At the beginning of our phone interview, Sarah Jane Wilson, speaking from New York, makes a confession that is not often heard by those who speak to and write about musicians for a living. “I’ve never done a newspaper interview before,” says the Princeton High grad, Class of 2007. “I hope to do a lot more, though.”
Well, welcome to the club. Wilson, as an up-and-coming singer/songwriter, is hoping to get many more opportunities to be interviewed. She will perform at impresario Sarah Donner’s Indie Music Night at Griggstown Pavilion on Saturday, August 27, with the Whiskey Boys and the Bella Birds also on the bill. Wilson has never performed at an Indie Music Night before, but she says she met Donner at a New York Songwriters’ circle show in April, “and it all sort of happened from there.”
Wilson, who has recorded four records, Solid Ground (2008), Exposed February (2010), Catch the Light (2010), and Middle of Nowhere (March 2011), recently signed with Rock Ridge Music which is home to, among others, guitarist and former Yankees great Bernie Williams.
It’s a good place to be for a musician who, though she has dabbled in piano and guitar, says she has always been interested in singing and that her main musical instrument is her voice. She performed in her elementary school choir and also made it into the Westminster Children’s Choir at the age of six. “I was actually one of the youngest to get into the choir,” she says. She also sang in the Princeton Girl Choir and in her high school ensemble. But it was seeing a Broadway performance of “Annie” that inspired her to really get out there in front of people and show what she could do, Wilson says.
Also it was the influence of another singer-songwriter, Ingrid Michaelson, later in her life that inspired Wilson to begin singing and writing music as a serious professional. Michaelson is a bespectacled, redheaded Staten Islander who rocketed from obscurity to cult status to really developing a following a few years ago when her insurgent, guerrilla marketing tactics resulted in the high rotation of her songs on the TV show “Gray’s Anatomy” and frequent downloads on iTunes. Michaelson frequently sells out her live shows without the benefit of any traditional music industry public relations apparatus and very little advertising.
“I first came across her music a few years ago,” says Wilson of the artist who really inspired her. “The thing that I love about her music is that she is an independent artist. She’s done everything on her own, the marketing and the promotion. And everything she has done, she has done it exactly the way she wanted to do it. And that is something I really admire.”
Wilson is hoping very much that she can achieve the same level of fame, or even more, using the same approach. She also greatly admires Michaelson’s singing and songwriting talents. “I just love the style of her music,” she says. “I think her writing is unique, and it’s really inspiring to me. She also has a background in a cappella music, which is what I was deeply involved in in college and even before. She actually reminds me of myself in the way she arranges her music.”
Wilson is a native of Princeton, born to parents who are also Princeton natives. Peter and Bonnie Wilson met in elementary school and have lived and worked in and around the area ever since. Wilson’s mom is a retired realtor, and her dad is an insurance executive, dealing primarily in commercial property insurance. She is the middle of three sisters.
“I’m the only one who got the musical gene,” says Wilson. “The creativity definitely comes from my mom’s side.” Wilson’s mom played flute in her high school band, and her mother’s father, Wilson’s grandfather, sang in a barbershop quartet and still plays jazz piano. Wilson’s father, Peter, is not a musician, but, Wilson says, he was the one who introduced her to music at home. “My dad is the music appreciator. I call him the DJ, because the only instrument he can play is the stereo. Growing up, there was always music around the house. I was always listening to music, and my mom would always take us to musicals. Music was a huge part of my (childhood).”
After graduating from Princeton High, Wilson went to the University of Vermont. “I actually started out as a music major. I went to school thinking I was going to be a voice major, but after my first semester, I came to realize that I really didn’t enjoy it. They wanted me to go the classical route, to be an opera singer, and perform that type of repertoire, but that was not the way I wanted to go. I wanted to go my own way, do my own music, and not have to change my voice so much.”
So Wilson switched her major to communications and minored in music, graduating in 2011. Aside from writing and performing her songs in downtown Burlington, which has an active local music scene, she was music director for an a cappella group at the university. “That was a huge part of my college life,” she says. She just moved to lower Manhattan and is attempting to make a living exclusively as a musician. She has completed a course in bartending and also occasionally works as a babysitter. But she is hoping that ultimately her move from Princeton to the city pays off for her.
“When I came home from college, I normally played a few shows in New York and started making some connections, and it soon became the place I needed to be to pursue my music. There are just so many opportunities here to play and meet new artists and co-write with singer-songwriters. And I was so drawn to being here, I made the move. So far, so good.”
The natural setting, liberal/artsy atmosphere in Vermont, and that area’s general energy is something Wilson says she will never forget. But Burlington, Vermont, still doesn’t have much in common with New York. “I’m still trying to figure out my neighborhood, meet new artists, and try to make connections. It’s been good getting to know them. It’s different, but it’s really fun and exciting. I like New York so far. You definitely have to stay on top of things being here.”
She lives about five minutes from a legendary bar called the Bitter End, where artists such as Lady Gaga and James Taylor have played. “I’ve had the opportunity to play there a few times, which is great.”
Wilson is devoted to songwriting both as an artistic, therapeutic exercise and as a craft. She regularly schedules time as often as she can — preferably every day — for songwriting sessions in which she sets specific goals in terms of productivity and quality.
She says she enjoys writing with others as well as by herself. “I love co-writing with other singer-songwriters, because it’s a great way to bounce ideas off each other. I like writing by myself, but writing with someone else because you can get something really great out of it. I think that’s happened a few times for me already, and that’s great.”
Musically and for life in general, Wilson’s goals are fairly straightforward and simple at the moment. “Right now my goal is just to get myself out there and get exposure to as many new fans as I can,” says Wilson. “I just want to be secure and make a living without being too stressed out about paying my rent or eating.”
Indie Music Night, Griggstown Pavilion, 373 Bunkerhill Road, Princeton. Saturday, August 27, 7 to 9 p.m. Sarah Donner hosts. Special guests include Princeton native Sarah Jane Wilson, as well as the Whiskey Boys and Bella Birds. $5. 609-672-1813. www.facebook.com/indiemusicnight.