It sounds like the plot to a movie, but it’s a true story.
Sarah “Essie” Riddle has two personas: an opera and classical singer, and a blues-rock, funk, and soul goddess.
In 2015 the Pennington resident moved from West Virginia to New Jersey to pursue graduate studies in opera at Westminster Choir College and earned her master’s degree in 2017.
Along with her rigorous class schedule, preparing for classical recitals, and auditioning for opera companies in the New York and Philadelphia metropolitan areas, Essie began singing blues-based rock, soul, and R&B at open mic nights in New Hope, Pennsylvania, especially at John & Peter’s, and really tapped into something.
The nice young lady who had sung in church and the school choir discovered a talent she had never realized before: that she could sing rock ‘n’ roll, blues, soul, and funk, and could really belt it out, in fact. “I liked it a lot,” she says. “I didn’t know I could sing any of that repertoire.”
“When I graduated (from Westminster) I was living a double life — studying opera and doing classical performances, and on the weekends singing rock,” Essie continues. “I realized there were only so many hours in the day, and I was so enticed by all the freedom of singing rock and pop, so I made the decision. Also I was exploring songwriting, and my writing was much more suited for this.”
As far as the split personality between “Essie” and “Sarah Riddle,” the owner of both names says the change was a professional decision.
She explains that “Essie” was formed by phonetically spelling out the initials of her first and middle names, “Sarah Ellen.”
“I was still auditioning for opera companies, and I needed a pseudonym to keep my rock/R&B persona separate,” she says. “I envisioned (the opera personnel) Googling ‘Sarah Riddle’ and finding me singing Led Zeppelin or something, which would not have been good.”
Come to Communiversity in Princeton on Sunday, April 28, where Essie will be performing with friends on the “Town and Gown” stage at 3:25 p.m.
Sponsored by the Arts Council of Princeton, the free, rain or shine the festival runs 1 to 6 p.m. throughout downtown Princeton.
Essie played Communiversity last year, but this is her first time on the main stage, and she and her band will be doing a mix of covers and originals all with her high-energy stage presence and powerful vocals.
If you can’t catch Essie at the annual Princeton festivities, she will be back in town Friday, May 17, at Triumph Brewing Company on Nassau Street for a late night show.
That weekend she will also be singing at Pennington Day on Saturday, May 1, at 2 p.m. (The free festival runs from 10 a.m. through 4 p.m. on South Main Street).
In June you can hear Essie at the Greenhouse in New Hope on Friday, June 21. These are just the performances that are close to central New Jersey; she performs at many other venues throughout the tri-state region.
Although her first band, The Big Chill, has disbanded, as a solo artist Essie is well-known enough in the area to collaborate with a number of different musicians in a variety of styles and genres.
She has been singing with the “Invitational” (open mic night) house band at John & Peter’s in New Hope, led by Mickey Melchiondo (Dean Ween from Ween), and featuring other gifted musicians such as funk/rock guitarist Michael Hampton, formerly with Parliament-Funkadelic (P-Funk).
(Hampton’s youthful skills earned him the nickname “Kidd Funkadelic,” christened by none other than the pilot of the “Mothership” himself, P-Funk founder George Clinton.)
Funny thing is, prior to her arrival in New Jersey, Essie had never really heard funk or soul or even much R&B.
“I now realize I was raised on a lot of country music and also exposed to bluegrass,” she says. “As I get older I know now the church music that was so normal to me was a combination of bluegrass and southern gospel in its roots. But until I came to this area I hadn’t been exposed to much soul and funk — maybe Aretha Franklin, but nothing like P-Funk. So suddenly I was exploring all this great stuff, a whole new world.”
Although she still loves classical music, Essie has put her opera aspirations on hold for a while thanks to a busy, busy schedule. She used to wait tables at Triumph Brewing Company in Princeton, but she has risen through the ranks and now books and manages the talent at Triumph New Hope.
She has also been singing background regularly with Philadelphia-based roots/reggae band Jah People, and soul/pop singer, storyteller, and bandleader Remember Jones.
In addition, Essie has sung with folks such as 2002 American Idol standout Justin Guarini, and Junior Marvin — known for his association with Bob Marley and the Wailers, among others. Her backup work has taken her to venues like the Brooklyn Bowl, House of Independents in Asbury Park, and the venerable Ardmore Music Hall outside of Philadelphia.
Just last month she released a new single titled “Ain’t Right” (found on iTunes, as well as on her website, www.essiemusicofficial.com), which features a touch of blues, soul, and even the church music Riddle grew up with in West Virginia.
On her website she discusses the origins of the song, noting that she “just sang into her phone for about 10 to 15 minutes,” then her formal music training kicked in and she went back, listened to the melody, and wrote the harmonic structure.
The song was written after a bad breakup, and the two words “Ain’t Right” seemed to say it all.
“I started humming along and free-styling some lyrics and the words ‘ain’t right’ happened and felt like this hook,” Essie says. “I feel like those two words have a lot of connotation that really led to how the entire song is shaped.”
She inadvertently plumbed the church and gospel music of her childhood in West Virginia to flesh out the music, but also to find a kind of sanctuary during a dark time.
“After a break-up or any heartbreak you naturally want to retreat and take refuge where you’re loved and supported,” she says. “I’m from West Virginia, so I think that side of my background shines in a song like this, but it wasn’t intentional or planned. In hindsight I think those influences came through, though.”
Speaking of influences, Riddle says she bugged her older cousins to play Stevie Nicks and Dwight Yoakam when they used to babysit. She later raided her dad’s collection of music, especially keen on David Bowie, Aerosmith, and the soundtrack to “Phantom of the Opera.”
Older listeners could hear a bit of Janis Joplin in her sound, but a more modern comparison for Essie’s voice might be the Alabama Shakes’ Brittany Howard, or even Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant, as well as Plant in his ongoing solo projects.
In fact, Zeppelin fans will smile at Essie and The Big Chill’s cover of “Whole Lotta Love,” performed at one of John & Peter’s open mic sessions. (You can see the video on her website.)
Born and raised in Hurricane, West Virginia, (pronounced HER-kin, Essie jokes), she says her father is a stock broker and her mother worked, first, for a coal resource consultant group, and then for the AARP. Essie muses that there might be something in the waters of her hometown: it’s that musically rich.
“Our church had so many talented singers, then at high school, we had a competitive show choir, and that’s what really pushed me into music,” she says. “I loved show choir so much, I wanted to lead a choir.”
She went to Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia, to pursue a degree in music education, but completed her undergraduate studies with a double major in both music and special education in 2014.
Thanks to her mother, who regularly took young Sarah to the symphony, she had loved instrumental classical music since childhood, but at college she found herself immersed in all aspects of vocal music, from opera to Gregorian chant.
“I’d always learned to sing by ear, so I picked up on classical pretty well,” Essie says. “The more I learned, the more success I had, and I just kept going forward.”
For graduate school, she had her eye on quite a few schools, focusing on a handful of renowned voice teachers. Westminster stood out though, even among all those other choices.
“Just being on campus, I felt it was a very rich environment,” she says. “I knew the studies would be rigorous, but if you graduated from Westminster, people would know you were at a certain level.”
“Westminster’s faculty is world-class, and must have had some 10 different people I would have loved to study with,” she adds. “I was most excited to study with internationally known opera singer Sharon Sweet.”
As a classical vocalist, Essie/Riddle has sung at Carnegie Hall with the Berlin Philharmonic led by Sir Simon Rattle in a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. She has also sung with Yannick Nezet-Seguin and the Philadelphia Orchestra for multiple works, as well as several performances with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra.
Over the years she has been recognized for numerous awards, including the Hobson Award for Vocal Excellence, and first place honors in both the Eloise-Campbell Long Competition, and West Virginia National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS) competition.
Right now, however, Essie’s heart and soul are dedicated to rock/pop/blues/funk and the other genres she explores, mostly around New Hope.
“It’s a place where I have a nice little fan base, especially at the ‘Invitational’ at John & Peter’s,” she says. “It’s open mic, but facilitated by the house band, so the members might change any night. You never know who you’ll be onstage with. They’re all from this area though, which is a testament to how much talent there is here.”
Communiversity. Sunday, April 28, 1 to 6 p.m. Essie performs on the “Town and Gown” stage at 3:25 p.m. Rain or shine. Free. 609-924-8777 or artscouncilofprinceton.org.
Triumph Brewing Company, 138 Nassau Street, Princeton. Friday, May 17, 10 p.m. 609-924-7855 or www.triumphbrewing.com.
Pennington Day, 37 South Main Street, Pennington. Saturday, May 18, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Essie performs at 2 p.m. Rain or Shine. Free. www.penningtonday.org
The Greenhouse, 90 South Main Street, New Hope, Pennsylvania. Friday, June 21, 9 p.m. 215-693-1657 or www.greenhousenewhope.com
Essie on the web: www.essiemusicofficial.com