Dancing her way out of town
Sarah Summers is opening a can of culture
Summers’ music reveals the depths of her emotional world and the reach of her eloquent voice.
She’s barefoot at the front door, a thick band of sparkly beads wrapped around a slim ankle. Her long hair is corralled in a loose ponytail, the honeyed fringe framing a face untroubled by regrets. She is 18. Life has just begun for Sarah Summers.
When she speaks, the voice is lilting, musical; it is round vowels and soft edges. The voice is at once both breathy and stout, a rich burr with a folksy break in its melody. When she sings, the voice that she speaks with is simply amplified and projected. The stoutness, the break, still present.
Last year that voice won her a dandy cash scholarship. Two thousand dollars from the 2011 Sonoma Student Creative Arts Award scholarship committee to use whatever way she saw fit. This year the voice got her a solo gig as the debut act for the Sonoma Community Center’s Emerging Artists series, where she was paid a small honorarium and sold out of homemade CDs. “I felt happily obligated to spend the scholarship reinvesting in my music and my art,” she says of the first. “I got strings and new pencils and a dulcimer too.” Of the second she remembers, “I had a super scratchy CD made up in my bedroom, and it’s cool because now 50 people have my music.” She describes these accomplishments in that same folksy voice, with natural humility and grace. Sarah Summers is refreshingly humble, the least arrogant phenom you’re likely to meet. In the look-at-me culture of Kardashians and Snookies, Sarah Summers’ persona is 100 percent swagger-free.
“I give credit to my whole family,” she says. “Everyone in this house is pretty weird and artistic. There’s a lot of creative energy floating around in my gene pool and I’m happy I picked some of it up.” That’s a nice thing to say and undoubtably true, but it underplays the fact of her talent somewhat massively. Talent and tendency, to be more precise. She’s always been a striver and careful of her influences. “I have a lot of friends who are artists, and its always been sort of the way we hang out. We’ll, like, sit and draw together,” she explains. No drunken foolishness, no regrettable house parties. Very little adolescent hysteria overall. Which isn’t to say Summers hasn’t weathered a few bumps. “I have one song per ex-boyfriend,” she explains. “So, that’s exciting.”
She sings and composes, plays all manner of stringed things, she draws and she paints and earned straight A’s through school. And in case that kind of talent and drive weren’t enough, there’s this too: she dances. Not the shuffling lurch other kids do at prom. Sarah Summers dances, really dances.
“I’m going to UCLA’s School of World Arts and Culture on a dance scholarship next year. It’s an all-race, all-ethnicity, all-body type and sexual orientation-encompassing dance program. I’ve been dancing since I was two, in a diaper and a tutu, but I got sick of the body image issues that go hand-in-hand with ballet. There’s a lot of pressure put on young ballerinas and I never felt like I quite fit the mold.” At 13 she branched out to other dance forms: West African, jazz, modern. But it wasn’t until last summer when her mother signed her up for an intensive dance camp at Oberlin Dance Company that things really clicked. “ODC was the most body-breaking, soul-crushing experience and I needed it so much. It whipped me back into shape and made me realize I really love this, and if I want to love this I need to work for it. I came back from camp and it was like, ‘Stella’s Got Her Groove Back,’” Summers says, beaming.
She auditioned for UCLA faculty along with 300 others, dancing a piece she choreographed herself, and was required to take two classes with university staff. “I was in a room with a bunch of ballerinas and modern dancers, and this 7-foot black guy walks in and tells us we’re going to be doing hip-hop, and I was like, ‘sh--.’ It was so scary,” Summers says, “I still can’t believe I got in.” Of the hundreds of dancers there on that day, less than 30 made the eventual cut. Ninety-three percent of them were sent packing, but not Sarah Summers, not the lithe sweet-faced beauty with the sad, fulsome voice.
She’s never had a real music lesson, never studied in earnest. Her talent is raw and unsculpted, a gift. Sure, there was that little string of piano lessons when she was 7 years old, a crucible she still remembers as agony. “I absolutely hated it. I was playing from a generic beginner piano book and it felt like I was playing “The Turkey in the Straw” for two years. I threw many a temper tantrum over those lessons,” Summers admits. “I never would imagine I would take music seriously.”
Though music is her muse, she resists making it her discipline. “I didn’t want to study music academically because I’ve never done that before and I think it would be really scary and demoralizing. The way I learn best is by watching people who are better than me and listening to people who are better than me. That’s why I didn’t want to study music in college. I’m much better suited to the freeform hunter-gatherer method of learning.”
So she used YouTube for basic fingerings, and trial and error to learn progressions, and then she put herself out on the street. “I started playing in front of the Sebastiani Theatre, busking out there, begging for tips from people stumbling out of the Town Square,” Summers says. “Actually made a lot of money, too. It was my main source of income for two years.” Then Sarah Summers says something that makes her many and steady successes comprehensible. “Especially in Sonoma, I feel like people are going to be supportive. If they like you they’re going to ask you to come back, and if they don’t like you—you can just practice until you get better.” And there it is, the mindset in action. She doesn’t say “if they don’t like you, whatever” or “if they don’t like you, at least you tried.” She says “if they don’t like you, you just practice until you get better” and the assumption is inherent: Failure is not an option. There’s no quit in that phrase, no equivocation, no plan B. Just solid gold conviction, and a promise.
A big world awaits the pretty girl with the wide, guileless face, and she’s ready to get out there, to claim her piece. She’s ready to trade her Slow-noma life for the zazoom of Westwood, ready to find out what she really can do. She’ll dance and she’ll draw and she’ll sing, always sing. A voice like hers simply finds its way out. So give her some time and keep your ears open: Sarah Summers has just begun to make noise.
From the 2012 summer issue of SONOMA