Atlanta-based cabaret rock band Sarah and the Safe Word recently took the time to answer some of my questions. We discussed their latest single “You’re All Scotch, No Soda”, their upcoming tour with Ghost Moths, new music, and more.
The band consists of Sarah Rose (vocals), Kienan Dietrich (guitar), Susy Reyes (violin), Courtney Varner (viola), Beth Ballinger (keys), and Maddox Reksten (bass). Whether playing to an audience of 200 or 2000, their unique twist to the standard rock formula (which includes a violinist, violist, and double keyboards) often endears them to unfamiliar audiences. Their queer and POC-positive lineup also means that they are a band for everybody, and they believe strongly that their shows should remain a safe, inclusive space for anyone who attends. They enthusiastically encourage all listeners to prepare themselves for cabaret, vaudevillian antics, Southern gothicism, demented gospel, dark pop, and rock and roll.
Q: Let’s start out with a fun question. What sparked your interest in being involved in music?
Sarah: I think that music has always been a factor in my life in some capacity. I grew up between Atlanta and New Orleans as a kid, which are two very musical cities, albeit in very different ways. My mom was a really big fan of 70’s music, so I was turned on from an early age to bands like Fleetwood Mac and the Doobie Brothers. When I was in high school, I remember several of the seniors were in local punk bands and I thought it was the coolest thing in the world. I knew I wanted to do this pretty much from the first time I saw them play.
Kienan: I grew up with music around me, since my dad played guitar and my mother played piano. I think the first time I fell in love with the idea of music was after seeing the original animated Lion King. That soundtrack had a huge influence on me. I had kicked around the idea of learning an instrument when I moved down to Atlanta, and over time I chose the guitar because there were already guitars available in the house—that’s literally the only reason. After that it was all just all about playing in bad punk bands with friends until they became less bad.
Beth: I can’t remember a time when I didn’t play music. Both of my parents play piano so there was always a keyboard or a piano in my house. I remember my dad taught me a C blues bass line and how to play chords with it when I was 4 or 5, and by 6 I was taking piano and voice lessons. I did a lot of competitions growing up, and then started pursuing a solo career in music.
Maddox: Honestly it came out of nowhere in my family. Not that we were void of music, but starting around age 4 I can remember just belting along to country songs or the kinda classic rock my dad was into. My mom really encouraged it but other family members were less enthusiastic about my interest in music so I didn’t actually pick up my first real instrument until I was about 13. I didn’t quite find the right fit til 15 but since I began playing bass I never stopped and from there it was one shitty high school band after another. Once I got a taste though, that was it. I’ve never stopped since. I do remember having a keyboard at my disposal when I was really young that I would try to teach myself. I’ve always been self taught so everything from learning the bass to forming and being in bands was all things I had to discover and figure out for myself.
Q: In 2017, you got the chance to play the Vans Warped Tour in Atlanta. Do you believe that opportunity had an impact on the band’s trajectory since then? If yes, how so?
Sarah: Getting to play Warped Tour by request of Kevin Lyman remains one of the greatest privileges our band has ever experienced. We saw such a spark of interest in our band even prior to playing, when Kevin decided to tweet several times about us. On a personal level, I think that getting invited to Warped was also a really validating moment for us a band – it made us feel like we were on the right track with our vision.
Kienan: Yeah, it was definitely personally validating. For a lot of bands it feels like there’s one moment that helps them see a clearer pathway to follow, rather than just the standard ‘make music, play shows’ plan. Playing Warped gave us several of those moments, not just in being able to be on that stage, but also hanging out with the other bands and connecting with them as people. It helped us see a glimpse of the Emerald City when we were still focusing on Kansas.
Maddox: Absolutely. It was actually one of my first shows with the band and after going to Warped every summer for almost a decade prior, it honestly blew my mind. I didn’t know what to expect. But the bands were just so kind to us and I will always remember walking out on that stage and realising where I was in that moment. As Kienan and Sarah both said, it was insanely validating and it helped get us on the right path.
Q: You released your latest single “You’re All Scotch, No Soda” at the beginning of January. Would you mind telling me a bit about the single? What exactly does it mean if someone is all scotch and no soda?
Sarah: “Scotch” was one of the first songs to come out of the songwriting sessions for our upcoming record. The jist behind the song is that it’s mocking a lot of the toxic masculine attitudes that exist within hookup culture, whether it’s ego, insecurity, machismo. I don’t think a lot of men really understand that women see through a lot of the acts they put on when they’re trying to impress people.
Q: There was also a music video for the track, and it looks like it was a lot of fun to shoot. How did you come up with the story behind the video?
Sarah: Since we knew we were releasing the single on New Years Day, we knew we wanted to do something that paid tribute to the aesthetic and feel of the roaring 20s. We wanted to give the vibe of a speakeasy, but with a slightly modern, queer twist. It also helps that we had our friend Mystery Meat appear for the second time in one of our videos, who is one of the best drag performers of the south.
Kienan: The other elements of the video came naturally from the subject matter of the song. As for the ending, really we all just wanted to do something on stage other than playing the song, and we all had a lot of fun coming up with inventive ‘deaths’ to perform.
Q: Given the release of the single, can we expect more new music coming soon? Anything in the works that you are able to speak about?
Sarah: We recorded a new record in Cleveland last year and it’s coming out soon.
Kienan: That is all we can say at the moment. We like to keep you on your toes.
Q: What do you hope listeners gain from your music, whether they stream one song or come out to a show?
Sarah: We make an effort to say at every show that we want our music to be a safe space for everyone, regardless of who they are and what they’re going through. Music, for me, has always been something I could lose myself in when life felt overwhelming – and I hope in some small capacity we can provide that for others.
Kienan: I hope listeners hear something they’ve never heard before, whether it be a totally new sound or a sound they’re familiar with in a brand new, exciting context.
Maddox: Being an openly transgender musician I think of everything music meant to me growing up and also what the community did for me. It pulled me through the toughest times, so I want to do that for others, whether it’s through the music itself or the message behind it. But I want to do that especially for anyone who feels like they don’t have a place to belong or folks who understand them. There weren’t many openly queer musicians to look up to when I was discovering myself so I hope our band can be that for kids looking for safe spaces or looking for escape from reality for a while. Our shows are events we want kids to come to where they can be free and open as themselves and also get a kickass performance from at the same time.
Q: Have you ever played at a Renaissance Festival, or would you if you got the chance?
Sarah: I would never turn down an opportunity to eat a giant turkey leg or drink mead, but I think a Prohibition party is more our style.
Kienan: I refuse to play any supposed “Renaissance” Festival that clearly takes place in some fanciful medieval era instead of the actual Renaissance. If you can build me the Sistine Chapel in a fair tent, I will be there.
Q: Speaking of shows, you’ll be hitting the road in April with Ghost Moths for a few dates. Are there any bands that you’re particularly excited to be sharing the stage with?
Sarah: We have so many great opening acts for this tour, it’s hard to pick one. What I can say is that we’re beyond excited for literally every city on this tour. Detroit, Brooklyn, Cleveland, Chicago, and Nashville all have people and places that are so near and dear to us.
Kienan: Winter Wolf in Brooklyn. Other than that, like Sarah said, the places are what we’re most excited about. We love going up north, and this will be my first time to Chicago!
Q: Theatrics seem to be very important to you both musically and visually. How does that play into your live show?
Sarah: As a teenager, I loved visual kei bands like Malice Mizer and Dir en Grey, and (surprising no one) I was a theatre nerd. So it’s always been a part of who I am. Jack White of the White Stripes said once that he was always appreciative of the old school rock bands who would dress up for their performances and gigs, because it felt like they were making an effort to transform themselves for the show. I love that sentiment. I think any band that has a cohesive aesthetic and presentation is awesome.
Kienan: I grew up in a scene that was very much about ‘being yourself’ on stage, but that was just a thing people said repeatedly until it lost meaning. Authenticity doesn’t require that you play on stage in the shirt you woke up wearing that morning. It just means connecting with your audience. I found that I was enjoying musical theatre and stage plays more than the concerts I went to, and it made me realize that theatrical factor wasn’t something I was attending to properly. It takes a lot of care and attention to create the fun chaos that people resonate with at a performance.
Maddox: I’ve always been a fan of the performance. I’ve been in bands before where everyone would kind of just stand there and play and then leave. To me that’s boring, because music is emotion, it’s a story, it’s an adventure, it’s cathartic, etc. Especially with the tales we tell in our music. Injecting antics, theatrics, stage clothes and whatnot brings shows to a whole new level because once we put on our “costumes” we go into performance mode and being able to switch mindsets before a show, I feel, makes all the difference. Also… If we didn’t put on a show with these songs then it’d be kinda weird wouldn’t it?
Q: Is there anything else that I didn’t bring up about the band that you would like to mention?
Sarah: Dukakis 2020.
Kienan: We are all actually giraffes.
Maddox: One day we dream of having a Sheetz sponsorship.