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Well Of Creativity: Perrotta by Peter Aaron

Perrotta is the namesake band of critically acclaimed Hudson Valley songstress Sarah Perrotta, an ensemble that serves as the perfect vehicle for the singer and keyboardist’s uncommonly ethereal brand of gossamer pop. Under her own name in 2007, the former Outloud Dreamer front woman made her solo debut with The Well (Independent), a startlingly dramatic showing whose piano-based songs recall the epic work of divas Kate Bush and Tori Amos as well as such classically tinged ‘60s acts as the Zombies, the Left Banke, and the Beach Boys. As she continues to work on her next album, the chanteuse was able to take time to answer a few questions for Roll.

You managed to snag both Tony Levin and Garth Hudson to play on your debut album. How did that come about, and what was it like to work with those two legends?

Going in to record, I didn’t have a bass player. I have always been a fan of Tony’s work and half kidding I said, “Let’s get Tony Levin.” Why not? We contacted him and luckily he was in town at that time and agreed to play on the album. We recorded bass, drums, piano, and guitar all together in two days. Tony came up with brilliant lines right on the spot. It was a thrill working with him. It’s easy to see why he is revered as one of the world’s best bass players.

I met Garth through a big band in Kingston that he was playing for. He was out on tour and they asked if I would fill in for him on piano while he was away. One day Garth and I both showed up for the same rehearsal. We got to talking and a friendship developed. Garth has a reservoir of knowledge, not only with music, but also with his always-interesting and often funny stories and anecdotes. When I was ready to record I asked him to play accordion on two songs. The last song on The Well, “Carry You Home,” is my tribute to him.

Much of your music has a very Baroque edge. Are you classically trained? What is your background, as far as “formal” learning goes?

As soon as I could reach the keys of our family piano I was plunking out melodies, but my formal education started with classical piano lessons at age seven. In college, I majored in jazz studies.

For those of us who never got to see Outloud Dreamer, can you describe the sound of that group? How is OD’s music different than the music you play now? Are there any songs dating from that band that you still play?

Outloud Dreamer’s record [2001’s Drink the Sky; Independent] was a collaboration between myself and bassist/producer Carl Adami. One reviewer described our sound as “uniquely interfacing Massive Attack’s trip hop soul, 10,000 Maniacs’ folksy pop, and Pink Floyd’s atmospheric textures.” I like that. Outloud Dreamer used a lot of loops and samples. There was more of an electronic quality to it than The Well, which has more acoustic instrumentation. With my current band I’ve returned to a more electronic sound-scape again. I do still play a few of the Outloud Dreamer songs in my live sets from time to time. They’re part of my history.

Your songs also have a very literate quality. Do you count any writers or poets as influences?

I love Leonard Cohen’s lyrics and poetry. I love writers who use a lot of visual imagery and are able to paint a clear picture with their words. Writers that have moved me in this way are Hermann Hesse, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Walt Whitman. I used to read a lot more but lately I find myself gravitating toward film and music for inspiration. I often try to think of a visual picture to get me started with writing lyrics.

How about straight-up songwriters? Which ones are your favorites, and what makes them so influential to you?

As far as straight-up songwriters go, Neil Young is one of my favorites. He has such heart in his lyrics and music. I admire his ability to evoke emotion out of simple words and chord progressions. On the other hand, I admire Billy Strayhorn for his complex chord structures and progressions. Nick Drake gets me with his haunting sincerity; Tom Petty with the precision he has for crafting perfect pop songs; Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead for instrumentation and dynamics; Roger Waters of Pink Floyd for texture and thinking of albums as a whole instead of a collection of songs; Paul Simon for lyrics and harmony; and Paul McCartney for melody.

I’m drawn to some of my favorite artists for reasons other than songwriting, like singers Nina Simone, Jeff Buckley, and Frank Sinatra for their delivery and interpretation of a song. I’m attracted to performers who have an intensity and prowess on stage like Prince, Robert Plant, and Mick Jagger. Each of these artists has something different to offer and I draw bits and pieces from all of them.

We understand that you’re working on the follow-up to The Well now. How is that going, and when do you expect it to be released? Any “big” names on this one, too?

I have to admit I’m not the fastest songwriter in the world. I don’t often sit down and write a whole song all at once. I usually come up with a chord progression and melody and then take my time with the lyrics. I have to really fight for the merging of words, music and the arrangement. It’s taken me until now to complete the seven songs that I have so far for this next album. I still have a few on the drawing board to finish before I’m ready to record. I would also like the songs to live a little and get out of my house and into people’s ears before I commit them to a recording, so we’ll be playing a few more live shows before going into the studio. We’ll see if any big names appear on the credits for this one. It’s still a mystery.

You certainly have some top younger players in your own band, such as local guitar hotshot Johnnie Wang. Please tell us about the current lineup, and can you give us a hint as to what radical new hairdo Johnnie might have planned for 2009?

The new lineup includes Craig Santiago on drums and Johnnie on guitar, lap steel, and backing vocals. I’ve moved away from the acoustic piano and am now playing a vintage Fender Rhodes suitcase piano. I’m covering the bass lines with an analog Moog synthesizer. This band has an incredible chemistry and energy with Santi’s disciplined grooves and Johnnie’s grand and sweeping guitar. They’re the perfect fit for the new songs I’m writing. Think the Cure and Portishead sporting pompadours.

Perotta will play at Bacchus in New Paltz on March 13.

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