[“I do a bit of video editing here and there but music has been my main thing for most of my life,” Sarah Blake tells us. PHOTO: Supplied/Sarah Blake]

Sarah Blake is a bassist, guitarist and vocalist sharing soul-soothing songs through honest lyrics and a sound as smooth as morning sunshine creeping through your curtains. Her music combines an education in jazz composition, playful vocal rhythm, and Brazilian grooves. 

Sarah will be playing gigs in the Western Cape to showcase her debut full album, Food For Thought, before heading off for a European tour in March of 2023. We sat down with Sarah to talk about how her musical career began, the origins of her emotional first EP The Journey, and the happy coincidences that lead to Food For Thought.

Jazz and journeys

With parents that met while playing in an orchestra, music has always been a part of Sarah’s life. She played multiple instruments throughout school but it was the double bass that caught her in the end. A performance from one of her teachers at the Grahamstown Jazz Festival inspired her to pick up the double bass and switch her degree from a BA to a BMus in jazz composition. 

Sarah began playing with the local gypsy jazz group Manouche, doing so full-time after graduating. Having seven years with Manouche under her belt, she moved overseas for a year to attend The Collective School of Music in New York City.

Sarah Blake
[“Up until [The Journey], I’d only written two or three songs of my own,” Sarah Blake tells us. PHOTO: Supplied/Sarah Blake]

“I was a small-town Noordhoek girl, not really expecting such a spot, or not being mentally prepared for the magnitude that is New York City,” Sarah tells us. She used her time in New York playing here and there, not finding anything too serious.

But after finding out her father was terminally ill with cancer, she moved back to South Africa at the end of 2019. In the short period before lockdowns in 2020, Sarah spent time in the recording studio and touring with Zolani Mahola, who is enjoying a successful solo career after being the frontwoman of South African darlings and internationally-acclaimed Freshlyground.

“And then my dad passed away in May of [2020], which was a huge knock to my family,” Sarah tells us. She went on to write The Journey in 2021 — three songs for her father about the beginning, middle, and end of his experience with cancer. 

“Which was an awesome gift to myself and I think to a lot of people who go through losing somebody,” Sarah says.

The Journey is a touching 11-minute ode to the ones we love, made up of ‘Precious Time’, ‘The Lullaby’, and ‘Free’. ‘The Lullaby’ is a great example of Sarah’s ability to drive an infectious rhythm home using a mischievous second layer of vocals.

Sarah Blake
[“With my dad’s music — the more I played it the more okay I became with the whole situation,” Sarah says. PHOTO: Supplied/Sarah Blake]

‘Free’ also uses vocal layering to great effect, pairing them with building guitar and one of Sarah’s more pop-y arrangements to create an incredibly compelling emotional swell. Not to mention an opening whistle that sets the stage perfectly — it’s no surprise that Sarah tells us audiences have had strong reactions.

“People would just be crying and come up to me afterwards — people of any age who connected with this song of losing someone. I’m finding people opening up to me in such a beautiful way,” Sarah says.

Relatable stories and chance encounters

Sarah tells us she’s always been attracted to more folky, relaxed musical atmospheres. Her jazz education is a big influence on her writing, on top of growing up listening to plenty of big band jazz. “And a bit of Brazilian, groovy kind of stuff, because why not. I think that’s some of the life force of music — getting that groovy, feel-good vibe,” Sarah says.

When writing her new album, which would eventually be titled Food for Thought, Sarah wanted to do more than just love songs. She tells us that the tracks on Food for Thoughtall have a specific meaning to me in my life. They just so happen to be very relatable to other people. I like that it’s not just about love and happy things.”

Food for Thought serves up a buttery-smooth musical platter that gives you plenty of flavours to sample. There are light-hearted indie-folk snacks, cuts of cafe jazz drizzled with brass, and lively Spanish-infused apéritifs.

Sarah tells us it means a lot to her to get to play this material live. “It’s the first time I have something to show for something I feel so passionately about. And that I feel I can connect to people through,” she says.

Sarah Blake
[Sarah Blake out in nature shooting a promo video for The Journey. PHOTO: Sit The Folk Down]

Many songs on the album have a fantastic sense of pace, and show off a skilful use of layered vocals to elevate the project’s grooves from well-crafted all the way to irresistible. ‘Addicted’ is a song about spending too much time on your phone, which does a great job embodying the feeling. It starts off fast but shallow — just vocals over restless strings. But you’ll find yourself getting more and more engrossed by the sound as Sarah brings in playful vocal layers, calling on her phone to leave her alone.

‘Merry-Go-Round’ is another track with an onomatopoeic sense of pace. The listener is sent spinning to the rhythm of a shaker, borne aloft by soft-spoken brass. Then we’re suddenly let off the ride, sitting dizzy through the last minute of tender vocals.

“Merry-Go-Round was written for my sister. We used to be very good friends, and then all of a sudden she stopped talking to me and I have no idea, still to this day, how or why or what did that. Again, the music is like my therapy — if I get it out on paper it’s not in my body anymore,” Sarah says.

[“I’m happy with how things are going – in the flow, getting things done. Just gotta ride the wave,” Sarah tells us. PHOTO: Supplied/Sarah Blake]

It took a long time to finish the album and get it recorded, and a lot of good luck came up along the way. It involved chance meetings at year-end functions, invitations to Amsterdam, a stint in Germany, and calling in friends of a friend for recording favours. “It was just like bouncing from one beautiful thing to the next, making this amazing audio-baby — as we like to call it,” Sarah laughs.

Chasing the summer

Sarah plans to pursue her music both in Europe and South Africa, spending six months on either side and chasing a perpetual summer. “I like the beach, I like being in the mountains, the sunshine – it makes me happy,” Sarah laughs.

Food for Thought is only being made publicly available to stream after Sarah heads over to Europe in March of next year and throws an official release event. However, she will be playing shows here in South Africa until then and will be selling physical copies of the album as a kind of sneaky pre-release.

“And when you buy a CD, there’ll be a QR code for you to stream the album on Bandcamp — so you can listen even if you don’t have a CD player,” Sarah says.

Sarah is excited to share Food for Thought’s stories on stage, where her approach matches her frank songwriting. “I don’t put on an act when I perform, it’s completely me. It’s taken me a while to go from being awkward on the mic, to still being awkward but owning it,” she laughs. “Letting those bad jokes just roll off the tongue and not being apologetic about it,” she continues.

You can catch Sarah live at café Roux on 14 December for her debut album release show, where she’ll be backed up by a band of guitar, percussion, a second pair of vocals, and a trumpet. If you miss her then you’ll have another chance on 29 January at The Daisy Jones Bar in Stellenbosch.

Otherwise, you can stream the sincerely moving tracks from The Journey and the single ‘To the Moon and Back’ on most major platforms until Food for Thought is finally released in April of 2023.

Author

​​I write about the tech sector in hopes we can find human-centred alternatives to the mess we’ve made for ourselves. I get involved in the music scene because leaving passion unpursued is a sin. When my feet aren’t busy on the sokkie floor, you can find me chasing silver linings.

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