Artist Interview: Sara Mae of The Noisy

Posted: by The Editor

Sara Mae, lead singer of Philadelphia-based band The Noisy, crashed at my apartment in Brooklyn one mid-April Friday with their partner, Alex Bruce. The two had come to town to see The Mops, a band from Brooklyn and Pleasantville, NY, featuring musicians Greg Hunter, Charlotte Hill, and Danny Mendelson. The performance took place at the Stone Circle Theater, a church-turned-music-venue in Queens, where The Noisy also performed just over a month later after the release of their debut LP, The Secret Ingredient Is More Meat.

The next day, I had the pleasure of catching up with Sara Mae about their thoughts and feelings in the lead-up to the album’s release. Since meeting them in Knoxville, where we studied together as MFA students in the creative writing program at the University of Tennessee, Sara Mae has become someone I can always trust to help me return to myself when I am feeling numb and far away. After the MFA, they moved to Philly and I to New York City, where my partner was working as an immigration lawyer. A small-town midwesterner at heart, New York is not a place I ever thought I’d live, and as I spoke with Sara Mae that gray Saturday morning during a failed attempt to walk from Crown Heights to the Brooklyn Bridge (too cold!), I thought how lucky I’ve been to have them nearby during this strange limbo year, which has been characterized mostly by two-and-a-half hour round-trip commutes and credit card debt. Sara Mae wore a blue floral skater dress, black Adidas Sambas, and a pink trench coat. I wore something green with a stain on the boob.

What follows is an abridged version of our conversation, which contains Sara Mae’s trademark wisdom about topics like queer friendship, love, and coming of age in the I-don’t-give-a-fuck era. Some of the audio was lost to ambulance sirens, motorcycle engines, a horde of screaming children outside the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, and–most aggressively–the wind.

Can you talk a little bit about how you landed on food as a sort of unifying motif for the album?

I wrote “Violet Lozenge” before I knew I was even trying to write an album. The title comes from Leonora Carrington’s The Hearing Trumpet. The characters remind me of us because they’re these two older women who are slowly losing their minds. One of them is always carrying around violet lozenges. That song is about queer friendship, and the violet lozenge feels like a symbol of care. There’s something about a grandma that always has a treat for you. That’s such a specific kind of love, a love I discuss throughout the album.

I had gotten really close with my grandma right before I moved to Knoxville. I was in Baltimore for most of the pandemic, and I got vaccinated early because I was doing harm reduction work. Because my grandma was also vaccinated early, I was able to see her sooner than other family members and friends. When I visited her we’d have lunch together and spend hours laughing. She was Italian, and cooking with her became really important to me. The song “Morricone” came from thinking about Italian culture and cuisine, as well as the caricature of Italianness. Saying “spaghetti” in a funny accent, that kind of thing.

A lot of the food stuff also happened by accident. I’m an observational writer, so I keep these little lists of things I find charming, like a perfect meal or the ambience of a bar. I think food also affects tone really quickly. Talking about something as particular as a martini, for example, just totally sets the scene.

Since we’re talking about scene-setting, I of course have to ask the poet question. How has your background as a poet influenced your songwriting, including the way you approach image and sound?

Each song is different. I’m most proud of the writing on “Twos.” I had just turned in my MFA thesis and had gone to Big Ears. I decided to take myself for a Blue Moon at the bar Barley’s, where I sat and read Lucy Brock-Broido’s The Master Letters, a collection of poems where the author imagines the queer relationship between Emily Dickinson and her lover. I’d had the idea for “Twos” for a while. The song is about dating two people at once.

It’s a very sexy song.

SM: It was one of those moments where, when I finally sat down to write the song, it kind of just came out. It’s in couplets, because, you know, “twos.” I’m really proud of the word play as well as the formal conceit of the song. I feel like my background in poetry really comes through.

“Little Grill” was another song that just kind of came out. I was sitting in Alex Bruce’s parents’ attic–we would stay there for a week at a time around Christmas, and sometimes I’d go upstairs to try to write something or take a moment for myself. That’s where I wrote the riff. I can’t remember if I’d misspoken while singing or if I just found the wordplay funny. The lines unfolded from there.

I came up in slam poetry, and I remember someone telling me once, “You’re such a Cantab poet.” When you’re a Cantab poet you come up with a conceit and it informs the whole world of images thereafter. “Little Grill” is the slam poet in me coming out because, aesthetically, the images all tie back to a little grill.

That song has a nursery rhyme element to it, and it’s very dark. It’s about being sexualized by adults when you’re very young. People socialized as women hit a certain age, maybe twelve or thirteen, where certain adult men suddenly feel comfortable commenting on their appearances in this gross way. That’s where the line “Grew up too soon / getting rave reviews” comes from.

“Little Grill” as a phrase also feels like a way to talk about queer childhood. Saying that you once were a “little grill” implies that you are now something else entirely. And “inside I’m all fire” is one of my all-time favorite lyrics. Hearing you talk about the conceit is so interesting.

There was this feeling of never performing that well. When I think back on those interactions with the men who were sexualizing me at a young age, I was always thinking, “No, you’ve got it wrong,” which I think would be true if I was genderqueer or not. That feels like a pretty true experience for people socialized as women. That kind of commentary isolates you from your body.

A lot of the album was me wondering, “How am I supposed to be in relationship to my body?” I can rant and rage all I want about how fucked up the way I was socialized was, but now I would just like to be with myself. So: what do I do about that?

There’s such an attention to adornment in these songs. Conceptually, I feel like adornment goes hand-in-hand with the act of performing in a way that’s kind of meta. It also feels very in line with a tradition of queer art. So I wondered if you could talk a little bit about that–how you play with adornment as an artist. The songs I was thinking about specifically include “Morricone” and “Neckline.” “Backlit” is definitely living in that world because it’s playing with gaze, which feels aligned with this question as well.

“Backlit” is a perfect example. I was actually talking about this exact pink coat in the song. When I lived in Baltimore, I had big feelings for a friend of mine. I don’t know whether the feelings were reciprocal, but we’d have these long nights together, and by the time they ended I could never tell what they were thinking, or if they felt the way I did. I remember putting on my coat and standing in the doorway, about to leave. They were backlit, so I couldn’t read their expression. That moment feels really true to many of my experiences with queerness–a lot of sweet, intimate, and meaningful connections that are simultaneously so mysterious to me

The music video for “Backlit” ended up being really Catholic. There’s a shot where I’m looking up through a fence at the camera, as if the audience is God looking down on me. But I also can’t see the audience. With queer crushes I’ve sometimes, to my own detriment, put people on pedestals. But there’s also maybe a sacredness there that is good and okay.

There’s that lyric in the song about “papercut stigmata” that I suppose is an example of adornment. I mean, talk about the Catholic church and adornment. There’s a lot of performance in Catholicism–all of the rituals, the frankincense, the velvet robes, the stained glass. I channeled that into the feeling of “Backlit” and I’m proud of how it turned out.

“Grenadine,” like “Backlit,” deals a lot with gaze–in this case, the gaze of the older girls on the speaker in the song. Is “Grenadine” about a job you used to have?

I worked on and off at City Dock Cafe in downtown Annapolis for three or four years. It was my first real job. All of my co-workers were older than me, so this job was one of the first places where I actually felt like an adult. I was sixteen hanging out with these twenty-six year olds who were truly so kind to me. I definitely developed a lot of crushes on my co-workers.

I remember how it felt being the young person in this fun group of people who were drinking and joking after-hours. The cafe is this three-story row home that got converted into a coffee shop. Customers can only sit on the first floor, but we would climb up to the next level to sit on the roof and drink. That job was an experience of learning to stand on my own two feet a little. It was my first community where I felt really seen, definitely one full of queer people and musicians. It informed a lot for me, looking back.

It sounds really formative. Being “sixteen and see-through” is such a vulnerable feeling, one that “Grenadine” captures really well. I love how the speaker adorns themselves in “platform shoes,” for example, to meet the gaze of the older girls. It feels universal and specific at the same time. Sixteen, for both of us, was over a decade ago. In a lot of the songs on The Secret Ingredient, there’s a fair amount of distance between the person who’s being written about and the person doing the writing. I was wondering–now that the album is complete, how does it feel to have these past iterations of yourself arranged in such a beautiful and cohesive form?

I have a chapbook out called Priestess of Tankinis, and when I think about the universe of that book, it’s very much high school. When I’m writing poems a lot of times I feel more attuned to different eras of my life and more pressure to focus just on one era or another. This album, by nature of collaboration and just writing the songs over and over again, was more attuned to what associations were coming up for me as I was strumming the chords. I’ve been writing poetry for so much longer so I feel more compelled to guide the process. With songwriting I’m way more at the mercy of what arises organically. This means I’ve gotten to examine many more selves through music than I sometimes can in poems.

I turned to music in graduate school because poetry felt stressful and academic at times. Music was where I could hang out with my friends; I could go stand in Josh [Sorrells of Easy Does It]’s garage and have a drink and be goofy. I’ve realized over the last couple of years that when I’m scared or upset I’ll start singing as a way to comfort myself. There’s something that feels more immediately cathartic about writing music. It’s just a little closer to the nerve.

I really want to talk about “Neckline” now, which is a song that comes to mind when I think about the vulnerability of the writing on this album. It’s such a perfect final note for the album to strike. Can you talk about your choice to put that song last?

There are versions of that song that we played as a band where we really built it up, but the final version ended up being more quiet. Structurally, “Neckline” is very repetitive; it’s just the same thing five times. On the album we added the cello (played by Juniper Gabrielle), which just sounds so beautiful. That was the first song I got to sing during recording. We recorded instrumentation first and singing last, so when we finally finished with instrumentation we had a day and a half left for vocals. I sang all the songs in eighteen hours. When we recorded “Neckline,” it was just me and Jacob [Lawter of Slow and Steady] alone in a room. It was the first time all week that things had been relatively quiet and calm. I’m really proud of how intimate that song feels.

I think we were more guided by the instrumentation than lyrics in placing that song last on the album. The song itself came out of a sex dream I had. It’s a pretty sad song. There’s this necessary acceptance that the thing you wanted so badly is simply not the thing for you.

I was socialized, in part, to make sure I could be pleasing or entertaining to other people. And with all the performance, adornment, and grandiosity of the other songs on this album, it felt fitting to let some of that fall away at the end, and to just be present with myself.

It’s been a really formative year, I’m sure, finishing graduate school and moving across the country. How has your relationship to music has changed since you started your life in Philly? And how does it feel to think about The Secret Ingredient’s journey with relation to place and time?

It’s been hard to be away from the community that helped me form those songs. I’ve missed those people so much, but I’ve been really lucky in Philly. The band I’ve gotten together there has such good people in it, and they’re incredible musicians. I used to look at someone like Japanese Breakfast and think I wanted to be a front-person like she is. But even Michelle Zauner has several really crucial collaborators, and I can see that more fully now. I don’t want to be this solo front-person anymore. I want to have people in my life that I love deeply who are making music with me, because that’s what’s most fun. I love looking back on band practices in Josh’s garage in Knoxville. That was my favorite part.

You brought up Japanese Breakfast, and now I want to ask you about influences. In the past you’ve mentioned Mannequin Pussy, Samia, and Chappell Roan. Are there any other musicians who’ve influenced the album that might not come immediately to mind for a listener?

There’s a percussion arrangement on “Twos” that my friend Sam Cush called “very Mitski.” The Mitski comparison has come up a couple of times. I opened for the band Tenci as we were getting ready to record the album. They have such a specific point-of-view when it comes to instrumentation and vocals. Hearing them play made me want to be braver. I realized I wanted the songs to be weird rather than straightforward indie rock songs. When you listen to the guitar tones or the instrumentation we chose, like having an omnichord on “Tony Soprano,” there are a lot of unusual choices.

I grew up in Severna Park, between Annapolis and Baltimore. There’s this band from my high school called Sun Club that was pretty big for a while, and their music is very weird. They use a ton of chorus pedal. For years I’ve been chasing that kind of sound, and you can hear it in the guitar sounds on “Backlit.” Jacob and I have talked about Lucy Dacus and Wednesday. You can see Wednesday’s influence on “Grenadine.”

Until I moved to Philly I was not at all into hardcore music because it often doesn’t have a recognizable melody. I started listening more to Mannequin Pussy and, after talking with my friend Danny [Mendelson of Big Yawn and The Mops], realized they’re metal and pop at the same time. I feel like Mannequin Pussy was my entry point into appreciating more hardcore bands.

How would you describe the genre you’re working in?

We’ve been calling it bedroom rock. Frankie Cosmos would be a good example of bedroom pop, but The Secret Ingredient hovers between rock and pop. I cherish that it’s both. I think bedroom rock feels right, because it implies something confessional and intimate with sludgy guitars mixed in. I remember in the lead-up to the “Morricone” music video I was thinking about the phrase “spaghetti rock.” I love the goofiness of that.

In “Backlit” there’s that line, “Am I wrong kind of weird?” It’s such a vulnerable line in an otherwise sexy and mysterious song that really moves me every time I listen to it. I wanted to ask about the way vulnerability rubs up against sexiness in this album.

I’m in a book club right now where we’re reading Pleasure Activism by adrienne maree brown. We’ve been having really interesting conversations about what it means to feel turned on. I was saying in one of our discussions that I feel like the sexiest thing I can think of is when someone is looking right at you and like, knowing things about you.

Yeah, the depth of that intimacy.

Such depth. Just making eye contact or teasing you about something, reflecting things about you back to you. There’s so much attention in that. The line you brought up from “Backlit” is interesting because I’m wondering whether the person looking at me is thinking that I’m not enough. There’s the dance of, “Do you really see me the way I think you do?”

We haven’t talked about “Ballerino” yet!

That song is so fun. Basically, I wanted to write a love song for Alex Bruce. I was sitting with Josh and explaining that I wanted the song to be catchy, with an earworm melody that gets stuck in your head. Josh played a few different chords and I sang on top of it. We went back and forth like that for a while. Once we’d written the chords I went home and wrote the lyrics. Anytime I showed anyone that song they were so excited about the line, “The way you kiss me / with disco in your mouth.” The song also mentions “poppers and vermouth” and “cinnamon bagels and shmear.” There’s something really gentle and warm about my relationship with Alex. So many of the other songs on the album are negotiating deep hurt and also trying to acknowledge the dangerousness and hurt I’ve inflicted on others–as in “Twos,” for example.

“Ballerino” has that line: “I wanted to be dangerous before / but walking down Gilford with you / in my yellow shorts.” When Alex and I were first falling in love, we would go on walks through Baltimore in the spring and I’d be wearing these sunny outfits. It just felt so warm and free. “Ballerino” really captures that sweetness. It’s almost corny, and I kind of think that’s okay. Even the sound of it is almost corny. It’s a pop-rock song.

I think that rocks. You and I came of age at exactly the time where it was cool to be cynical, to make art that was totally void of earnestness. Unlearning that has actually been kind of difficult for me, so listening to a song like “Ballerino”–

Dude, love rocks. And you’re so right. We grew up in the era of irony and cynicism and sometimes it’s just like, “I would actually like to be present to the feeling, thank you.”

Right? That heavily ironic messaging was so ubiquitous when we were teenagers. I feel both like a product of that time and incredibly resistant to it. On that note, I have a corny friendship thought to round out this interview. Listening to your music, reading your poetry, and being in community with you makes me feel more comfortable being myself. Really shortly after becoming friends with you, I was like, “This person is striving so hard to be exactly who they are,” and I feel that from this album, too. I wonder, how did this album change your perception of yourself, if at all?

Josie! That means so much to me. Our friendship is a lot of the reason I was able to stay closer to myself in grad school, which was such an isolating period of time. Regarding the album, I feel like I now have a different understanding of myself as a storyteller. I’ve surprised myself with what I’m able to do. That has been true especially with some of the music videos. Filming “Backlit,” I felt so proud of myself as a performer and more confident in what I can convey emotionally. There’s this thing we always say in poetry: “The poem is smarter than you are.” Right now I’m in a moment where I’m thinking a lot about “Violet Lozenge,” partially because its emotional content is feeling relevant again. There are younger versions of myself that really used to embarrass me. Or, I’d look back on that person and think, “Wow, I wasn’t graceful enough.” These songs are an exercise in metabolizing that shame into something else. I now feel really proud of younger me, and think there was actually a lot of wisdom in how I moved through the world so governed by my feelings.

I’m really excited to see who I am when I record music next. I’ve learned so much from the process and suspect I’ll be in a really different place the next time I’m working on music. If this interview is a little time capsule I feel like my question for my future self is, “How are you going to enjoy it more next time?” If “Neckline” ends the album on the note of being present with my feelings, I look forward to seeing how I learn to be more present with the process in the future.

The Secret Ingredient Is More Meat is out now.

Josie Tolin

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