20:20 — 20 Questions, 20 Answers
Published February 3, 2021
In part 20 of our series,
Sara Shiloh Rae —bluegrass/Americana/folk singer, songwriter, opera-singer—
joins us a for a special edition of our 20:20 Q&A.
Sara and her band, Bluebird Junction, are contestants in the Owensboro, Kentucky, ROMP Fest 2021 digital band contest. The winner of this contest will grace the same stage on which Ricky Skaggs, Alison Krauss, Rhiannon Giddens, Sam Bush, and so many others have performed.
Voting starts today, and the winner will be announced on March 17th.
Stay a while and enjoy Sara’s words as she shares about performing a taboo opera in China, her love of bluegrass and her love of opera, writing, speaking out, creating ocean-spanning art during the pandemic, and much more.
Then give Sara Shiloh Rae and Bluebird Junction a listen, and cast your vote in the contest.
Photos by Max Hoetzel | Courtesy of Sara Shiloh Rae
20:20 with Sara Shiloh Rae
NWM 1): Please introduce yourself, briefly, as a musician and human of Earth.
Sara: I am a bluegrass/Americana/folk singer, a songwriter, opera-singer, and a writer. I’m a third generation native Los Angelena on my mama’s side. I cry at airports when I see people hugging their loved ones, when I eat a really good ceviche tostada, and whenever I hear the music of J.S. Bach, Mary Gauthier, or Alison Krauss.
I love thunderstorms, but I hate the wind. I speak gently to bees and spiders in my house, call them ‘sweetheart,’ and collect them in glass jars to let them out on the balcony. I’m not vegan, but I am a meditator. Mostly, I try to uplift people and make the world a sparklier place. But I get enraged about injustice and hypocrisy, and all forms of racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, and xenophobia. I’m not shy about expressing that.
I try to uplift people and make the world a sparklier place.
NWM 2): What is a favorite of your own compositions? Please tell us a little bit about it.
Sara: My favorite composition is the one I’m working on right now 🙂
NWM 3): Name three things that make you smile.
Sara: The scent of burning wood, the way it feels when you get out of the ocean, dogs.
NWM 4): You are an amazing multi-faceted artist: Sara Shiloh Rae, Americana-bluegrass singer-songwriter; Sara Hershkowitz, award-nominated opera singer.
Tell us about these personas, how you balance them, and where on this spectrum you feel most at home.
Sara: I grew up listening to bluegrass and folk. We lived in North Carolina for a while, and my heroes were Alison Krauss and Joni Mitchell. When we moved back to L.A., I started guitar lessons at McCabes. My first gig was at the Ash Grove. But around that time I also discovered opera.
My mother took me to Mozart’s Don Giovanni at 14, and I just remember squinting at the singers. I had no idea what they were singing about, but they gave me goosebumps. ‘That,’ I thought. ‘I want to do that.’ It felt like I’d found something big enough to contain all the parts of what I wanted to be: musician, actor, historian, linguist, dancer, psychologist.
It felt like I’d found something big enough to contain all the parts of what I wanted to be …
I studied at Manhattan School of Music and got a B. A. in voice. After graduation, I moved to Berlin and was lucky enough to be offered work in the European opera houses. I was living the vagabond/freelancer life, performing Mozart or Benjamin Britten all over Germany, but the first thing I’d do upon getting to the hotel was put on Alison Krauss.
It wasn’t until COVID-19 hit and cancelled my entire opera season, I came back to my roots in the bluegrass/folk genre. It started off recording with banjo player Max Hoetzel, and eventually came to include Alex Hargreaves on fiddle, Dominick Leslie on mandolin, Myles Sloniker on bass.
I feel deep kinship with both genres and do not feel a contradiction in working in both worlds. As long as I feel I have something to say, and feel I can do them justice.
NWM 5): You said that you have produced political-protest art, and as with others we have interviewed, been told to ‘shut up and sing.’
Share with us a bit about taking a stand, what it means to you to add your voice to a chorus that refuses to be silenced, and how you respond to those who demand only to be entertained.
Sara: I created, directed, and performed an operatic, political satire of Donald Trump from 2016-2019 that made a number of people pretty mad.
It started because the Nord Nederlands Orchestra hired me to sing a brilliant coloratura piece by György Ligeti, called Mysteries of the Macabre. The gig was at a big, outdoor indie rock festival in Holland, called Lowlands Festival. Lowlands offers one classical music event per summer; so we were it. When they brought me on they said, ‘Do something provocative.’ And that got me thinking, what is even provocative in 2016 anymore? It’s not sex, or nudity. We can see that anywhere.
This was right before the 2016 election. And in Mysteries … the soprano spews nonsense for 12 minutes, in order to whip up an entire population into fear and hysteria. Ligeti wrote that. I mean. This was obvious; clearly I had to do it as Donald Trump. I bought a fat suit, put on an orange face, and a blonde toupee. It wound up being a pretty brutal satire. The audience at Lowlands went insane. It was about 15,000 young people, high on I don’t know how many drugs, many of whom probably had never heard classical music before. But they were screaming and cheering. They just got it.
The artist’s job is to hold a mirror to society.
A lot of doors opened after this. I was asked to do it with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and the Bergen International Festival. … And that’s when I started getting fan mail. Equal parts ‘You-are-a-hero-will-you marry-me?’ mail, with ‘Shame-on-you-for-mocking-your-president-you-disgusting-girl’ kind of mail.
The artist’s job is to hold a mirror to society. And you know, sometimes the job of art is to comfort, to bring joy and sweetness. It’s not that we always have to be rattling the chains. I’m suggesting only that chain-rattling deserves a seat at the table. An artist’s first job is to be human. That requires having your eyes open to what is happening around you.
NWM 6): What is a favorite cover or opera you perform?
Sara: Favorite cover: Peter Rowan’s ‘Walls of Time.’ Favorite opera: Alban Berg’s ‘Lulu.’
NWM 7): You were interested in music, specifically opera, from an early age. You said, ‘When I chose music at 14, or rather when music chose me, it was an exhilarating feeling and also a lonely one.’
Please elaborate on this and how those formative years shaped you as a person and as a musician.
Sara: When I moved to Berlin after graduation to become a singer, I had no German skills, no boyfriend, no husband, no relatives, no friends, no job, no university spot, no young artist program, no prospects. It was so, so much alone time.
I’d even say healthy solitude-management skills are crucial to your survival/mental health/longevity as a performer.
I remember as a teen, an adult tried to warn me about how solitary the performer’s career path could be. I didn’t take that advice very seriously. But they turned out to be right. Unless your partner and/or kids travel with you, copious amounts of solitude come with this gig. I’d even say healthy solitude-management skills are crucial to your survival/mental health/longevity as a performer.
NWM 8): How do you express your creativity other than through music?
Sara: Writing. Writing has saved me so many times. When I was 16 years old, I saved up my babysitting money and went to a psychic on the Venice Boardwalk. I told him I had two great overwhelming loves: singing and writing, and didn’t know which to choose. He told me to focus my energy on the singing and performing, and that later in life, that would give me lots to write about. This turned out to be some darn good advice.
NWM 9): What are your before-you-go-on-stage rituals?
Sara: I pray, meditate, make lists of things I’m grateful for. Try to eat something with lean protein in it, like salad with chicken or salmon, or an omelette. Drink lots of warm water and lemon, and my most favorite beverage, Darjeeling tea with milk. Oh, and some dark chocolate has to happen every day.
That’s what this genre is to me—pure happiness.
NWM 10): Sara Shiloh Rae’s new band is called Bluebird Junction. Please tell us about the origin of this cool name.
Sara: I had the idea to take a name for my songwriting/bluegrass/Americana life that was different from my opera life. I also had the idea of honoring my two grandmothers. Shiloh Rae is a composite of both of their names. And Bluebird Junction, that just popped into my head. I read up on bluebirds, and it turns out they symbolize joy and happiness, and I thought, well, that’s what this genre is to me—pure happiness.
NWM 11): How do you keep yourself centered or able to cope with stress during these trying times?
Sara: Remembering my ancestors got through a lot of hard things, and that I will too. Long walks and hot baths also go a very long way in keeping me sane. The presence of animals and regular access to nature. I may be a city girl by birth, but I am rural down to my bones.
Remembering my ancestors got through a lot of hard things …
NWM 12): You have written several things that have captured our attention. This is one of them: And in a post-COVID musical universe, we are about to see artists breaking alllllllllll kinds of previously unspoken rules about what we do and don’t get to do.
Please elaborate on this inspiring and hopeful vision you have for the future.
Sara: In my view, insisting that artists chose a genre and then stick to it is a dated concept. That’s capitalism, not art. Everyone belongs everywhere they bring heart and integrity.
NWM 13): What song/album could you play on repeat?
Sara: Mary Gauthier’s The Foundling. Don’t think any album has ever moved me more.
NWM 14): Where were you and what were you doing when you realized COVID-19 had just changed your life as a performance artist?
Sara: I was in France, about to make my debut at the Opéra de Tours, in Powder Her Face. Then COVID shut it down. Airplanes were cancelled back to the USA. Also, my time was up at the Airbnb. Then hotels and Airbnb’s were forbidden to operate, and friends were too scared to take a house-guest. So I called a cellist girlfriend who lives in rural Provence. She had a guest-house and said ‘Just come.’
I figured it would be a couple weeks. It turned into six months. I woke up looking at vineyards and horses and started growing mint and basil and basically spent COVID-19 in near total solitude. I wrote and wrote and wrote. It was a gift.
NWM 15): If you could see anyone from throughout history perform who would it be?
Sara: Janis Joplin.
Everyone belongs everywhere they bring heart and integrity.
NWM 16): In a story for Bluegrass Today, you shared about meeting banjo player, Max Hoetzel—who after only one date flew to Vienna to hear you sing!—only to ultimately end up separated due to the pandemic.
Please tell us about creating ocean-spanning art with Max and what that meant to you during a time of physical isolation.
Sara: I met Max in L.A. January 2020. I was about to go sing a radio concert in Vienna, and casually said to him, ‘Hey, you should come.’ But you don’t expect someone, after knowing you for only one coffee date, to get on a plane and fly across the world to hear you sing.
You don’t expect someone, after knowing you for only one coffee date, to get on a plane and fly across the world to hear you sing.
Max did exactly that.
But then it was complicated because here I’d met this incredible man and had no idea when we could see each other. Before COVID, 2020 was going to be my busiest season yet: I was making debuts with London Philharmonia, in Tokyo doing Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, etc. Then, COVID wiped the work out.
I was stuck in France. Max was stuck in California. Initially, we started recording the music we love, to keep our spirits up. Stuff by Gillian Welch, Townes van Zandt, Tom Waits, and Dylan. Just for ourselves at first. Then we shared it online, and it seemed like it brought other people joy.
NWM 17): Strangest road story?
Sara: Back in 2015, I got invited to China to sing in a production of Benjamin Britten’s Turn of the Screw. It’s based on the Henry James novel, which, if you haven’t read it, is a really creepy gothic ghost story.
In China, ghosts are hugely taboo.
So it turns out, in China, ghosts are hugely taboo. And it turns out the opera festival was privately funded by a Chinese oil billionaire, a guy who just really liked 20th century opera. The only way to get an opera about ghosts past the Chinese censors was to describe it as ‘part of an English language literature festival.’
So even though we singers were flown to Beijing first class and put up in a fancy hotel, we were also under very strict instructions not to tell anyone who asked that we were singing in an opera. We were to say either we were there as tourists, or part of an ‘English literature festival.’ I remember being really worried about saying the wrong thing; it was such a bizarre feeling.
NWM 18): Please tell us about your Romanian heritage and how it has influenced you and your music.
Sara: As a kid growing up in Los Angeles, Romania never felt especially real. To me as a third-generation American kid, it was a place of flowery babushkas, a place where unspeakable things happened to sepia-colored ancestors. I only remember asking my father once about it, and he said something like ‘In Iași, we were butchers and farmers. … Oh, and they say they were musical.’
That last sentence stayed with me because I was the only musician in my immediate family. … Then in 2017, I got this random Facebook message:
Dear Sara, are you related to Philip Herschkowitz, composer, from Iași, Romania, who studied with Alban Berg?
I wrote back that I didn’t know, but that I thought it possible.
And he wrote me back: Because if you are, Philip Herschkowitz, who studied with Alban Berg in Wien before the Nazi’s came, died with no heirs. He left his entire musical estate to the Wien Public Library. If you think there’s a chance you might be a descendant, or even if you’re not, they’d love for you to look through the archives. Maybe consider performing some of it?
My mind practically exploded because Alban Berg is my favorite composer. The idea I might be related to someone who knew him made me get all star-struck, and even if it would be almost impossible to know for sure what connection—if any at all—I had to Philip Herschkowitz, it didn’t matter … because the possibility now existed that I had had an ancestor who had gone through the exquisite highs and lows of a life in music, the way I had. And this tiny glimmer of possibility made me feel a bit less alone in the world. It made me feel a connection I would later identify as lineage.
That’s how I bought an economy class ticket to Wien and flew across the world to look at the musical estate of the man I now believe is my great-grandfather’s nephew.
NWM 19): What is one thing you would want our readers to know about you which we might not know to ask?
Sara: I’m an absolute pitiful light-weight when it comes to alcohol; I have been accused, accurately, of holding wine rather than drinking it, BUT I can eat you under the table when it comes to spicy jalapenos and spicy food, in general.
I can eat you under the table when it comes to spicy jalapenos and spicy food.
NWM 20): What’s next for Sara Shiloh Rae?
Sara: Working on a debut album of original material, in addition to one of bluegrass/Americana/folk classics.
Sara Shiloh Rae and Bluebird Junction “White Freightliner Blues”
Sara Shiloh Rae
Sara Shiloh Rae, neé Sara Hershkowitz, grew up in both L.A. and North Carolina, immersed in bluegrass/folk music. As a child, Ms. Rae took guitar lessons at McCabes and was invited by Ed Pearl to play her first gig at the legendary Ash Grove when she was sixteen. Sara would then go on to enjoy a career in Europe as an acclaimed opera singer, receiving a nomination in 2020 for "Singer of the Year" in the German magazine, Opernwelt, and performing as guest soloist with orchestras such as BBC Scottish Symphony, L.A. Philharmonic, Detroit Symphony, and Theater an der Wien.
Due to the 2020 pandemic closure of all musical venues, Sara joined forces, digitally and across an ocean, with California-based German banjo player Max Hoetzel, returning for the first time to her bluegrass roots. The band Bluebird Junction was born as they teamed up with Brooklyn based fiddler Alex Hargreaves, described by David Grisman as "destined to be one of the fiddle giants of the 21st century," plus the exceptional Nashville-based Dominick Leslie on mandolin, Mike Robinson on guitar, and Myles Sloniker on bass. Sara's music has been featured twice in Bluegrass Today. Ms. Rae is currently working on a debut album of original material.
You may enjoy our previous 20:20 with Jesse Lynn Madera
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