I was young when I wrote my first song. I remember sitting cross-legged on my bed, the acoustic guitar I’d gotten for my birthday on my lap, a tattered notebook open in front of me. I would repeat this act hundreds of times over the next seven years, fumbling through chord progressions and melodies for hours, scrawling lyrics into my journal.
I wrote about the kinds of things that the artists I looked up to wrote about: falling in love and getting your heart broken. At the ripe old age of nine, I was still many years from experiencing these things firsthand. So I used my imagination, tapping into emotions and experiences I knew I wasn’t ready for quite yet, but excitedly awaited.
At thirteen, I recorded a batch of songs with professional producers for the first time. I made myself at home on the studio’s beat up leather couch, raising my voice every now and again to praise a guitar sound or ask to try a different drum technique. For the most part, though, I was an observer throughout that first recording session, listening and taking it all in as the songs I’d written alone in my bedroom grew into professional pieces. Months earlier, these tracks hadn’t existed as anything more than ideas in my head; now, they blasted from the studio speakers, sounding fuller and better than I’d imagined they ever could.
Once the songs were finished, I put them up on MySpace and watched as the play counts climbed steadily. Almost immediately, the songs took on a life of their own. Through word of mouth alone, people across the world began finding my songs and sharing them with their friends, until my songs had amassed hundreds of thousands of listens. At this point, people from the music industry started to take notice. My after school activities shifted from sports practices and play rehearsals to meeting with record labels, demoing with different producers and engineers, and playing shows at grungy downtown NYC music venues that I wasn’t even old enough to enter.
And so, just as I was coming into my own as a songwriter, I found myself being thrust into an advanced stage of the music industry, where songs and artists were just commodities. I was still a gawky, awkward teenager with all the doubts and insecurities that are inherent at that age, but I was being paraded through fancy entertainment offices where the walls were covered in framed platinum albums. Not only did I have to wrap my head around where I fit into the normal high school pecking order, but I also had to think about how I stacked up against the larger than life artists that executives were comparing me to almost daily.
I found the music industry so intriguing and exciting that it took me too long to realize the strain it was putting on my creativity. I was writing songs a lot less, spending my time instead writing emails and sitting in meetings and trying to fit the opportunities I was being offered into my life as a student and teenager. And whenever I did sit down to write, I found myself analyzing each idea before I let it develop fully. Does this sound like a hit? Does this fit in with my other songs? Is this lyric too mature for a sixteen-year-old? External expectations crept into my head, and writing stopped feeling as fun, as free, as mine.
There wasn’t really a specific moment when I decided to put my career on hold—I shifted gears pretty gradually. While I kept putting out music and communicating with my fans online, I was playing fewer shows and taking significantly less meetings in order to focus more on my schoolwork and SAT prep. I had always wanted to go to college, and I felt like I had to go when I was young or I never would. But more importantly, I think my foray into the industry had shown me that I had more growing to do, as an artist and as a person, before I was ready to throw myself fully into music.
So I parted ways with my management team, declined offers for recording contracts and focused on filling out college applications.
Throughout my four years in college, I did something that I had never really done as a young adult: I lived for myself. I dove into history, literature, art, music, popular culture and creative writing. I made wonderful friends, and was able to discover and learn a lot about how people worked. I had real romantic relationships and found out they’re so much better and so much messier than I’d imagined as a teenager writing songs. I also got my heart broken a few times, and inadvertently caused pain to people I cared about. And as all of it was happening, I started finding myself back where I started, spending afternoons sitting cross legged on my bed, with the same acoustic guitar in my lap, and another tattered notebook open in front of me. However, this time, I wasn’t cranking out fictional narratives based on my fantasies of how life would be, but rather chronicling very real relationships and experiences. I’d grown up, and my music had grown up with me.
I graduated from college with no job and no real plan—just a collection of highly personal songs and a better grip on who I am and what matters to me. I moved back into the bedroom in which I’d written my first song and began the process of recording my next EP. I worked with lots of different collaborators, trying to craft a new sound for my music that reflected all the ways I’d grown and changed during my hiatus.
Six months later, I’m fully immersed in phase two of my career, and can’t wait to release this new music into the world. I’m apprehensive, I’m nervous, I’m a little jaded—but I’m ready.
As I pound the pavement like so many other artists in this huge, haphazard city, I reflect on some of the opportunities I turned down when I was younger. I wonder how long it will take me to win everything back, or if I ever will. But I have no regrets. Every step I’ve taken has given me notebooks full of inspiration and a faith in myself that can only come from walking away from your dream and then starting over half a decade later.
Sarah played her first show in four years at the beginning of 2017, and she’s just as phenomenal as ever. Keep up with the talented Sarah Solovay here.