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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 to write a record about [Virginia Woolf's "Three Guineas"], and I don't know if there's room for that in our world. But I want to live in a world where there is, so I want to make it." — Sarah Dougher
Tatone: Yeah, it's sad. But on a good note, I really like your new album — The Bluff — and I wanted you to talk about your experience with writing and recording it.

Dougher: I wrote it pretty fast. I see the songs as being more coherent with one another than in the past. If there's an ideology, it has to do with the way that the word "bluff" means a way of lying, but it also represents a physical landscape, and that contains a lot of meanings as well. They're very heavily weighted signs. Those things always fascinate me, and make me wonder and try to tease out why those meanings would be together in one word and how I could relate to those meanings.

I'm concerned with geography in my music, something that I only realized last year. And moving through space, space in general, is a potent system that visits me. The other idea is the way our culture creates opportunities for lying to happen that are sanctioned — that really fascinates me. Like, why is it OK to lie when you're playing poker vs. when you're telling your child where babies come from? How do people bluff? And how do you learn how to do it? And do you do it once, or do you do it over and over? It's very complicated. So that fueled the intellectual songwriting process.

My musical partner is named John Nikki. He lived in Olympia [Wash.] and he lives in San Francisco now. I would send him tapes because we could only practice once every couple weeks. I would send him tapes and he would come up with these amazing parts. And I'd talk into the cassette and I'd be like, "OK, I think this is the chorus, here it goes: la-la-la-la," [singing]. And I'd play it and then I'd stop. I'd be like, "OK, now I think there has to be a bridge here." I'd narrate the song to him and when I'd go to see him or he'd come down, we would stitch it all together. And he'd say, "What do you think about this transition? Should it be twice as long?" It was very, very collaborative and we solidified it together.

We're touring a lot this spring. One thing we did that was really lucky was last January we were playing in New York for a whole month, so we were together for the whole month and we played all these new songs that we'd never played in public before. We would listen to them and talk about them afterwards and experience them as performances. And that was exciting because we could see what worked for us and what didn't, emotionally and technically. So, I think that really influenced our collaborative process and I hope that will happen again. I just started writing songs again and I think it's going to be the same.

Tatone: So far has The Bluff had the impact that you hoped it would?

Dougher: Like beyond my wildest dreams. I've been very impressed by how it's been received in the world. It makes me really happy. I mean, I get terrible press in Portland [Ore.], terrible. I try to ignore the papers here. But I've gotten really good reviews, and also feedback from people I respect, and that's the thing that's most important.

Tatone: Other musicians?

Dougher: Yeah, exactly. Sometimes you listen to something you made, or look at something you drew or wrote in the past, and you cringe a little and you're like, "Argh, that's not good, that was off." With this record, I don't feel that way. I can listen to it and it makes me happy. I think that's a great triumph. Not like I made the perfect album or anything. I feel like it's a further reach, a further stretch than the last album, and I'm really proud of that.

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