Heather Sarona — interview
Like so many people drawn to music, picking up a guitar changed Heather Sarona’s life, and while she has been writing and performing plenty over the years, it has taken decades for her to bring her first full-length album into existence. Thankfully for listeners, that wait is over. The North Carolina-based singer-songwriter is set to release her debut, Head Above Water—which also features Andrew Marlin and Libby Rodenbough—this Friday.
I recently sat down with Sarona to discuss passing on the musical torch, learning more abour her life that she (perhaps) intended, and searching for creativity in the clutter.
AH: In looking at your Instagram page, you are very seldom seen without your guitar. How important has the instrument been to you throughout the course of your life and has that relationship changed as the years have gone on?
HS: Picking up a guitar was a life-changer for me! I played piano since I was little and clarinet in middle school, and I always loved playing music, but something really clicked when I started learning how to play a guitar. At first I just wanted to work on the mechanics of playing the instrument, learning how to play my favorite songs from other artists. Songwriting never came easily on piano, but that all changed with the guitar. Over the years, it became the outlet for my emotions and the tool for processing my life.
AH: You’re set to release your debut LP, Head Above Water, on January 28. Where does this rank on your timeline of personal achievements?
HS: Releasing this album feels like a massive achievement. Recording has generally been my least favorite part of songwriting. I have a perfectionist streak and it has always been difficult to capture the music the way I hear it in my head—which explains why this is my first full-length album after decades of playing music! It didn’t help that we started recording in March of 2020, days before the world started shutting down. The fact that the album is finally here is certainly something of which I am proud.
AH: You first picked up the guitar at age 14. What would 14-year-old Heather think of Head Above Water if she had a chance to hear it back then?
HS: Oh, I think she’d be impressed at how far things have come! I am pretty sure 14-year-old Heather had no idea what a life she had ahead of her, and how the twists and turns and changes of that life would inspire so much music.
AH: You now have children of your own. What do they think of their mother having her own album, and, what do you want them to take from the experience of witnessing you see this goal become a reality?
HS: They each have their own reactions to it—my oldest son (10 years old) seems most intrigued with stats and Spotify streaming numbers; my 7-year-old daughter loves to dance to the album and help me pack CDs to mail; my 3-year-old son gets the biggest kick out of seeing my picture on the song covers or hearing my voice when he plays one of my songs on his little playlist (“It’s Mommy!” is his usual refrain); and my littlest son (1.5 year old) may just be the best dancer in the house. I hope my music and the time I spend practicing exists as a subtle, background example of how they can progress in anything if they put in the time and effort.
AH: You have some incredible contributors on the record, including Andrew Marlin and Libby Rodenbough. As a songwriter, how important is it to surround yourself with other creative people? Does that creative energy feed your own?
HS: Music has mainly been a solitary exercise for me throughout my life. I’ve had few friends who were also musicians. In the past, I tended to be very reserved about my music and protective of it—up until a few years ago, most people who knew me didn’t even know I wrote music or played an instrument. Recording this album and working with other creative types was amazing, and I absolutely loved that creative energy. But it’s not necessarily a part of my songwriting process at this time—though that could always change!
AH: If someone sat down and listened to Head Above Water front to back, what would they learn about you?
HS: (Laughter) Everything! My songwriting is almost always personal and from my experience. I always joke that if you’ve heard my music and you really listen to the words, you know way more about my life than you should!
AH: What are you most proud of with the album and why?
HS: I take the most pride in how my songwriting has developed over the years. Since Head Above Water is my first full-length album, it has songs on it that span quite a few years. I feel like my lyrics and songwriting topics have matured over time. So when I compare songs like “A Little More,” which is a fun, sweet, bouncy little song I wrote over five years ago, to “I’ll Be Lost,” I’m definitely proud of how the lyrics came together and the literary devices that weave their way through the song.
AH: You grew up in a small town in the Uwharrie Mountains. How did that upbringing impact you creatively? Would you be a different artist today—or not an artist at all—if not for your early surroundings?
HS: I think I would have found my way to music no matter what, but growing up in a small town makes for a quiet lifestyle without a lot of distractions. I think creativity requires a certain stillness—I know with my own songwriting, it is most difficult to make progress when my world is cluttered. A lot of solitary time at home lent itself to listening to my parents’ record collection, learning how to play guitar, and trying to write those first songs. And the Uwharries are just so beautiful, there’s inspiration everywhere.
AH: Music can be both a private experience and a communal one. In my house, music is an important part of our family dynamic. Taking away your experience as a songwriter and musician yourself, where are you at most a fan of music? What is your relationship like with music other than your own?
HS: Being a fan of music looks different now than it did when I was younger—going to live shows and concerts has always been one of my favorite experiences, but with four children and of course, COVID, that is certainly not as easy as it once was! We have a growing vinyl collection in our home, and you’ll often hear an indie bluegrass playlist or the Sarah Jarosz Apple Music station playing. My children have their own musical tastes, too, which often differ from mine, so there is great variety to be heard around my house—from the Blue Heron Suite to What Does the Fox Say.
AH: Time machine question. If you could jump ahead 10 years and get a glimpse of what your career looks like a decade from now, would you take that journey? If not, why?
HS: Oh, I don’t think so! I prefer my future to remain unknown to me. I’m just making things up as I go!
For more information on Heather Sarona, visit www.heathersarona.com.
Enjoy our premiere of her music here: Song Premiere: Heather Sarona Don’t Want to Let it Go