Sarah Clarke is a busy woman. As the lead singer of the popular, neo-funk band Dirty Revival, Clarke spends a vast majority of her time on the road. In the months she's not on tour, Clarke resumes her life as a single mother. We had a long conversation during which she told me about her life while on tour, balancing the drive for creative success with the necessity of being a present-minded parent and mending the gap between the two.
OMG: I vividly remember the first time I saw Dirty Revival at Alberta Street Pub and I was blown away because you have such a powerful voice. When did you form the band?
SC: May will be our first show/five year anniversary so that would be 2013. It was kind of a happy incident that we formed. I wasn’t really looking for a project and nobody that started the band even entertained the idea of a full-time endeavor. [Dirty Revival drummer] Terry Drysdale and our guitarist Evan Simko were living together and they had originally started jamming on weeknights in their basement, hanging out and having fun. And they kept wanting to add things, so they called me to sing and at the time, my son Donovan was two and I was like, ‘This is insane, I don’t have any time for this. I work, I cannot do this.’ But Terry and I have known each other for a lot of years and we’d always wanted to be in a project together, I always had dreams of being in a band and it seemed like it’d be a fun thing to do, so I joined them. And we just kept adding pieces until we felt like we had something going.
OMG: It’s a big band.
SC: Yeah! Well, it started out a lot bigger than it is now and it was a really fun way to explore what Dirty Revival was gonna be. When we did home shows, which was all we were really doing, we had eleven people on stage at any moment, including two backup singers and percussion. This was before we were writing original music, we were doing a lot of covers and a few songs that people had brought from other projects. We had one song we’d written together and I had a song I’d written when I was sixteen that ended up on our first EP. And it was fun, we had such a blast. We were totally green and had no idea what we were doing but we really enjoyed it. Those were good old days.
OMG: And, not to be callous, but when you have a big band, it’s harder to make bread, right?
SC: Oh yeah. We also wanted to get out on the road because we felt like that was something the band should do and we were faced with the issue of trying to pack eleven people in any sort of vehicle and go anywhere. Our first tour was five of us, just the rhythm section and myself, and then we brought in our trumpet player and backup singers for this big festival that we played. But we were really trying to figure out how we were gonna make this valuable for us. And then as the band started gaining popularity, it gave us more incentive to travel but we had to dial it back a lot. So we ended up with a seven piece band out of that. And we couldn’t possibly go smaller than the seven that we have now.
OMG: Are you from Portland?
SC: Yes, born and raised, my whole life.
OMG: How did you get into music? Were you a musical child?
SC: I would say that I was. I’ve always loved singing and I was in the choir in elementary school and up through high school but I didn’t really do much with music after that. I was kind of up in the air and I started working and just kept working. I didn’t really start pursuing the creative side of music, or the part that I should’ve been pursuing, until I joined Dirty Revival.
OMG: So you didn’t come from a musical family, it was more something you fell into?
SC: My mom is a pianist, she’s never been a performer but she’s taken lessons for most of her life. My father, who I don’t know very well, plays the piano. I’ve met him maybe twice in my life but I met him long enough to hear him play. He can’t read music but he plays what he feels and that’s probably the most connected I’ve ever felt to him. But music was also kind of around me, a family friend of ours is a percussionist on the Portland scene and he’s been playing for forever, so we would go to his shows but it always seemed so fantastic and glamorous to me.
OMG: Were you active on the Portland music scene?
SC: No. It all seemed very sparkly and distant to me for a really long time. I hung out with the same friends I had in high school and our scene was more karaoke bars and an insane amount of drinking so, you know, I was doing a lot of that throughout my twenties. It might be kind of embarrassing to say but it really took having a kid or getting pregnant in general to stop partying. I mean, it was fun but you can’t do it forever.
OMG: When did you seriously decide to become a musician? I'm very curious of the balance that you strike because you are on the road constantly and you seem very dedicated.
SC: I had this awesome experience when I went to New Orleans for Jazz Fest and I got to see a couple life-changing shows. One of them was Charles Bradley & Hurray for the Riff-Raff and it was such a cool show, he really blew me away with what he was doing. I had to sit down and have a long think about what he gives the world. And I realized that I was a musician. I’ve always been more of a musician than any of the other hats I’ve worn in the professional world. I didn’t feel drawn to the work that I was doing and having a two year old, I felt like I owed it to myself and my son to give it a shot, to see where this passion takes me. And that's ironic to me now because, even though it's working pretty well, he is the person that I am pulled away from the most in order to do the thing I thought I was doing for him, so… there’s some joke in there that isn’t that funny...
OMG: Can you tell me about being on the road?
SC: Well, it’s gotten significantly better. This last tour was almost a piece of cake compared to where we had been before. When we first started touring, we bought an Econoline van and started doing the really long pulls and there was a lot of physical pain. We realized that we couldn't stand up in that thing— every guy in the band is over 6 ft tall, none of us are small people so we were like, ‘This is challenging at best.' We recently sold that van and bought a Ford Transit with a top that’s really high so I can stand on the seats and my head won’t touch the ceiling. And the boys can all stand up and stretch and we put some new seats in there and a bed in the back, so we can manage those long, 15 hour drives without people wanting to kill themselves or each other. We have a little refrigerator in there, so we can go grocery shopping instead of eating hot dogs at gas stations every day. In that way, things have gotten a lot better. Physical comfort and healthy food are a lot more difficult to source, I guess.
OMG: To that end, what are the best and worst things about touring?
SC: The best thing about it is sharing really amazing moments with people that you love. Whether it’s being on stage and having a great show and everyone feeling bright and happy. Or joking around in the van. We spend a lot of time having fun together and those moments when everyone’s laughing or sitting at the table in some restaurant, being the loudest group in there— those are really fun, wonderful experiences. I’d say that the challenging part is the other side of that coin where you don't get very much personal time. In hotels, we get two rooms and split that between seven people so you don't just have a roommate but a bedmate almost every night. It's hard to find that personal space and people have different ideas of what bedtime is and people are messy and the toilet seat’s up and stuff is strewn all over the hotel room... it can get a little frustrating but even in that way, it’s okay. With dudes, it just is what it is. If I start to lose my mind, I've been known to, on a day off, go to a bar, call one of my girlfriends and just get drunk over the phone with them like, ‘This is horrible.’ And I’ll feel so much better after that experience. I’m also very outspoken, I’m our tour manager and I think we all handle it well but there are moments where it’s very clear that it’s me and them. Whether it’s because they’re mad about something that I said or whatever and I start to feel alienated or frustrated but we usually work through that stuff pretty quickly. Those things don't happen very often. And even though they are all arguably more musically trained than I am, I’ve never felt for a second felt like there was any difference between me and them. They have musical education and all this that I don’t. But they don't treat me like that. If anything, I’m usually the one saying I can’t do something and they’re the ones saying, ‘That’s bullshit, you’re fine.’
OMG: You guys must be— well, close probably doesn't cover it. You'd say you're practically family, right?
SC: Family is a good way to describe it. We’re all close with each other and we’re lucky that we love each other so much and that we're doing this with people that we genuinely like and have genuine attractions to. Because without that, it can make things significantly worse and we had a tour last year that was nightmarish and I was kind of concerned the band was gonna fall apart but we rallied and we figured out what we needed to do, did it and life’s been significantly easier since then.
OMG: Do you have a favorite performance out of the hundreds that you've done?
SC: We played Waterfront Blues Festival in Portland last year and we had one of the big stages at 5pm on Saturday, which was perfect timing. There were a million people there and the band was just on fire. We had a full horn section and it was nice to be able to perform but more importantly, to be able to perform ‘Lay Me Down’ which is a song that I wrote about Portland and it was nice to have that conversation with several thousand of our community. It felt good to do that to the people I thought needed to hear it and it felt good that they heard it. That was a really strong moment for us. In general, home shows tend to be where it’s at for me. I love being on the road and making new friends and we have the same message every show but when you can come home and recognize faces in a crowd, see your friends and family and share the best parts of yourself with them, that is always such a good feeling.
OMG: What is your favorite thing about performing?
SC: It gets really fun for me when I reach a stride with the audience, when you know you’re giving them the best version of yourself that you can and they're responding in a positive way and that relationship becomes kind of cyclical and there’s an energy transfer that feels really positive. You’re giving yourself to people and they're responding kindly.
OMG: That’s awesome. Is there anything you wish you knew about touring or being a musician when you were just starting out?
SC: It’s interesting to think about all the funny things that we thought were important and trying to figure out what we were doing. It's just dawned on me in the last few months how much experience I’ve gained from doing this, when I think about us trying to come up with a logo or being super worried about having matching outfits on stage and some of that is the fun stuff, the growing pains of starting a band, you know, until you stop being delusional and realize that all that matters is getting to and from shows.
OMG: So what’s it like to have a child and be a touring musician? That’s a pretty unique experience.
SC: It’s really, really, really, really hard. On both of us. It’s weird to me that this is something I feel so strongly that I need to do in my life but Donovan is the love of my life, so it’s hard to be pulled away from him so much. This summer we’re staying a lot closer to home than we did last year, which is nice because I can’t be gone all the time and I want to make memories with him and every time I come home, I feel like he’s grown so much. He’s such a wonderful kid and as he grows up, he exhibits so many positive traits that I know he’s doing okay. But we miss each other an awful lot and sometimes it turns me into, frankly, an unpleasant person in some ways. Being away from him on the road, I can get really cranky and sometimes I’ll take it out on the guys or I’ll get drunk and just cry and cry and cry. And they go, ‘All right, we're just gonna leave her over there.’ They understand. They’re not judgmental of that. It sometimes is hard though, to combine the two lives because I don't think I am a different person but different parts of me shine or are brought forward when I’m on the road versus when I’m at home. Like the independent rockstar mentality that I have when I’m out there does not— when I’m home, I’m just a mom. So in the time that he has come on the road, sometimes I end up feeling confused about how I’m supposed to be. I think the more that he comes with me— I want him to be a part of that life, I don’t want him to feel like I have two lives. And I do feel that way sometimes, so I’m working harder to integrate the two and as he gets older, it’ll be easier and it will make those feelings go away.
OMG: Does he listen?
SC: Oh yeah, he knows what I do and I know that he is proud of me in his own way. It’s hard when I’m gone for three weeks because I’m his mom. We talk every day but it’s just not the same as having us in the same place. A lot of our time feels limited even when I am home. I have him during the weekdays and he’s with his dad on the weekends, which makes sense because I’m usually gigging and doing all the things. But it doesn’t always feel like we’re getting a lot of quality time, so that can be frustrating to take off and leave him and I think, 'Oh man, we barely get to be together as much as we wanted to be and now I’m gonna take off for a couple weeks.' But we’re both getting used to it. He’s a really smart kid and he knows how much I love him. He also knows how much my career means to me, so we’re just gonna have to work together to find a way to navigate that.
OMG: What is your writing process like?
SC: It depends on what I'm trying to do with a song. Sometimes, I will get up in the morning, get Donovan off to school, get a cup of coffee, sit at the piano and just see if anything comes out. I don’t really have a plan, I just want to see where the mood takes me, I guess. But it’s different when you're writing with a group. One of my favorite things to do when I’m writing lyrics is to sit in the room with the guys while they’re shedding the tune and figuring out their parts. It makes it so much easier to write lyrics, like I can write a song just in the time that they're rehearsing it. Instead of being at home by myself like, overanalyzing and agonizing about it. I’ve only realized that in the last few months of writing new music with them that I do it so much better when the song is being created in front of me and that’s a cool experience. I still write a lot of lyrics on my own but I’ll definitely get into a weird zone with a song where it sounds corny, everything sounds corny. If we’re all there together, it feels really natural.
OMG: Who are your favorite musicians to listen to?
SC: I’m terrible at listening to music, honestly terrible at it. I never have it on while I’m working. And it’s a hard question because there are so many different artists that I appreciate but overall, Stevie Wonder is one of my favorite, well-rounded artists with his songwriting skills and his career and everything. I also listen to Herbie Hancock’s Headhunters every three seconds it feels like. It’s the best travel music for me. I’ve also been trying to listen to more full albums instead of doing the schizophrenic Spotify playlist thing because it's kind of a shame to not experience someone’s art in the way that they intended or whatever. But [Dirty Revival keyboardist] Ben Turner is an album freak and so he’s constantly giving me things I should be listening to, same with [Dirty Revival bassist] Jon Shaw. So I’ve been making more of an effort to listen to full albums instead of just snippets of things.
OMG: I hate that I’m even asking you this but I feel obligated— what inspires you?
SC: Not to also sound totally cliche— this is gonna sound really corny— but life really inspires me. Like, the human experience is an interesting thing to me, the way that we interact together, the way that we relate to one another and exactly what my role in the world is supposed to be. I don't know the history of us or whatever but I do know that making music touches people in a positive way. You can share it with people that you’ve never met before and for a moment, we’re not focused on all the things that tear us apart on a daily basis or make us see each other differently or have us singling ourselves or other people out. For a moment, we’re just there together enjoying an art form that’s been around since we’ve been around. There’s some mysticism about that and I feel inspired by being a part of that, by being able to sit down with my friends and write songs that make people feel things. And that is such a cool, cool, cool thing.
OMG: What does your ideal life look like? Is it endless touring or do you have an end in mind?
SC: I’ve been thinking a lot about that over the last couple of days. Because something about the way that the band writes music and something about the way that we work together and the reactions that we get when we go out on the road and the things that we’ve experienced, I believe a lot in this project. It’s solidified in my mind that I’m on the right path, that music was the right choice and something that I should focus on. I'm not entirely sure where the end game is, I think I’ll know when I’m there but I just know that I’m not there yet. And so to me, that’s a reason to work and I’m hard to satisfy but I don’t feel very apologetic about that because I can see that my band has potential to do big, big things. I just, I don’t know, sometimes when I listen to the music that we put together, I think there’s no reason this couldn’t— under the right circumstances and with major labels and all that stuff— there’s no reason this band couldn’t win a Grammy. And I never verbalize that in my interviews or anything because it sounds a little outlandish to say but I do believe it. I know that I have to work harder to get wherever it is that I’m going and as I said, once I get closer to that place, I’ll feel it.
OMG: I think everyone’s thinking that. I don’t think that’s an outlandish thought to have.
SC: It’s the ultimate honor and there’s a lot of amazing artists who haven’t obtained that but it’s not a bad dream to have or to work towards. Especially in this group, it feels like the talent is there, so there should be no reason why we couldn't attain a lot of those things that musicians want to have. It is silly, it does feel silly to say. You want to win a Grammy!
OMG: What do you like to do in your spare time?
SC: I spend a lot of time in the kitchen, I like to cook for my family. I’m always stressed out, so getting in the kitchen and creating something that doesn't tax me as much as music does really soothes me. I’ve also been known to sit in front of the TV for hours and hours watching Murder, She Wrote.
OMG: Yes! I love that you just said that. I love that show.
SC: It's the most self-pandering, insane show that I’ve ever seen but I fucking love it so much. I will watch hours of that and that really helps me, I just zone out and don’t need to think. And when my son is home, I really struggle with trying to stay present. When I’m on the road, obviously I’m gonna miss Donovan no matter what but if I’m home with him, I'm trying not to daydream about eating gas station food or being with the guys in a state that I’ve never been to or whatever. But I have a hard time making time for myself, my work hours just spread all throughout my life. So that’s something I’m trying to focus on, too, more time with my kid and really being with him instead of being half there.
OMG: Just being a mom.
SC: Yeah, it’s my favorite.
Dirty Revival is a seven-piece soul/rock band hailing from Portland, Oregon. Their sound has been described as a "kitchen sink of influences that included soul, jazz, funk, hip-hop and more (Seattle Music Insider)". They've played alongside George Clinton & the Parliament Funkadelic, Michael Franti, the Gift of Gab and many others. They are constantly touring America and they are probably coming to a city near you. You can find their full length album (self-titled, Dirty Revival) and a 7” record (So Cold) on their website and on Spotify.