Before I could see her, I could hear Sarah Feinberg.
She was playing an upright piano as I walked up a few stairs from the tree-lined street to her Craftsman-style home in north Everett. Music played softly from a speaker near the living room in her house.
The 34-year-old Everett musician is known for fronting the band TELLERS and its former iteration, Preacher’s Wife. She also sings in I Will Keep Your Ghost. With those acts, she’s performed dozens of times up and down the I-5 corridor, including plenty of hometown shows in Everett.
This spring, she will release her first solo work. It taps into her feelings of frustration and yearning to be free of “cages” she put herself in.
She’s had the urge to sing since she was a Southern California choir kid. She tried out for choir solos in elementary school, formed an a cappella group in middle school and, after her family moved to Arlington, started bands in high school.
Later, she busked at Pike Place Market. It was a lesson in performance and perseverance.
“That was a good experience, just getting out and playing,” she said.
On good days, she and a friend averaged $20 an hour. On bad days, they didn’t make it to $20 per day.
“It made me think, ‘If I’m good enough, they’ll stop and listen,’ ” she said of playing for the market crowd. “But if they don’t, then you’re kind of like, ‘Yeah, we suck.’ ”
Busking set her up, at least in a small way, for the general experience of being a musician, of wanting to express herself.
Feinberg has something to say, and she’s ready to sing it on her own. After years of performing with others, she is preparing her first solo album.
At five tracks, the untitled project under the moniker Sylvi (chosen because she likes the way it sounds), is just the beginning of her self-discovery.
“I was ready to have something that was just mine,” she said. “With Sylvi, it feels nice to be able to express myself untethered to another’s preferences and point of view.”
It’s become a balancing act. The wife and mother of two young children also has a massage business, not to mention her commitments to two bands. It’s been hard to find time to work on new songs for her solo project.
“I was exhausted, every day, from the kids, regular band stuff — we had our vinyl release show in that time,” she said. “But I pushed myself a lot and worked into the night.”
A deadline and a poolside vacation helped spur a flurry of creativity. During a week’s vacation in Florida, she took her guitar and “spent a lot of time by the pool, with beverages, listening to albums for inspiration.”
She had six weeks to write five songs. That’s from the time she learned she would be working with musician and Skagit County native Karl Blau to record the songs — Blau is one of Feinberg’s favorite artists — to the time she first entered the studio.
“Sure, it could have been different if I had all of this time,” she said. “But this is what I had, and this is what I gave, and this is where I’m at in my life: I’m a mom, I’m in a couple of bands.”
Bryan Bradley, one of her TELLERS bandmates and frontman of I Will Keep Your Ghost, is one of the few who have listened to the unmastered tracks. He was enthralled.
“She worked with the right people at the right time,” he said. “I keep thinking, ‘When do I get to hear it again?’ ”
Feinberg recorded the guitar and lead vocals, Andrew Dorsett of LAKE took care of the drums and pedal steel guitar, and Blau assigned himself every other instrument. He’s responsible for some of the hard-to-place sounds, such as a broken accordion that sounds almost like a horn. He even brought in his mother, Feinberg said, to play French horn on a track.
“I think it brought out an excitement to try new things, try new instruments and play around with sounds,” she said.
“He lives seemingly in another creative realm where he’s hearing lots of things,” she added. “It felt sort of sacred working with him.”
She offered a preview of a few tracks, burned on a CD. Without a disc player in her home, she walked me out to listen to it in her car on that tree-lined street. Each song featured her commanding and piercing timbre.
“Someone recently told me that when they listen to my voice singing, there was a lot of beauty and a lot of pain,” she said. “That was a really helpful thing to hear, and is so true about how I feel.”
Her sound evokes Joni Mitchell, Neko Case, even Alanis Morissette. Bradley, however, said Feinberg’s voice — which he called heartfelt and emotional with an incredible vibrato — is too distinct for a clear comparison.
Even in a lullaby-esque, then-unnamed track, there is a noticeable adoration and longing: “I’ll hold you while you weep, be a witness baby. You teach me how to be free.”
Other songs are about suppressed desires and frustrations, about pursuing freedom and loving oneself.
“A lot of my songs are kind of tough, they’re intense and sad, but there’s hope, too,” Feinberg said.
Soon, these songs will be heard by more than her family and friends (and this reporter). It’s a frightening prospect, but one she is learning to embrace.
“If someone is listening and paying attention or just gaining something out of it, anything, that would make me feel so good,” she said.
As songwriting for TELLERS has become more collaborative, Feinberg has leaned into becoming and being Sylvi.
“I definitely plan on pursuing it,” she said of recording and performing apart from TELLERS and I Will Keep Your Ghost.
Though the album doesn’t yet have a release date, Feinberg said it could be as soon as this month. Eager listeners can also expect some shows, including at the Everett Fisherman’s Village Music Festival, so that they, too, can hear her and see her. Follow her on Twitter at @_._sylvi_._ to stay in the know.
Ben Watanabe: firstname.lastname@example.org; 425-339-3037; Twitter @benwatanabe.
Washington North Coast Magazine
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