Photos courtesy of Rafael Barker
Sarah Rudy picks up the phone from a hotel in Nashville. She’s on the road with her band, Hello June, preparing for their third performance at the Americana Music Festival in Tennessee.
“Each time it’s become cooler because I know more people,” she said. “At this point, I come to Nashville and I know 40 people. It definitely didn’t start off that way.”
Long before she knew anyone in the world’s country music capital, Sarah was making music in her apartment in Morgantown, West Virginia, alongside drummer Whit Alexander who lived upstairs in the same building.
Sarah was making music for the sake of music and without expectations, so it took the indie rock musician by surprise when NPR Music’s Heavy Rotation put the song Dance from her 2017 debut EP on the air nationwide.
“Dance was only the second song I’d ever written,” Sarah laughs. “So that was kind of a weird shock, you know? Everyone’s saying, ‘There’s a lot of eyes and ears on this.’ I don’t think I was really expecting anyone to have interest in it at all.”
Luckily Sarah was wrong, and Hello June was once again featured by NPR as a 2018 Slingshot Artist alongside Mt. Joy, Jade Bird and Phoebe Bridgers. Her layered upbeat melodies and melancholic chords dripping with 90s nostalgia continued to captivate listeners.
Although Sarah travels and performs with several musicians who have become consistent players in her band, she is the sole songwriter behind Hello June’s compelling tunes. She even handled the production side too for the band’s debut EP to craft the strongest demo possible.
“I still don’t claim to be good at that,” she said when asked about the production process. “But I wanted to be good enough to be able to articulate my songs to other people. I at least felt proud that they were as complete as I could make them at that time.”
For some songwriters, controlling every aspect of their work is deeply personal. Sarah is more focused on communicating her vision than doing it all. “What I was afraid of was someone coming in and changing [the song] entirely, and it being something that doesn’t make sense to me,” she said.
“It’s not that it can’t be changed. I very much welcome feedback, but I think if you hand someone something and say, ‘Here’s the vision,’ it’s just easier to reach that vision.”
Sarah continued, “I definitely don’t really have a lot of interest in becoming a producer. It’s mostly like, ‘Can I communicate this well enough?”
It isn’t always easy for her to open up about the stories in her songs during the writing process, but working with producer Roger Allen Nichols on her latest music has changed that. Sarah said even when writing is deeply personal, he pushes her to unfurl an explanation if it will better the song.
“There’s some pushing and pulling I hadn’t experienced in the past,” she explained. “He really looked under the hood and asked, ‘Is this really what you’re trying to say? I think you could say this better.’ I definitely came out of this process with a clearer vision of what I want to put out to the world.”
Sarah’s finished songs deliver clear and poignant messages with no loose ends, but her songwriting process itself is somewhat spontaneous.
“Usually I’ll sit down and try to weave something together with my guitar and vocals,” she said and paused for a moment to consider the steps. “Sometimes you’ll have something that you think is really cool, and it’s just not enough [for a whole song]. It has to be guitar and vocals together. If I try to just do a guitar piece or just a lyric, I don’t know … it really has to be together for me. They’re just super tied.”
Sarah continues to challenge and adapt this songwriting process, and she said her most recent album is peppered with moments where she explored different songwriting techniques.
When asked whether she has any major influences, she laughed, “I’ve been heavily influenced by Patti Smith, especially her book, Just Kids. I’ve read that, like, six times! I told her that when I met her once, and that’s the only thing I could say to her!”
She also found inspiration while living in Baltimore, where she spent time with Jenn Wasner of the rock band Wye Oak. Jenn invited Sarah to the debut show for her project Flock of Dimes. When Sarah watched Jenn play guitar she thought, ‘Man, that’s how I play guitar. That’s how I write songs.‘
Growing up Sarah didn’t see women championed as instrumentalists, so learning from Jenn served as a turning point. “You see a lot of people playing guitar,” she said. “You see a lot of men playing guitar especially. I think I learned a lot from watching her start up that project. I just really respected her a whole lot. I still do.”
Her music has deep roots in the concept of home. Although she’s lived in east coast cities like Baltimore and Philadelphia, Sarah was born and raised in West Virginia.
When asked whether the region influences her music she said, “I think it probably has to, you know? There’s no way to get around that. I spent the majority of my time here in West Virginia, so I think most of my experiences, what I know and what I can tell stories about is largely based in Appalachia. It’s definitely a big influence.”
“That was part of the reason I wanted to do a Take Me Home, Country Roads cover. I always have a soft spot for that song. I wanted to do a version that was straight from an Appalachian’s mouth. I hear people do it and it’s very happy, which is a little weird to me,” she said. “The state is, in a lot of ways, in dire condition. There’s a lot that we need to put some real effort into, like helping people. I put a new version of that into the world, and I wanted it to hit in the way that I see this state.”
Sarah believes it’s inevitable for pieces of her life to end up in the music she writes. This belief is reflected in the title of her new album Artifacts, which she spent three years writing through major upheavals, like the pandemic and the birth of her first nephew.
“When I finished the record, I was like, ‘How in the hell do I name this?’ There’s experiences from college that I sing about. There’s experiences from my sister having a baby. It just spans so much,” Sarah explained. “It wasn’t all about one particular thing, so naming it became something that felt daunting. I realized when I really looked at each song, these are pieces of my life and pieces of other people’s lives in my life. We take things with us of other people, and those are artifacts. These songs are my artifacts. These are my stories. Honestly, any other name just didn’t seem accurate.”
Sarah has the unique ability to unflinchingly turn difficult beats of life into reassuring melodies. In her latest single Sometimes, she recalls the adults in her life who have let her down and her worries about being a good mentor to her newborn nephew. Despite her fears, Sarah wrote the song with an optimistic vision.
“It’s really about me writing to him, like a little bit of a playbook, a heads up. At the same time it’s also me saying to myself, ‘ You’re gonna be fine. Just show up and be there for him and love him. That is good enough,’” she said.
It’s a message we can all hope to accept. By simply living and loving the best we can, we are enough.