Sarah And The Safe Word
by Interviews

On October 25, Atlanta cabaret punks Sarah and The Safe Word released the remixed and remastered version of their excellent 2017 debut album Strange Doings in the Night via Say-10 Records. This re-release marks the first time in years that this album is available online. Punknews editor Em Moore caught up with lead vocalist Sarah Rose over Zoom to talk about remixing and remastering the album, their memories of writing and recording Strange Doings in the Night, the best tea for songwriting, and so much more. Read the interview below!

You have just released the remixed and remastered version of your 2017 debut album Strange Doings in the Night. This is the first time in years that this album is available to stream online and Say-10 Records will be releasing it on vinyl for the first time in 2023. What does it mean to you to have your first album available again?

It’s great! We always say that this album is where our band actually began. It’s where we figured out what kind of sound we wanted to have and it was the first time we incorporated strings. Those session string players would later become Susy [Reyes, violinist] who joined the band and Beth [Ballinger] on keys who would join the band. Maddox [Reksten], before he even played bass in our band, was doing gang vocals on this record. This is where our band came together. It’s so nostalgic and so nice to finally have this album out again in a way that sounds the way we want it to and is presented in the way we want it to be. It really feels like we’ve completed our discography again online.

What has it been like working with Say-10 Records?

Say-10 is a great record label that’s full of some really amazing artists. We have a great relationship with Adam [Gecking] who runs Say-10. We love what he does in the scene and I think that he’s really shining a light on some important artists in the community right now. It’s always a privilege that we get to collaborate with him on something.

How would you describe the remixing and remastering process?

Complicated. [laughs] It was fun but it was a lot. We had to dig through all of our old session files and find all the old recordings. We knew that we were really proud of the record when we made it and put it out in 2017 but we were never very happy with the mixing or the production of it. I think that comes from the fact that we were a new band, we didn’t know what we were doing. For me and Kienan [Dietrich, guitarist] both, it was the first time we had really gone into a studio with a string quartet, with a horn section. So we were flying by the seat of our pants. When we put it out it was produced okay, it was mixed okay but it wasn’t to the standard that we knew we wanted the album to be at. For years we would talk with each other and be like, “wouldn’t it be great if one day we could take that record and make it how we heard it in our heads when we were writing it and tracking it?” And then Adam came to us and said, “I would really love to put this album out again. Would you like me to give you the budget to really go in and fix this up and tweak it so it sounds the way you want? We can put it out on vinyl”. That was just too good of an offer to pass up. We took the session files, we cracked them open and we really remixed the entire record from the ground up. It’s kind of cool that we were able to do that.

It’s so cool that you were able to do it yourselves instead of trying to bring someone else in who might not get it.

Yeah! It was great too because we were able to put more Beth on the record now that she’s an official member and Maddox plays bass on the album now which is great. Now it feels like our current lineup completed the album.

What’s it like revisiting the songs?

It was really special for me. It reminded me of being back in Sound and Stone Studios in Atlanta where we recorded it. I kept thinking back to little moments when we were making the album and thinking about when we started the band we had no idea what was ahead of us, we had no idea that we would’ve gotten to where we are. Kienan and I were laughing that it’s so crazy that this little record that we made years ago has a European vinyl release now and has multiple pressings in different parts of the world and is on a record label. It’s just so crazy to imagine that. But it reminds me a lot of being in that room and starting the band and all the wide-eyed aspirations we might have had when we were a little bit younger. It felt really nice to go back to me in 2017 and think, “god, you have so much ahead of you that this record is going to open doors for. You have no idea”. It’s kinda like I got to have a conversation with my younger self a little bit while making this.

If you could go back to the recording studio in 2017 and tell yourself one thing, what would it be?

The first thing that comes to my mind is, “don’t worry because Kevin Lyman is going to hear this record and ask you to come play Warped Tour. It’s going to work out for you”. [laughs] The story of this band is so funny because I was in another band before Sarah and the Safe Word and that band broke up and I thought I was done with music. It’s so funny that you think you know how your life is going to go. You think that you’re done with your art or your craft and then life kinda shows you that you need to be making the music you’re making or shows you what you’re passionate about and that you’re right to have that passion. I think I would just tell my younger self, “this is the band you need to be in and don’t worry, it’s all going to pan out”.

How would you describe your songwriting process for Strange Doings in the Night? How do you feel it’s changed since?

At the time of Strange Doings in the Night, the band was really just me and Kienan. All the songs started with Kienan coming over with an acoustic guitar to my apartment and us writing songs together. That was how it used to be done with our first EP and with Strange Doings in the Night. It was us just sitting and trying to come up with goofy songs. I remember listening to each song on this record and thinking back to where we were in my apartment and what tea I was drinking when we were writing each song. It takes me back. Nowadays, we’re a six-piece band. Me and Kienan still write songs together but now we can collaborate in teams a little bit more where me, Kienan, and Carlos [Gonzalez, percussionist] can write a song together or me and Beth might start something. There’s still that sort of one on one collaborative process but now there’s a lot more songwriters involved with it.

What’s the best songwriting tea?

Very specifically I like Royal Palace tea by Harney and Sons. That’s my go-go songwriting tea, with cream and sugar. If I can get an endorsement deal from Harney and Sons from this interview that would be great because I drink their tea all the time.

Do you have a favourite memory of working on the album?

I do! I have a few. So we recorded drums through the night making Strange Doings in the Night. We did a 10pm to 10am drum session that we were up all night recording for and that was our first day in the studio. I remember it was like 3 o’clock in the morning, we were five songs deep into recording drums and I was like, “what the fuck am I doing, doing this?” It was the craziest thing. That was cool. The day that we had the string quartet in to do the string parts and we really heard that come to life for the first time was mind blowing. I never had that before in a band. I always played in pop punk bands before Sarah and the Safe Word so the idea of like, “oh my god I have a string section?! And a horn section?! And an accordion player?! This is crazy!” was really cool. Hearing all the different cinemic, big cabaret, vaudeville kind of stuff that we were trying to execute was really cool.

Did you have a cabaret show or a vaudeville show in mind when you were recording or was it just cabaret and vaudeville as a whole?

I’ve always loved cabaret-punk. I grew up with Dresden Dolls and I love Panic! At The Disco’s first record. I also like queer vaudeville acts and queer burlesque acts a lot and - shocking no one - I was a theatre kid in high school. So I knew that I wanted to make a really dramatic, dark record and I never thought I was really capable of it until doing this, it just seemed really complicated to try to do that genre. We were shooting for The Haunted Mansion soundtrack like what you’d hear if you were on that ride at Disney and I think we kinda nailed it. I hope we did at least.

How would you describe the Atlanta punk scene in 2017 and how would you describe it now?

I’m incredibly old. I’ve been playing in the Atlanta music scene since I was 18 and I’m 34 now so I’ve got some years. I think one thing that I’ve noticed as I’ve gotten older and I’ve played in bands and stuff is that queer music used to be very relegated to the DIY basement show kinda spaces and that’s not be disparaging basement shows or DIY punk - that’s the heart and soul of the punk rock movement. But what’s interesting to me in the last maybe 5 or 6 or 7 years is that queer music and queer artists and queer punk rock and all of that has really gone from playing those basement shows to in some cases being in the mainstream discussion and lexicon of music. That’s really cool to see. I think that our band had a very different place in music compared to where we are now. I think there can be queer musicians in rock bands and it’s not as considered a niche thing anymore. Now it’s like, we are queer and we are playing music and we are sharing the stage with bands who are maybe not from the LGBTQ+ spaces but we’re just as valid and seen within the discussion of music.

What has it been like seeing the excitement around the re-release from your fans on the internet?

It’s cool! Strange Doings in the Night just had this weird cult mystique around it for a couple of years because we took it offline for a while because we weren’t happy with how it sounded. We would always get messages from kids being like, “are you ever going to put that record back up on streaming? What is this album that I see online but isn’t available anywhere?” Putting this up again and seeing the enthusiasm for it and seeing people who liked the record when it came out or fans who have discovered us in the past couple of years but never heard it until now and hearing the songs for the first time and liking it, it’s been really cool. We finally feel like the record is getting the life it deserves with the mix it has now.

You’ve updated the cover of the album too. How did that come about?

We knew we wanted to keep the theme of the cover the same. We always liked the imagery of an old house in the middle of the woods in the middle of the night, we knew that was the vibe of the album. We wanted it to be like you were coming as a guest to this very spooky house party. That was always what the vision was in my head when we were trying to make the album. So that was the original artwork and we thought it would be good to update it a bit because it’s a new mix. Our bassist Maddox drew the artwork. It was funny, Maddox actually had this drawing of an old house for a long time before we even discussed remixing and remastering Strange Doings. I saw this piece of artwork that he had and I was like, “oh, we have to use this for the vinyl cover”. So he touched it up and redrew some stuff on it and that’s how we got to where we are now with the artwork. I love it. It’s some of my favourite artwork we have.

Will you be remixing, remastering, and re-releasing your 2016 EP Afterlife in the future?

You’ve done your homework! There’s been a lot of questions about whether or not we’re going to touch Afterlife. I would say if we are going to do that it probably won’t be in the immediate future. We might have a new record coming out next year so we want to start focusing our attention on that going into 2023 and that’ll be our focus for a little bit. We’re really excited about what’s coming up for us. I’m very OCD and very completionist about stuff and I would really hate to not ever go back and approach Afterlife and remix and remaster it. We would need to locate the sessions for that record which are currently missing. But it’s probably safe to say I’m on a hunt for that right now if we ever want to do that. We’re trying to find a way to do it but I would say if people are hoping that we remix and remaster that record, I wouldn’t wait up for it right now. It would be down the line and I think that it’ll be more difficult to remix and remaster that one because it was recorded in a basement studio in 2016. I think that we probably want to focus more on what’s coming up right now first off.

That makes sense. I hope you find the files!

We’re searching for them. We think we know where they are and what computer they’re on but it’s kinda like a treasure hunt to find them right now.

What are you listening to now?

I’m listening to the newest Alexisonfire record, it’s been out for a minute but I love that record. I’m pulling up my Spotify playlist right now. This younger artist called Taffeite connected with us on Instagram and I listened to their stuff and thought it was amazing. They have a record and their music is incredible. Shayfer James who I played with on the Will Wood tour, he has a new single out that is incredible. There’s a band called Volk who I’m really into, from the South. They have a really great record called Cashville that’s hilarious. They have a song called “Snake Farm” on it that is one of the best songs that I’ve ever heard. I’m really into Lola Blanc lately too. She’s a pop artist who does spooky pop music and she’s amazing.

What’s next for Sarah and the Safe Word?

Well, we recorded a new record in Cleveland. Once again with Jim Wirt who folks might know from Jack’s Mannequin, Something Corporate, Hoobastank, Incubus, and Fiona Apple. We recorded with him in June, I think. It’s safe to say that record is probably coming out in the future. We’re going to be touring next year too. We know that we’re going to be doing a full US tour eventually and we’re trying really hard, because we know that folks want us to, to head over to the UK next year too.

Come to Canada!

We’re trying.

On Instagram there’s a picture of you in the studio with Danbert Nobacon of Chumbawamba recording together. Will that collaboration be on the new album?

That’s on the new album. We have a collaboration with Danbert from Chumbawamba on the new record. It was the coolest experience of my life. It was amazing. If folks know our band, they know that we have a storied history with referencing Chumbawamba and it felt very full-circle to have Danbert in the studio with us.