Sarabeth Tucek is set to release her sophomore LP, Get Well Soon, on May 24th on Ungawa Records. It’s a stunning record that, although not a concept album as such, forms a narrative based around the death of Sarabeth’s father, or as she beautifully describes it “an impressionistic rendering of a time ruled by grief”. The 12 tracks were “sequenced and resequenced for weeks” in order for the story to emerge and the end result sees not one wasted word or unnecessary note; all we’re left with is “just pure feeling”.
Sarabeth was born to a psychiatrist and a psychologist in Miami, but grew up in New York. She was a latecomer to music, her first calling being acting. However, after a few years in Hollywood, her singing and songwriting was encouraged by people on the music scene she fell in with. She first made an impression singing backing vocals on Smog’s 2003 album Supper and then in the film ‘Dig!’, where she sings a song she had just written called "Something For You". The Brian Jonestown Massacre went on to cover the song (retitled "Seer"), but Sarabeth’s own version became her debut single, on Sonic Cathedral, back in February 2007.
This stark and simple song won her legions of fans and her self-titled debut album followed a few months later (on the Echo label) to rapturous reviews. Produced by Ethan Johns and Luther Russell, its understated style was an inspiration to a number of singer-songwriters who followed in Sarabeth’s wake, including Laura Marling, who approached Johns to produce I Speak Because I Can after hearing it.
However, despite everything seemingly going so right, at home everything was going wrong. “Some very bad things happened during the first record and after,” recalls Sarabeth. “It was as if all that had ever troubled me, hurt me, came back just as I was embarking on what should’ve been the happiest time of my life. It all came back and said, ‘Not so fast...’
“I don’t think my mind could handle all the good coming its way. It was unfamiliar terrain and I didn’t know how to traverse It. Predictably, my drinking got out of control and that led to a couple car accidents, jail and legal troubles.I wanted to leave LA anyway, but now I felt I sort of had to. I hoped that by coming back home to New York I would be able to forge some kind of redemptive break from the past. To forgive myself.”
The move has informed much of the music on Get Well Soon. The warmth of the West Coast has gone, replaced by a much rawer sound, all recorded over an intensive 15-day period in a basement in Southampton, Pennsylvania. “We recorded this record in a house where we also lived,” Sarabeth explains. “My friends Robert and Peter from Black Rebel Motorcycle Club recorded ‘Howl’ there. It’s owned by the Nicgorski family who are all very musical: Billy, who offered me the basement, and his brother have played in lots of bands, their sister Maria sings on ‘State I Am In’ and their father Wally spent his mornings on the front porch singing in his rocking chair. Making a record where I am singing to and about my father and seeing and hearing their dad out there every morning served up a pretty strong and bittersweet feeling for me.”
“I think we managed to capture a unique mood down in that basement,” adds producer Luther Russell. “As guests in someone’s home we got a feeling that might not have happened in a regular studio. Sarabeth wanted to be somewhere totally unfamiliar; the material was incredibly personal to her, so she had to feel right about where she did it. My job was to capture that feeling, and fast. The plan was to mix it in LA, but it turned out that all the magic was there in the rough mixes I did as we went along – so that is what you hear. I think that’s why it’s such an immediate record, because it really was completed in those two weeks... but with a lifetime of preparation, of course.”
The rawness of the recording reflects the subject matter and provides the perfect accompaniment to Sarabeth’s voice, which seems stronger, more confident and more crystalline than ever, like Karen Dalton or a less histrionic Cat Power, as she deftly conveys her grief with an eloquent, understated majesty. The musical reference points of the first album – Neil Young, Dylan, The Velvet Underground, Big Star – are still there, but somehow amplified, and Sarabeth is definitely not looking towards the current music scene for inspiration. “It’s odd how placid a lot of music seems now; so washed out in sound and feeling,” she says. “It’s like antidepressant music to take antidepressants to. I don’t really give a shit. I am more likely to buy a new book now than a new record.”
This would explain the number of literary references on Get Well Soon. The opening track "The Wound And The Bow" is named after a book of essays by Edmund Wilson, in which Sarabeth discovered and subsequently became obsessed with the myth of Philoctetes, a play by Sophocles in which the protagonist suffers a wound so grotesque that he is left alone on an island to live in a cave and tend to his injuries. The title of "Exit Ghost" was taken from the Philip Roth novel, but he appropriated it from ‘Hamlet’, where it is written as a stage direction. “The scene when Hamlet sees his father’s ghost became lodged in my head,” explains Sarabeth. “And his subsequent madness I understood in a more personal way.”
The narrative ends with the title track and a resolution of sorts. “I feel like I’m either the patient or the doctor, somebody always has an ache,” she says. “When I wrote the title track I had a friend of mine on my mind. She was so sad... just inconsolable and it was painful to see her like that. The title is a reminder to keep myself well. It’s hard to explain the ferocity of the grief I experienced when my father died. I really felt like it was going to kill me, so to be here... well, I just wanted to remind myself of what I survived.”
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