Sarah Jickling doesn’t like keeping secrets. You could ask her about her experience working with an ever-changing roster of musicians in the pop-rock band The Oh Wells, or what it’s like to date a band mate. You could ask her about her mental health issues, about why she chose to pursue a solo project, or about her love for Gilmore Girls. You wouldn’t actually have to ask her most of these questions, as she’s answered most of them on her website. As a fellow songwriter and performer, Sarah’s willingness to bear all is something that I have always found stunningly captivating and deeply influential. I was able to have breakfast with her on a February morning to pick her brain and ask her a few more questions about her good bad luck.
First of all, have you found that since writing for yourself as opposed to writing for a band you’re writing differently, or that you’re writing with different things in mind?
I actually think my writing style changed first, and that’s when I realized I couldn’t have a band anymore. I signed up for this night course at Langara called The Singer Songwriter’s Certificate— you get a little certificate at the end (laughs). We would need to write a song for every Tuesday, which is way more than I’ve ever written before, a song a week is a lot. I had to be able to perform these songs by myself at the class, so I was writing these songs with the idea I’d be performing them alone. They were getting really intimate and dark and the class had a really good response. They really enjoyed the rawness of it, I guess. The class was made up of 8 students and they all came to one of my band’s shows and they came back and said “you know, we actually like seeing you play by yourself better.” That was pretty important for me to hear because everything in my band had kind of been falling apart at that point, and I had been pulling it back together because I thought I needed everyone else. By the end of the course I had 10 new songs that I could play alone, I had a band that was falling apart and causing me pain, so I thought, “my songwriting has changed and I don’t need a band behind me anymore.” I love having a band, though, and I still want to occasionally play with other musicians, but now I know that I don’t need them. I can play without them and be okay.
If you do decide to play with other musicians, how will you go about deciding who to work with? I know you’ve gone through a number of changes in the band’s lineup in the last 4 years.
We’ve done a lot of Craigslist postings as we kept finding and losing members. It was hard because most of the people who responded just wanted to play in a band but weren’t inspired by the music. If I can, I’m going to wait for musicians who are inspired by my music. I’ll play with others, not out of necessity, but in connecting with someone else who’s passionate about it. That’s when I’ll make the decision to play with someone else. I have been singing with one of my good friends that I recently met, though. We worked together in a coffee shop and I heard her singing and she had such a great voice and we had been really connecting on a lot of personal issues, so I asked her to sing with me. She ended up really connecting with the songs and I think her voice really compliments mine, so that’s an example of someone I will play with occasionally, but it’s not a commitment. I have a lot of fun with her because I know that she gets it, she understands what the songs are about— she feels it.
Have you noticed that your influences have changed since you’ve made the move from a playing with a live band to using drum machines?
My influences change with each song that I write. I’ll hear a great song and think, “I want to write something that sounds like that.” I’ve always been influenced by Regina Spektor, but it’s been a natural progression. I listened to a lot of acoustic music in high school…
(Laughs) I’m laughing because this sounds like my own experience.
Maybe even as a city, like five years ago, everybody was playing acoustic guitar and now it feels like a lot of people are going in an electronic direction. A lot of the things I like to listen to have moved that way naturally.
I remember when all of my friends went crazy over Dan Mangan’s Nice, Nice, Very Nice, everybody loved warm, feel-good folk tunes, then the whole Mumford thing came and went, and now all my friends want are beats.
Yeah, it’s all electronic. DJs are taking over the music scene again, because there’s only one person to pay and people are going to dance and drink. Musicians are catching onto that and thinking, “How can we incorporate what a DJ does into our own set?”
It really bums me out that it’s so hard to get an audience out to see local music in this city. It feels like there is a mass exodus of musicians from Vancouver moving to Toronto. I can’t be too bitter because I know exactly why, being in the East and playing shows is a totally different experience.
Yes, I know! A friend from Montreal posted on Facebook asking if anyone wanted to move into her apartment for $300 a month and I was like, “Yes! I do!” When I was there I played at an apartment that had been converted into a bar, potentially illegally, I’m not sure. It was so packed! People weren’t just there to see us; they were there because it’s a cool place to go. That doesn’t really happen here. Apart from the punk scene, people don’t usually go to a venue just to see what’s going on. You need to really push to get people to come out, and it’s a horrible feeling knowing that you’re begging people to come see you. People don’t want to come out. I don’t know what the answer is, touring more? Ah, I don’t know. A lot of people are moving. I’m definitely stuck here for a while but I wouldn’t cross moving off my list. This city isn’t very artist-friendly.
Maybe we have to go about things a different way?
That’s something I’ve been thinking about— my music is very lyrically based, which doesn’t seem to be very trendy right now. Something that is thriving in Vancouver is the slam poetry scene. I’ve been thinking about collaborating with poets and finding an audience that wants to hear words! There are definitely art scenes that are blossoming, just not ours. Like you were saying, maybe if we think outside the box and do something different, we could figure out a way to reach a wider audience.
It’s not very often that I get to speak to other female musicians about this subject matter, so I’m interested to hear your take— have you had any experiences on the road that might have been different for you as a female front-woman than for your male counterparts?
I’ve definitely looked around and noticed I was in a room full of guys and thought “Maybe I shouldn’t complain about my period right now” (laughs). I see myself as a female singer-songwriter, but I also have a lot of mental illness, so I’m not sure if any of my experiences have more to do with extreme anxiety and bipolar than gender. I can’t think of isolated incidents that would fit into that.
That’s actually really encouraging. I generally feel the same way, I’ve never felt intimidated or unwelcome because I’m a woman in a male-dominated industry, but there have been moments when some dude running sound decides that speaking to the men is easier because I must not know what I was talking about, or—
—okay, now that you say that…I’ve definitely had experiences of going into a venue and having people be surprised that I’m the lead singer. I had a violinist, and I’d walk in and the soundman asked if I was the violinist, and when I’d say no he asked if I was the ukulele player— then I wondered if he was going to drill me about every “girly” instrument because I was the girly-girl of the group. I’m the lead singer!
Similarly, at one point I was managed by these people who had a lot of big ideas for me. They wanted me to be sexier. They didn’t want me to be Katy Perry, but they would tell me things like, “You should wear less in this photo shoot,” and other things like that.
Was it the same for your male band mates at the time?
Definitely not. I guess it’s just in my head, but I have thought to myself that if I did change my image, things would just be easier. It’s weird to think that I have to choose between my principals and easier exposure. I know other women in the scene and, I don’t blame them for doing this, but they have completely revamped their image to become super sexy and I’m like, that’s interesting. They instantly do better, like, instantly!
It’s weird. It makes sense given our society, but it’s still a weird realization. It’s fascinating that you think of yourself as a female musician. I really like St. Vincent, and Annie Clark has said in numerous interviews that she doesn’t see herself as a female musician, but simply as a musician.
I’ve heard her and other people say that (maybe Merrill Garbus from tUnE-yArDs?) [Note: they spoke about this issue in an interview with each other.] A lot of people experience their gender differently. My experiences have so much to do with my being a woman, and then my experiences translate into my songwriting, so I am a female musician. I wouldn’t have written so many of my songs if I weren’t a woman. Maybe that’s not how they feel, and that’s totally fair.
I totally see how Annie Clark is a killer guitarist and wants to be taken seriously for her craft but doesn’t want the fact that she’s a woman brought up again and again to the point that she can’t have a real conversation about her playing.
Ha, I’m also not a killer guitarist. I guess I’ve never been in her position, being asked the same questions over and over. Being a woman is so important to me, though, and I don’t actually want people to look at me the same way they’d look at a male artist, because I’m very different from a male artist in a lot of ways. One more thing to add to your list of weird experiences is that people often refer to my music as “chick music”, keeping the idea that music that girls listen to isn’t as worthy or as valuable. But I’m so okay if only girls like my music. I don’t care! That’s like 50 percent of the population! There are definitely guys who like my music, but even if there wasn’t a single guy who liked my music, to me that doesn’t make it bad music. To some people it does, and those people are weird, but they exist. I don’t care if my music is chick music.
You just want to make your music.
You’ve said that you don’t want to have secrets. Was there ever a time when you chose to be really frank with everybody? Could you define that as a moment, deciding to be honest about your health and other issues?
It was always a thing that I wanted to do. The first song that I listened to that made me think that I could write songs was by a Swedish band named Hello Saferide called High School Stalker. It was a really honest song about a girl who’s stalking this guy and I really liked the idea of being able to say anything in a song and that it could be funny or creepy or whatever. I loved that idea of honesty. I decided to talk about my mental health when I actually understood it myself. I didn’t start talking about it until 3 years after my first diagnosis because it took me that long to understand it. I’ll talk about things once I get a grasp on them. Before I wouldn’t be able to say anything because I didn’t know enough about it, I was too confused. It’s still changing, but I feel more on top of it all now.
Sometimes your music comes across as a kind of activism. Mental health seems to be the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about, but you’re able to talk about it.
I think Vancouver is pretty good about talking about [mental health], but I was with some guys from out of the country and they told me that I was too pretty to have mental health issues. To think that a person with mental health issues would be ugly— I forgot that in this country, people are pretty understanding compared to elsewhere, so it’s a huge global issue. I think Maria Bamford inspired me the most to be super honest about that issue. We have the same diagnosis, and my friend emailed me an interview between Maria and Chris Hardwick with a little note that said, “it gets better.” I had gone off medication for a year and I was trying all of this natural stuff. Maria talked about going to the hospital and how medication helped her, and after hearing that I just went to the hospital. I was like, “okay, I’m going to listen to Maria Bamford.” I watched her latest standup, The Special Special Special—
It’s so good!
—she talked about bipolar and it was really powerful hearing her say it on stage, it was really inspiring.
Is talking about it something that you want to do more of?
When I feel really down I feel like I need to continue because I need to tell people that it’s okay. I need to stay alive and healthy for the other people who are looking at me and trying to gain inspiration to stay alive and healthy. Even if its only five people, those are five people who count and matter to me, so it’s really important. My new stuff, the album I’m working on right now, is really about that, more than anything else I’ve done. The experiences are more recent and I’m more knowledgeable about [my mental health] now, and I’m able to write songs about it. It’s the phase I’m in right now— if I could sum up the past three years of my life in a word, it would be bipolar. The solo stuff is so much about that.