
Interestingly though, despite this connective idea serving as the seed of inspiration for selecting Little Voice, a second timing-related pin happened to drop right around when I was deciding: It was my late father’s birthday the day before. As such, he was on my mind a lot that day, the next day when Amidst The Chaos was formally released, and pretty much the whole week leading up to another annual marker of missing him, as I always do. Here’s the really crucial thing about where Little Voice fits in the story of my life though: It was released on July 3, 2007, right in the middle of a summer that was both of the most joyous and the most crushing variety. I was soon to turn 21, was in the midst of a serious relationship during the latter half of my college career, had cemented a successful rebound from a performance injury at the end of the spring term, and right when everything was going great, my father passed away and everything came crashing down.
What does all of this have to do with Sara Bareilles and Little Voice? Well, at first it didn’t have much to do with anything. It wasn’t until the following year, when I made the choice not to defer from school only mere weeks removed from one of the worst days ever, that this poppy but rebellious record became such a hallmark in my headphones. See, for those that don’t know the heart of Little Voice‘s headline-grabbing hook, Bareilles, who was prompted by her label to write a typical love song for her promotional single release, defied demands with a breakout composition highlighting her intent not to just write about love “because [they] asked [her] to” that couldn’t have been more cheeky or ironic if Bareilles could see the future and designed things this way. What the public did get, were a dozen songs that were far more real and intense; made that way through lyric writing that pulled no punches about narrating rough and imperfect experiences with metaphors and reflections not just going for the easy, cliché, or cutesy analogy.
That’s not to say it’s hard to tell that Bareilles opened up about relationships and the joys or turmoil that each brought with them — the cores of some songs on Little Voice aren’t so obstinately hidden in their meanings.
You hold me without touch
You keep me without chains
I never wanted anything so much
Than to drown in your love and not feel your rain
–Lyrics from “Gravity“
And the thing is, prior to everything shifting in my life, I just thought Sara Bareilles was this badass songwriter who could rip hard at a piano and I was excited to see and hear what would happen with her music and career. It was a record I was excited to own and listen to anytime of day. Then when excitement turned into emotional exhaustion, you’d think a record like Little Voice, which brought joy during its play, would get packed away during that difficult year. But I played the album even more so than perhaps I had planned to when it first came out in July. Though, not because of anything the album was actually about. Sure, everyone has the nuanced reasons for why they may like or dislike an album, but I can’t say it’s all that common for me to hone in specifically on just certain lyrics, the singular aspect of an artist’s vocal delivery, or the way a musician play their instrument, that serves as the sole reason(s) I keep a disc in the stereo. Yet that was what stood out for Little Voice. Nowhere was Bareilles singing a song about anything directly tied to what I was going through — not even a tangential connection via death of an extended family member. But, at least for me, it helped to let myself be sad — internally and-or externally — every once in a while, even if nothing and-or no one specific prompted it. Sometimes I just kept to myself and had an uninterrupted cry.
And for the myriad of constantly changing thoughts that went through my head in grief, fragments of lines Sara Bareilles would sing felt like they latched onto my own lines of thought at just the exact moment I was having them. Think of two asteroids that just happen to cross paths at the exact same spot in open space, resulting in an explosive collision. Swinging between bitterness, anger, loneliness, longing, and eventual acceptance, even if Little Voice was more about boys, music business bureaucracy, and trying to be happy with oneself, when you are trying so hard to be your normal, happy self while also feeling the constant weight of death over your shoulder, when Sara Bareilles goes from sings a timidly disappointed “The angels said I’d smile today” to taking a deep breath for a crescendo toward a pissed off “Well who needs angels anyway?!”, you feel that mental asteroid collision and think, “Yeah, f–k smiling today!” Conversely, sometimes you feel that sadness, but you don’t want to wear it on your sleeve like a bright, angry flame. Sometimes I wanted to be alone with nothing but my feelings and father and not have everyone notice but also not have to pretend I was fine. He wasn’t there for me to hold but that didn’t mean when the chorus of “City” came on that I didn’t think about or want it with as much delicate despair as Bareilles delivered for herself.
Here in these deep city lights
Girl could get lost tonight
I’m finding every reason to be gone
Nothing here to hold on to
Could I hold you?
–Lyrics from “City”
Sara Bareilles took chances back on her debut. She feared no super low octave keys on the piano for hooks, nor slightly uneven rhyme schemes that would inject combined lyrical and rhythmic anticipation. She didn’t even rely on the blossoming favoritism toward pitch correction happening around her at the time and all of these underlying qualities in her work have survived and thrived now with Amidst The Chaos. These kinds of subtle differences were like the icing on the cake for a collection of songs that helped me get through moments of extreme pain in a healthy way. The stories of Little Voice weren’t my stories and they didn’t even reflect a similar color of human experience but that didn’t mean it couldn’t become inexplicably tied to a tenuous time in my life just as if the album had been written for me. The reasons weren’t theoretical or scholastically centered. I didn’t obsess over the engineering, the arrangement, or the technique Sara Bareilles used at the piano. It was all a matter of timing. And that’s one of the most intangible, unpredictable, but universal things about human interaction with music. When, where, and with whom we hear a song or album for the first time, can change everything about how we see, hear, and feel that person and their work, forever.
And for the record, I still listen to Little Voice. But doing so isn’t a solely sad affair. The afternoon I found out I had been accepted to the graduate program of my choice, when I told my R.A., she said, “Ahh, that’s awesome! Turn up the music in your room as loud as you want and celebrate!” And what did I do? I pulled Little Voice out of the box. Suddenly the weighted push of “Love Song“‘s syncopated, dynamically deliberate, six chord hook and opening lines that used to unearth thoughts of patronizing support (“Head under water, and they tell me to breathe easy for a while”), felt instead for the first time, like an echo of where I actually was at that moment: breathing just a little easier and making this album into one I could start to again associate with the feeling of joy instead of just misery.
Kira Grunenberg (@shadowmelody1)
Prolific Sonic Scribe & Unifier
You know the name. You know the hits. Now dive into her “first” record & really discover the beauty and brilliance of her art.
There’s not much more to say about “Love Song” that you haven’t heard already. Genre-bending hit, smiling middle finger to the ad execs, and the pop equivalent of the underdog getting a win. But Little Voice? Well, there’s a whole lot to say about that, which is why we’re talking about it this issue. As editor here, I tell everyone here to think about records that are overlooked or underappreciated, and while the music of Sara Bareilles may seem like a bad fit for that description, the lack of conversation around this record through music publications over the year proves otherwise. I don’t know what it was — the surprise hit of the lead single, the derisive way publications treated pop music in the 2000s, or the fact that it was and wasn’t her debut record (see 2004’s Careful Confessions) — but the critical press was just not there to talk about this record. Talk about Bareilles herself? Sure. Talk about the success of “Love Story?” Totally. But really examine the complexities and brilliance of Little Voice? Hard pass. Sure, people flocked it to and bought it in droves due to the lead single. Yes, people could probably still recognize the album by its cover today. But who’s still talking about songs like “Come Round Soon,” “Morningside,” and “Love On The Rocks,” a three song combo in the middle of this record that showed Bareilles impressive capabilities at the time as well as the open future awaiting her songwriting talent. People might still bring up “Gravity” or “Bottle It Up” (my personal favorite track) since they were minor singles that followed “Love Song,” but what about the boundless reflection of “City” or the funky jaunt of “Fairytale?” Honestly, these are the songs I loved re-visiting this week more than anything, and it’s a staple of Bareilles work as a whole really. Her 2013 record, The Blessed Unrest (another favorite of mine), plays the same way. We all remember “Brave,” another big hit for Bareilles though not quite supernova like “Love Song,” but the rest of the record falls by the wayside even if tracks like “Little Black Dress” are as strong as any pop track or a song like “1000 Times” offers sweeping songwriting majesty. Earlier this year, my wife and I saw the musical Waitress, a good story bolstered by Bareilles’ infectious musical energy and timeless songwriting ability. And just this weekend, I heard “I Choose You” randomly at a wedding reception, the first time I’ve ever heard that lovely staccato ditty pop in that context. I bring it up because it all just reminds of me of how the musical world can take an impressively talented artist like Bareilles for granted. But luckily for you, there’s time to rectify that sad fact. Do yourself a favor and put this record on now and soak up all the little writing nuances and musical tricks she’s throwing around, and how they all add up to a great song each and every time. Once you’re done, put on the next record, 2010’s Kaleidoscope Heart, and just repeat the process all over until you get to her brand new record, Amidst The Chaos. After that? Well, why not do it all again?
Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart
Armed with my own little secret, I perused the sale racks at Old Navy. At just about 12 weeks I wasn’t showing enough to let anyone who didn’t already know me know there was a secret buried in that expanding waistline, more than just having a big dinner the night before. Looking for larger clothes, not yet ready for the maternity section, I was loading up on easy things I could let go in a year but still feel halfway comfortable with in the months between. Though it was still new to me, as I shopped around there and a couple of other places, I felt like pregnant women were everywhere. Women with hands to the lower back, bumps imperceptible like mine or out far enough to interfere with pushing the shopping cart were all around. I know I noticed more because I was preoccupied with my own life, but walking around this past week with Sara Bareilles on my mind the same thing happened. In the grocery store, pumping gas at 7 AM, her mega hit “Love Song” seemed to be all around, which is no surprise given the pop song was insanely popular in 2007 when the album dropped. Though the song went on to be on countless WB shows and was nominated for two Grammy awards, not that much was said about the album, though it sold relatively well. The appeal of the pure pop hit is seen throughout the album, the cheekiness of her refusal to write a straight love song that’s encapsulated on the hit being the highlight of the album. Bareilles’s voice is lovely, strident over the lo-fi production of softer drums and benign guitar melodies that characterize 2000’s pop music. Her slightly dangerous edge as depicted by that refusal shows up in lyrics throughout the album; we see her leaving for Vegas, drinking a little bit of whiskey, even smoking though she knows she shouldn’t. If “Love Song” was stuck in your head and still garners a bit of singing years later, then the rest of the album will provide a little bit of throwback mixed with a list of other like tracks.
Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite
When it was pointed out to me a number of years ago that I tend to like “pretty” music, I immediately got to work constructing a guilt complex around that idea. And I’ve since challenged myself to embrace dissonance and imperfections where I might not have before. But there’s one area where I remain guilt-free in my appreciation for musical orderliness: songwriting. I do enjoy being surprised by unconventional forms and unique approaches, but I stand in awe of perfectly constructed verses, choruses, and rhyme schemes, and I start salivating when I hear songwriters talk about their editing process. (I always love the part of the No Direction Home documentary where Bob Dylan talks about trimming “Like A Rolling Stone” down from 20 pages of “vomit.”) Sara Bareilles is clearly an outstanding singer and songwriter, but throughout the week, I think I’ve most enjoyed Sara Bareilles the editor. Each lyrical component is placed with great care. I’m fascinated by “No right minds could wrong be this many times” from “Between The Lines,” and her decision to invert “be wrong.” Was that to make the most of internal rhyme, placing “be” closer to “many”? There’s also remarkable efficiency throughout Little Voice. My favorite example of the latter: In “City,” the second-to-last line of the chorus has an extra syllable — “to” juts out past the rhyme scheme by one word when she sings “I’m finding every reason to be gone / Nothing here to hold on to.” But the next line recasts “to” as the driver of a new rhyme scheme, tying a tidy bow on the whole chorus with “Could I hold you?” I’d say she turned lemons into lemonade, but it’s more like a chef roasting a hunk of meat and then using what’s left in the pan to make a sauce that ties the whole dish together perfectly. Nothing is wasted. Everything is intentional.
Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds
Still as refreshing & essential today as it was in 2007.
Live theatre is not a medium of pop culture with which I am all that familiar. Living in a small, fairly remote city, we don’t see the hit musicals and Broadway shows which tour and grace other cities. We don’t even get the big names of touring musicians all that often. In fact, if you could characterize the tours that come through my city, it would seem to be artists who peaked 20-30 years ago and have been rarely heard from. Presumably their fee has dropped to a range which is palatable to the budgets of production companies who have to fly them in, put them up, and then sell tickets to a population who rarely leave their homes but for the most recognizable mainstream draws. So when I read that Sara Bareilles had made a name for herself writing award-winning songs for the musical Waitress, it didn’t mean a whole lot to me. She broke out on Little Voice, an LP full of bright and cheery pop, folk, and R&B flavoured songs which demonstrate vocals that go off like fireworks and a prowess for writing which makes it easy to see how she might eventually find her way to other creative outlets well beyond a single, well-received but yet somehow little-known record. This is gentle, relatable music which touches on the bounce happiness of new love on opener and most well-known single “Love Song” and also explores more introspective territory on “City.” I can imagine that if you hit this album at the right time in your life, it could slide right in and become the soundtrack to your own personal sitcom. Every track conjures images for me of walking downtown, high-fiving shop-owners as they unlock their doors for the day or sweep their stoops. And as I make my way toward whatever small locally-produced play is currently in production at our small city theatre, I think about the value of small beginnings, and little voices that can still have very strong impacts.
Darryl Wright (@punksteez)
Lovechild Of The Music & Technology Marriage
Overall, this album is very clean; overflowing with pop sensibilities, as it should. I can’t imagine a company like Sony signing a talent like Sara Bareilles as a niche loss leader. She’s got everything you’d want in a modern pop star: obvious talent, the “look,” a girl-next-door relatability and solid songwriting throughout (my favorite being the album closer “Gravity“). However, what made me like Little Voice were the slight departures from the aforementioned ideals. I was caught off guard by the funky, yet whimsical groove of “Love On The Rocks.” I’m quite sure I’ll be the only one making this comparison, but that particular track reminds me of some of my favorite N.E.R.D. records. Go back and listen, but this time picture Pharrell belting out those lyrics as a reference track in his signature falsetto. Eerie, right? On the other hand, I’ll be surprised if I’m the only OYR contributor to make this comparison: is it me, or did “Come Round Soon” give you the same goosebumps you got when you first heard Fiona Apple? It’s the harmonies, isn’t it? Yeah, it’s the harmonies. And trust me, I mean all of that as a high compliment. I don’t often immediately play back tracks I hear through OYR, but “Come Round Soon” is one of them. It’s a track that plays to all of my musical sensibilities. The dark piano chords and chunky drums create a smokey, soulful atmosphere that I wish was more present in pop music, and quite frankly, has been missing since the days of Apple, or, even further back, Portishead. Hopefully OYR can play a role in making this little voice a bigger voice. Was that ending way too album review-y?
Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator
A sincere & authentic songwriter armed with impeccable production that vaulted her into the public eye.
When I first saw this album choice, I had to scratch my head a bit. Sara Bareilles… underappreciated? Albeit, I guess that “underappreciated” is relative to whatever we define “appreciated” as, and I’ll agree that there are certainly albums out there with millions and millions of listeners and positive critical reviews that still don’t get the recognition that the quality of their songs deserve. With that being said, I’ll cop to the fact that some of Sara Bareilles’ deep cuts get overlooked in favor of the 2000s pop radio staples like “Love Song” and “Gravity.” I think part of my confusion is mainly situational, given the fact that just last night at The Hof in Richmond, I performed guitar alongside a local singer-songwriter named Tyler Meacham (shameless, but not quite seamless shout out), and when we played “Many The Miles,” the room went crazy, singing along, cheering, and just losing their minds over this Sara Bareilles song that wasn’t even a single. A lot of people definitely dig this music, but I’m always down to spend some time listening to and appreciating great, hard working artists, who make great art that shows all of the work that goes into being a world-class musician. Pop music as a whole certainly doesn’t get the attention it deserves. A lot of the people who love it, love it for the product more so than the process, while the people that hate it don’t know anything about the process and are too closed off by the final product to care to learn. A crazy amount of work goes into producing and executing a pop record, and these days, with the almost non-human radio standards that turn so many people (hipsters) off, it takes some real musical talent to perform in a way that mimics the mechanical perfection of a computer. On Little Voice, Sara Bareilles does a lot of great work that gets overlooked, so I’m definitely down to spend a morning acknowledging her artistry, even if it means swallowing my “I’m probably never going to have more than one hundred million plays on a song because I play in a style that only hipsters care about” jealousy.
Joel Worford (@joel_worford)
Confused & Confusing Since 1965
2007 was the last year I worked as a Fraud Analyst for a wireless carrier. It was a job that I mostly enjoyed because I got to put on my investigator’s hat, and had to spend very little time actually talking to people on the phone. Because most of our investigations were just checking unusual activity on established accounts, or personal information not matching on new accounts, our department had later hours than the rest of the company. I was one of the few people that was pretty much guaranteed to always get their preferred shift during the annual bids because I enjoyed working the late shift and on weekends. It meant I had less traffic and fewer people to deal with, which is exactly what I always hoped for. Once the phones shut down at 7 PM, nearly everyone working the shift would start listening to their own music. Not everyone wore headphones, so I was frequently subjected to the musical tastes of my co-workers as I navigated the floor on my way to the break room or bathroom, my own personal and live mash-up party, I guess. As I listened to Sara Bareilles’ Little Voice this week, I struggled to recover the reason my brain kept insisting on inserting Joe Dassin’s “Les Champs-Élysées” in the middle of songs where it didn’t belong. And it took me until Sunday to remember that the year “Love Song” was everywhere was the same year The Darjeeling Limited was released, and for months I had one co-worker listening to Little Voice while my manager behind me played a steady stream of Wes Anderson soundtracks. Brains are weird.
50 Foot Pop Queenie
Sara Bareilles is one of those artists where I know the one big hit and nothing else. When I saw that Little Voice was on the list of upcoming issues, my first thought was, “Huh, I wonder if that’s the one with… Yup, it is.” So at least I had a starting point this week. That said, I had so little knowledge of Bareilles beyond “Love Song” that I didn’t even know what she looked like. (Not that it matters; I’m simply illustrating my ignorance.) So when I dove into the record, I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that there were several points of enjoyment for me. There’s a Tidal-era Fiona Apple vibe on multiple songs. Matt Chamberlain, one of my favorite session drummers, plays on the album. Her delivery of “you’re shit out of your luck” is dismissive and snide and I love it. As a lyricist overall, Bareilles has a way of expressing relationships in a matter-of-fact style that is somehow analytical and relatable (e.g., “You plus me is bad news”). The arrangements, especially the guitar parts, are tasteful and tidy; nothing feels out of place. It’s an especially great driving album. It’s a fun listen start to finish. And then there’s that title, Little Voice. It’s a little humble, a little humblebrag, a little self-aware, a little sly, and a little understated. In other words, it’s the perfect name for this collection of songs.
Steve Lampiris (@stevenlampiris)
Sure, Let’s Go With That
Souvenir by Banner Pilot
Chosen By Darryl Wright