The Interviewing: Singer/Songwriter Sarah Donner
(This is one in a series of interviews I have been doing of professional creative peoples that I admire and of whom I think highly. This interview is with Sarah Donner, singer/songwriter/catlady. Sarah and I met when I tried to help her book a show in SLC a couple of years ago and failed miserably. We have been friends ever since. This interview is from 2014 and was originally posted on Big Shiny Robot.)
Ben Fuller: Hi Sarah and thanks tons for letting me take some of your time to do this. I, like many people, first came to know you from the video to the song that you did with Matthew Inman of TheOatmeal.com.
I became a fan on your FB page and then almost simultaneously, you had posted looking for suggestions on finding a venue to play at in Utah during your summer tour cross country. We won’t go into how badly I messed up on getting you a great venue to play in, but suffice to say I hopefully didn’t ruin your career and we are now friends.
As we discussed briefly when I reached out to you originally about doing this interview, the main goal is to connect with creative people that I genuinely admire and try to dig in a little bit to get a better idea of what drives them (you). So, if you are ready, here we go…
Please explain the awesome video for “Going Under”? It looks like a pretty wonderful tracking one-shot video which is enviable every time it is pulled off well, like it is here. And let’s not forget the puppets.
Sarah Donner: “Going Under” was my first professional music video, and I wanted to get the fans involved. I handed out new socks at my shows with little messages attached that had my return address. I also wrote and recorded a song called “How To Make A Sock Puppet” which is still out there on YouTube. There were no creative stipulations except “no googley eyes” I HATE googley eyes. The response was huge, and we ended up with forty sock puppets from all over the world. I wrote to puppet bloggers for help and even got the professionals involved. Those are some of my favorite puppets! In the end, it took a creative team over nearly seventy people to get the music video done. So many people invested their time and talents, and I think this is one of the reasons it was successful. Everyone would share the video with friends because they were a part of it!
It took eighteen takes to get it perfect. I remember the first time we got through I nearly cried at the end. It was overwhelming to have so many puppets cheering me on!
Ben Fuller: First, is there a reason that “googley” eyes are an issue, and secondly did you have any previous experience with leveraging online social channels/crowd sourcing types of avenues to help create art like you did with “Going Under”?
Sarah Donner: Cookie Monster’s eyes creep me out. You just never know if he’s looking at you or not. I have a thing about the ratio of the pupil to the white of eyes. I never liked Mickey Mouse or Fred Flintstone or George Jetson either. I have a thing about talking animals too, but that’s for another interview. As far as crowd sourcing goes, I used to give out crayons and Sarah Donner Donner posters to audiences. They would color them in at shows. I would make it a contest, and the winner got a free CD. I also use the FB fans to name my foster kittens. Everybody gets into that!
Ben Fuller: Who did you want to grow up to be like? Are the characteristics that those people had that inspired you as child reflected in the people that you admire today?
Sarah Donner: I am the oldest of three siblings, and I was the driven one of the bunch. I’m not sure who inspired it though. Mom and Dad worked hard, and I was never discouraged from pursuing the arts. My grandmother painted and played the organ, my father played guitar, my mother sang, so I would say inspiration was a family affair. I would like to grow up to be like my mother. She is a warm, gracious, and jovial woman, beloved by many.
Ben Fuller: I think you are well on your way to being just like your mother since I would use a lot of those same qualities to describe you. With regard to your music, are there any artists that have given you “aha!” moments that you feel helped inform your own musical sensibilities today?
Sarah Donner: Oh why thank you! Regina Spektor was a huge influence on me vocally. She uses her voice in very unconventional ways stylistically, and I felt that freed me to do the same. I have a background in opera, and I am bolder in my choice of vocal range and melody when I write because of her. Ani Difranco was a firm foundation for my guitar work. I love her rhythmic quality and alternate tunings. Once I began learning her music on guitar, I started to find my own voice on the instrument.
Ben Fuller: Did you have dream job as a kid?
Sarah Donner: I wanted to play Christine in Phantom of the Opera or Belle in Beauty in the Beast. I still do.
Ben Fuller: I think it is interesting that you said that you wanted to play them in the musicals and not that you wanted to be them. What are some of your other favorite musicals and why?
Sarah Donner: Well ‘playing’ a character is what actors would typically say, unless you’re Daniel Day Lewis. My favorite musicals are The Secret Garden,Les Miserables, and Chess. I also admire the composer Steven Schwarz. His music makes me happy. I suppose the simplest reason I love these shows are that they have characters who sing songs that I can deeply relate to. I can rock out toChess. Les Miserables lets me whine a little. The Secret Garden is just wholesome and beautiful. I could delve into theoretically what moves me about the music, but that’s dry.
Ben Fuller: What do you see was the turning point in your professional life that has gotten you to where you are now?
Sarah Donner: You know, I am still waiting for a turning point. I tease myself that something big is going to happen, but in reality it’s a series of tiny bumps and stepping stones that get you to your goal. The biggest push was “The Motherf**king Pterodactyl” collaboration with The Oatmeal. It was really exciting for me to get that kind of exposure even though that is song isn’t exactly what I had in mind when I imagined my “big hit”. I once read an interview with Regina Spektor, and her producer was talking about things they are doing to make her an even “bigger” star. I would eat bacon to be in her shoes! It just goes to show that the best artists are constantly pushing themselves to another level. So I push and push and push.
Ben Fuller: I think that is an important point to make. The landscape of success is so much more different today than it was even 10 years ago. The canvas is much broader and there is more room to play in, but the audience demands can be more finicky and less forgiving. Even big names are constantly trying to maintain relevancy, even after having proven themselves.
You seem to have a couple of areas in which you are building inroads — first there is your music straight on, but you also have a bit of a reputation as defender of all things cat and kitten. How did that come about?
Sarah Donner: OY the cats. To start off, I am simply a lover of animals of all sorts. Cats just happen to be the ones who were breeding in my parking lot. Eight years ago, I started feeding some strays who I caught dragging bagels out of my garbage can. Well they alerted the masses, and whenever kittens would show up my husband and I would trap them. I’d quarantine and domesticate them in my little bathroom, and once they were social, find homes for them. I’ve run out of family and friends to give cats to! Through the trap, neuter, and release method (which I made a YouTube video about: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jDpZTNjsBzM) the population growth in my backyard is down to zero! I now foster kittens for an organization called Trenton Cats. It’s great because I get all the kittens I ever want without the responsibility of finding them homes. My online Cat Lady persona attracted the website Catster, and I worked for them for an entire year writing the “Ask A Cat Lady” video blog where I answered views questions with a song. It was super challenging, but a lot of fun.
Ben Fuller: How would you describe your creativity — is there anything that you do or a process that you have that helps get you into the right mindset to work?
Sarah Donner: I need a clean space. My apartment is very tiny, and I can’t sit down to write if there is clutter everywhere. I’ll often put dishes away, vacuum, and clear surfaces before I grab the guitar. It’s like I need to do my chores before I treat myself to the luxury of being creative. It sounds like some kind of vestige of my Baptist upbringing now that I think about it.
Ben Fuller: I find that before I can write I need to write, meaning, I will sit down somewhere with a notebook and pen and doodle and just try to capture any main idea that is swimming around, and then when I am actually ready to do the hard work I sit down at my computer and start moving all of those thoughts over to a digital form. Do you go through anything similar? Do you sit down to write having already stored away some moments of inspiration?
Sarah Donner: No, I suppose I noodle on the guitar or uke a bit before I begin writing anything down. I don’t use a computer because it’s better for me to have a papertrail of my thoughts and ideas. The ‘mess’ keeps me flexible. In my early days of songwriting, I wasn’t in the habit of drafting and allowing change to the process. My first song I feel like I carefully crafted was ‘Whalers and Sailors’. I don’t really store my inspiration. I just write when I write, and when I get going I finish it in a day or two. I write maybe a couple times a month, or if a big source of inspiration punches me in the face.
Ben Fuller: What do you see as the single most formative moment that has created the “you” that exists today?
Sarah Donner: I often point to a moment in high school AP Biology. I was struggling with the decision of which college to go to because I wasn’t sure if I wanted to pursue music or marine biology. One day when I was nearly in tears trying to grasp the Krebs Cycle, I threw my hands up in the air and gave up on my Jacques Cousteau dreams. I still wish I could have done both, but performing gives me the greatest pleasure so I keep my eyes on that prize. The other moment was when I sang “I Dreamed A Dream” in seventh grade cabaret. That’s when I realized performing was in my blood. Also, I thought I was the sh*t since I beat an eighth grader for the solo. That was the beginning of the end.
Ben Fuller: Currently, professionally, you are deeply involved in theater, in addition to your music and personal work. Can you share a bit your thoughts on the different mindsets (if any) between performing alone and contributing to make theater happen as a team?
Sarah Donner: I am a scenic artist and props master for various theaters in the New Jersey area. It’s very hard for me to take off my solo hat and put on a team hat, especially since my theatre work requires me to take a backstage position. I do believe having the experience of being on a production staff gives me a lot of empathy for those in charge of running music venues and events. In theatre I work with designers to realize their artistic vision of what a set should look like. When I take the stage or record in the studio, it’s all about the artistic vision of what Sarah Donner should sound like. I believe working alongside designers, who can be very difficult at times, reminds me of how I should or should not behave when it comes to working with the lovely people who help me make my music.
Ben Fuller: What has been your favorite most rewarding personal project (this can go back as far as you want) and why?
Sarah Donner: I teach songwriting at a summer arts camp in Trenton every summer. The kids call me Miss Skittle, and we write mostly silly songs about snack time or summer vacation. It’s educational for me as well because I find out what kids are listening to these days. Most kids don’t have the opportunity to make their own music or listen to songs outside the media box. Their taste comes from the mass marketing of celebrities. The best part is when they start investing themselves in the lyrics and getting excited to sing solo.
Ben Fuller: When I have had the opportunity to teach, my favorite moments have always been when the students’ faces would light up when those connections are made and they make the leap to understanding. Have you noticed ever, after your students find that ability in themselves to create stuff and express themselves that the way they look at art or appreciate the music they listen to changes?
Sarah Donner: I’ve noticed that they have a new found confidence and glow about them. It’s hard to tell in the long term how their appreciation changes because I see them for only an hour a day for one week of the summer.
Ben Fuller: You just completed a very successful Kickstarter project. Was this your first Kickstarter and how was your experience?
Sarah Donner: Yes this was my first Kickstarter, and I was tickled that it went so well. I have a habit of selling myself short or not aiming high enough, so I was worried that asking for $10,000 was going to lead to disappointment (because if you don’t reach your goal, you don’t receive any money at all). It was such an honor to have so many people reach into their pockets and support my new album. I realized the value of simply asking. I had quit my day job in January to pursue music full time, so I knew I couldn’t make the new record on my own as I had in the past. One of the biggest surprises was the community of Kickstarter itself. My backers weren’t just friends and fans; they were members of Kickstarter that regularly seek out projects to support. That was just lovely!
Ben Fuller: What other projects, that you are free to talk about, do you have on the table currently?
Sarah Donner: The Oatmeal and I recently released the “Nikola Tesla Dood” video. There are a group of folks raising money to turn Tesla’s old lab in Wardenclyffe, NJ into a museum, so this was our effort to raise awareness and funds. My favorite part is the pigeon drum solo personally.
I just released a music video on YouTube that was shot at the Princeton Plasma Physics Lab for my song “The Rebuttal of Schrödinger’s Cat”. That was so much fun to shoot, and we got to play with a lot of very expensive toys.
Also, I wrote a musical with playwright David White. The script is in its third or fourth draft, but it’s basically a relationship triangle between two podcasters and a singer/songwriter. It centers around the theme of legacy and what we leave behind in this age of technology. It’s my first time writing for voices other than my own, and it’s a new challenge for me. I’m often at odds with the lyrics because they serve a different kind of purpose when they are telling a specific story. I don’t want them to be cheesy, but to a certain extent, that’s what a musical is. I need to trust that the production aspects of the show will create the mood and sincerity to make it an enjoyable experience for the audience. I have to loosen the creative reigns a bit, not an easy task for Miss Donner.