Thayer Sarrano Spreads Her Wings
“Shoegaze” is a misnomer when it comes to the multi-faceted sound of Thayer Sarrano. The prolific side musician turned band leader explores storytelling devices beyond her immense guitar skills. No instrumentation, genre or special guest from her past was off limits in the making of Wings Alleluia, out March 29 via The Guildwater Group. This boundless approach blends shoegazey riffage with art-rock individuality and Southern Gothic world-building on an album that’s emblematic of the creative free-for-all in Athens that transformed Sarrano from a classical pianist to a rock ‘n’ roller.
Songs rife with spiritual imagery and Sarrano’s expressive lyrical style reflect her growth as an Athens-based artist, dating back 10 years to the start of her solo project. Before going all in with her own band, she spent years supporting the likes of T. Hardy Morris, Jim White, Futurebirds, Lera Lynn and numerous others on stage or in the studio. If she hasn’t played in your favorite Athens band, she more than likely performed as a supporting act on tour or around town. Seriously, few degrees of separation exist between her and pretty much any heavy-hitter you can imagine. She hasn’t distanced herself from this impressive cast of Athens friends at all as a well-traveled band leader, recruiting Morris, Parker Gispert (The Whigs), former UGA kicker turned producer and musician Billy Bennett and the Athens Cowboy Choir as backup vocalists.
From the sonically chaotic title track and “Totem” to the soothing, choir-driven “O My Soul,” the songs on Wings Alleluia are emotional experiences that Sarrano selflessly shares, not swampy nests of distortion or disposable pop songs. The religious talking points made apparent by these song titles don’t make it a gospel or New Age album – although Sarrano and friends would excel at reshaping either genre. Instead, they’re testaments to the spiritual power of a good song.
In short, Sarrano made another album that’s unquestionably from Athens and not exclusively beholden to any specific strand of indie rock or to a single belief system. Press materials liken the album to “the twang of Cowboy Junkies/Margo Timmins, the look-to-the-sky dreaminess of Harriet Wheeler/The Sundays, the obtuse pop hooks of Polly Jean Harvey, the feedback of Jesus + Mary Chain, the production values of Beach House and the modern hooks of Nicole Dollanganger.” High and descriptive praise, yet even all of that might be limiting when it comes to defining the latest creative vision from one of the Classic City’s most imaginative musical exports.
In anticipation of Sarrano’s first album since the 2015 stunner Shaking, Stomp and Stammer chatted with her briefly about the home front and her transition from a classical composer to rock songwriter.
Were you already a songwriter and musician before you arrived in Athens?
“I studied piano in school since I was a little kid. I wrote a lot of instrumental music, but I never really wrote songs until I had played in a bunch of bands in Athens. I started playing guitar in my band because I just like guitar.”
So, you learned piano first. Did that make it easier for you to learn other instruments and think like a songwriter?
“Yeah, I just played classical piano. I’ve been a musician my whole life, but I was more like a composer before I came to Athens.”
When you got to Athens for college, did you find it easy to get involved in the music scene there, or was it intimidating to dive in?
“Not at all. I just joined a band the day I moved to town, and I joined 10 more bands after that. It was ridiculous. I just dove right into it.”
What was the first band you joined in Athens?
“The first one was Rasta Blanca, a reggae band that played weekly gigs in the jam scene. Then I played in Dave Marr’s band, Kaitlin Jones and the County Fair and Kuroma. All of those are pretty different genres, but the community’s so small that I ended up being in a bunch of different projects after that: David Barbe, Of Montreal, T. Hardy Morris…”
When did you start your solo project?
“We started playing shows at proper venues when we made our first record in 2008 or ’09 maybe. I was a side person in a lot of bands, and that was my job. I didn’t tour with my band for many years even though I was putting out records. We didn’t start touring heavily (as a solo act) until 2015. I didn’t have a car, so I couldn’t really play out of town. It was more logistics and money that kept me from doing it. I wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I should wait to do this band.’”
As a lyricist, did you have a background in poetry, or did you just dive into it as a musician?
“I wrote instrumental music (as a child), and I wrote poetry. I was way too shy to sing, so that’s why I didn’t write songs. This is all like 15 years ago, so I’m trying to remember! I’ve been writing songs for 15 or 20 years. I didn’t do it as a kid, but I’ve played music for forever.”
This album and past releases get compared to shoegazey stuff. With that music, sometimes you’re telling stories with guitar more so than words. There’s a lot of lyrical depth to what you do, too. As someone who’s played music for a long time, is it pretty fulfilling to do more than sit there with an acoustic guitar when telling these stories?
“I love guitar tones. I love sounds. I love distortion and delay. I’m not really sure what’s happening when I’m doing it. I don’t have a specific intention or anything. I’m just becoming a part of it.”
With the album title Wings Alleluia and song titles like “O My Soul” and even “Totem,” there’s a lot of spiritual imagery on this album without it being specifically gospel or metaphysical…
“I just have these experiences and write about them. That’s just what comes out. I just want people to have an experience with it. I think it’s more about my interest in transcendence and stuff and that kind of higher place. That’s why I love art and music. That’s what you feel when it reaches you. It’s a transcendent experience.”
The touring end of the album cycle must be old hat after years of playing in other peoples’ bands.
“Yeah, we’ve been touring as much as we can. There’s other variables, but if I had it my way, I’d be on tour all the time. Whenever you put a record out, you get to tour a lot, so that’s great.”
Photo by Alysse Gafken.