According to family legend, Providence songstress Sara Azriel’s bohemian parents were so sure of their impending progeny’s musical talents that they gave her the middle name Azriel hoping she’d choose that as her stage name when the time came. Young Sara’s earliest memories are of sitting with her father, a composer and multi- instrumentalist, at the piano while joyfully accompanying him by plonking out his melodies on a baby piano. Later they had to teach her how to operate the record player herself, since she insisted on listening to Stevie Wonder’s “Happy Birthday” over and over again.
She began performing publicly at ten, voraciously working through the piano, marching band, choir and seemingly every other outlet the gifted young musician could wrap her talents around. This heartfelt and emotional lifelong connection to music is beautifully evident while listening to Sara Azriel’s self-titled debut; a gorgeous and all-too-brief trek through a handful of styles, from breezy country a-la Norah Jones on the excellent opener “Lake Michigan” to the modern electronic tinged “We’re Alive,” whose understated, simple, burbling synths and stuttering drums deftly ac- cent a really great pop song.
Ms. Azriel is a fan of classic soul music and jazzy torch songs. She names a few of her influences: Joni Mitchell, Nina Simone and Jeff Buckley, but also somewhat surprisingly, acts as diverse as Neil Young and Michael Jackson. She spent years listening to tons of jazz as well as experimental and improvisational world music. Although some of these more “out-there” influences don’t necessarily take center stage on her recordings, her EP is definitely the work of an artist who has dabbled in a vast array of music, giving her oeuvre a well-rounded sense of tastefully bright musicianship and enough variety to keep the record entirely interesting after multiple listens.
Sara Azriel is an artist who likes to invest in her work both emotionally and spontaneously. To craft her songs, she starts fiddling with one of her instruments, usually the piano but sometimes her guitar or ukelele. She hears melodies in her head and slowly, deliberately, starts to improvise with them. As the songs develop she does the same with the lyrics, although she admits, “The whole process is such a mystery to me, often it’s just a bunch of vowels and word shapes, like a made up language.” She describes the process as a sort of channeling, or “downloading” of the song from some mysterious ether. “Each song is like an incredibly complex puzzle I try and put together,” she says.
Her debut was recorded with four different producers over three years in multiple states, and with a dizzying array of collaborators and co-conspirators. “Lake Michigan” was recorded in Lakeville, Massachusetts with Marc Friedman of The Slip, and was only one of many songs recorded over a feverish seven months. “Be With Me,” is an achingly sad ballad of heartache and loss recorded with Davy Nathan, who is also Toni Braxton’s musical director. Here, and on the rest of the record, Sara’s voice is absolutely gorgeous, perfectly tuned and attenuated to whatever mood she so effortlessly evokes. “We’re Alive” was tracked and co-written in both Brooklyn and Providence by Andrew “Moon” Bain of party torchbearers Boo City, while the simple and beautiful “Gloria” was recorded by Sara alone, on a Fender Rhodes piano while living at Firehouse 13. That song, one of her oldest, is a tender ballad; brilliantly highlighting her incredible lyricism and stunning Jeff Buckley-like vocal gymnastics. “Little Wilted One” (as perfect an album closer as there could be) has been a live favorite of Sara’s featuring the incredible guitar work of Providence’s walking anachronism Tyler-James Kelly of The Silks along with Jess Powers and Caroline Hecht. An amazingly brisk, jaunty and thoroughly enjoyable old-timey sounding masterpiece, she was so enamored of their take on the song she brought them all into the studio to record this excellent version. Finally, the EP was mastered by James Wisner, who has worked with Amy Winehouse and Justin Timberlake, to sweeten and polish the record into the little gem that it is.
Over the next year, Sara Azriel plans on dividing her time between teaching piano, voice and songwriting lessons, making another record and plans to get her songs heard wherever she can, hopefully releasing another record as inspired and beautiful as her debut.
Download Sara Azriel’s self-titled debut album here.