Interview: Sarah and the Safe Word

Sarah and the Safe Word

Recently I was able to schedule a Zoom interview with Sarah Rose (lead vocals) and Kienan Dietrich (guitars/vocals), of Sarah & The Safe Word, to discuss their thrilling fourth album, The Book of Broken Glass. The new record was produced by Jim Wirt (Jack’s Mannequin, Hoobastank), and will be released everywhere music is sold this Friday, April 7th via Take This To Heart Records. In this in-depth interview, I asked these two band members about what went into the writing/recording of the new LP, plus what fans can expect on their current tour with Shayfer James.

So thank you first of all for your time today, both Kienan and Sarah. Let me start by saying that I think I finally got your discography down now….<Laughter> So this one is going to be your fourth album, correct? 

Sarah: <Laughter> Yes! 

Cool, so The Book of Broken Glass is going to be coming out on April 7th, and can you tell me what it was like to record these songs with veteran producer Jim Wirt?

Sarah: It’s our second album with Jim! We did Good Gracious, Bad People with him as well. Jim, for people that are familiar with his discography, it speaks for itself. Everything from Incubus to Hoobastank and Something Corporate, Fiona Apple, Brian Setzer Orchestra…I mean the list goes on. And his resume really speaks for how on the cutting edge his moments in music have been under his watch and tenure as a producer. We’re really lucky that we got to make this record with him. He’s not only a really musically intricate and thoughtful person, but he’s also a very kind guy too and we really liked hanging out with him, and that makes the process a lot easier when you’re having fun with the guy. When you’re trying to make music, he’s never failed. He’s funny. He makes us laugh and he really understands what we’re trying to do on a record. We loved spending time with him and we always looked forward to spending time with him.

That’s great. Any memories that stand out from you, Kienan?

Kienan: Jim has no ego. He easily could, considering all the stuff that he’s done, and how you know musically talented he is. This isn’t a super specific memory but there was during the next single that’s about to come out, he was helping us. The trumpet, saxophone, and obviously the violin stuff as well with Susy – there were moments where he would just be able to like pluck a note out, and sitting there we’d be like it’s missing something, and then he would just be like “hmm…”<and fix it> there’s nothing to it. He knew “the secret sauce” or a lot of the nice arrangements of the chamber instruments. 

That’s cool! At what point did you start writing The Book of Broken Glass

Kienan: I would say right around the end of the last record. We’re the kind of band that never really stops writing. We have ebbs and flows, just like any other artist but right around the time that we finished the last record, we just kept going. We had the songs that were ready for the album and then there are ones that kind of came later in the process, maybe too late to be developed properly, but we kept writing. I remember around April after the tour wrapped, we were all just kind of going into it like, “Oh, now it’s time to take this seriously!” Carlos, I and Sarah started demoing the songs and the bulk of the album came from that time. 

Nice! The new record has a few collaborations on it, and I appreciate the early listen to it, by the way. One song includes a member of Chumbawamba on one of the tracks. At what stage of the writing process did you guys decide to bring in outside voices/collaborators?

Sarah: I mean first of all to have Dan from Chumbawamba on the record…if you know our band, and that we’ve referenced Chumbawamba a lot over the eight years that we’ve been a band, and it’s sort of a very full circle moment for him to be on the album. I mean there was never a point with getting Dan on that we decided we wanted him on. We had a mutual connection there and we realized that there was mutual interest in talking to us. I think he appreciated that we had a reverence for what Chumbawamba stood for as a band for people that don’t know each other’s discography way before “Tubthumping,” They were on the forefront of queer rights and queer liberation as a punk rock band, and they are anarcho-communist to a tee. They walk the talk and they speak what they believe in. We’ve always had a big admiration for them, the entire duration of their career and what they believed. So with Danbert, we just ended up getting connected to him, and when we realized he wanted to talk to us, we knew we should put him on the album. That was sort of a no-brainer. 

For the other two collaborators, we have our friends in Dog Park Dissidents. We did a tour with them, and they are just a fucking incredible punk rock group that wears puppy gear on stage. They put on an amazing show, and we have endless admiration for what they do as a band. They are a band to watch and listen to. So we knew we kind of wanted to throw them on something. 

For the other song, we have this part in the song for “All the Rage,” and we knew that we wanted some kind of queer hip-hop artist on a feature of some kind. We wanted that for the past couple of records, but the song never really manifested where it would be right for that. But I’m a hip-hop head. My first band when I was a teenager, I was a rapper.I don’t do that shit anymore, but I have such an admiration for the hip-hop scene. Especially being from Atlanta, where there’s such a huge community of talented artists. We found this person that was recommended to us through a friend. Their name is Jamie Cornelia, and they’re a non-binary rapper from Atlanta. They’re amazing and they put a really incredible verse on that song that locked in completely with what our lyrics were about. It worked out great. 

I agree. It’s a great collaboration! Your new single, “Sky On Fire,” is very personal. Can you tell me a little bit about what the song is about, and what it means to you today? 

Sarah: Sure, I mean right now we’re in a weird time to be a queer person and trans person. I’m openly non-binary and gender-nonconforming, and it seems like it’s an incredibly volatile time to be a queer person. I mean just yesterday we heard people basically openly advocating for the genocide of transgender people at the CPAC conference, which is unbelievable that their laws are going to try to prevent me from wearing a dress on stage, and if I play in front of all-ages audiences. Which is asinine. A part of the song is inspired by that, and I mean it’s sort of directly about how I feel as a queer-American in 2023. We’re sort of in a new “dark age” of discussion about age, gender, and sexuality brought on by fascists in this country. There’s also a part of the song that pays tribute to my grandfather who passed away in 2022. He raised me for the most part, alongside my mom, and he was a huge influence in my life. He came from nothing. He grew up in a really low income town in south Georgia. He was one of like twelve kids, and he served in Korea and made a name for himself off of nothing and always supported me, believed in my music, and believed in me. He really encouraged me to be a musician and it felt like the right thing to log a song that’s so much about struggling with being queer, and it felt right to shout him out on that song.

It came together great, and it seems like it would be an empowering message for what you guys all stand for. Your band’s going to be doing an extensive tour in support of Shayfer James. How did this pairing get to put together, first of all, and what are you most excited about with playing these new songs live?

Sarah: Shayfer and I were openers on the Will Wood tour together and through that Shayfer and I got to really know each other. Shayfer has something incredible in his live show, and there’s a lot of overlap in how our bands write music. But there’s also a lot of differences, which makes the pairing really cool. We just love Shayfer. I mean, ever since I met Shayfer, I was like, “This is one of the coolest dudes I’ve ever met.”

I also did a solo song that features Shayfer, and I don’t know when it’s going to come out, or how we’re going to release it, but, yeah, there’s also a song that Shayfer and I worked on. 

Oh, I can’t wait to hear it!

Kienan: I haven’t actually met him personally yet, but I’m going to be playing bass for him on this tour as well. So I’m going to be doing double-duty. I had a few conversations with them online and we kind of have a shared songwriting heritage. Kind of similar influences. He comes from New Jersey, so there’s that connection as well. And I’m excited to play the songs along with Shayfer. As far as the new songs, really it’s astonishing when you’re on album four and you start making setlists. It’s like, “Oh my god, we have so much music!” We’re only going to be able to get three new songs on the setlist! Sarah and I talked about for this one is that we are kind of taking some of the sound control back into our own hands. On the last tour we went automated with some of the keyboard patch changes and the guitar changes, and we just said, okay, that was a fun experiment, but let’s go back and I can hit some of my guitar effects. There’s a little more improv that we’re kind of getting back into the field, because when we started, we were all doing it very live, in the moment, reacting to the audience. And as we build up our touring technology, we’re going to automate this, and make sure that we’re kind of bringing it back into our own hands, so we can engage more with the audience. And have more of an active kind of show. And that’s going to really show in the new songs. It’s going to bring back some of that spark. 

Have you guys already started to do rehearsals for this tour, and what does a band practice look like now?

Sarah: It is funny because we have to swap drummers in the middle of the tour. Just constraints with today’s touring are insane. Everybody used to make ends meet, but now we have three times as many drummers as we normally would. Which seemed appropriate for our band, but yeah the songs sound good, they feel good, and there’s new energy in the room. Rehearsal spaces are always too small…you cannot fit in one. We have three extra people in the horn section, so that’s why there are like 10 people on stage. <Laughter>

Do each of you have a favorite song on the Book of Broken Glass at this point?

Sarah: Mine changes a lot. Right now, I think it’s probably “No One’s Home,” I think that’s sort of been my favorite for a minute. I really like “A Little Evil Never Hurt Anyone,” and then you know there’s a song at the end of the record called “X” which is really like the most personal song I’ve ever written, and it’s about a partner of mine that passed away. 

I’m very sorry to hear that. 

Sarah: Thank you, and that’s my tribute to him so that’s that’s important to me. For me, I think during the recording, the song “Ruby” was definitely my favorite, and I think that’s why it became a single, because I think everybody felt that way. Having set up with a record for a little longer I think I really have a huge fan of “Broken Crowns.” This song kind of started off as a Linkin Park tribute, and then expanded into something more. But these days I think I would just have to say my favorite is definitely the longest song we’ve ever put on a record. We currently have it as the second to last one right before “X” where it goes through a bunch of different changes, and extends things a little. And I mean, we’re not going to play that one live too often, probably, because of time constraints.

Can you tell me a little bit about how the vinyl came together, for not only the upcoming record, but also Strange Doings in the Night?

Sarah: How that one came together was, Adam from Say10 sends me a message saying that he was interested in working with us in some capacity to put a vinyl record of one of our releases out, and we had had Strange Doings in the Night sort of in our catalog, but not on streaming for a minute, because we weren’t very happy with the final production of the record. Which isn’t really anyone’s fault, we just put that record out when we were still an independent band figuring out how we wanted our band to sound, and we kind of were flying by the seat of our pants. But we had always talked to ourselves about if we ever have the chance, we would love to crack the whole recording session back open, get it mixed and mastered in a way that would make it sound the way that we always heard it in our heads. And we pitched the idea to Adam and said we have this record of our first album that we released independently, but once a remixed and remastered version was put out, he was like yeah let’s do it. I’ll do anything you want, and we’ve always really appreciated that about Adam. He’s always been sort of the right person for our band, and willing to do cool stuff with us, and that whole project came about very naturally. We told him what we needed to do to get into where we could put out. He gave us the resources and budget to do it, and it became a vinyl record! 

Awesome! It also has some really cool liner notes about the production process that I just re-read again to refresh my memory before this interview. Can you tell me what longtime fans of Sarah and the Safe Word will be most surprised by when they hear The Book of Broken Glass in full in April?

Sarah: I think we go in a different direction, in some regards, and I think that if you’re hoping to hear the Cabaret punk sound, that I think we’re kind of known for, you’re going to hear it on this record. We’re not going to venture away from that, but our other influences around this album…like I’m a huge Linkin Park fan, and if you wanted me to do another whole 45-minute interview on just that…I mean, my dream collaboration is with Mike Shinoda. Meteora is a huge influence on me. I love that record, and I know that record by heart. So there’s some Mike Shinoda-esque tribute to his production style on there. I think you hear it on something like “Broken Crowns” and I think what’s really great is our drummer Carlos, who joined the band two years ago, a lot of his production style really made it onto this album. He was really hands-on with the pre-production and his touch on the album is palpable. You can really feel the influence that he had on it and there’s more electronic elements, and I think that’s really cool for me. I’m a huge fan of bands like The Receiving End of Sirens that are at the forefront of our music and our seeing them incorporating electronic music and other genres into it…I love that stuff, and I’m really glad that we get to kind of play around with that and that space. 

Kienan: There’s fewer spots on this record where there’s the funny, sort of giggly stuff. That wasn’t really intentional, it’s just that there was less funny stuff happening around us. There’s some pretty heavy stuff going on. I think maybe some people will be surprised by that.

Sarah: I was really listening to the album the other day, and I was talking to a friend, and I’m like oh my god, this record is so political! I didn’t realize how political it was. We’re usually kind of jokey, like Kienan said, and there is some of that humor, but it’s a dark record. And I think that’s expected from when a pandemic that completely derailed our lives and how our band operated for a year, I would be surprised if this record wasn’t reactive to everything that’s going to happen. 

Well, it makes sense, because we make art in the world that’s around us…Are there any plans to throw in a cover song at any point either during this tour, or the headlining tour? And do these covers come organically, or do they come more planned out, like you did with the Tears for Fears cover?

Sarah: So I will say this. If you’ve seen the poster for our album release show in Atlanta, you know that Dan from Chumbawamba is going to be there. So put the pieces together…

I love it! Alright, well thank you guys so much, and I look forward to seeing you guys in April when the tour rolls around my way!

Sarah/Kienan: Thanks, Adam!