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Indie Rock





Sara Sue Vallee shows off her "Skin & Bones" on raw, riveting new EP

Enfolding its beholders in a spun sugar web of gossamer guitar lines, suspended synth drones, and crystalline chimes, the opening moments of French-Canadian-sometimes-Brooklynite-chanteuse-guitarist-songwriter-producer Sara Sue Vallee's debut EP Skin & Bones is enigmatic enough to make one wonder at the significance of its titular date ("July 19") and its mantra-like opening lines (July 19 / July ending / July waiting / July dreaming)...


...a song that could very well be about the Great Fire of Rome ignited on the night of on July 19th, 64 AD at Circus Maximus with tens of thousands fleeing for their lives (nowhere to run...escaping the confining space) and many more when the conflagration spread (oh God, wait, there's no escape) which ultimately led to the decimation of over half the city and no small number of its residents (disintegrating, pieces of flesh are falling off my skin) as Nero infamously fiddled away and surveyed the damage from afar (spying on the people all around)...  
…then again it could just as easily be about the so-called Chappaquiddick incident that happened on the night of July 19, 1969 when Senator Ted Kennedy drove his car over the edge of a dark, narrow bridge and into the Nantucket Sound after departing a nearby party resulting in the drowning death of his female passenger from the soireé (political aide Mary Jo Kopechne) and when it was discovered that Ted fled the scene it all but ended his presidential ambitions...
…and indeed “July 19” does have an underwater, submerged quality with its shimmering guitar and sepulchral bass and hovering-overhead keys with Ms. Vallee confirming she intended the song to have a “sense of feeling trapped underwater” (see full interview below!) and could it be mere coincidence that its music video features a bridge (the Williamsburg Bridge that is) with Sara Sue gliding across its pedestrian walkway like a woman who's possessed by the ghost of an idealistic young boiler room girl unaware of her own tragic fate...
 
…and if we're gonna go full-on spirit-possession crazed onspiracy theory here it’d be worth observing how in the clip above Sara Sue adamantly states she’s changed her ways "since the accident" (hmmm) and sure the clip is taken from a fiction film but one written/produced by and staring Ms. Vallee andoh yeah, besides being a singer-songwriter you may have gathered that she's an actress, screenwriter and director too who moved to NYC to attend the New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts and the Lee Strasberg Institute...

…which is maybe why a song like "July 19" is more actorly than historical, like an indie film focused more on day-to-day situations and ruminations whose very significance is their insignificance  (“We always remember the big moments in life but what about the rest?") which is why Sara Sue chose a date that doesn't mean anything to her and speaking of actorly Skin & Bones was conceived as four cinematic-style tableaus, a tetrology of stand-alone short-films-in-sound like Four Rooms or Tales From The Hood except better (sorry Quintin and Spike!) showcasing a range of musical personae like a slick acting reel meant to show off an actor's best assets...

...across four elemental mood pieces with an emphasis on elemental seeing as its songs are easily mapped onto the matrix of earth/water/fire/air or they are in my mind at least just take "Meadow Avenue": its verses are down 'n' dirty earthy in a Serge Gainsbourg/Brigitte Bardot Gallic-funk-with-a-cocksure-strut kinda way, but then the pre-chorus (0:27) goes all wavy/watery with its swirling, circling melodies and roundabout 6/4 time and then when the chorus proper comes in it's got a fiery heart-baring hook and finally toward the end there's an airy, etherial bridge section (1:43) so yeah you get the gist...
 
…sounds made to match Skin & Bones' equally elemental, raw-boned lyrical content assembled cut-and-paste-style from fragments of Sara Sue’s own diary entries, voice memos and random thoughts scrawled on the backs of envelopes and chocolate wrappers with a recurring thematic motif of being driven “over the edge” not by a sitting US Senator but by emotionally unavailable lovers more concerned with ripping bong hits than with long-term commitments and the like and other topics like loneliness and overthinking, social media addiction, and corrosive lifestyle choices so in other words we are totally relating to this and you probably will too

…and while I'm no Marlon Brando I'd venture that method acting is relevant here where the idea is to build up a mental rolodex of intense memories, emotions, and experiences to be called upon later for actorly inspiration—mixed and matched where appropriate for a specific scene or role which is pretty much exactly like what Sara Sue idd with this record, raiding a decade’s worth of diaries and the like, distilled down into the four sketches on Skin & Bones which is undeniably good value for your dollar…
 
…call it “method songwriting” if you must with the EP serving as an ideal case study with a key finding being how much it's the music on its own that really takes you to those places—from the submerged emotional Atlantis of “July 19” to the fiery yearning of “Meadow Avenue," from the airy come-hither funk of “My Sweet Mary Jane” to the earthbound stock-taking of “Before It Ends”…

...and with enough subtle little sonic touches scattered throughout to keep you coming back for more which, personally, I’m a sucker for the asymmetric metrics and odd-numbered stanzas that pop up here and there but if you’re looking for a good, non-technical pull quote for the whole thing I'd go with “permanently-sun-dappled-Quebecqois-by-way-of-Gotham-singer-songwriter Sara Sue Vallee produces a winning anglophone amalgamation of Vanessa Paradis and Liz Phair and Avril Lavigne on her debut EP Skin & Bones” and in closing we’d be remiss not to shout out Sara Sue’s collaborators who helped with realizing her vision, namely, guitarist/co-producer Antoine Bensoussan, drummer Emmanuel Trottier-Marcotte, sound mixer Tim Buron, and Jean-Patrice Remillard aka “Pheek” on mastering duties and please keep reading after the jump to hear from the auteur herself..  (Jason Lee)

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On musical beginnings…

Sara Sue Vallee: When I was young I wanted to become a singer. But there were no classes to take in the town where I’m from. So my mom enrolled me in acting classes.

But I always had this voice telling me in the back of my head that I wanted to make music. Over the years, even when I was younger, I was always writing lyrics and recording stuff whenever I could.

I remember when I was 14, I received a guitar. But then something happened that I stopped playing. Then I moved to New York and studied acting…was really focused on acting but then COVID happened. And I was like, “I have all this material. This is it, I’m using this chance to make my jump into music. OK, let’s do an EP.”

On the genesis of Skin & Bones…

SSV: I picked four songs out, worked them into their current form, and was planning to move back to the US. But then there were visa issues and with COVID still happening I decided to finish school here [in Montreal] before moving back to NYC.

Which turned out for the best but it was strange how it all happened. Without COVID, music would have never happened. Not the EP either.

I produced the EP with my guitar teacher Antoine Bensoussan who’s also the guitarist on the record. And It wasn’t like renting some place. I’d go to his home studio. He has the whole setup and we would do everything there, and not have to be on the clock all the time.

We worked on the four songs and hired a drummer—Emmanuel Trottier-Marcotte, one of his friends—and I knew someone who we approached about the mixing. I met Tim Buron about 8 years ago while I was working as a waitress. He’s a well-knoen, high-level mixer. So I approached him, “I know you work for really big artists, but are you willing to mix my EP?”

So he gave me a special rate and I hired him. I’m really glad I did, really grateful. He’s one of the top audio mixers in Montreal. It was the culmination of a dream for me.

On the creative process…

SSV: I don’t write in French, because I consume much of my music in English, and I’m inspired by English language musicians.

Some parts of the EP were written when I was living in New York. I remember where I was sitting, on the promenade, looking at the view with the bridge and everything.

And it’s so strange—one section is from this part of my life, and another section is from much later on. And it kind of worked out in a way to make the structure work. I remember where I wrote each individual section.

A lot of the record is inspired by destructive relationships, people that I met over the years. So it’s a mix-and-match in that way too.

On coloring outside the lines…

SSV: We worked on each song separately. The goal was not to make a unified whole out of it. Each piece was unique. Since this is my first entry into music it was really important for me to explore each song individually and to see what they could bring to the table on their own.

Sometimes we would sit down and I was like, “I hear city sounds,” or “I feel under the water.” Like for “July 19” I had this sense of feeling trapped under the water, so I wanted to hear this really low bass, hmmmm, or to hear street sounds in the city. So we took our time to really build an image for each song and to work from there.

I think, since it’s the first time for me, I wrote [the songs] a certain way. And I wasn’t ready to change them to fit a certain style. I was like, “No!” Why should I accomodate, just because this is supposed to be a certain type of song?”

So I was like, “Let’s put the chorus first and then the post-chorus, mix things up, and let’s have nine lines instead of eight. Because that’s how I heard the song and I wasn’t prepared to make any changes. It was produced independently and the vision was mine.

On influences…

SSV: When it comes to acting, I think it’s influence is more in the writing. Because when I write, I visualize a music video. Automatically.

And it’s like I’m acting in the music video, doing all the action, and I write down what I see. This becomes part of the lyrics. It’s like I’m acting the song and that’s how I visualize it.

For musical influences, when I was young, definitely the Spice Girls. They were the first. And then there was Avril Lavigne. And Beyoncé. Pink. Fergie. All of those. And then Amy Winehouse changed things for sure, the deepness of her songs. Lana Del Rey too. The writing is just poetic.

As for the sound, I’ve really been liking Suki Waterhouse. Gracie Abrams. Miley Cyrus. Lyrics may be relatively simple but I like the sound and the emotion behind it. For me, I really like when I can hear a story. And feel it.

On the songs…

SSV: Skin and Bones. Raw. I’m exposing myself, my real self, behind the actor self.

July 19: The date came out of nowhere. And that was important because it’s a random date, and it’s all about those…we always remember the big moments in life, but what about the rest? And that made me wonder what about this random date, what could happen? It made me realize those dates that I don’t have anything happening, a lot of time, I waste my time comparing myself to others who do have big things on those dates.

What if I’m lonely? What am I doing? How am I using my time? And it was more this sense of “what am I doing when I’m alone?”

Meadow Lane: It’s not a real place! It’s me peeking through my window and waiting for my boyfriend to come home. And he’s walking down the street, and I see him bump into a girl on Meadow Lane.

And seeing him fall in love with this girl. At the window, seeing everything, happening in front of my eyes. That’s the story.

Mary Jane: It’s about addiction. It’s about a guy who loves drugs more than his girlfriend—to have the drug by his side. And it came out naturally, almost aggressively pop. But that’s how I heard it.

Before It Ends: It was written half and half. Part of it was in New York, when I fell in love with this guy who didn’t care about me. And then he got back in touch a couple of years ago. It was confusing, because I was now in a relationship.

So I was like, “maybe he’s the one.” But I was really young and the inexperienced. There is no the one. It’s more like you connect with this person, and you make it work or you don’t.

And then, to finish writing this song, I used my imagination to see my current relationship if we were going through the long distance thing.

On music videos…

The video for “July 19” was shot on my last trip in New York, in spring. It was fun. I’d met this photographer and we really bonded. And I asked him, “Are you down to shoot a music video?” I had the demo with me, and we took his phone and played the song. 

It was funny, I was lip-synching just walking down the street in Brooklyn. It felt so awkward at first, just walking down the street and singing. And on the bridge. I was like, “oh, this is so strange!” But people don’t care.

It was also strange for me looking at the camera. As an actor you usually avoid eye contact with the camera. But I had to look at the camera and lip-synch. It’s breaking the fourth wall.

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