Hollywood Concerts Examiner, interview with Phyllis Pollack

Sara Wasserman talks about her new ‘Solid Ground’ album and her upcoming gig at Hollywood’s Key Club

September 23, 10:44 PMHollywood Concerts ExaminerPhyllis Pollack


By Phyllis Pollack

Sara Wasserman will be opening the show at the Key Club in Hollywood for headlining act Living Colour on September 24. Sara’s father is Grammy award winning bassist Rob Wasserman, and her mother Clare Wasserman works managing recording artists. Sara has performed with her father’s band RatDog, which was co-formed with Rob Weir. She is now performing as a solo artist, promoting her own album. Sara recently released her debut album Solid Ground, which features guests artists including her father, Lou Reed, Vernon Reid, Aaron Neville, DJ Logic, Christian McBride and other notable musicians. Here, Sara talks about her new album, her life in music, and the upcoming gig at the Key Club.

How did you end up being the opening act for Living Colour for their two Southern California shows?

Vernon Reid is on the album, and I asked if we could do a couple dates with Living Colour on the tour. It’s really great playing with them. They are amazing.

They’re totally fantastic.

I am really happy that Vernon is on my album on the track “Sara Smile.”

Why did the album take so long to record?

It took seven years. There were so many people I recorded with. I wanted to make sure everybody’s schedule was right, and that the music was right first.

The album was recorded in several places. Part of it was recorded in New York, some of it at the Neville Brothers studio in New Orleans, and then there were other places, including Northern California. With the album being recorded in various parts of the country, how do you think that affected the feel of the album?

It really added to the diversity of the album. It also contributed to the different styles that you hear on the album.

“Leap Of Faith” is one of the songs that has a really funky sound to it.

Yeah. “Leap Of Faith” is one of my favorite tracks on the album. DJ Logic is on that album, the drummer for Soul Live, and my dad is on there playing bass. That was one of the first uptempos we recorded. There are a lot of ballads on the album. I really relate to the old soul and R&B. That’s what I relate to in that song. It has a lot of gospel on it, too, I think.

Your album is dedicated to Casa De Milagros, which is in Peru. How did you end up there?

I’ve only been there once. I spent a couple weeks there. I have some very dear friends who helped found this orphanage, and they have been supporting it for many years. They were the ones who told me about it. There is a woman who runs it, who is one of the most amazing women on the planet. She has basically adopted these thirty-two kids, raises them with her daughters, and they have a whole staff. They try to heal these kids who are homeless and abandoned, who are found out on the streets of Cusco, with art, music and dance. It is a new model for orphanages that I feel incredibly strong about. That is why I decided to do this. I have always been passionate about children, because to me, this can be such a self-absorbed business, you have to have a higher calling, I think. I think in order to be successful in this business, you have to put one hundred fifty percent into it, and most artists musicians are self-absorbed. There are a lot of people in this business that put themselves first.

You don’t hear many artists come out and actually admit that in an interview.

Well, I grew up around artists, so I’ve seen it since I was very tiny. I think I have a slightly different perspective. And that’s not me. So that’s why I felt very strongly about working with this foundation and working with these kids. They appreciate it more than most people. I see it from a different light.

Was it hard to find your own musical identity, growing up in a home where your father was an accomplished musician, your mother managed artists, and you were in an environment where you were also constantly surrounded by all the artists that they knew?

Yeah, I think it was, because I never related musically to The Grateful Dead. (Laughs.) And I grew up with them and Lou Reed. I think Lou Reed is brilliant. But I never really related the music I grew up around. I love singers, rhythm and blues, soul and jazz. That’s what I really am passionate about. So I think it was hard, because I wasn’t really exposed to that kind of music. So I had to find that on my own, and it took a while. But I think one of the reasons why the album took so long, too, is I really wanted to find my own voice before I put something out there that I didn’t feel a hundred percent about. You really have to do a whole lot of music before you can really do something you’re proud of.

A lot of people on your album are people your father had recorded with.

Yeah, a lot of them were and a lot of them weren’t. Christian McBride is a dear friend, who I introduced my dad to, and DJ Logic, who was my friend first, kind of.

Did you ever have differences of opinion musically with your father?

No, because he appreciates all kinds of music. He’s one of the most amazing musicians.

He’s definitely versatile in his playing, as well.

He just ended up in certain worlds more than others, but he wanted me to find my own thing, whatever worked for me. My thing is that I am influenced by so much, that it’s really hard to put all of that on one record. (Laughs.) I was trying to find a way to get in as much as I could.

Being that the album took seven years to record, what was it that made you know that you had arrived at the point where you could finally say, “This is it.”

It was after I went to Peru. I had spent a lot of time on the album, and I was almost done with the album at that point. Then I said, “Okay, this is what I’m doing with this album. This album is going to go to these kids, and I need to get it out there. I felt I needed to do it for them, even more so than do it for myself. It was just this weird drive to do that, and that was one of the reasons I decided to finally get it out there.

I have interviewed some musicians who are such perfectionists, that they feel uncomfortable listening to their own music after it has been released.

That’s so funny, because I was with Bob Weir from the Grateful Dead a couple weeks ago, and I was having dinner with him. We were at a friend’s of his, and he said that his daughters really love my album. His daughters are eleven and seven, I think. They were like, “Can we put your album on?” He said they really love it, and Bobby’s like, “Are you sure it’s okay? Do you mind listening to it?” So I think he’s one of those people. (Laughs.)

That’s funny.

Some people don’t like listening to themselves. They get nervous about it.

Did you ever meet Jerry Garcia when you were young?

Yeah, of course I did. I think the best, most inspiring moment was being in the studio. I was a kid, and my dad did a Levis commercial with Jerry, Bruce Hornsby and Branford Marsalis. Spike Lee produced it. Watching that group of people together, and I was really tiny, it was really amazing at that time. Just being able to see him. He was so brilliant, and he was so sweet. I obviously knew Bobby a lot better than Jerry, because my dad started Rat Dog with Weir, but I knew all of them pretty well. So musically, that was a really amazing moment to watch him. He was pretty special.

Did you ever ask any of these artists, including artists you recorded with, for advice, and if so, what was the best advice that you ever got from any of these musicians you grew up around?

Let’s see. So funny. My first time was on stage was with Bob Weir, my Dad, and Johnnie Johnson. He was the one who really pushed me to keep singing, because I had hardly sung. I got on stage with them when I was a kid, in front of all these people like Bonnie Raitt. Johnnie was in the band at that time. He really was very, very adamant that I keep doing it. He was a huge inspiration to me. But I was so nervous, and Bobby was like, “It’s never going to go away. You’re always going to be nervous. Just go out and do it.” But Lou Reed always told me to run things. The reason why I am so involved in every aspect of my career in terms of business and everything is not because of Lou, but because he was one of the people who told me how important it is to manage your own career, to know everything that is going on. Because he is so brilliant with business, and he helped me, he gave me some great advice in terms of being able to do everything. Because I think right now you have to be able to do everything, because this business is not in good shape. (Laughs.) So you have to be able to run every aspect of what you do. You have to know what is going on.

It’s interesting, because you are coming into this at a time when the business is not like it used to be. There are a lot of artists that never handled their own business, and now they are at a loss, not knowing how to deal iwth the changing business model in the industry. It used to be much different, and many of those artists today are like, “Now what?” There are artists who never really planned for the demise of the physical CD, retail record stores closing down, and all the things that are going on now in the business.

I know.

Maybe part of Johnnie Johnson’s thing of “Don’t give up,” was because of what happened to him. He had gotten out of the music business for a long time until Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards went looking for him. Thisis back when he was working with Taylor Hackford on the Chuck Berry concert documentary Hail, Hail, Rock And Roll, A Tribute To Chuck Berry. Johnnie had stopped performing for a long time.

Yeah, that’s true. I never really thought about that. That’s true.

Johnnie was Chuck Berry’s original keyboard player. It was originally Johnnie’s band. Keith went out looking for Johnnie. This was in 1987. Keith finally found Johnnie Johnson, and he was driving a bus. How wrong is that? Thankfully, Keith brought him back to us, and the rest was history. So that might offer you some insight, as far as why he was saying to you, “Don’t give up.” Because he, himself, had lost a large part of his life musically, all those years when he had given up.

It’s so funny, because this is such a tough business. It’s like you said, coming into this now is so weird. Because I think when I first started, it was really when it started getting harder and harder and harder. But at the same time, it’s great, because you can pretty much do whatever you want. You just need to know the realities of where it’s at right now. It’s pretty brutal. But you know, Johnnie was just, he, like I said, he was the first person who was really, really so adamant. I think because he’s worked with so many singers. He’s worked with Tina Turner, he’s worked with the great vocalists. Oh, my God, he was such a great guy.

Where were the gigs you did with them?

One was at Shoreline Amphitheatre, which was the Further Festival. I sat in with RatDog and my dad. And there was the Sweetwater gig, which was a little club, near where I grew up in the Valley, which was like my living room, growing up basically. I shouldn’t have been there, but I was. (Laughs.) Johnnie played there a lot with Bobby and my dad. There was the Warfield gig I did with them. It was around 1997. He was in RatDog for a while. Bobby really loves and appreciates great musicians. And he found this guy, and he was incredible. He was so good, and he was so different. He just had such a good heart.

It sounds like you got turned onto a lot of this music through the players, rather than by sitting down and listening to the music, itself. You came in through that door, and it probably gave you an interesting perspective into the different types of music, coming in that way.

Yeah. And then after I first started performing with them, I stared performing with Narada Michael Walden, who was my first real producer, and he produced Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, The Temptations, just everybody. He’s won Grammys, and he’s a legendary producer and drummer. He taught me lots, and made me listen to and study music I had never really heard. I mean, I heard, but I just had never been around it, because I had been around other music. I had been around live music all my life, but I had never been around like Bill Withers, Aretha and people like that, who I love so much right now. So that was a good education, too.

How would you describe your music?

I would say it’s like acoustic soul. It’s different live than it is on the album. It’s like a cross between acoustic soul with some jazz and blues mixed in.

When you play the gig at the Key Club, who is going to be playing with you, as far as your band?

My father is going to be playing and Randy Emata, my producer and piano player. It’s just going to be a trio.

That’s going to be interesting to hear it that way, after having heard your album.

(Laughs.) Yeah, it should be good.

It will be obviously be very different than the album, because you have so many musicians on it.

Yes, very stripped down.  It will be fun.

The song on the album, “I Am A Song,” was originally a poem written by Aaron Neville.

Yeah. And “Fresh Out Of Tears” was another poem written by Aaron. It was the second one I did with one of his words. I played him some of my music. He asked me if I would write a song similar to “fly Away” that he could sing with me. When i got home, I decided to ask him to sing on “Fly Away” with me. We recorded it at the Neville Brothers studio in New Orleans.

You very much hope the album is a way for you to get the word out about the charity you are supporting.

I hope to keep doing this to actually open peoples’ eyes to other issues. And music is obviously a very healing thing.

Do you have other dates lined up after these?

We’re hoping to do more shows with Living Colour. We’re working on getting some shows in New Orleans. It’s one of my favorite towns. I’m hoping for November. We’re just working on the dates now. I love performing, so hopefully we’ll be doing much more of that, too. I love touring with Living Colour. They’re so incredible. And Corey Glover is amazing.

Living Colour is fantastic, extremely intense. They really rock. There’s a lot of hope expressed on your album, a lot of optimism, like on “Leap Of Faith.”

Yeah, that’s definitely a very personal song for me, just because I think starting out in this business, it is so hard. It’s so hard.

What is the hardest part of it for you?

I think it’s because there is no road map. No one can say, “This is how you do it.” So you kind of just have to do it. (Laughs.)

That’s an interesting statement coming from somebody with your family background.

But it’s different. Because when I first started, I had absolutely no idea how hard it was going to be. I think you have a different perspective when it’s not you. Then you put yourself out there, and it’s hard. Because it’s hard to make an album, it’s hard to make music that’s good, it’s hard to put yourself out there and to perform in front of a ton of people, but it’s a great hard. It’s all something that I love to do, but, and then the business aspect of it. Finding the right person to put the album out, finding the right team. It takes a village basically.

Well, you have Bob Merlis as your publicist, and he’s great.

He’s amazing. And it’s so funny, because I met him like five years ago at a John Mellencamp concert. My lawyer knew him, and she introduced me, and we ended up at Madonna’s publicist’s house after the show. I had some of my music with me, and I played him “Fly Away,” and he loved it. We just kept in touch, and when I found the record company I wanted to work with, I told my label that I wanted to hire him. I reached out to him, and we hired him. And it was so funny, because he said, “I always wondered what ended up happening to your music.” Because I remember when he first heard it, he really seemed to like it.

Being that this album took seven years to record, there must have been a long time lag there.

Yeah. We hadn’t seen each other for a while. And I just always knew that I wanted to work with him, because he’s so brilliant, he’s so good.

Did your father’s success ever give you the idea that all of this would be really easy, watching him?

Yeah, I think so. And it was different back when he started.

Yeah, much different.

But he’s a also bass player, so he’s beaten the odds in a lot of ways.

There are a lot of musicians that would love to play with him.

Yeah, and most bass players don’t win a Grammy on their own album. So it’s like he’s done things much differently, and his collaboration albums really inspired me to do an album that had a lot of collaborations on it. Not even on purpose, but I think in the back of my mind, obviously seeing that as a child, that was an inspiration for me to do that. But yeah, I think it seems a lot easier when you’re watching it than doing it yourself. (Laughs.) But I love it.

Especially when you’re watching live shows, because you’re basically seeing the end results, rather than the process of everything that goes on.

Totally. Yeah, I know. It’s crazy. People ask me, “How did you do this?” But you can’t really explain it, because it’s taken so many years, so you can’t really explain how you did it. Or when someone asks you how to do it, there’s really no way to explain how to do it. (Laughs.)

I don’t think anyone in this business ever really planned it.

No. I think you’re right.

I think they wanted it, but no one ever really made a strategy, and then just got there. I don’t think you can plan it out.

No you can’t. Because even the plans that even I thought that I had worked out very differently. You can’t have plan the way that things have actually unfolded. There’s absolutely no way. You can try and plan it, but usually things happen differently than you planned them.

Like you said, it takes a team of people. There are so many people who are involved in the process of a career, when you look back on it, from your influences to who produced your last album, and beyond. It’s dependent on so many factors, because it is such an interdependent business.

I know. It really is.

It’s not like you’re an attorney or a dentist, and you open up an office, and there your clients or patients are. So much of what happens in this business is circumstance.

(Laughs.) I could never imagine being a dentist. That’s so funny. My grandfather is a dentist, and they always wanted my father to be one, and I think, “Oh, my God!” My dad, a dentist. (Laughs).

That’s hilarious.

Yeah. (Laughs.)

Well, those are jobs where you can be kind of isolated.


And you can depend on yourself. But in the music business, not only are you depending on the fans, but you are also depending on all these other people and circumstances involved. Like who else’s album is coming out on the Tuesday that mine is?

I know. It’s totally different. I’ve heard people say you should only focus on the music and the work. But if you focus on only that, then you can’t survive. You really need to know what the hell you are doing, because it’s your life. What it comes down to is, these people will be in and out of your career, but you won’t be. (Laughs.)

That’s a good way to look at.


Your mother manages recording artists.

Yeah. And my stepfather is Dan Hicks.

Of the Hot Licks.

My mom manages my stepfather, as well as my dad, as well as consults and works with me. So she has her hands full.

So you all manage to remain close.


That is really great.

Yeah. And Dan’s amazing. He’s been in my life since I was two. Definitely a unique situation. (Laughs.) My family is very unique. My dad and Dan are both very inspirational to me in different ways. But she definitely has her hands full!

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