Interview: Emily Armstrong On The Rebirth Of Dead Sara And The Arduous Journey That Led To Their New Album

Dead Sara’s third album, Ain’t It Tragic, has been a long time coming. What was supposed to be a fresh start for the band in 2018 soon turned into a calvary of obstacles. Miscommunication, bad management, and broken promises forced the band to take a step back and re-examine how to trudge forward. And just as the band was ready to emerge once again, the pandemic changed their plans. Rather than stop, they used all the frustration and hardship of the past two years to reinvigorate themselves. Now, they’re stronger than ever. With a revitalized sound, a stronger sense of confidence, and fearless ambition, Dead Sara is ready to reintroduce themselves to the world.

Before the release of their long-awaited third album and their fall tour, frontwoman Emily Armstrong sits down to talk with GENRE IS DEAD! about the hardships that got them to this point, learning how to break out of their own boundaries, and being true to who they really are.

GENRE IS DEAD: Before Dead Sara released “Hands Up” last year, it felt like we hadn’t heard from the band in a while. Temporary Things Taking Space came out in 2018 and you embarked on a tour that same year. Take me through what happened from there leading up to Ain’t It Tragic.

Emily Armstrong: Well at that point, we had a very shitty manager, I’ll say that, and I’m not usually one to blame other people for our misfortunes. It was a time where we were regathering everything and doing what we thought we needed to do, but it kind of steered in the wrong direction. We just needed to figure out what exactly we were. We had to get rid of bad management and regroup and do an album. Do something from the ground up that we absolutely love. So, we went back to Noah Shain, he did our first two albums, and Warner was interested in taking us, so we kind of got a second chance, which reinvigorated us into making something we thought was great and genuine.

And that kind of thing takes time – getting people on board and getting in the studio. We were ready to go in the studio. We were at that point where we were rehearsing, rehearsing, rehearsing and we had songs Warner liked. Cool, now we can go on tour. Then the pandemic happened. We were like fuck what are we gonna do? At that point, everyone was like go in and record in your rehearsal space. We were stoked about having so much control to do what we wanted to do and what we wanted to sound like but also not really knowing how to do it so that took a lot of time. Watching YouTube tutorials on certain microphones and Warner getting us whatever we needed in order to get things rolling and stuff. Then we got going on that. We set up a studio in our rehearsal space and recorded. It was trial and error.

GID: What was recording like once the lockdown was in place?

EA: Noah wasn’t really in the room with us anymore. We did FaceTime but by the end, we were in such a rhythm we already figured out how to do things by ourselves, you know? So, there was a very big momentum shift in our confidence. Instead of depending on other people, it was like opening ourselves up and really taking a hard look at the album and being really honest with what it sounded like or what it was and what we wanted people to hear. Not letting any outside [feedback] getting in. That’s why it took so long.

GID: Listening to the album it sounds like a rebirth for Dead Sara, which is what the 2018 EP was supposed to be. The new album has that raw, rock sound the band is known for, but it also sees you guys branching out and trying new things that take you by surprise. One song that stood out was “Hypnotic.” It’s got this undeniable swagger, yet it’s very real with that line “I’m self-conscious.” It has that confidence but also reveals that layer of insecurity everyone has.

EA: Yeah exactly! That’s exactly what that is. Anxiety will eat you up and will take place of that confidence. That’s the world we live in right now. It’s looking at social media where you’re like fuck I’m not that pretty. I’m self-conscious, but hey, here I am! Fuck everything! That’s at the end where it’s like I don’t give a shit. I’m gonna live my life basically.

GID: Exactly! And with the pandemic, it’s easy to lean into that anxiety. Think about everyone talking about the bread they made, or the new skills that they picked up and you’re thinking I’m so depressed I can’t do anything.

EA: God yeah. Totally. I mean originally, it had a different jokier side to it. And then we asked what is this song? So, we practiced and made it into what it is now, like oh no I’m self-conscious but I’m also a fucking goddess. I got my fucking swagger. I’m on top of the world! That was cracked during the pandemic, but then there’s “Uninspired” which was written when I was in that depressed state of I don’t feel like anything’s gonna get better. That’s a weird position to be in where you’re like there’s something wrong with the world and you don’t want it to be this bad. I remember [drummer/programmer] Sean [Friday] was sitting at the boards and I just started singing “I’m uninspired by pretty boys in rock n roll bands.” I was being a little facetious and also being a little depressed It’s like how comedians always say dark things but it’s funny. That was really born from the idea of oh you’re so inspired! Why don’t you learn a new language? You can be all this kind of stuff and I’m like no. I’m not inspired. How about I sing a song about not being inspired instead of thinking what inspires me because it’s fucking nothing right now!

This world is dying! Will this be the future of our civilization? You start to really think that way. It gets very meta. So that song is very important. It’s just so real, you know? This shit is happening right now. That was the newest song we did because a lot of the songs were demos from a long time ago and when I say demo it’s like a shell. It had maybe a guitar riff, some idea of a song and a verse. Then we reworked the chords for every fucking song, added all this kind of stuff, wrote new lyrics and stuff like that. But we had to have this pandemic in order to do that. I hate to say that but like we were in there six days a week – Sean and I. Sean took over production a lot on this album. So, it was us two against the world. Obviously, [guitarist] Siouxsie [Medley] would be in there too; she takes care of a lot of her side as well, so we have a great dynamic. We also figured that out more because you kind of shift a lot as a group, figure out what’s working, and keep doing that.

GID: Another song that surprised me was “Starry Eyed.” I thought I was listening to another band for a bit! It’s this prog-rock anthem with a big hook, lots of 70s Styx-inspired synth, and even some different vocals from you. What inspired you guys to tap into this big 70s rock sound?

EA: We don’t necessarily think let’s sound like this or we’ve been listening to this so much, why don’t we do it like this? It’s kind of anything goes at the moment. Like wouldn’t it be cool to do this and then we feed off of each other with certain riffs. Then you start to think oh this song’s kind of like this or that. When it was first born it was very Joy Division. It was a very low vocal and a weird synth. That song was very very down. It never went up into this big thing. So that’s why it was initially called “Joy Division” and it stuck all the way until I changed it for the album.

When we started to really dive into it, I was trying really hard – I had to fight Sean a lot with it – to not make it sound so pop-rock. It was kind of easy to put it into [that category] because it’s a little upbeat. Finally, I was like if it has to be anything, it has to sound like The Killers. Let’s listen to a bunch of Killers and Yeah Yeah Yeahs. So, it had many years of fucking around with. You’ll hear all kinds of little things that were brought about from many different writing sessions trying to things figure out. At one point the end had a key change in the chorus that I was like dude no that’s not it! It went through so many changes and then I was like dude let’s make it sound like early Killers.

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Ashley Perez Hollingsworth

Ashley Perez is a freelance music journalist based in Chicago. Her work has appeared on AXS, The Crypt 1331, Chicago Innerview, New City, The Millions, and Reality-Comics. She also runs her own music blog at Radio Not Found. Some of her favorite bands include Nirvana, The Cure, Muse, Marilyn Manson, and Green Day.

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