By Marc Snetiker
April 09, 2019 at 01:33 PM EDT
Shervin Lainez

Five years ago, Waitress was a movie and Sara Bareilles was very intent on not writing you a love song. Now, the former is an international hit musical celebrating its third year on Broadway — and Bareilles is writing a different kind of love song to, for, and about a generation coming of age in a turbulent time. Her sixth studio album Amidst the Chaos (released April 5) is a clarion call to the anxious. There’s never been any conviction missing from Bareilles earlier records but she has spent the latter half of the decade forging across an emotional frontier of sorts that has led her to her next artistic expression: one intent on putting a scary world into song.

Chaos would become an album less about a heart in relationship transit, and more about a heart holding space for others. The tumult of the late 2010s inspired the album’s throughline — about the collective headspace of the individual struggle to cope — but the experience of co-creating and starring in Waitress would unlock the way Bareilles would compose it. The 39-year-old went through the whole weird, wonderful collaborative machine of a Broadway musical, with creative offshoots that found her hosting the Tony Awards and breaking personal ground in NBC’s acclaimed Jesus Christ Superstar concert. She emerged on the other side with a new confidence to lean on her community and a new community itself to lean on.

Bareilles has an ear for earworms and Chaos sure has its share of them, but the air is different about this record as Bareilles returns from her Broadway triumph, re-entering the mainstream music space with a healing message on her mind and the confidence of an artist evolved.

EW: Let’s start small: How did Waitress fundamentally change your life?
SARA BAREILLES: My life feels like it falls into categories: before Waitress and after Waitress. And I’ve thought about this a lot, what was it about Waitress that changed me so much? There are a few things, but one of the fundamental ways it shifted me was my relationship to collaboration. I had always worked really independently and, to be honest, really privately. I was so insular about the creative process. I always had wonderful partners in my producers, but in terms of sharing things in an unfinished stage or trusting someone else’s perspective, I was much more guarded, and there is nothing about making a musical that can live in that space. You just can’t be precious about any of the ideas, and you have to trust your team. So it was a really interesting coming-of-age for me to realize just how much more satisfied I was with the finished product knowing that I was sharing it with people. It was an interesting shift for me as an artist. But yeah, everything about my life has changed. The projects that I’m in, the people that are in my life, how I look at artistic endeavors and what matters to me. Everything has changed. I felt my artist profile shift so much, too, just in terms of… I feel like I’ve been working really hard in the music industry for a really long time, and then I did a play and people are like, “Oh yeah, Sara Bareilles!” I feel like I’ve been invisible!

I remember speaking to you three years ago when Waitress was in previews, and you said you had felt like you were on a treadmill of sorts: You do the album, you record the album, you tour the album, “Sara buries her heart in another guy who pissed her off.” So now that you’re back with an album, how do you feel about the treadmill?
What I think has happened is my peripheral vision has expanded. I don’t see being on tour as the only mode of expression that’s available to me. It doesn’t feel as heavy, in a way? I mean, there are certain things about it that feel very foreign to me at this moment because it’s been a really long time since I’ve toured or pulled the band together — you know, all of those scheduling logistics of being a performing artist in a concert setting. But I don’t feel like I’m chain-linked to it anymore. It feels like something I get to do as opposed to have to do. I get to go tour this record — I don’t have to, but I want to. And I want to go return to my fans in the flesh and see them and sing these songs that I’ve become so fond of.

Does the landscape look different to you at all?
It’s funny — I’ve always had this imposter syndrome about the music industry. I’ve always felt like I was a little… or didn’t totally… it’s not that I’m not a fan of what’s happening, but I feel like I don’t necessarily see myself in tons of other artists out there. I’m not on the Hot 100. That’s just not my world. That’s something I’ve always grappled with. My tendency, even as a young songwriter, was to look to legacy artists, people like Carole King and Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon and Elton John and Ray Charles and Ella Fitzgerald. All these people that lived in a little bit of a different sphere. I look to them as my lighthouses in certain ways. They’re north stars for me. So yes, I think it has changed a lot, but I guess I don’t totally relate to it.

So you’re saying we’re not going to see you experiment with EDM?
[Laughs] What’s happening is authentic to the artists that are making it, and it’s just like living in a different chamber at this point. But also, I’m about to turn 40! I’m an older artist than I was when I started, and the things that I want to sing about and write about and how I want to sing and write about them just lives in a different place for me internally. I think the goal of an artist is to try to stay really true to what pulls you forward toward the next expression.

On the flip side, I’ve always admired the particular way that you put hindsight into words. Have you always been a person who was able to step away and process things?
I feel like I’ve always been an observer that way. And honestly, my eight years of therapy. [Laughs] I think part of my life’s work is about learning to examine myself in a larger context, and the calm and the healing comes from being able to step back enough to have a deeper perspective. Letting the inflammation of a moment rest and then having a deeper perspective about it. And that’s therapy, that’s reading about Buddhism, that’s being almost 40. I’m not that interested in rehashing or holding onto grudges or being in the anger of things. I do think I have always been interested in introspection, and I really like the idea of spending energy looking backwards from a place of healing and, hopefully, wisdom.

Noam Galai/Getty Images

If every song of yours reflects an authentic emotion you once felt at a moment in time, does it stand to reason that there are songs of yours that you think about today and go, “Wow, I feel exactly the opposite of that”? Like, “I can’t imagine ever giving up Manhattan for someone.”
Mmm, yeah. There are certainly songs that feel much farther away. Like “Gravity,” for example. I wrote that when I was 19. So it feels like somebody else’s life, in a way. But, I still understand that magnet that just occurs between people and no matter what you want to do, it feels impossible at the time to remove yourself from the gravitational pull of someone. I can still relate to it. But there are certain songs that definitely feel further away.

I suppose it’s like finding something from high school and remembering how you used to be an entirely different person.
Or, maybe it’s that I don’t want to believe I’m that person but I might still be. We surprise ourselves all the time.

Your album title, Amidst the Chaos — whose chaos are we referring to? A pause amidst your chaos, or you amidst the chaos of everyone else?
A little all of the above. I’ve been very outspoken about my feelings the last couple of years from a political perspective, and I think the last few years in my own life personally have been just like psychotically busy and crazy. I feel like I’m in a constant state of chaos, but I also know that I’m being impacted by the fact that it literally feels like the world is on fire sometimes. And the world actually is on fire sometimes. So it’s been a really interesting awakening for me personally, and I know a lot of people waking up to that, too. “Armor” being the first song off the record was important to me that it’s the first statement that comes from this body of work, that I’m talking about the feminist movement and how it feels personal to me and how important I feel it is right now. And I’ve got love songs that are actually about the Obamas on the record!

Which song?
There’s a song called “If I Can’t Have You” that’s a love song to the Obamas. I wrote it thinking, ‘I’m just going to have to be grateful that you guys were here at all.’ I mean, I tried to couch it in a way where it feels vague enough to be able to speak to more than one theme, but for me, a lot of love songs were just about me waking up to how much I took for granted and showing gratitude for something that had come before.

I wanted to talk to you about “Eyes on You” and “Orpheus” in particular, which I feel are songs that resonate especially strongly.
That actually means a lot that those are the ones that popped out to you because those are the ones that deal with the deeper subject matter, where I was really grappling with trying to figure out how do we cope with the fact that the world is going to feel like it’s on fire? And we have to just, like, live anyway. That’s a really hard thing to wrap your brain around. I always think a lot about the next generation. I have young nieces and I think about young women. It’s really challenging for them. It’s a scary time to have to grow up. And so it’s trying to reinforce the idea that we can exist and we can cope amidst the chaos.

How closely aligned is the album you set out to write with the album you ended up writing? You were always going to do another album after Waitress, but I can’t imagine you knew you were going to write this album.
No. I think this was a really interesting exercise in surrender for me, because I actually had dates on the calendar to go into the studio and I literally didn’t have enough songs to make a record. And I was tearing my hair out and trying to write, but writing under pressure is always terrible, but it was the beautiful gift of Waitress that I leaned on collaboration. I flew to Nashville and spent a few days with Lori McKenna, who is one of my favorite songwriters, and we wrote like four songs in two days, and I worked with Justin Tranter and we wrote a couple of songs together. My friends Emily King and Aaron Sterling, we wrote part of that Obama song together. I leaned on my community and for the first time in my life as an artist, I didn’t feel farther away from the songs that came out of it. I felt really connected and supported in getting to speak my message through having your teammates, having your armor.

Timeline-wise, had you completed the album by the time you went back into Waitress this past January?
The album was done. It’s why it worked out perfectly. We were working on artwork or something like that, so I had this nice little pocket of time to return to the show, to celebrate our third year on Broadway and kind of set the tone for this third year. There was this little breath.

What a turn of events, that starring in Waitress becomes almost therapeutic for you rather than terrifying.
Totally. I cannot even believe that that’s what that experience morphed into. Because like, remembering how f—ing nervous I was that first night… but over time, that place, that theatre has become a second home to me, and those people are so magical. The schedule is absolutely grueling and totally brutal, but I always get filled up from being there. I am so nourished by the Brooks-Atkinson and the people that are in it. I’m never regretful of having spent time there.

What non-musical arena are you looking ahead to next? Television, yes?
I’ll be in New York this summer shooting this television show that Jessie Nelson and I and JJ Abrams have created. We’re in casting for that now. I sort of love that it’s a little bit under the radar because there’s so much left to do. It’s very loosely related to my life. It’s about a young songwriter, this sort of avatar that I’m relating to, this young girl named Bess. It’s about being a young woman in music and trying to find your voice. She has a really unique gift and doesn’t know how to harness that, and is trying to be a good person but making mistakes, and there are big love interests and lots of original music in the show that I’ll be writing. And it’s kind of placed around the music and songwriting community of New York City. When I was growing up, watching Felicity in college, that was the thing I looked forward to more than anything else in the world, so when JJ and I were talking, we were like, “It’d be amazing to make something that would be like if Felicity was a songwriter.”

Oh, wow. That is a logline.
That’s to give you a sense of what it hopefully will feel like. It’s been a grand adventure. It’s another one of these things where it’s like, I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing, but I’m taking big swings because we only live once.

Well, back to the idea of identifying with the 19-year-old who wrote “Gravity,” how full-circle is it that this is a new way to tap into those feelings of young Sara again.
The adolescence of being a young woman feels so real to me, so visceral, and I’m so passionate about it, especially causes that work with and empower young women. I just think it’s so easy to become small, especially at that age. So I’ve spent my whole life trying to make songs reminding everyone, but especially young girls, that you are enough, and you are bigger and braver than you think you are.

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