You’d be hard-pressed to find a classier, more complete, or more fully realized album than Sarah Elizabeth Haines’ latest, Castaway. Released on February 25th, the singer-songwriter’s sophomore record comprises eleven all-new, original songs that underline not only what an impressive songwriter she is, but also how extraordinary she is as a multi-instrumentalist.
Rather than bring in session musicians or hired guns, Haines played a lot of the instrumentalists on the album herself, including viola, violin, guitar, and the various arrangements which you hear. She also co-produced Castaway, along with the assistance of Kevin Salem. Her vocals shine the brightest on the melodies and harmonies, with songs that are about being forgiving with ourselves and finding power in the autonomy which we can give to ourselves.
Haines is classically trained in both viola and violin and is a valuable member of the touring production of the Tony Award-winning musical Hamilton. To date, she has performed in over 800 showings of the hit musical. In the past, she also toured with Les Misérables and Kansas City Choir Boy, which co-starred Courtney Love. Haines has also been a co-bandleader of the American folk group Bellehouse, and a contributor to orchestral rockers Emanuel and the Fear.
As an album, Castaway is an expansive release, one into which Haines poured her heart and soul. We recently caught up with the rapidly emerging artist for a detailed, track-by-track rundown of all eleven songs found on this wondrous new record.
“The opening track ‘Body’ was actually the last thing we decided to add to the album. I wrote it originally as a poem years ago when one or another of the earlier ‘me too’ news cycles was blowing up. While we were prepping the record in the early part of 2021, I was spending days on end alone in my New York City apartment and after several days of revisiting Patti Smith’s absolutely exquisite first record Horses, I called up Kevin Salem, my producer and guitarist, and asked him ‘So, would it be crazy if we put a spoken word intro on this record?’ I read it to him over the phone and he liked the idea, and then I recorded the voice parts and the viola/noise in my bedroom over the next few days.
“It was originally meant to be just one voice, but I had recorded a few options and accidentally left them all on one time while I was listening back and loved the creepiness of it, and my mind went all over the place with sound design inspiration. We went back and forth for a while about where on the album to put it… it’s a strong open and I was worried it might turn people off or make them uncomfortable as the opening statement, but then I realized that that was actually sort of the point of the record. Giving the rest of the songs the context of navigating a complex, beautiful, messy, and sometimes even dangerous world brings a little depth that might have been lost otherwise. And if someone’s not on board after this one, they’re probably not going to like the rest anyway.”
2. “Young and Pretty”
“‘Young and Pretty’ was another one written years ago. I play viola and sing in a band called Emanuel and the Fear and this one came out of a writing session with bandmate Emanuel Ayvas; originally the fruits of that session were going to be turned into a new EATFear record, but this tune sort of got shelved and when I got it home I took off with it in a different direction, again ruminating on that expectation that society often puts on women, and on artists. There’s this idea that other people like to put us into a certain box or category and it’s always rubbed me the wrong way because it’s so against the nature of being whole human beings.
“I called Eman and asked if he minded if I could put it on this record and he was excited that it had gotten new life. Cody Rahn’s driving, stubborn drum beat in this one totally makes the groove of it, and this is actually the first (and possibly last) time I’ve ever taken a guitar solo in my life. The interesting thing about recording a lot of an album in your bedroom is that you always have access to those sessions, so one night after a few glasses of wine I plugged in my Strat and was just noodling away and when Kevin listened to it later he just said, ‘That’s the take.’ And that was the end of that.”
“‘Liar’ is a fairly true story about a guy I dated who, unbeknownst to me, had another girlfriend the whole time we were seeing each other. I didn’t want anger to be the forefront of this song because honestly the whole thing is sort of funny to me now, so we really tried to focus on the fun, funky, ‘fuck you I’m better off,’ dancy quality, and I love the way this one turned out. I really wanted to make a fun, dumb rock song, but I think the irony elevates it, and Kevin’s sardonic little guitar riffs add so much to the attitude and I love them.”
4. “In the Morning”
“‘In the Morning’ is a song I wrote when I was really in love for the first time in a long while, and I was out on the road with Hamilton and so I couldn’t spend the time I wanted with my new person. The idea of making the song sound a little like that space between waking and sleep when you still feel the presence of someone you were dreaming about led us off on this fuzzy little adventure; we just wanted to put as much warmth and sparkle into it as possible, like sunshine on waking.
“I actually tried to put ‘Belong’ on my first record, and Kevin told me he didn’t think it was ready yet. He was right. At that time, it didn’t have any type of hook or chorus, and while a song doesn’t always need one, I think this one is way better off for the addition of that ‘should’ve loved, could’ve loved’ bit. The seeds of this one came from a writing session that I was organizing with other creative folks on my Hamilton tour, I had just gotten a loop pedal and was stoked about the idea of being able to accompany myself better with just my viola and vocals, and so I wrote a bunch of loop based stuff all at once, and this song was kind of kicked around and edited and polished and rewritten for three years after that. Yuka Tadano’s bass is really a star of this song, as the original bass line was only four notes on loop through my octave pedal, and she took that and made something incredibly grounding and groovy.”
“This was another song built on loops and weirdly inspired by Animal Collective. Their song ‘My Girls’ has that cool vibe shift where they play with the groove over the arpeggiator and I wanted to try something like that, so I wrote this triplet line and then inserted a 4/4 groove over it and I sort of wanted to play with the push-pull of it all. That part ended up losing some of its focus as we got more into the textures of the track and the body percussion elements, there’s some chest thumps and snaps that interplay with Linda Pitmon’s really chill drum parts. Before the great Adele vinyl shortage I had intended to print records and I intended this song to be the interlude and the last track on the A side. There’s a dreamy sexiness to it that is supposed to take you into another world for a moment.”
7. “Better Friend”
“‘Better Friend’ took a lot of doing to get it right. Initially I was trying to write the song about the distance that starts to creep into old friendships as you grow up (or go on tour for four years straight) but it was hard to write something that didn’t sound totally cheesy or preachy. I honed it down to talking about a specific relationship, which clarified it, and then we went searching for textures.
“This was one of the first guitar ‘riffs’ I ever wrote and I felt like the song needed to basically get louder and janglier until it exploded into that riff with all the indie girl muster we could find for it, the sparkly viola lines were a nice foil to that, and Nikkie Elle’s patient heartbeat bass line grows beautifully in to the build where everything starts happening all at once at the end. It’s regret and acceptance and love and sadness all rolled together—the feeling of losing a great friend when you go through a breakup.”
8. “Best of Us”
“‘Best of Us’ is essentially about the ‘Worst of Us.’ This song came out of a sort of dark place but I wanted to highlight that idea that sometimes the decisions we make or the people we choose to stay with don’t make sense or aren’t healthy, and we’ve all got baggage. Oftentimes it’s about how we choose to carry it.”
9. “Razor Line”
“‘Razor Line’ is another one that I kicked around and rewrote for years before it came into its own. This song was originally called ‘Ash and Stone’ and it wasn’t really about anything. I just wanted to try to write something over a 5/4 groove (it is hard to write words over a fast 5/4 let me tell you), but as I sang and brainstormed and just let lyrics come out. Ultimately, Kevin helped me pick the final lyrics, over this driving loop it started to settle itself into a pretty apt theme for being a live performing musician in the midst of a global pandemic.
“It’s about just barely hanging on to the edge, and realizing that you’re not exactly who you thought you were when you really look at yourself in the mirror. Buffi Jacobs lent some badass cello lines and sound effects to the track, and it’s a nice little kick up before the soft landing of the final two tracks.”
“Another song that got ten rewrites. Originally, I wanted to literally write a song about water—the fact that all water is connected and the cycle of tributary to ocean and then back to rain holds a lot of meaning for me, as well as the fact that bodies are 70 percent water, but it became apparent pretty quickly that if you can’t write three verses without using the word ‘orifices’ you’re doing something wrong. Kevin and I talked through the song and he encouraged me to go more obscure and simpler simultaneously.
“I had just gotten Ableton and was playing around with some of the sounds using my mini MIDI controller when I stumbled into an arpeggiator sound in the program, and I had the rather happy accident of running an un-synced arpeggiator from my controller through the one on Ableton, which resulted in this sort of amazing undulating bubbling bed that ended up in the final mix. The song itself ended up being a bit of a meditation on the feeling that you get when you get swept under by a wave and for a second you forget which way is up.”
“‘Castaway’ was the last song I wrote before we started recording, and I knew right away it had to be the last song on the album. We started talking about making this record nine months into the pandemic, and I had just gone through some major heartbreak, so it felt really important to get this song right. The first thing I said to Kevin when I brought this song to him was that. ‘Whatever we do with it, ‘Castaway’ has to sound like you’re alone in the middle of the ocean.’ We really tried to emphasize the space of everything, from the layered vocal harmonies to the string section and the French horns (played expertly by Kyra Sims) that come in just when you think you can’t possibly listen to one more B7 to E chord change, Cody’s gorgeous patient drumrolls, Yuka’s upright bass, the spacey reverb and the upward yearning reaching of everything together that happens from the bridge all the way through the end.
“This whole record became something of a meditation on the different ways that we deal with solitude, healthily and not. I know talking about the pandemic might be tired by now, but it was such a life-altering thing for so many, and I for one spent more time alone than I ever had before. A lot of that alone time was spent making this record and searching for a voice that I felt like had gotten sort of lost in the noise of all of the other projects, and the ‘Career Building,’ and this was the deepest dive into my own personal creativity to date, born out of necessity.
“The whole album was a learning process both technically, from how to engineer and use a DAW and comp and to step more into the producer-brain side of things, and emotionally, learning to love solitude and treat myself gently and honestly, to be more open and not to suppress the messier sides of things, finding the fine line between when solitude is self-inflicted and when it is needed, and how to step out of it as a more whole human being. I hope this record helps someone else as much as it helped me.”