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Friday, December 15, 2017 
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Inquisitive

Sarah Dougher's Transformative Music

A conversation with one of America's most important singer/songwriters.

Interview Jenny Tatone Photography Jim McGinnis
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"I want people to feel brave and happy when they listen to my music. Mostly I want them to feel like I feel when I play it, and I want it to reverberate." — Sarah Dougher
Jenny Tatone: What inspired you to start writing and recording music?

Sarah Dougher: Writing music and recording music are different. I don't know what inspired me to write music, except that I loved musicals when I was a child. I wanted to actually be a star of the stage for a really long time until I was, like, 13 or 14. And I really never was a star of the stage, but I was very drawn to storytelling songs. I also fancied myself, as a child, to be a poet. But I was never a very good poet. I found that my writing was better when I could write prose — it ended up in an academic way. I realized there was something that connected those things for me — it's not really like good poetry exactly, but it's lyric, although I don't know what the inspiration was, ultimately, for writing.

But recording, I wanted to experience the process of layering sound that I made myself, like me harmonizing with myself. That sounds sort of self-absorbed, but it was an intriguing concept to me when I started recording, and I wanted to have a record of what I did. I didn't want these songs to just exist in my own head. I wanted to share them.

Tatone: Most artists have a specific — even if it's large — belief, goal or something that really drives them to continue to make art. Do you?

Dougher: I was thinking about this today, because I heard a program on NPR [National Public Radio] about aphorisms and proverbs. It was a story about this educator who had worked to develop a curriculum that used proverbs to teach fourth graders about all sorts of different stuff. Like, each unit of the education would have a proverb that reflected it. Like, if they were learning about geology, they would learn "A rolling stone gathers no moss." And they would be able to actually use that to talk about ethics and politics. It's a way into a more complex set of ideas — it doesn't just describe one thing, but a culturally comprehensible common idea. So, this really fascinated me, because I think bad lyrics, bad poetry simplify people's relationships to cultural ideas. What I really want to do is make it possible to create a way for lyrical music to connect people to worlds of ideas.

Tatone: Do have specific cultural ideas you want people to relate to?

Dougher: I'm a feminist. So I'm always really interested in talking about how I experience that, as a political idea and as a personal way of living. That's pretty broad, but that's one of my main political interests.

I'm not a didactic feminist. I'm more of a descriptive feminist. Like I went to the state archive building in Salem [Ore.] and there's this "10 Percent For Art" program, where every civic building has to devote 10% of its budget to an art project. So for the archive, this guy did this project where he took quotations from lady pioneers' journals and put them in the patio, this long stairway going up to the building. They are incredibly poignant and incredibly descriptive of a time, a place, an experience. They are, in their existence, feminist statements, and I just read them and cried and cried. I was so emotionally triggered. That kind of representation of feminism is what I want to try to do.

Tatone: For more awareness?

Dougher: Yeah, for liberation. I think the more you understand other people's experience, the more compassion you have for them and the more you will cooperate with them to recognize your common struggle. That's highly idealistic, I realize.

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