A little more than a decade ago, when she was only 12, West Windsor native and singer-songwriter Sarah Copley was lifted onstage by country superstar Kenny Chesney during one of his rousing concerts at the former Wachovia Center in Philadelphia.
“That’s my claim to fame,” says Copley speaking from her current home in Lawrenceville, remembering the 2005 Chesney concert, where her parents had excellent seats, but wanted to get even closer. “They were up next to the stage and I was on my dad’s shoulders. Kenny was shaking everyone’s hands, and he came along to me and gave me a high-five.”
“Then he grabbed my hand and pulled me up on the stage, and kept right on singing,” she recalls. “The crowd went crazy, and I felt like I had won the lottery. It almost felt like a dream, his arm was around me and he was singing to me. I was in such shock I don’t even remember what song it was. Me with my mouthful of braces and wearing my country hat — what a great experience.”
Being singled out by Chesney must have been some kind of a country music-style blessing that Copley didn’t even realize. Soon after the concert in Philly, she found a guitar in her basement, got her dad to teach her the basics, and hasn’t stopped playing, singing, learning, and loving music since.
Copley will be playing a mix of her originals along with covers of pop, rock, and new country favorites at Communiversity ArtsFest on Sunday, April 30, on the Paul Robeson Stage at 3:35 p.m.
Produced by the Arts Council of Princeton and blending the energy of Princeton University students and support from the town of Princeton, the annual showcase of live music, arts and crafts, unique merchandise, international foods, kids entertainment, and more takes place in downtown Princeton, rain or shine, from 1 to 6 p.m.
If you can’t catch Copley at Communiversity, she’ll also be performing at the Yardley Inn in Yardley, Pennsylvania, on Saturday, May 6. She is busy planning many more live appearances in central New Jersey, and, especially, at the Jersey Shore for the summer of 2017.
Copley also writes original songs and has had some success with her 2015 release, “Shadow in the Rain,” produced by and featuring Marc Muller. He is known for his work with country rock diva Shania Twain — who also invited little Sarah on stage during a concert.
“That was at the PNC Arts Center in 1996,” Copley says. “I was a very shy 4-year-old at the time, when Shania pointed at me to come up onto the stage with her. Unfortunately I missed my chance because I was too scared to leave my parents’ side.
“Fast forward 17 years, and I would record my first original song, ‘Shadow in the Rain,’ at the (Neptune, New Jersey) studio of Marc Muller, Shania’s guitar player that night,” she says.
In addition to Twain, Muller, a renowned solo artist, writer, producer, and arranger, has recorded with Bruce Springsteen, Branford Marsalis, and Kelly Clarkson, and is an adjunct in the music department at Monmouth University. Muller is also the music director, arranger, and multi-instrumentalist for Dead On Live, which performs recreations of the Grateful Dead’s classic recordings.
Copley sings and plays acoustic guitar on “Shadow in the Rain,” a pretty and poignant track, and Muller adds backing vocals, electric, and slide guitars, making for a perfect new country song.
You might be able to hear the influence of Miranda Lambert and Colbie Caillat, both favorites of Copley’s. Maybe if you’re a certain age, you might also hear a little Linda Ronstadt in her “Desperado” days or a young Joni Mitchell.
“I love Joni Mitchell,” Copley says, noting that “Big Yellow Taxi” — with the lyrics “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot” — is one of her favorites to sing live.
In the video for the song “Shadow in the Rain,” we see a photogenic and relaxed Copley singing and strumming along the azure waters near West Palm Beach, where she was visiting extended family. Her cousins appear in the clip as well.
“It was shot there as well in Jupiter, Florida, where we were on vacation,” she says. “My dad found the video director (Jeff Bernier), and we just decided to shoot that week.”
Although she looks completely relaxed, and in fact has a natural presence on camera, Copley says she was very nervous during the taping.
“I am much more comfortable performing live, because you get to feed off the audience and what they’re feeling,” she says. “With the video, you’re thinking about ‘this needs to be perfect,’ but on stage, you’re just having fun.”
Copley also had recognition with her performance of the song “Everyone’s Your Friend,” a single with a distinct anti-bullying message featured on the award-winning “Sing With Max” children’s CD. Produced by Emmy-nominated composer and producer Craig Brandwynne, with music and lyrics by Keaton Lusk, portions of each download of “Everyone’s Your Friend” were donated to various organizations throughout the country that support anti-bullying.
The video for that song was created by Griffin Boustany, one of Copley’s fellow students at Penn State, and shows the singer-songwriter in various locations around the campus. (Copley graduated from Penn State in 2015 with a degree in public relations, communications, and advertising.) She found Boustany through Facebook, adding to the somewhat random feeling around the project.
Copley’s father is Bert Szostak, a business development manager for EmployersHR, a professional employer organization in Princeton, and her mother, Copley Szostak, is the owner of Present Company, a promotional marketing company in Ewing.
“Copley” (her mother’s first name, and an old family name), is Sarah’s middle name, so she decided to use it as her professional last name.
Both parents were — and still are — big music fans, and music was always playing in and around the house. Copley says she grew up hearing lots of country music, as well as 1960s and ’70s stalwarts like the Beach Boys, the Eagles, and Fleetwood Mac.
“My parents always encouraged me to sing and play, to try different instruments and whatnot,” Copley says. “When I found the guitar in my basement and asked my dad to help me play, he taught me for about a year, and then he took me to Lance Reichert in Hamilton for more advanced studies.”
Copley learned quickly and got good enough to give a live performance, with Reichert, at Villa Barone in Robbinsville when she was only 13.
“I still can’t believe I did it because I was usually so shy,” she says. “I didn’t realize I should be scared. I just had fun and since then, every performance has made me better, and I’ve gotten over the nerves. I’ve also been trying to play live in and around Mercer County as much as possible.”
One of her favorite places to perform is at the Centro Grille in Robbinsville, where Copley has been performing an annual Christmas Eve show for several years now.
Copley attended Thomas Grover Middle School and West Windsor-Plainsboro High School South, graduating in 2010. She was part of the high school’s excellent concert choir, which traveled to Europe, performing at several venues in Germany and Austria, including Golden Hall in Vienna.
At the same time she was involved in high school music activities, Copley says she was playing gigs at area restaurants on the weekends and even on vacation.
One rather bold live performance, which you can view at www.youtube.com/sarahcopley17, has Copley joining a couple of lounge performers to sing “Call Me When You’re Sober.” You can hear that it was a bit of a tough crowd — noisy anyway.
“This was during a ski vacation,” she says. “We saw a duo playing (in the lounge) and the only song on their list I knew was ‘Call Me When You’re Sober’ by Evanescence. I was probably not even supposed to be in there, but my dad talked them into letting me sing, but they let me come (and sit in). My dad is really supportive — he’s been my roadie, my manager, and everything in between.”
With her marketing savvy, Copley understands that folks such as fans, booking agents, reporters, etc., will want to place her in a certain category, and the description of “new country singer-songwriter” agrees with her. She definitely falls into the acoustic classification, and is not interested in being in a band, where songs might be drowned out or diluted by too much excitement and amplification.
Her acoustic version of Lorde’s anthemic “Royals” is a good example of how Copley likes to put her individual stamp on hit songs, and make the listening experience more intimate.
“I love doing that because sometimes with songs that are so popular, people get tired of them because they hear them a lot on the radio,” she says. “So I try to revise a song, make it different, give it a twist that’s really my own. When it’s an acoustic version, the lyrics really shine, too.”
“I’m not sure how exactly you would describe what I do, but I like to try to take songs — any song — and make my own acoustic version of it,” Copley says. “That way it comes out as ‘me.’”
Sarah Copley, Communiversity Festival of the Arts, Downtown Princeton. Sunday, April 30, 1 to 6 p.m. Sarah Copley performs on the Paul Robeson Stage, located on Witherspoon Street and Paul Robeson Place, at 3:35 p.m. 609-924-9777 or www.artscouncilofprinceton.org.
Sarah Copley, Yardley Inn, 82 East Afton Avenue, Yardley, Pennsylvania. Saturday, May 6, 6:30 p.m. 215-493-3800 or www.yardleyinn.com.
Sarah Copley on the web: www.sarahcopleymusic.com or www.reverbnation.com/sarahcopley.
For more information on Communiversity’s day featuring over booths showcasing original art and crafts, merchandise, delicacies from local chefs, and six stages of music, go to www.artscouncilofprinceton.org.