Sarah Conway loves to sing. There are a million reasons why, such as the sense of independence and empowerment she gets from standing in front of a crowd of strangers and singing from her heart.
“Performing live is a thrill,” she says. “It’s an opportunity to go deeper into self-expression.”
The songs she chooses run the gamut from country to jazz, from rock to Broadway. Her background as a cabaret singer in Manhattan sometimes surfaces when she’s swooning in coffee house sessions in Montauk, but she can find her place in a gospel tune or a blues number as well.
“I grew up with Emmy Lou Harris, Bonnie Raitt, and Linda Ronstadt,” she said. “Listening to the women that sang. Yet I love the lyrics and expression of David Bromberg, Joe Cocker, Lyle Lovett, Janis Joplin—people who throw themselves into it.”
It’s that connection to the song, that ability to become one with it, that she admires about the latter group. They seem to use music to express deep human emotions, and that is something Conway values not only because it helps her to grow as a singer, but also because it helps her to grow as a person.
“I love singing from my heart, singing from my soul. I love going really deeply into songs,” she says, “and feeling and expressing emotions that I might be hesitant to express in my life. In a song, I have permission that I might not give myself on a daily basis.”
For Conway, the lyrics are the first draw of the song. She loves artists that put great attention into the stories they tell, and she relishes the opportunity to retell them in her own way.
One of her favorite renditions that she’s performed is Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne.”
“The original song sounds like a totally different song,” said Conway. “He does it with a full accompaniment, and I do it sparser. I love to sing it a cappella, and even if I am with a full band I want just one instrument.”
The reason for this, she says, is that she feels she’s able to be more in control of the song, and to take it at her own pace.
“Leonard Cohen has written such a powerful song,” she says, “that it doesn’t need accompaniment. It stands on its own, and that’s unique.”
There are other songs, like “Amazing Grace,” that she feels also lend themselves to being performed a cappella. But most of the time, Conway performs with a band. Last week, at a coffee house in Montauk, she sang with baby grand piano accompaniment. A fan of her work told her that she brings songs to life, that there was depth, whether poignant or fun, in what she had to express.
“I love getting inside a song,” she said, “and I’m so grateful to the song writers and to the singers and musicians who do great interpretations of songs that move me to sing them.”
Of course, with the baby grand in Montauk, she was inspired to draw from her cabaret and Broadway vault. This weekend, she’ll perform at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor in a tribute to the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. And she’s already booked shows at the Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett for this spring. No matter what the genre, Conway is just happy to be up there.
“Live music brings the community together,” she said. “There aren’t a lot of things going on this time of year, so wherever the music is happening, that’s where everybody is. It pulls people out of the house and brings them together.”
See Sarah Conway perform in The Beatles Vs. The Rolling Stones Concert at Bay Street Theater on Saturday, February 7, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25. Visit baystreet.org or call 631-725-9500.