Sadie Gustafson-Zook on Leaning Into Uncertainty

Photo by Rachel Gray Media

If you’ve ever found yourself out on a limb, unsure of yourself or where you’re headed, you’re in good company on Sadie Gustafson-Zook’s new EP, Vol. 1. It gathers five folky songs from the Boston singer/songwriter’s upcoming album Sin of Certainty, rooted in early-20’s vulnerability and chamber pop ornamentation.

For Gustafson-Zook, coming out as gay was no small part of what put her at a crossroads of identity. Vol 1. takes on all the emotions that came with it, from the earnest joy and relief of a fully self-realized relationship (“Lean In More”) to the anxiety of dealing with the expectations of others (“Everyone”). Harps and woodwinds channel that double-edged vulnerability, giving her songs a sense of the fluttering excitement and delicacy that comes with leaning into the discomfort (and, on “Birdsong,” the way those with power over you can threaten and discourage).

Like a lot of artists, Gustafson-Zook was dealt a bad hand by the COVID-19 pandemic, which interrupted the recording of Sin of Certainty as well as any hope for in-person performance or instruction (she also gives music lessons on the side). With the EP release behind her and the future of her Kickstarter-funded album in limbo, Gustafson-Zook spoke to The All Scene Eye about the perpetual process of coming out and the way her graduate education in jazz influenced the writing of Vol. 1.

We’re about 10 months into pandemic conditions now. How are you holding up?

I think I’m holding up fairly well. I was working at a folk music venue before, and I was furloughed in May, so I was on unemployment for a long time, and obviously, not really performing very much. Then I got a remote communications part-time job, which honestly has been pretty good just to give me stuff to do during the day. [laughs] A little bit of structure imposed by other people has been really nice, but I definitely miss my friends and having a job where I was around people all the time. I’ve been FaceTiming people more, and I think it’s a good thing. It is still a bummer, but I’m getting paid now, which is good.

I know that you’ve been teaching. What has that been like for you, trying to teach music during a pandemic?

It’s worse than real life, but still fun. I’m using Zoom and have mainly been doing voice lessons with people, and I was surprised–people who had taken group classes with me in the past reached out because they have extra time and not very much to do, so in that way, it’s really a great time for people to take lessons, once you open up that possibility to do it over the internet. 

And yeah, I mean, I’m having a good time. [laughs] I don’t have to rent an extra space to teach in, which is nice, and especially early-pandemic I found it really easy to get feeling kind of disembodied, like I was just floating around, not really feeling like myself and not feeling like I was a part of a body. So I feel like any kind of movement or any structured lesson where you are using your body in a new way seems to be pretty helpful for people, just to remember.

The way that I tend to teach voice lessons also is very experimental and also based on figuring different ways that the sound production is connected to you being in your body, so I think it’s been nice also for me to have weekly reminders for myself of ways to stay feeling like I am a part of myself.

Your last album came out in 2017. When did you first start working on the songs for Vol. 1?

I moved to Boston in 2017 from a town in Indiana called Goshen–I had grown up there, and went to college–and my last album, I’m Not Here, I released right before I moved, so I kind of just wanted to get all of the songs I had written up until that point recorded. This is the first thing I’ve released since moving to Boston, even though it’s been, like, three and a half years, so all the songs I wrote in Vol. 1 were from 2018 to now-ish. I was going to record a full-length album; I did a Kickstarter and the whole deal, and we recorded about five songs, and then COVID hit, and I was like, “Oh, well, I don’t really feel comfortable bringing other musicians into a recording space, and we were recording at my producer’s house, so it’s up to him also.”

We fleshed out a few of the songs remotely, and two of the songs we had finished in one go, so they were already–well, I guess three of the songs. So actually [laughs] it didn’t take that much to flesh out five songs, but I was like, “Okay, I’m just going to wait to record the rest of the album.” And it did feel like 2020 moved so slowly that if I didn’t release any of the songs that I was working on, it would have felt like I was working on the project for, like, 20 years [laughs] before showing people that I made music. I also felt a little bit bad for the Kickstarter backers because I was like, “I had promised them a whole album in the fall, and now I’m giving them just a few songs,” but everyone’s very kind. I don’t think any of them really mind, and are obviously very understanding, since we’re all going through the pandemic together.

You moved to Boston in 2017, you said, and I know you were in grad school for jazz. Obviously a lot has happened in your life in the last three years, but how have you seen yourself grow as an artist over that time?

So, I wrote my own music before and was very folk-inclined, and I studied classical voice for my undergrad–which was very fun in terms of figuring out that I was able to make sounds that I didn’t realize I could make–but I was definitely trying to figure out a way to align the structure and really intense musical education that I’d had with, like, folk music. Somehow, I ended up finding that with jazz. 

I had liked a lot of music that was by people that had studied jazz, but then didn’t specifically make jazz music [laughs] and especially in Boston, there’s quite a scene around the different schools. There’s Berklee, which has the pop music emphasis, and then also the lesser known roots music section, and then New England Conservatory, which is a really good classical school, but they also have really good jazz, and they also have contemporary improvisation, which is kind of whatever you want it to be.

I went to Longy School of Music, which is in Cambridge, and the official title of the degree was jazz and contemporary music. I was interested in legitimizing the music that I was writing, but along the way, I was learning all of these things about jazz, and jazz chords, and also, I was able to make the degree less straight-ahead jazz and more like, “How can I incorporate these jazz elements into my songs in a way that makes them more appealing to me?” 

I always have really loved jazz chords, like sevenths, major sevenths, minor sevenths–anything with a seven, basically [laughs] and I think that I had that in my sound before, but I didn’t know what was going on. I was just picking chords based on what they sounded like and I didn’t have a good understanding of what was happening theory-wise. I think the schooling was helpful to figure out what I was already doing, and then also enabling me to add more of those elements.

Who are some of those artists who inspired you to take that path, adopting elements of jazz, but also being a little more loose with it?

I think Lake Street Dive initially was a big one. I am definitely not Rachel Price, but I did write a few songs where I was like, “This is very Street-Divey.” [laughs] They all went to NEC for jazz, I think. Also, a lot of the roots music scene in Boston that’s based out of Berklee, they’re all people that get a jazz education at Berklee.

I feel like everyone at Berklee gets a jazz education, whatever genre you’re studying, just because that’s how they approach it, which I think is really transferrable to, like, old-time, bluegrass, and things where people are also improvising. So some other bands, they didn’t study jazz, but they studied at Berklee. Joy Kills Sorrow, they’re not around anymore, but they were in the mid-teens, I think? And Crooked Still–kind of acoustic prog-grass, like, progressive bluegrass band. A lot of those people, I was really into the ways that they were using acoustic instruments to make music that didn’t necessarily sound like what I thought of as acoustic music.

When you make an album with a Kickstarter campaign, that’s a very structured approach–what was the starting point where you knew you were making an album and you had to lay out what that was going to look like?

Yeah, November [2019], I guess. I had been living in Boston, I was out of school for, like, a year, and I was kind of like, “Okay, this is the year I’m going to be doing my music. I’m gonna try and really up my game of booking shows and playing with people,” so I went to a bunch of conferences. I went to NERFA, New England Regional Folk Alliance conference, and then in January, I went to the International Folk Alliance conference.

And when I was at NERFA last November, which I think is in Connecticut, I’d been sitting on this pile of music for a while because I hadn’t recorded since moving to Boston. I had been performing this music for a while, and I knew that the recordings that I had weren’t representative of the music that I had been playing out for people and writing, so going to NERFA was a little kick in the butt just to be like, “Other people are doing this. You can do this too.” [laughs] “You just have to make a plan and do it.” 

I worked at this folk music venue called Club Passim in Harvard Square, and a lot of my coworkers are also folk musicians, so it was kind of an ideal place to bounce ideas off of people and be like, “Okay, here’s a few people who I’m thinking about asking to produce it. What do you think about this person? Do you know other things that this person has worked on?” It was essentially networking, but it was just me hanging out with my friends in a wine closet while we were waiting to, like, give people their checks. [laughs] 

I decided on the producer in January and met with him, and then we recorded for a few days in February. I launched the Kickstarter on February 25. I recorded the first two songs right before that launched, and we were going to New York to record everything, so I just took a trip with my harp player, who was also my roommate at the time. We just got the first two songs down and then started the Kickstarter. 

Then mid-March, we went back. We ended up recording parts of three more songs, and we actually cut it short because COVID was really becoming a reality, and we were all freaking out. My harp player wanted to get to her girlfriend in Canada, and we were like, “Are they gonna close the roads?” Like, “Will we be able to get back?” It was a very tense time. We were all kind of crying and not really feeling like recording anymore, so that’s kind of where things stopped.

Which were the first two songs that you recorded?

We did “Lean In More” and “Alewife” first, so they’re the only ones that have bass and drums. “Everyone” was nice because it was just one take of me and Mairi [Chaimbeul], the harp player, with guitar, harp, singing, and that’s it. We didn’t have to do anything with that song, which was nice. The other two and “Birdsong,” Alec [Spiegelman], who’s the producer, he added a bunch of really interesting wind parts, and he also plays bass clarinet, so that filled in the low-end. And then–oh, I lied before. I did hire a drummer to play: Charlotte Cornfield, who’s a singer/songwriter, I think in Toronto? She played drums on “Birdsong,” but remotely, and we added it in.

This obviously was not the plan in any way, that you’d have to shut down and coordinate things remotely, but was there a reason those were the five songs that you started with?

I think they were the more chill songs. To be frank, I think we wanted harp on those songs, so we were trying to record all of those in a few gos so I didn’t have to keep dragging Mairi to New York with me. [laughs] I think they go well enough together, but there wasn’t a whole lot of thought besides, “Okay, these are all kind of a similar vibe and we definitely want harp on them.”

I love that the harp is such a part of this. How did the two of you end up connecting on these songs?

Mairi and me were roommates, so we were friends before we were musical collaborators. We lived in a really big music house that was, like, 12 musicians in two divisions–six people on each side of the house, basically. There was a lot of jamming, but it was mainly bluegrass people and then me and Mairi. Mairi was a Scottish harp player, and I was a folk singer, so we weren’t always in the jams. I think that was an aspect that we connected over, that we weren’t really that into bluegrass. [laughs] 

We became really good friends, and I had heard her play with other people because she has played with a lot of other folk musicians, and people in that bluegrass-adjacent scene. She’s a teacher at Berklee. I was like, “Wow, she’s doing really cool things with these people. I wonder if she’d play with me. And since we’re friends and roommates, probably she will.” We had only played a few gigs together, but because we were roommates and because I had a car so I could transport her and her harp, she was an easy person to get gigs with. [laughs] Logistically, it was very simple, and obviously, she’s very fun to play with. 

Initially, when I wanted to record the album and I was talking to Alec, I was all geared up for a full band, recording everything live, and he was like, “Okay, well, do you have a band? Do you have arrangements figured out?” And I was like, “No.” [laughs] “But I want the vibe of a live performance. I want to have some organic aspect to it.” 

And he was like, “Well, do you have people that you’ve been playing with live?” And I was like, “Well, I’ve done some duo shows with Mairi.” And he was like, “Okay, do you want Mairi to be on the record?” “Yeah.” [laughs] So we recorded all of the harp-guitar-singing stuff together so that there would be some kind of live base for the songs to build on top of, and then all the other parts are tracked separately.

Part of the story of this EP is also the story of you coming out, especially in the singles you’ve released, “Lean In More” and “Everyone.” What was the tipping point for you in starting to talk more about that publicly and to write and release these songs about it?

I was obviously doing a lot of soul searching when I was coming out, in 2019, mainly. I mean, I’m constantly coming out, but 2019 was the year that I was really diving into it [laughs] so I was writing a lot of new songs, and I was finding that I really liked them more than other things that I had written before. And because I tend to write about what I’m experiencing, and my emotions and my personal conundrums, I think it was just natural that that was reflected in the music. 

When thinking about recording, I was like, “Well, I want to be releasing things that feel like they are true to who I am now.” Like, I wrote music in between moving to Boston and coming out that I enjoy, and I think they’re good songs, but they don’t feel as true to me anymore, so that was kind of like, “Well, if I’m releasing new stuff, I want it to age for me.”

Who were the first people you were able to share these songs with, and what was that like?

“Lean In More,” I think I shared it with the person I was dating, and honestly, her reception was not that good. [laughs] I have been kind of cautious when writing songs about significant others, just because I don’t want to write something about them that they will be unhappy to have out in the world. But also, I don’t want to have that limit me, and the song that I wrote for her was–you know, I think it’s very positive. I didn’t say anything bad about her. But it was pretty early on, and I didn’t want to scare her by writing this song that’s like–to me, it felt so honest and pure and revolutionary [laughs] and she had been gay for a while, so it wasn’t as big of a deal to her. Also, she wasn’t really a musician, so I don’t think we were coming from the same place, in terms of, I don’t think anyone had written her a song before.

I think I probably played them for Mairi pretty early on as well because she was a very close friend when I was, like, comin’ out, and because we were roommates. And yeah, it was nice. [laughs]

You mentioned the way you want songs to age well for you. Has that happened?

I think “Lean In More” will age really well. It does feel like the most honest-with-my-emotions thing that I have ever written, not to overstate it, but–[laughs] using all these qualifiers. But I think it is kind of funny, with “Everyone,” when I wrote that, no one had said anything bad about me coming out. I was just kind of expecting people to and writing songs based on my anxious expectations. Since then, there have been more times that people have said things to me that I’ve been like, “Oh, really? You want to respond like that?” [laughs] So that one has been funny because now it seems almost more relevant than it did when I wrote it, but I also am not feeling the same angst as I did initially.

I feel like “Alewife”–which isn’t really about gay stuff at all, because that was a pre-gay song. [laughs] I feel like I don’t really live in that world anymore. I’m not taking public transit and I’m not interacting with strangers as much, so that one is funny just in that it seems like a snapshot of a time and place that I’m not in anymore.

It’s written that way too, as a record of a moment you witnessed.

Yeah, so in that way, it’ll age fine. It just won’t always be my situation.

Getting more into the bigger project, Sin of Certainty–you’ve called it “a reflection on the beauty of uncertainty.” How did that theme come out?

Well, sometimes albums come about where people have something in mind and then they write a bunch of songs for it, and this was definitely the opposite. I had a bunch of songs and wanted to record them, so I was thinking through what strings might connect them all. And I think just by nature of being at the point in my life where I was leaving home, experiencing new things, learning things about myself, and just the fact that I kept being surprised about how things ended up–[laughs] There were just a lot of moments where I was like, “Eh, I feel kind of like I’m flailing with every decision I make,” which I think is a very common early-20’s experience. 

I’m in my mid-20’s, now, to be clear. [laughs] But yeah–Sin of Certainty. I don’t really write a ton of music with religious undertones, but I did grow up in a pretty religious Mennonite community in Indiana. It was really liberal, and I don’t feel like I have been scarred or anything, but my mom was a pastor and church was a very big part of my growing up. I went to a Mennonite high school and a Mennonite college, and one of the ideas that I heard early on in my college education in a bible class was this idea of the grace of uncertainty.

In order to interact with people who are different from you, you have to have the grace of uncertainty. Like, you have to have the flexibility within yourself to give up being correct in order to hear other people. That idea really stuck with me, and not necessarily in a religious way, but just in any way of interacting with other people and trying to maintain that openness within myself to acknowledge that I don’t always know what’s going on, and I don’t always know what’s best, and I’m not always right. 

Big picture, that was where the title Sin of Certainty came from. It sounded like a more dramatic “grace of uncertainty.” Change is obviously a really, like, hot topic [laughs] just in that throughout life, nothing stays the same, and change is the only constant, so I think that was just my way of approaching it from the beginning of my adult life. I didn’t want to have “grace” in the title because that felt too religious, but something about having “sin” felt like [laughs] you know, just as if not more religious, but I don’t know–

It somehow threads that needle.

Right. It felt like it could be a little bit more ironic or something. I thought it just kinda seemed to bring all of those things together.

What has it been like widening the lens and giving these songs out to more people since you recorded them?

I think it’s been nice. In some ways, it’s been another reason I wanted to have, like, a gay album, just so that in case it wasn’t clear for anyone in my life [laughs] this is me, and I don’t want to come out–

[laughs] Refer to my album.

Yeah, exactly! [laughs] I don’t need to talk to everyone about this, but if I’m really public about it, then it won’t even be a topic. That was part of it. But also, I have such a nice community of people both from my hometown and from different communities that I’ve come in contact with. I haven’t been able to perform all these songs for people yet because it’s really still been a quite short amount of time since writing the songs. I think I forgot until maybe right now that we’re talking that a lot of the people that have supported me really haven’t heard these songs before, so that has been really nice, being able to share them with the people that have been important to me and been important to my music, but that I haven’t been super in-touch with, or haven’t played music for in a while. 

Also, I’m excited to have my music be heard by people I don’t know. I feel like up until now, it’s been mainly people that I immediately know, and I feel like I’m maybe riding the line of, “Oh, some people that I don’t know also listen,” and that feels really exciting too.

What’s next for you in the process of bringing this new album to fruition, now that the EP is out?

I got a grant recently to get more home recording equipment, so I think–it’s a very flexible timeline. [laughs] I definitely am set on finishing the project, and I think I would prefer to do it in my producer’s house, but I also know that that probably won’t be super safe any time soon. I think it might be doable in terms of, it’s in his house, so we could be pretty isolated, but the goal now is to set up a home recording studio, get some base tracks down, send them to him, and be like, “Okay, is this what we want to work off of? Or should we work out an arrangement where we can set aside a week or two, maybe in the spring or summer if it feels a little safer, to sit down and whip the rest of it out?”

You mentioned that uncertainty is a part of the early 20’s. It’s turning out to be part of the early 2020’s too, not to put too fine a point on it.

Exactly! [laughs] Yeah, I know, it feels like maybe it’s too on the nose now to even name it that, but oh well.

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