She Writes the Songs

Sarah Siskind and Travis Book of SUNLINER.

Sarah Siskind co-leads the roots-rock trio SUNLINER with her husband Travis Book of the nationally touring newgrass quintet Infamous Stringdusters. However, Siskind established herself as an important songwriter 15 years ago, with the release of her debut solo album, Covered. High-profile names in the music world took notice, and many of them began to record and perform their own versions of Siskind’s songs. Ahead of her upcoming show with SUNLINER at this year’s White Squirrel Festival in Brevard, Bold Life spoke to the North Carolina native about her craft.

Your songs have been covered by Randy Travis, Bon Iver, Ari Hest, Wynonna Judd, and many others. What was your first song to be recorded by another artist?
“Goodbye is All We Have” was recorded by Alison Krauss and Union Station in 2009. That set the course for me to be able to write songs for a living. And it all unfolded in a magical way: I met a friend who was also friends with Alison. She said, “Alison really needs to hear your songs; can you just put four or five of them on a CD for me?” It seemed like a shot in the dark, but then I got a call one day from Alison that she was recording it.

Was that CD a collection of finished studio recordings?
No. These were just work tapes. I had recorded most of them in a shed where I had a makeshift writing room set up. It was a very, very simple recording: one take, and no overdubs.

Do you write specifically for other people?
I don’t usually do it that way. I just write what’s on my mind, and the songs tell me what they are. For the most part, I write from my perspective, or about something that is part of my story. And then it finds its way out into the world to another artist who can take it bigger places than I can.

You’ve also collaborated with other songwriters. How is that different from writing on your own?
When I write by myself, I don’t have to communicate with anyone about what I need to do or what’s in my head. Whereas when you co-write, you’re really on a date. There’s a lot of verbal communication involved with that. It just changes the experience; it’s not worse or better. It’s just a different type of process.

To date, the TV drama Nashville has featured more than 20 of your songs. When you’re best known as a songwriter, how important is that kind of placement?
There’s something magical about putting music to a story that’s being acted out, to see how the song you wrote gets woven into a plot and a scene. My songs tend to be not quite as mainstream as what most film and TV shows are looking for, but it just so happened that Nashville was looking for some of that individuality. I pinch myself everyday that the show has used so many songs; it’s a huge blessing. I’m really happy for their success.

Sarah Siskind & SUNLINER headline Sunday evening (4:30pm) at the White Squirrel Festival in downtown Brevard. The Memorial Day Weekend event, held May 26-28, was named in honor of the town’s unusual signature animal, and features regional and national roots acts. For a complete list of bands and activities, check out the website — www.whitesquirrelfestival.com — or call 828-884-3278.

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