Sarah Sample Lets The Wisdom of Nature Guide Her With Premiere of “Old Barn Owl”

When Wyoming-based folk singer-songwriter Sarah Sample wrote her song “Old Barn Owl” about a year ago, her goal was to bring peace both to herself and to her listeners. Little did she know how much the world would need that sense of calm when the song was released.

“It’s funny how songs do that sometimes,” she muses. “You write it in a different context, and it arrives almost exactly when you need it. Right now, we find ourselves in such a fog of anxiety and stress and sadness in the world, and for me, it’s always been really healing to get into nature.”

Sample wrote the song with her sister, Cate, while they were on a songwriting retreat in the Chihuahuan Desert in West Texas. They began to write the lyrics together using the “cutup method,” where they cut words that were meaningful to them out of books, then strung them together to create verses.

Then, one night, the two sisters were outside looking up at the full moon when they began singing the melody together and wrote the chorus. “It felt like any heaviness we had was lifting off our hearts, off our shoulders,” Sample remembers. “There’s something really healing about being in nature, being in the wilderness, and the song speaks to the fact that when you’re in the wilderness, there’s no judgment. I think that’s a really healing place to be: the idea of, just come as you are and you won’t be judged.”

She believes the cutup method gave the song a “mystical and poetic” feel. “It didn’t follow a linear storyline like some of my other songs,” she says.

Recorded live at June Audio Recording Studios in Provo, Utah, the single opens with earthy, gentle acoustic guitars by Sample and her long-time collaborator Paul Jacobsen. Then, she and Jacobsen sing together in the soothing chorus: “And the old barn owl calls, and everything’s all right/Maybe even me, tonight.” The song picks up energy and takes on a hopeful tone in the outro as producer Scott Wiley comes in with electric guitar.

“I think there’s something that’s really magical when you record a song live together in a room because you can feel that energy we can feel while tracking it together,” she says. “I would love if people would turn out the lights, maybe open a window, turn it up loud, and see how it feels.”

Sample began playing guitar in sixth grade and grew up playing Indigo Girls and Tracy Chapman songs before beginning to write her own music. She released her first album, Rotate, in 2003 and has released four more albums and an EP since.

Her last album, 2018’s Redwing, also featured songs co-written with her sister, who tends to focus on the lyrics while Sample focuses on the melody and music. “The beautiful part about writing songs with your sister is that you get to be authentic and true in your feedback, and we each bring different things to the table,” she says. “I don’t know why we resisted it for so long. It’s just the sibling rivalry that comes up. It’s been really wonderful to write songs together. She’s been my favorite songwriting partner.”

Before this year, all of Sample’s songs were released as part of larger collections, but she recently began focusing on singles in order to draw more attention to each individual track. “Sometimes, you put out a record, and there are a few singles that get the attention, and you have these other tracks that seem to fall through the cracks,” she says. “And so, as a songwriter, it feels good to put the full focus and the spotlight on one song.”

Her most recent release was a cover of Pearl Jam’s “Nothingman,” where her airy voice and piano give the classic an emotionally raw feel. “Pearl Jam is such an iconic band, and I think they influenced so many people,” she says. She also recently recorded a love song that will be released early next year.

Outside her musical career, Sample is a nurse who works with cancer patients and chemotherapy infusions, which she says has found its way into her music. “I’ve always wanted to write about the human experience — my own experience, but also just the story of people,” she says.

“I think that’s what folk music is. Folk music tells the story of the people, and so I’ve written several songs that are about death or about people dying, and I definitely feel like watching the grieving process with people I care about has been really educational for me as a person. And how to talk to people and how to take care of people — I think that helps me be a better songwriter and helps me be a better human.” 

Follow Sarah Sample on Facebook and Instagram for ongoing updates.

SHEL and Jars of Clay Collaborate for “A Family Christmas” EP

Photo by David Braud

The way that SHEL – a folk group comprised of sisters Sarah, Hannah, Eva and Liza Holbrook – met Christian rock band Jars of Clay is like a scene out of a movie. The two acts were eating at the same restaurant in Nashville when Jars of Clay frontman Dan Haseltine approached their table, asking if they were a different female-fronted indie group, Lucius. The serendipitous encounter prompted the sisters to go back to his table and share how they’ve been longtime fans of the Grammy winning rock-gospel group, working up the courage to give him a CD of their work. “He listened to the CD and he got back to me and he’s like, ‘It’d be so fun to work together,’” Eva Holbrook recalls to Audiofemme via phone interview from a recording studio in Nashville.

Haseltine put these words to action, inviting SHEL to perform as part of Jars of Clay’s Family Christmas concert in Nashville in 2018, their chemistry and mutual love for the holiday sparking the idea for a collaborative EP, A Family Christmas, released on Nov. 22. “So much of the time that we spent bonding as bands happened at the Family Christmas show,” Eva explains. “I think we also shared this love of Christmas music and doing unique arrangements, as well as writing original Christmas music. That was something both bands were really excited about.”

The two acts wrote and recorded the festive EP this summer. The six-song endeavor features covers of two powerful classics, “Go Tell it on the Mountain” and “What Child is This,” alongside four original songs written by the band members. In the midst of working on the project, Eva was recovering from skin cancer removal surgery that left her with 20 stitches underneath her left eye. But still she persisted, making her way to the studio to lend her voice to the project that she describes as one of her favorite experiences in the studio. “I think I expected to feel really self-conscious about my appearance, but I was more caught up in the joy of creating, and it was a very fresh experience for our band,” she shares. “It reminded me what is important and what really brings us joy.”

Sharing joy is one of the messages interwoven into the EP, particularly on two of the original numbers penned by Haseltine. “Something New” is a cheerful letter to Santa with a dash of social awareness mixed in, as Haseltine sings “I don’t want anything made of plastic” and a member of SHEL echoes “straws get stuck in turtle’s noses,” while Hannah and Haseltine glow on the duet “Happy For the Holidays” that follows a shipwrecked couple happily secluded on an island during the overwhelming time of year.

“The holidays become so much about gifts and superficial things, but underneath all of that, I feel like there’s this feeling that we all remember from our childhood that we’re trying to get to,” Eva notes. “When I heard those songs, it brought up that emotion again.”

But the EP’s true standout shines in the form of the dreamy “Wonderful Feeling.” The whimsical folk tune touches on the nostalgic feeling of seeing Christmas through innocent eyes. Written by Liza in 2018, the song sees her taking lead vocals for the first time. “It’s a wonderful feeling/Draw near to those dear/And let the world hear/All of our hearts are singing,” she sings angelically, with a twinkling harp and fiddle supporting her along with her collaborators’ peaceful harmonies. Though Liza was originally tepid about incorporating “Wonderful Feeling” into the project, it quickly became a favorite among both groups, so much so they released it as the EP’s first single.

“I think for all of us, it really captures the magic of Christmas this time of year,” Eva observes. “I think life for everybody right now is so chaotic and can be very disconnected. But when you put your devices down and when you’re all in one room and you’re sharing stories, sharing the beautiful and delicate experiences that come from winter and the celebration of joy and hope and rebirth, all of these beautiful things, I think it touched that subconscious feeling inside of every single one of us.”

Having the opportunity to work with a group they’ve admired since childhood was a dream come true for the sister quartet. Eva uses striking words from 19th century Scottish poet George McDonald to frame how she hopes listeners will be impacted by A Family Christmas: “The best thing you can do for your fellow man, next to rousing his conscience, is not to give him things to think about, but to wake things up that are in him.”

“I feel like that’s my goal with every project – if it’s touching something deep inside of me and that awakens joy or sadness or anything on the spectrum of those essential human emotions, then I’ve done my job as a vessel for inspiration,” Eva determines. “I hope that it awakens beautiful things inside of people.”

SHEL and Jars of Clay will present the second annual Family Christmas concert at Liberty Hall in Franklin, Tenn. on Dec. 7.

FESTIVAL REVIEW: Newport Folk Fest ’15 Day 1

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Photo by Mery Cheung

Two trains, three buses, a cab, a shuttle, and a water taxi, amounting to a cool eleven hours of traveling later, we arrive at Newport Folk Fest to some bad news; the skies are flashing ill intent and there’s been an “official weather alert” sent out. We are asked to join in prayer.

Enter Tallest Man on Earth, clad in black and with the Devil in his eye. He croons out a few of what he describes as “breakup songs” and we rock in time to our own lost love. At the end of every song he tosses the pick like a bad dream, then at the fourth song or so something wonderful starts to happen. Hot rays poke through the mist; it seems the Tallest Man has a voice that coaxes the sun awake, woos away clouds. We too have fallen prey to his trademark charisma.

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Photo by Mery Cheung

To say that Kristian Matsson, the man behind the Tallest Man, and his frantic gyrations are hypnotizing would be no overstatement. He struts; he balks; his brows flick with each twang. I’ve never seen a man make a photo pit work so hard to keep up.

But for all his stage antics, the crowd keeps a steady calm, unwavering in their sway. I’m participating in what seems to be a meditation in the perverse art of chill, flailing dance heat for flailing heartbeats. I can tell already that this festival might not be for your average attention deficit disorder dudes and diet coke heads. No doubt that crowd would fail to hear the witch songs beckoning you to the furthest reaches of the ocean.

Matsson is this great wilderness embodied, gnawing savagely at his own paws. He sings through his teeth, “oh Lord, why am I not strong like the branch that keeps the hangmen hanging on.” I fear this monster might eat us up he loves us so.

Soon the skies make good on their promise, and the storm begins. Roger Waters still has to play, but I think it might be prophetic that he brought the rain, so perhaps we aught to head back to the water taxi? I’m feeling superstitious today. Either that, or I just really need the sleep.


ARTIST PROFILE + INTERVIEW: Brittsommar – One North Country to Another


“I write these answers now in a dark cabin on the Swedish country side.”


This I can imagine: Sawyer Gebauer, lamp-lit at a maple table pondering the four-year history of his musical project Brittsommar. What is difficult to picture is that he is communicating via computer, and not quill, parchment and pigeon. These dated emblems do not come to mind because Gebauer’s music is dressed in derivative costume, but rather due to the fairytale-like circumstances of Brittsommar’s formation.


“Ha, that’s what most people say-some fairytale scenario.”


Simply put, Brittsommar plays folk music. But theirs is not the saccharine-sunshine variety of Mumford and Sons and Edward Sharpe so prevalent a few years back. Something much darker and more austere is at play here, summoning the sorrow of Nick Cave and the narrative structuring of Lee Hazlewood. It’s a slice of sound that’s long been absent from American indie music, which is perhaps why Gebauer became an expat before finding collaborators with a similar mission to his own.


While most 19-year-old musicians might take a crack at ‘making it’ in New York or Los Angeles, Wisconsin-born Gebauer instead fled to Sweden in 2010, no master plan informing the decision.


“It was just the usual thoughts and confusion that comes with that age after high school. What is this life of mine? This world that we are born, live, and die in. Who am I, who are you? All those typical questions of a world unseen…the beauty of the unknown.”


It’s the kind of cryptic response one would expect after hearing Brittsommar, their swelling melodrama of strings and minor chords suggesting too many nights spent with Evan Williams and Aesop’s Fables. In both song and conversation Gebauer takes on an air of the wizened raconteur-a true storyteller who has somehow never written down a song in his life.


“I just feel as soon as I write it down it disappears. It’s down and out. It’s on the page and that’s where it will stay, between the binding. Perhaps when I start to get older and the drink eventually gets to me I´ll have to start documenting. We´ll see.”


But true to his Midwestern roots Gebauer occasionally retreats from the role of bard, admitting the more down-to-earth and banal reasons for leaving home:


“I wasn´t interested in university or staying at the pizza joint I worked in. I wasn’t interested in staying in the relationship I was in- or any as a matter of fact. There was no option besides getting out of Madison.


At the time, I was quite into Swedish musicians- Tallest Man on Earth, The Knife, Jens Leckman, Jose Gonzales. So I thought, ‘Well, I might as well go there and see what I can do.’ There was something there in the back of my head and the bottom of my gut that pulled me in that direction. One North Country to another.”




Gebauer turned to WWOOFing and found a host farm on which he could work in return for food and board. He picked the first farm listed but changed his mind last minute, settling on another called Rosenhill. It was this flighty impulse that laid the foundation for the four years to follow.


“I didn´t know anything about the country- the language, the culture etc. Maybe if I knew then what I know now, my situation would be different.


When I got on the bus to go to Chicago O´Hare from Madison it still didn’t hit me that I was doing some “radical” thing that most people wouldn’t do.

When I arrived at the farm I fell in love with the farmer’s daughter. It was her 18th birthday and I knew it was just her and I from then on out. This was to be Brittsommar´s violin player, Evelin.”


Sawyer and Evelin traveled together between Stockholm and Berlin, accumulating band mates each with compelling backgrounds of their own. Guitarist Johan Björk is a Swedish judge. Drummer Gilad Reichenthal is a former Israeli rock star. Evelin Sillén is currently studying art, and cellist Chris Smith hails from Australia where he used to build satellites for the German space agency.


What Gebauer and Sillén found in these musicians was a desire in step with their own: to form an ever-shifting lineup of contributors that would allow Brittsommar to be in constant motion, forming more of an artist collective than a traditional band.


“When Evelin and I moved to Berlin we met Chris and Gili there, by chance really. We were looking for a new band and they showed up. You just know you are gonna be friends and band mates before you even play together for the first time. There is this energy. We were all going through huge stages in our lives- just giving everything up again and moving to this dark hole that is Berlin. So we kinda clicked on an existential level.”


It’s the stuff of fate and fiction, seasoned with the kind of characters you’d find in a Jeunet film. The story doesn’t outshine the music, but it does beg to be told, and when I first heard Brittsommar’s “Tell Me” playing on a laptop in Minnesota, I knew it had to be heard.


While the group has garnered applause from European outlets, they’re virtually unknown in the States, which, as I relay to Sawyer, is a damn shame. I ask if this makes him feel out of touch with American audiences.


“Well that actually has to do with the PR. The last album was promoted to a primarily European demographic. I think the States are more jaded than in Europe. America is so fast and it has seen and created much of what’s going on over here so the mentality is kinda like, ‘yeah so what?’  In Europe it’s somewhat of an exotic thing- this guy abandoning his home in America to move out to the countryside of Sweden. Being back in NY it’s like, ” So you come from Wisconsin…mmhm.” Haha, I don’t know if that’s true really…”


The album Sawyer refers to is 2013’s The Machine Stops. Defying the sophomore slump principle and any sentiments of “yeah, so what?” Machine reveals miles of artistic growth when compared with their 2011 debut, Day of Living Velvet. While the first record is a far cry from bad or boring, it seems a bit thin in production and intensity after listening to Machine, which is a rolling maelstrom of mournful folk.


Gebauer’s voice is a resounding barrelhouse that is all the more impressive when you see that it’s coming from a beardless ectomorph. Despite its depth, it bears a solid range; it is not the monotone last resort of someone who can’t actually sing. At once painful and reckless, it is the central presence of Brittsommar’s sound, but never overwhelms the wailing surges of cello and violin or the precisely plucked guitar. Evelin Sillén’s accompanying vocals add a sweet reprieve while Reichenthal doles out trembling snare rolls fit for a funeral procession.


Machine’s opener “Sing Low” is a strong starter, relying heavily on Gebauer’s lulling baritone. The song builds layer-by-layer, first with tinny fingerpicking and eventually culminating in crashing cymbals. “Half-Inch Map” has Gebauer at his most snide and berating: “and you’re just getting by by the skin of your crooked teeth.” The track is wily and slightly sinister, implementing squealing strings that could be found on a Dirty Three record.


“Middle Man” is a favorite, though an even better version can be heard in a live performance filmed outdoors in Freiburg. The video communicates the band members’ dexterity as musicians, as well as Gebauer’s charisma as a performer, yipping occasionally like a coyote with his guitar held at chin level.



Sweeping and melancholy, “The Painter” is another high point of the record, as well as a beautiful cover of “Aint You Wealthy, Aint You Wise” by Will Oldham-aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy. It’s a fitting source of inspiration for Gebauer, whose story would seem to merit a pseudonym of his own.  Much like Oldham and Beirut’s Zach Condon, there is a sense that Gebauer is a musician lost in his own time.  Is there a 73-year-old man trapped in that a twenty-something’s body?  There just might be.


It’s a charlatan’s charm, though nothing is false about Gebauer or his music. The mere discrepancy between his age and aura is what spawns such suspicion: is all this for real? And if so, why the hell haven’t we heard more about it?


Fortunately, there is still time to discover. Gebauer is bringing it all back home to record a solo LP in San Francisco this month, stopping by New York to play a gig on the way.


“The album is gonna be pretty sweet and lowdown compared to the others-somewhat acoustic then a mirage of grungy drums and out of tune violins. Finding the voice again. The past albums were a lot of story telling…

With these upcoming tracks I developed quite a bit compared to when I was in Berlin two years ago.   I got reacquainted with the tranquil chaos that is America. This past year I returned to the states and lived in NY. Went to the west coast and drove from San Fran down to Austin where I was to play at SXSW. Then I flew to Madison for the fist time in years. So I went East to West, South to North. I found my ‘roots’ I suppose.


It was amazing. When I returned to Madison, the songs just came. Flowed out in a way that hasn’t happened to me in quite some time. I guess it was the re-realization that you can never go home again…”


You can never go home again, and you certainly can’t live forever. Gebauer seems to be comfortable with seismic change in ways few people are. In the small number of interviews I’ve found he mentions-in his own baroque way-the inevitable death of Brittsommar.


“Yeah, it´s only natural. You don’t wanna drag something out too long. Let it die in its footsteps, one can say. Doesn’t mean the music is over, just a change in direction and meaning. It has been some time and people have gone in and out. It started in a different time and we are all now in different periods with our lives. Brittsommar was then. Now its something even better.”



Gebauer will play a solo show at Troost Bar in Greenpoint on Thursday, November 20th.  Also on the bill is the lovely and talented Scout Paré-Phillips.





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