Perfect Time for a Breakout
by Jay S. Jacobs
Just two years ago, Sharon Little was waiting tables.
Now she has released her debut CD. One of her songs has been chosen as the theme song to a television series. She was personally picked to open a tour by this year’s biggest Grammy winners – former Led Zeppelin leader Robert Plant and popular bluegrass singer Alison Krauss.
It’s pretty heady stuff, but Little refuses to let it all go to her head.
In these two years, the Philadelphia-based Little met her musical soulmate in singer/songwriter Scot Sax, who had been one of leaders of Wanderlust, a popular Philly band that broke out of the local scene to score a contract and a serious buzz in the 90s for their self-titled debut album. Sax wrote and sang that band’s biggest hit “I Walked,” but eventually the buzz on the band cooled off a bit.
After years of the LA music scene – time which led to the dissolution of his band followed by lots of soundtrack work, solo recording and songwriting jobs – Sax returned home to his roots. Since Sax and Little met, they have become musical and personal partners – together writing and conceiving of Little’s acclaimed major-label debut, Perfect Time for a Breakdown.
Soon after the end of the Plant/Krauss tour, Little – who was fighting off a cold – was nice enough to call us and tell us a bit about her exploding career.
How did you get involved in music? What inspired you to take up singing?
It wasn’t necessarily singing that I got into. It was more so music. I’ve always sang – ever since I was born, pretty much. I was two years old and performing for my family and singing in the grocery store for all the customers. All that stuff. I was more inspired to write music when I was sixteen and actually turn it into my life. I was sixteen and I’d lost a close friend of mine. She died in a car accident. Her mother gave me her guitar and I started pulling at the pain that it had caused and using it as material. It just kind of became my life and has been ever since.
How did you hook up with Scot Sax as a partner?
I was working on my album in a studio – not the one that’s out right now, this is a different thing. I was singing jazz and blues for a while. I had an investor that decided to invest in me because he thought I could be something, even though he didn’t really know what he was doing, and I didn’t really know what I was doing. That ended up failing, but through that I was working on the album at Milkboy Studios in Ardmore (Pennsylvania – a suburb of Philadelphia). Scot had just moved back in the neighborhood from LA. He was just walking around the neighborhood one day and decided to stop into Milkboy Coffee shop and ask when they had open mic. They said, “you have to ask the owners, who are over at the studio.” He went to the studio and introduced himself and all that. One of the owners said, “You know, there’s this girl working in our studio right now on an album and she needs help with some of her songs.” So, he gave Scot my number. Next thing you know, Scot calls me, and we ended up meeting at the coffee shop. I went back to his house that day, recorded a song in his studio. That year we started getting together two times a week. The connection was so strong that it was pretty undeniable. At that point my investor had backed out, so I didn’t have any connections to anyone else. I was very dedicated to making it work between Scot and I. That’s how it happened.
About two years ago you were waiting tables, now you are opening for Robert Plant & Alison Krauss and Chris Isaak. How surreal has the last year been for you?
(chuckles) It’s been quite an interesting time. It definitely has been surreal, but I’ve always been in either strange or tragic or amazing situations. I feel like [they] always end up falling into my lap. Instead of actually getting overwhelmed with all of them, I just look at them and take them as if they are anything else. It’s kind of like I just accept everything as the same thing. In other words, if someone says, “Oh, you’re going out on the road with Robert Plant,” the way I respond to it would be the same as if somebody says, “By the way, you just won the gift set from Macy’s.” You know? It’s like, oh, okay, cool. I don’t know how to explain it. I guess it’s kind of like what I’ve trained myself to do to handle shock.
Like you said earlier, you used to sing jazz and blues. One thing I love about the new CD is that you mix in lots of styles – you have rock, soul, pop, folk, even a touch of country. Were you looking to experiment with styles on Perfect Time for a Breakdown or is it something that just comes naturally to you as a singer/songwriter?
I wrote the entire album with Scot. So, his influence is there. A lot of the stuff that you’re hearing, like the rock and the poppier stuff – that is Scot. More of the soul, bluesy, jazzy kind of vibe is mine. I made it a point; I was like I don’t really care whether the album is perfectly placed – where every song vibes into the other. I just want it to be a record of songs that Scot and I came up with through experience and a lot of stuff. Some of the times when you hear the darker of the songs, that is mostly my writing. Like “Child in a Storm,” I came up with the music for that – obviously with Scot’s help and direction – but for the most part and also a lot of the words. Whereas like “Follow That Sound,” Scot came up with a lot of that song and it’s a lot more rock. I really enjoy doing a lot of different voices. I don’t like just singing one way or one style. I like to experiment with my voice. That’s why I kind of like the schizophrenic kind of style that we’ve come up with. (laughs)
Perfect Time for a Breakdown was the name of your last indie EP as well as your major label debut – even though the albums shared only a couple of songs. Why does that title speak to you?
Well, I really like that title. The EP that we had – as much as I love everything that we’ve done – we’re not going to [widely] release it to anybody. I came up with the name, but Scot was like, “That’s a great name. We should use it for an album.” I didn’t think about using it for an album, I just said it. I really wanted to use it on a bigger album, but at the time we were just shopping for record deals and we didn’t have anything lined up with that much leverage. So, when the actual album came out, I was like, you know what? Let’s just name this one Perfect Time for a Breakdown. (laughs) Whatever, there’s no rules.
You’ve been recording for a few years. Was it hard deciding what would go on the debut?
Oh, yeah. I’m extremely happy with what happened, because it happened and that’s just the way it is. I trust fate a little bit. There are definitely a couple of songs that I really wanted on this album. But I also understand that I’ll do other albums. It’s not like I’m going to stop.
I know Scot has experience with recording for a major label, but this is your first opportunity. How is it different working with label backing rather than an indie? Is it better? Is it worse?
It’s really no different. It’s better actually, because Scot and I basically are doing what we always have been doing, but we just happen to have backing behind us. That’s it. With CBS Records, they are such a great record label – even though it’s CBS, it’s not really a major record label. Like it is, but it’s not.
It’s a smaller part of a bigger company [Sony Music]…
Exactly. They don’t have a huge budget. I didn’t get this ridiculous advancement. There was nothing like that. It was just like, “We’ll place your songs in TV shows and try to get you the best tours possible. That’s all we can do.”
“Follow That Sound” was chosen as the theme to the TV series The Cleaner. How did that come about? Is it cool hearing your song on the show?
Yeah, well, you know what? I don’t really watch TV. When I was on tour, I watched TV more, obviously, because you try to calm down at the end of the day. (laughs) I mean, I’m so grateful, because it’s a constant thing. It’s happening every week. It’s constant exposure of that. But I guess what I’m trying to say is because I was only a waitress two years ago… or a year ago at this point… and all of this has happened. I’ve met people from Vince Vaughn to Fran Drescher to Robert Plant to John Mellencamp, Alison Krauss, T-Bone Burnett, all of these people and I also have had four TV placements. I’ve been on The CBS Early Morning Show. A lot has happened. If I get a little, even like an ounce more excitement than I should, I’m going to become blind. I want to remain realistic. I do make a conscious effort not to get excited as other people do. Sometimes it takes people off guard. (laughs) Actually a lot, because they are like, “Oh, my gosh, I can’t believe you did this! Aren’t you so excited?” I’m like, yeah, it’s cool. (laughs again). They look at me like I have five heads.
I noticed your lyrics have a lot of little details – almost like a short story. For example, my favorite song on the album is “Set You Free.” Do you try to tell a tale with your songs?
Yes. Actually, “Set You Free” is a song that I’d written like five years ago. I never had words to it. I was like, Scot, what do you think of this melody? He was like, “Oh, I really like it.” I [said] cool, let’s write something. I just started streaming. When I write I do a lot of stream of consciousness and stuff just comes out. Sometimes it makes sense, other times it makes no sense. (laughs) Scot usually takes that raw material that I put out and he gives it shape, so that whoever listens to it – the world or however many people listen to it – they’ll understand it. Because a lot of the time you can’t really understand it. That’s how that song came about. It was just like (sings) “I saw a man walking by, seemed kind of shy and troubled.” I was just imagining people walking by and that’s how it came out.
You just appeared on local singer Mutlu’s debut album as well. I recently interviewed him, and he was talking about all the Philly artists he was able to work with.
Oh, I love him!
Why do you think that Philadelphia has such a close-knit music scene?
Well, I think the reason why is because… you know two years ago I had been to one other state in the country, and that’s Texas. And New Jersey, but, you know, same thing [as Philly]. (laughs) After these two years, I’ve been to every single state in the country except for four of them. So, I’ve had a really quick experience kind of getting to know each major city and a couple of these places I’ve been to like five times, like Louisville and Nashville. Just all these places, it’s just been like a… What I noticed that’s different about the music in other cities and the music in Philadelphia is that I feel like it’s taken so casually and taken so lightly. In other words, we have great cover bands and people go out and they listen, and they talk over the cover bands while they’re drinking – which is fine. But if you put a performer on stage, like myself or like Mutlu, people treat it the same way. They just talk all over it. So, I think a lot of the time musicians in Philadelphia bond together and say, “You know what? If they’re going to talk over us, let’s get a group of people together.” That way it’s like us against them. Not so much Philadelphia is unappreciative, I love Philadelphia and Helen Leicht (a local AAA DJ) and WXPN are completely supportive of me. I am so grateful for them. At the same time, in Des Moines, Iowa, I’ll pack a place. Packed, sold out – and people are listening. They don’t talk through the entire show. Then I come home to Philadelphia and I played a homecoming show at the Note and I almost lost my voice trying to sing over top of everybody. It was just so weird, because this is where I’m from and the only thing they did is talk over my music. It’s just sad, you know? I’m not trying to sound… whatever… but that’s just the truth of the matter. So, I think it’s kind of like Philadelphia musicians have to stick together. We don’t take it for granted. In LA people will come and they’ll listen to a show. In New York, if you go out to see a show, you’ll listen to it – in Des Moines and Louisville and Nashville. People have respect for music there. I don’t feel that the respect for music is as high in Philadelphia as I’ve seen it in other cities.
It said in your press bio that you usually travel to shows by train rather than plane. Does seeing the land like that give you a feeling of continuing a tradition of folk singers like Woody Guthrie?
I guess it’s kind of a thing of innocence in a sense. I’ve never listened to folk music a lot. I was introduced to Joan Baez the first time I was given a guitar – just because she was a female guitarist and she was great. I love finger picking. This guy who gave me my very first guitar, he was like maybe you can study some of her work. I listened to her for a little bit, but I didn’t even know that she was friends with Bob Dylan until like a year ago. (laughs) I never studied folk music, ever. So, for me, I’ve always been a little bit of a traveling gypsy. I moved out when I was eighteen years old. I’ve kind of been living in little one-bedroom apartments up until now. I’ve always wanted that drive to just go. Just get out. Walk out the door, shut it behind me, lock it and don’t look back. When I met Scot, and he was like, “Oh, I like to take trains,” I was oh my gosh. That’s exactly up my alley. That’s exactly what I want to do. So, it wasn’t because I wanted to experience anything of a folk legend – I just wanted to do it.
Today, there are so many other outlets for music beyond just the radio – the internet, television, ads and movies. Do you think this opens things up for an artist to get more notice?
I think it opens it up and at the same time I think it shuts it out. It’s kind of like the diamond in the rough or whatever they call it. (laughs) A lot of the reason why the diamond is so expensive or so beautiful is because it’s rare. It’s exciting. It’s hard to find. I think a lot of music has been ruined in this time of day that we’re living in right now. It’s so easy. For example, Scot is older than I am. He loved David Bowie. He told me that when he was young and he’d get a David Bowie album, he couldn’t wait to see what he was wearing. He would run off to the record store and buy the album just so he could see what the outfit looked like. Then he’d go home and lock his bedroom door and listen to it. You don’t do that these days. You can see what anybody is wearing whenever you want. For that matter, usually when you download the song – because nobody buys an album and looks at the artwork anymore – of course it’s easy, but it’s made it so easy that it’s kind of spread out who is actually great and who isn’t. We’re never going to have another Bob Dylan. We’re never going to have another Joan Baez or Joni Mitchell, because we’ve made it too easy for ourselves. We’re not going to be able to find them.
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Copyright ©2009 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: January 14, 2009.