Folk artist Sadie Gustafson-Zook’s EP Vol. 1 is a paradox: it’s the specificity of the lyrics that make them relatable. Gustafson-Zook sings with precision about moments in her life, from riding the train in Boston to mistaking a bird’s song for a street harasser, but her reflections on these experiences relate them to broader challenges nearly all of us contend with.
Gustafson-Zook moved from her Indiana hometown to Boston for grad school in 2017, pursuing jazz studies at Longy School of Music. In the time period between then and now, she came out as gay. She consequently describes the EP as one about “uncertainty and gay stuff.” The first track and first single off the EP, the cheery “Lean in More,” for instance, is Gustafson-Zook’s “first gay song,” she says. In a classic, candid singer-songwriter style, it describes her first lesbian relationship and the feeling of having “found something that felt really true and honest,” she explains. “I felt kind of late to the game in terms of not thinking about dating people who weren’t cis men until I was 24 or so, so this song was kind of like coming home.”
The next track, “Birdsong,” is deceptively whimsical, with dreamy harp and scatting, as Gustafson-Zook sings about hearing birds chirping while waiting for the bus and thinking she’s being cat-called: “Bird song makes me squirm/because I’ve learned to assume it’s from a man/standing by the road/cig in tow/making all kinds of demands.” She goes on to reflect on the hyper-vigilance that stems from constantly being subjected to sexual harassment and the male gaze.
On “Two,” she sings about dating someone who seems to have two different personalities, the repetitive tonal structure evoking the madness such a predicament can lead to. In contrast, comforting piano chords take center stage in “Alewife,” giving off a friendly vibe as Gustafson-Zook describes everyday snapshots from Boston’s public transportation system.
“Everyone,” a meditation on the pervasive sensation of being judged, closes out the EP, with a haunting melody in minor keys to emphasize that very discomfort. Gustafson-Zook wrote it during a visit to her parents’ house as she worried what people in her small town would think about her sexuality. Like “Birdsong,” it shows how we can feel others’ eyes on us even when they’re not looking.
“It wasn’t even that anyone was reaching out with bad things to say or criticisms,” she recalls. “But I definitely was feeling that there would be pressures, people would be trying to tell me what’s best for me or who I’m supposed to be, and really, it’s kind of just a declaration of me trying to own my evolution and trying to figure out who I am on my own before taking in other people’s perspectives on the matter.”
This is the first collection of Gustafson-Zook’s that was made in collaboration with a producer — namely, Brooklyn-based musician Alec Spiegelman. “I had a lot of ideas, but wanted somebody to help me make the musical decisions,” she says. They worked out of his home studio, and he added unexpected flourishes, like layering in flutes and clarinets.
“I wanted to do more with tracking one part at a time so that we could have lots of really interesting textures that wouldn’t be really possible in a live recording setting, but I also wanted to retain some of that live energy,” she says. She and the harpist Mairi Chaimbeul, for instance, recorded harp, guitar, and vocals at the same time, then tracked everything else on top of it.
Vol. I is Gustafson-Zook’s first EP, but she’s already got a full-length album under her belt, 2017’s I’m Not Here. In addition to making music, she holds a remote day job as a communications manager for an LGBTQ health clinic and teaches voice lessons.
The EP is the first half of a full-length album, Sin of Certainty, slotted for release later in 2021. She’s currently setting up a home studio to record the second half of the album, which she describes as more upbeat and varied in its instrumentation than the first. “We ended up recording all the mellow songs in the beginning so we could get the harp on them,” she says.
Gustafson-Zook raised over $15,000 on Kickstarter to create Sin of Certainty, a title that may resonate with many right now, as it reflects the album’s overall theme of accepting an uncertain future. “I’ve been thinking a lot recently about change and how to deal with it,” she writes in the Kickstarter description. “As I get older, it’s become apparent that the only constant is change.”