There’s an unsettling nature about the songs on Sarah Peacock’s new album Burn the Witch. Officially out via independent release this Friday, the new LP from the Nashville singer-songwriter is an intense offering of rustic hard-folk and soul-stirring country-rock. Steeped in rich layers of rootsy instrumentation and powerful swells of strings, these aren’t your average bar ballads and square dances, but rather, Burn the Witch is comprised of carefully-assembled acoustic frescos that dive into major human and societal issues.
With thousands of shows and numerous records under her belt, Peacock is a veteran of the road. The journey en route to releasing her new album has been one full of its own challenges. In 2016, while touring the West Coast, her tour bus caught on fire, the flames claiming her wheels and everything else on board. Broken and left with nothing, Peacock contemplated whether she would ever make music again. In what seemed like the darkest of times, her fans rallied and fundraised enough money to help offset the costs of the fire and allow Peacock to finish her tour. A few years later, her tribe came through again, successfully funding the creation of Burn the Witch through a long and intensive Kickstarter campaign.
“It’s still incredible to think about how all of that came together,” she says. “In a moment when I was ready to give up, my fans were rising up to meet me. For me, that translated into ‘I gotta press on.’ It solidified a greater sense of purpose.”
No stranger to dealing with adversity, on Burn the Witch, Peacock employs a wide range of perspectives to cast a shadow on the marginalization of different modern-day communities. To drive home her message, she draws inspiration from the Salem Witch Trials of the late 17th Century, revisiting the historical acts of dehumanization through a contemporary lens and likening them to the brutal realities forced upon minorities, women, LGBTQ and other groups of people today.
In exploring this narrative, Peacock and producer Shawn Byrne conjure up a musical pallet that’s both fervid and enchanting. The gripping title track offers a harrowingly detailed account of the witch trials over a percussive folk melody, while “The Cool Kids” drifts into a dreamy, pedal steel-laden oasis that sees Peacock dwell on the internal troubles of children who bully others at school. She sings, “When you get to the source of the pain / There ain’t no such thing as the cool kids.”
These tales of caution and messages of hope are steadily powered by Peacock’s strong voice, which lands somewhere between the dynamic howl of Heart’s Ann Wilson and the cunning restraint of Michelle Malone. She displays compelling vulnerability on “Mojave,” a booming ballad that would fit seamlessly into any road trip playlist. Elsewhere, “Colorado” taps into the country-blues-Cajun fusion of late ’90s Lucinda Williams and “Take You High” offers an uplifting back-porch vibe that permeates the entire back end of the album.
For Peacock, a modern troubadour who’s made a career of life on the road, now marks as strange of a time as ever before. Like countless other musicians, in the wake of the coronavirus, she was forced to cancel months of scheduled shows and much uncertainty lies ahead. While the virus will eventually pass, the issues presented on Burn the Witch still remain. Now more than ever, the fight against injustice and oppression needs all hands on deck. In her quest to bring these problems to light, Sarah Peacock infuses the human soul with much-needed awareness and love.
Riffs & Rhymes Editor Roberto Johnson spoke with Sarah about her new album, standing up for the oppressed, and how she is dealing with the effects of the ongoing coronavirus. Check out their conversation below.
Between the album release and sudden changes to tour dates, I’m sure this is a strange and turbulent time. How have you been coping with the whirlwind of emotions?
Sarah: It’s tough. I could sit here and tell you how many tens of thousands of dollars evaporated overnight, but I’m not the only person going through it. All of my friends are suffering and the truth is, I’m more heartbroken than anything. This is what I do, it’s been my livelihood. I’ve solely depended on touring for 15 years, but it’s not just that. It’s the connection to people and the fans and the way music brings people together. The power that it has to heal and plant positive seeds of change. That’s the active part of my job I don’t get to do right now, so I’m struggling with that. You just take it a day at a time.
Though it wasn’t necessarily planned this way, your new record arrives at a time when a lot of people need something to absorb and immerse themselves in. What excites you most about sharing this crop of songs with everybody?
Sarah: For me personally, this collection of songs represents a deep journey towards my authenticity as a songwriter and an artist. The content on this record leans heavily on social justice issues that are near and dear to my heart. I hope that people will read between the lines and just take pause. I think we’re in a time where the world needs to be reminded that we’re all more alike than we are different.
Not everyone has the courage or desire to take on these kinds of topical songs. Why is it important to you to give a voice to those who are oppressed or picked on by society?
Sarah: Because that was me. Being a female in the entertainment industry and belonging to the LGBTQ community, I’m a member of several marginalized community groups. I was also bullied in school growing up. I see all the ways that being a part of these marginalized groups has affected my life and caused trauma. I think we’re all looking for a little piece of ourselves in the story – I think my fans are looking for that too. They’re looking for hope, for someone who understands. I want us all to love each other a little bit better, that’s my mission. To inspire more of that.
A lot of the funding for Burn the Witch came directly from your fans. What kind of feelings did you have when you realized how many people were getting behind your message and this record?
Sarah: It’s still incredible to think about how all of that came together. This Kickstarter was not the beginning of the coming together of this tribe. I started noticing that people were paying attention and listening when I had a tour bus catch on fire in 2016. I had it on the road for three weeks and it burned down. I lost everything, I wanted to give up music altogether. 12 years in at that point, devoting my life to this career. For all I’ve sacrificed, done and gone through, this is how the universe meets me, you know? In the aftermath, people started showing up. Really for the first time, I felt the gravity of it then. I was getting care packages from musician friends sending me gear. Someone started a fundraiser and it sort of went viral in my community. In a couple of days, we had ten grand in donations to help offset some of the costs – the blow was pretty harsh. Someone even donated a motorhome to finish my tour. In a moment when I was ready to give up, my fans were rising up to meet me in a way that made me go, ‘Holy shit. People are paying attention. This is important to them.’ For me, that translated into ‘I gotta press on.’ It solidified a greater sense of purpose. This Kickstarter is just evidence of how that tribe has grown since 2016. It means the world to me.
Lyrics are clearly a big focal point for you, but I’d love to hear more about the musical direction you took for this record. There’s a very rustic, folkie, and subtle hard-rock edge to these songs I found very upfront and charming. What led you down that path sonically?
Sarah: I produced this record with my friend Shawn Byrne. We recorded most of it at his home studio in Nashville. Lots of layering, overdubbing, things like that. We had all the time in the world to experiment with sounds and ideas. We were really able to take our time, dig in and find what felt right, what was natural. What spoke to me were the string arrangements. We were playing with a couple of the tracks and realized it was missing something. We finally had that aha moment with the strings. Brian Sutherland, who’s a master cello player, came over and hung out with us for about three or four hours. Within that time frame, the parts instantly came. That’s where the river meets the road emotionally for this record, the strings really pull at your heart.
Your faith and sexuality are both very important to you. How has that sense of pride in your identity invigorated your music?
Sarah: A lot of that struggle of reconciliation between my faith and sexuality has stemmed from a place of wanting to be acknowledged, affirmed and appreciated by my own family. At the core of the writing is still a little girl who just wants her family to be proud of her. I’m not always convinced they are or that who I am is okay with them. I still struggle with that piece of my identity.
Do you find it therapeutic to explore those feelings in your writing?
Sarah: It more deals with the fact that there’s an entire subculture of people in this country and globally that are spiritually abused in so-called Christian communities because of their sexuality. People are traumatized by those experiences and that devastates me. I have my own version of that trauma because that was how I grew up. I want people listening to know they’re not alone and also that the abusers, who stumble upon my music, know I and other people see them for what they are. The effects of religious and spiritual abuse are life-changing.
There’s a church-like quality to songs like “Take You High” in that the feeling is very communal, singable and uplifting. What does “spirituality” mean to you in relation to your music?
Sarah: The greatest thing I could pull out of my spiritual experience is love, hope and joy. It’s important to reflect on our past and our experiences, but it really should just be about promoting a message of love, no matter what you believe. That’s kind of where I’m at with it and I hope people can relate.
The record’s final moments offer a redemptive sentiment with “Hold Me In Your Heart.” Was that track placed at the end of the album intentionally?
Sarah: Yeah, it kind of was. We had talked about making a ten-song record and I had this one song that came up in a co-writing session after we had already decided the tracks. I asked Shawn what he thought about recording one more song and having it be more stripped-down as the closer. It’s one of those songs that just wraps people up. I sang it for my sister’s wedding a couple months back. She took it from a romantic place, but you can take it from any which way.
A few years ago, you hit a huge obstacle when your tour bus burst in flames. You mentioned how that was a big turning point in your career. Where are you now in comparison with the artist who, in 2016, had seemingly lost everything?
Sarah: It’s kind of ironic that we’re having this conversation today because I’m actually wondering if I’m ever going to be able to get out and tour again (laughs). That’s the fear taking over this moment with everything that’s going on with this virus. I think now, I just feel more grounded than I did then. I’m independent now, I’m more comfortable with who I am. I’m able to let my fans love me and show up for me and it feels good to have a community where there is give and take. There’s support and there’s love and I’m able to make a living still doing what I do.
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Featured images by Anna Haas and Patrick Crean. Listen to “Burn the Witch,” ahead of its official release, below.