Lifestyle

Badass Babes: Sara Neal on Going from Science Teacher to Signed Artist in One Year

"My whole process here I guess; just taking every opportunity that comes and not knowing what I’m doing but making myself do it anyways.”

Sara Neal is not your typical female pop artist. She writes songs inspired by the periodic table of elements and anhedonia, has neon blue hair, and hates doing shows “more than anything.” In a sea of fast-tracked pop artists making hits off things as mundane as the day Friday, there is something quite refreshing about Sara’s authenticity and originality.

Despite admittedly struggling with imposter syndrome and “not knowing what I’m doing,” Sara has been quite successful, regularly performing around clubs in New York City and recently signing to Disrupción Records. I sat down with Sara to talk about the wild ride and how she finds inspiration in unusual places.

What’s your songwriting process?

Oh god. I feel like I generally—I think one of the perks of being a science major and a music major is—I’ve learned about different scientific phenomena, and then I’m like “that’s crazy, I’m going to write a song about it.” Like, I had a composition class and we had to write a class using code and I wrote an entire song using the periodic table of elements. It was called Felina, so it was salt, lithium, and—not sodium—but it was supposed to be blood, sanity, and tears.

I think I get a lot of the influence from phrases, but I think also the ADD in me kind of is a big part of it—like I sing a lot about concepts. I don’t know, I’ve had a lot of people I work with musically that are like, “what is this song about?” And I’m like “I don’t know.”

I’m in Psych right now and we’re learning about depressive episodes and our professor brought up the phrase “anhedonia” which is like lack of pleasure in anything, and I was like, “I’m going to write a song about that.” But it’s also shit people say!

The other day my friend was like “tit for a tat” and I was like, “I’m going to write a song about that but it’s going to be called tits and tats.” I also get really obsessed with concepts, like I have a bunch of songs about the idea of paradise, and blue.

sara neal

What is behind the blue?

I don’t know! I don’t know why I associate with it so much, but I do and I kind of hate myself for it. Like I had pink hair for a while, and I was like “oh this doesn’t feel right” and then I had orange hair and I was like “mmm.” I don’t know if it’s also because I’m from Seattle, it just feels blue.

“I also get really obsessed with concepts, like I have a bunch of songs about the idea of paradise, and blue.”

Dark and gloomy

I’m also synesthetic. Basically, I see colors when I hear sound. All the jazz kids are so obnoxious, like, if I ever say it, they’re like *snap* what color do you see *snap* what color do you see? I’m like, “black like my soul.” I don’t really know why I love blue so much, but I do.

sara neal

It’s a good cohesive concept!

Yeah, it’s my only idea of branding I’ve ever had, I was like “I’ll just keep my hair blue.”

What was it like getting your first show in New York City? Was it hard?

It was kind of an entire and complete accident. It happened last summer. Or I guess, I’d done some shows before, but they were kind of just by coincidence of knowing someone who was like “I need someone to play,” or I had a music class with someone who needed a fill in.

But this summer I was working as a science teacher and I had been like “oh I want to release some music on my SoundCloud,” and Major Stage found it and were like “can I set up a call with you?” And they were like, “what are you doing with music right now?” And I was like “nothing—I’m a science teacher for seven-year-olds—literally nothing.”

And they were like, “oh well what do you want to do with music?” And I was like, “I don’t know.” And they started booking for me, and then the first show I did with them, one of the artists I played with asked me to play with them and then… It’s been just a bunch of accidents.

I kind of have severe imposter syndrome about it. I’m just waiting for someone to be like, “we figured it out! You’re faking it!” Because I’m like, I don’t know what I’m doing. And that’s kind of been my whole process here I guess; just taking every opportunity that comes and not knowing what I’m doing but making myself do it anyways. And I hate doing shows more than anything.

And I’m also synesthetic. Basically, I see colors when I hear sound.

What do you hate about the shows?

Oh god. Well, I started writing music as a very cliché outlet kind of thing. We had a piano in my childhood house, and I was like “I’ll just do this.” Then I released music throughout high school, and then, I think like one of the biggest moments I remember as a musician was—do you know Ray?

I do

She came up to me when she was in seventh grade, and I was, I think I was a freshman in high school, and she was like, “I listened to your Soundcloud” and I was like what? “I was with my Aunt who is dying of cancer and we listened to one of your songs and she cried.”

And I was like “I am so sorry, wait, maybe that’s like a meaningful thing?” And she was like, “no, don’t be sorry, it meant so much to her!” So I was like, “oh” and then I kept releasing music, because, like that’s why I think I make it, since I’ve had to go through my own amount of shit and if I can put into word tactics that have helped me get through stuff and get past stuff and then some random person listens to it and it helps them—like might as well continue doing it.

I think the challenge with doing shows, especially with other people, is the music takes on such a life of its own and then like in the back of my mind I’m like, “oh I wrote this about something super different than it sounds like.”

We have super peppy songs like “Lover You Took My Legs” and “Twilight.” I wrote “Lover You Took My Legs” like two days after I broke up with my ex of four years.

“Twilight” I wrote about when, you know, when it’s super sunny and it’s during the day and you know what you’re doing, and you know what you’re doing that night, but then you get home and you have like an hour to kill and you’re like “wait—what do I do right now?” And like that’s what I wrote that about!

It’s about being alone with yourself and how uncomfortable that can be but now we play it and it’s so peppy and I think trying to like, understand how the two work together, I think is a huge challenge for me. I just hate the whole industry side of it, like, branding myself. I’d much rather have my music mean something to someone than have, like, me as an artist mean something.

The music industry is heavily male dominated. How is your process of navigating an industry that is so male-dominated?

I super, super, super credit any sense of musical stability I have to Emily my roommate. So, her Dad plays vibes—vibraphone—to clarify. She has introduced me to a lot of the music kids and what music is in New York. One of her bands, she is the only girl, and she writes all the music, and it’s like seven other guys who are all astounded by her.

She has definitely got me on my shit and made me aware of “this is how you have to do it if you want to do it.” You can’t half ass it, you can’t be in a rehearsal and have someone play something and if you don’t like it be like “oh that was ok” —no—you have to be like “I didn’t like that.”

And I think also, I think it is such a process. I moved here when I was eighteen and was so far from any sense of home and just realized New York is insane and the great thing about it is there’s this anonymity so if you mess something up with somebody there’s going to be like eighteen other people a second away.

If something doesn’t work, there’s other options. Which is a big realization for me; like if you’re playing with someone and you feel uncomfortable, you don’t have to play with them.

And I think as female artists, it is so like we’re the only females in the world, so you’re kind of a token or something. But when you’re a female artist leading the group you can be like “bye” because there’s five other guys who play drums waiting for you—not that I’d ever fire my drummer.

“I’ve had to go through my own amount of shit and if I can put into word tactics that have helped me get through stuff and get past stuff and then some random person listens to it and it helps them—might as well continue doing it.”

What are you working on now?

Well, so I have—well, I have two songs mostly done-ish. I released a song today which is funny because I’ve had that song for a while and I was like, you know what, I’m going to just release it. Because it’s Valentine’s Day and everyone is all obsessed with their boyfriend or girlfriend or whatever and I was, like, “we need to think about our platonic love as well,” and so I just released it and it was great.

I’ve gotten like 4 texts of people being like “I’m crying,” and I’m like, “I’m sorry I love you.” But I have two songs for a demo and then I’m recording with Zach Golden. I’m doing two songs with him in the beginning of March and then a song with Mick Jenkins which is coming out soon.

That’s kind of been my whole process here I guess; just taking every opportunity that comes and not knowing what I’m doing but making myself do it anyways.”

What does feminism mean to you?

Feminism is about acknowledging and addressing the disadvantages that women face in a patriarchal society, whether it be in a lack of representation or lack of credit in the knowledge and ideas we bring. It’s also just about feeling safe everyday as a woman in a society in which we are not given the same privileges as male counterparts.

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Tigerlily is a writer and musician living in London. She has released two...