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Sarah Whatmore
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A lot can happen in six years. Styles change, tastes change, people change. For the last six years Mancunian singer-songwriter Sarah Whatmore has been on a journey of self-discovery. Time To Think is the result of that journey.
The perfect soundtrack to let yourself go to, from the opening piano riff of Undefined to the final haunting chords of Own Designs, Time To Think reveals a 26-year-old woman who’s comfortable in her own skin. A songwriter honest enough to convey genuine emotion without resorting to cliché and a singer confident enough to shun gimmicky vocal effects and allow the purity of her voice to shine. You may catch echoes of Carly Simon, Roberta Flack, LeAnn Rimes, Helen Reddy and even Natalie Imbruglia but there’s no denying the smooth honeyed tones of Sarah Whatmore. It’s packed with raw emotion but don’t expect too much in the way of romance. “I’m not romantic at the minute,” explains Sarah. “I can write fantasy make-believe songs, but I was more interested in writing about what was actually real. I was in a more philosophical mood. When you sing something that’s real it’s completely different, romantic songs can be a bit cheesy. Maybe it’s because I haven’t found my fella yet…”
For most people, Sarah’s journey began in 2001 when she appeared on Pop Idol. In fact it started before that. From the age of 14 she was writing, poetry at first, but after her dad died when she was just sixteen, Sarah wrote her first song, Goodbye. ‘I wrote it in 10 minutes, my sister was on the guitar - it got me a B in music!’
On Pop Idol she didn’t make it into the last ten, but she did get two memorable offers – Simon Cowell proposed to her on air, which she declined, and Simon Fuller offered her a recording contract, which she accepted. “I was a kid, I wanted to get out there and get a record deal, that was my mission. Suddenly there were people surrounding me telling me to ‘do this, do that’ and I was going ‘yes, yes, OK, OK. I was the Yes Girl. I wasn’t stupid, I was just a little bit lost. I think the first single When I Lost You (2002) was great but then everything started becoming more about my image than the music. When I look at some of the pictures from the early days I think ‘that’s not me at all’. They’re not embarrassing,” she laughs, “It’s just the thought of little boys in the toilet with their magazines!”
Unsure about the direction her career was going, Sarah took the bold decision not to release her debut album, “I just wanted to disappear and write. I was determined to make my own mark, I just didn’t know how long it was going to take.”
Making her own mark meant making her own music. Quite simply for Sarah, it’s always been about the music. “I’m quite happy and smiley, but when it comes to music I love melancholy. Damian Rice does it for me in terms of melody. My dad used to listen to Pink Floyd so I love Pink Floyd. Who else? Bryan Ferry, Astrid Gilberto, Fleetwood Mac, oh and I’m obsessed with Jeff Buckley - Grace is the best album in the world. You really have to pass on that music because he was a musical genius - he’s timeless. Have you heard of Joan As Police Woman? You need to get hold of her album. I’ve done nothing but listen to her. Actually, I found out after I got her album that she was Jeff Buckley’s girlfriend at the time he passed away. Sorry, did I say I am a little bit obsessed with Jeff Buckley?”
Sarah became a songwriting nomad, collaborating with various people around the world, experimenting with different styles and sounds, trying to discover herself, but it was a technical disaster closer to home that led to the next big step forward…
19 Entertainment were having their 19th anniversary party and Sarah was asked to perform. “I went on stage and the mic wasn’t switched on, and this was in front of the whole industry. I didn’t know whether to just give up but there’s something inside of me that is like ‘no, this is what I want to do.” So Sarah carried on singing. The next day songwriter Greg Fitzgerald (Kylie Minogue, Hall & Oates) rang up 19 Entertainment and asked to work with ‘the girl with the broken mic’.
Greg and Sarah clicked straight away, and it wasn’t long before Smile was written. A mellow ballad tinged with sadness the song showcases Sarah’s silky-smooth voice, built around a guitar hook and vocal sample from the seventies Hall & Oates classic. “At the time I was really down,” confesses Sarah, “so the song is quite dark. I’d met a guy, and I thought I was in love with him, but it ended up being a very, very destructive relationship. When it ended I was heartbroken - and it was only at that point when I started writing my best stuff.”
Sarah wrote a few more songs with Greg Fitzgerald before being introduced to music legend Peter John Vettese, former pianist with Jethro Tull, who’s added his magical touch to works by bands as influential and diverse as Simple Minds and the Bee Gees.
“Peter’s an incredible, intelligent musician. He’s got this amazing energy, he doesn’t even drink - he just feeds off life. He produced the album, because musically we connected, and I could open up to him.”
It was while working with Peter John Vettese and Felix Howard (Sugababes) that Permanent Last Resort was written. If there is a need for a theme for a new Bond film then the producers need look no further than Permanent Last Resort. A musical blockbuster, with Sarah as the leading lady, ably supported by the sweeping strings of the Royal Philharmonic.
“I don’t know what it is about Permanent Last Resort, but every guy picks up on it. It’s a great song live. I actually did some gigs under a pseudonym last year,” reveals Sarah. “I was like I need to gig, I’m gonna go and sing. I did small venues, just Peter John Vettese on piano, a guitarist, a cello player, and me. It was beautiful. Gigs that are more intimate are better, especially for my music. I get jealous whenever I go to concerts. It winds me up, I just want to be up there. I saw George Michael in concert a year ago, there were no dancers, just a band and him. He held the stage the whole time, and everyone was just going nuts. I saw Prince twice at the O2, he made me feel sick he was that good.”
Slowly but surely, everything was falling into place. Even an initially awkward songwriting session with Jamie Hartman (Ben’s Brother) resulted in another of the album’s standout tracks, Unsure. “He couldn’t really work me out at first,’ explains Sarah. “I wasn’t sure if we were really connecting, it was really strange. He was sat there on the guitar coming up with all these different melodies so I went off in the corner and started writing I’m tragic, I’m beautiful, I’m sinful, but I’m an angel…” and from there the session took off and blossomed into a creative meeting of minds “and all of a sudden we ended up writing what felt like one of my best songs yet!’’
Beautifully observed and laugh-out-loud funny, Unsure completely nails the complex nature of women that so fascinates/infuriates men the world over. “It’s exactly how I am,” Sarah admits, “And it’s probably the reason why I’m not in a relationship any more.”
As for the album title, that came at the very end of the journey. Time To Think was the last song to be written for the album, again with Jamie Hartman. “Sometimes it can be very self-destructive having too much time to think. We’d been sat for I don’t know how long, thinking of ways to change my image, change my hair colour, change my name – and I was like, you know what, you can’t hide from the past. What’s done is done. I don’t want to be famous, I really don’t - I just want people to hear the music. If they like it they like it, if they don’t they don’t, simple as that.”
There’s no reason why people won’t like it. Time To Think is a timeless collection of beautiful songs, from a tragic, beautiful, sinful angel – in other words, a real woman. Play it in the car, or on a plane and let yourself go. And if you don’t like it, Sarah’s got a contingency plan… “If it doesn’t do well I’ll buy a bus and travel Europe and Australia and go in every bar and just gig!”
But that’s a whole different journey.
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