Dig Deep: Sara Tea Reclaims Pieces From The Past on "Songs for Discarded Souls" EP
The Chelsea singer-songwriter / producer unearths past fears and forges a new path for the future on her debut EP.
“You get this recipe of thoughts, feelings, and sounds, and you don’t know the impact of it. We do what we have to survive, and it’s a luxury to reflect sometimes,” Tea said.
“We piece together the life we have to get where we have to. The moments that we can reclaim pieces of ourselves … I think there is healing that can come from that. I hope that we all in our own way can do that to the best of our ability.”
Tea suffers from postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS) dysautonomia, which often begins after a major surgery, trauma, or a viral illness. It causes symptoms when you transition from lying down to standing up, such as a fast heart rate, dizziness, and fatigue, and creating Songs for Discarded Souls was one way she dealt with the symptoms.
Throughout the EP, Tea finds healing through five intimate tracks steeped in experimental soundscapes. Ethereal elements of ambient music, trip-hop, and indietronica seamlessly fuse with her lush vocals.
“The issue … is the pressure from our social grouping or the gallery in our head that says to us, “Oh, why is she doing that? What does she think she’s doing with music? Who does she think she is?” said Tea, who’s honed her production and engineering skills through Women’s Audio Mission and SoundGirls.
“I made a promise to really suffocate that audience metaphorically because it dims my life on such a grand level, and I don’t want to live that way.”
We recently spoke to Tea about her childhood; return to Michigan; the creation and production of her EP; the tracks from it; a potential sound installation; and new material.
Q: Tell us about your family and where you grew up.
A: My grandma is from Sugar Island [in the Upper Peninsula], and my mom was born and raised in Southfield. I grew up all over the U.S. with a few years in Ann Arbor, and I went to Wines Elementary School for second and third grade. I also spent my high school years in Princeton, New Jersey.
Q: How did your creative journey start, especially concerning poetry, art, and music?
A: I started getting into poetry and art around age 10 or 11, and then puberty hit, and I realized the soft pieces of me weren’t accepted. They weren’t necessarily appreciated to be able to navigate socially, and this is sort of where the album [Songs for Discarded Souls] comes in. I’m reclaiming all the little pieces of me that I lost along the way.
By age 13-14 … this was the era of Sarah McLachlan, the era of Hole … and you were starting to see Fiona Apple and Tori Amos. Then I was like, “Well, maybe I want a guitar,” and so I got a guitar. It took me a while to find my instrument, which ended up being drums.
In my formative years in high school, I saw other people doing very well [with their] instruments, and I just kept it to myself. Luckily, I was nurtured to keep exploring, even if it was privately. I didn’t see the world as a place to continue exploring what I consider the gentler sides of myself. And now with this chapter, I’m reclaiming those pieces and also saying it loudly so others can too.
Q: Growing up, women artists from the ‘90s, including Sarah McLachlan, Courtney Love, Fiona Apple, Tori Amos, and Sheryl Crow, inspired you. How did they help spark your passion for production?
A: I grew up around a lot of new-age music, so there were a lot of ambient and atmospheric influences. You start where you can, and these women were letting out their rage. A lot of my social circles—I’ve noticed over the years—sort of discard and belittle some of those women … and I feel very protective of them because they did pave the way. I tended to lean more toward their atmospheric intros, and it wasn’t always their hits. I spent a lot of hours looking at the liner notes around production and understanding who was on it, who was in the background, who made this happen, who was the label, and where the sounds came from.
Things clicked for me with something called DGC Rarities Vol. 1, which was a compilation David Geffen did with Sonic Youth [and other artists]. Then I started to understand there were offshoots from this, but when you’re used to going to Sam Goody, you weren’t going to find the other stuff, and I didn’t have older brothers and sisters. I tend to listen to more Brian Eno now, and I go in phases of stuff, but I think of the root of what made me realize that I could do this—it was those women. Another key person I was listening to was Marianne Faithfull and her later albums. That changed a lot of things for me at 18 when I heard [those cassettes] because she was talking about how she was treated by those guys. That shifted my thinking completely, and I was like, “I will never be discarded by guys like that.”
Q: Over time, drums became your primary instrument. How did it evolve during your time in Denver, Boulder, Los Angeles, and Chicago?
A: I went from New Jersey to Boulder, Colorado, and then to Denver. I was there for 10 years … I did college radio, and then I was also part of the first wave of internet-only radio stations, or streaming, back in 1997-1998. I was in radio before I even did music, and I started taking drum lessons in 1999. I realized, “Oh, this is my instrument,” and within two months, I started playing shows because I met somebody when I was digging through records. Then I went to L.A. and then Chicago.
Q: You relocated to Michigan after being diagnosed with a chronic illness. How are you feeling? How did those experiences influence Songs for Discarded Souls?
A: I’ve been dealing with postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS) dysautonomia. I was living in LA, and I just wasn’t able to care for myself and things started to disintegrate. I am in the care of and near my family … I needed a strong support system, and I have that here.
I was here maybe a year or two before the pandemic, and then I ended up in the hospital for a complication from a burst appendix. I was in there for a month, and I just feel like I’m recovering from that … and I was in bed a lot when the pandemic started. When that happened, I knew I’d be losing my one day a week out. A lot of this has been a psychological test of my psyche and soul, and it’s where I decided to start putting some of the pain and suffering into the art because it was coming to a point where it was not safe to talk about [pain] publicly. I felt like I had to find a way to deal with it in a healthy way.
Q: How does this EP help people who may feel like “discarded souls?”
A: I feel lucky that I can navigate this world, but I consider that a lot of the people close to me can’t always, and I feel very protective. It’s not that I want to be an authority or an expert in that category. I do crave the community of us, and I feel very protective of the folks who can’t keep up and who are pushed aside, and who can’t keep up the niceties or the performance.
A lot of people have to mask to get through this world and just because I can do it well doesn’t mean it didn’t impact me or burn me out. I think there are a lot of people who aren’t publicly sharing the disappointment they’ve seen these past couple of years in parts of society. I hope we can keep gathering for each other, and also that we have a right to be here, to feel safe and to exist, and to not be erased.
Q: How did writing and recording the EP’s five tracks help with soul-searching and healing?
A: Writing is good for me, but I also realize there’s power to me in that, especially when you go to record. I produced a lot of this myself, and I had to move the parts of me that judged the process, especially with production and listening … there’s a lot of perfection in it. I chose to not do that and to stick with the essence.
In this journey, I learned the importance of the physicalization of it, but also the desire and need for community. Yes, you can write alone, but people forget there is a desire for connection in a symbiotic relationship between you and others. I’m beginning to reclaim and understand the desire to relate and connect to others. As an artist, which I put aside for many years … I’m trying to reclaim that piece of me. There’s a healing that came with me in the recording process because I love the technical side of things.
Q: “Forward Bow” highlights feeling lost and disappointed while trying to figure out where you’re headed next in a relationship. How did writing this track allow you to find closure in a relationship and start the next chapter?
A: Halfway through the song I’m like, “Oh my god, this is about that relationship,” and then I start putting the pieces together and then formulate it. The beginning of the song starts when I was 28. I left a relationship that could have been fine, but I knew it wasn’t right for me. They weren’t bad and they didn’t do anything wrong, but they just weren’t growing. It would have been safe, and I could have stayed in that circle of people.
That’s where the song starts, and then halfway through, I remember hitting 40. I was the type of woman who got a lot of compliments from men who respected me because … I dressed the way that they decided to give me respect. I knew the right things … I know a lot about tech, and I happened to be the person that they would long to talk around. And I realized at 40 that doesn’t get you anything and that doesn’t get you treated better as a woman. You get treated the same way ultimately at the end of the day no matter what you’re wearing, how you talk, the cadence of your speech, and if you have a vocal fire or not. That makes me very protective of every expression of presentation. There is no winning in that equation. I was like, “What does it get you?” … even though it wasn’t a conscious thing on my part to behave with some sort of respectability politics. It was from 28 to fortysomething that I wrote that song, and it was a vulnerable expression of that moment.
Q: “Heaven Knows” addresses feeling unheard and wanting to share your voice. How did writing this track help you speak up for yourself and your health?
A: It was a chance for me to showcase myself and my sounds as a producer, too. I was like, “I’m putting my all into this. If someone wants me to produce their stuff, then think of me.” I lost a lot of friends once my health [took a] hit, and I didn’t know how many people were around me for the plus-one. I’ve seen this with my friends, too, who moved away from [hosting music] events, writing blogs, or doing podcasts. You didn’t know who was around you because of what you could give them.
I also was like, “I’m not gonna be ignored, and I’m not going anywhere. I know you used me for that cycle, but I’m still here.” The reason why I was in the hospital longer and ended up being in there for a few months from a burst appendix is that I sat in the hallway for eight hours in the emergency room. Also because of my high pain tolerance … they didn’t take me seriously, so it spread throughout my body. I’ve now learned I have to exaggerate to get the care that I need.
And it’s not just for women, but for minorities. There’s a broken system in place that I was furious at definitely at the peak of that song. I’ve learned what I have to do to navigate that system. There was a point in the room where I needed to tell my mom, but I looked at her and I started yelling at the level of pain that I was feeling. I encourage everybody to do that because sometimes … you’re not going to get the care unless you’re the squeaky wheel. I’m just louder now.
Q: “Time Will Avenge” examines keeping a long-term relationship going and the challenges that come with it. How did your current relationship inspire that track?
A: Our motto is like “Let’s just try again tomorrow.” We’re both very stubborn, and we’re both very much in our own worlds. We both keep trying and luckily, we do have humor and time. That’s a fun song, and I enjoyed it.
Q: “They’ll Never Know” explores the search for finding the right path in life and reclaiming your authentic self. How did writing this track help you connect with others facing similar experiences?
A: These past few years, I have seen where folks’ integrity lies and how elements of their integrity don’t always align with me long-term. That was very difficult to see, and it wasn’t always conversations that I could have with them. If [our] paths cross again someday, that would be great, but some people are determined to misunderstand you and make conclusions. I lost some people, friends, and community that I didn’t think I would for many different reasons.
It was like, “OK, I have to find my own alignment, like an inner compass, and find those along the way.” We need community, but we don’t all need to perfectly get along or be BFFs. And sometimes when you lose elements of your community to differences of ethics or whatever, it’s hard to stay aligned to what you care about, but I had to keep moving forward.
Q: “93 Weeks” is an ethereal, ambient instrumental from a soundtrack of an experimental film installation of the same name. What was it like to work on that film and loop video footage collected over 93 weeks?
A: I haven’t found a home for it. I find that I’m usually two to three years ahead of certain things, and I want to do a vertical video installation. If anyone is interested, I’d love to do the installation; it’s clips from Instagram.
I put [“93 Weeks”] on there because ambient work is really important to me … it’s where I am now. I’ll continue to write songs, but it’s a large piece of who I am, so I didn’t want to save it for later. I wanted to include it now.
Q: As a producer, what inspired the EP’s ethereal sound? How did the field recordings of church bells and city bells along with orchestral layers, home-built instruments, and atmospheric synths, loops, and samples provide additional sonic depth to the tracks?
A: I use a program called Ableton, but I started on my phone on GarageBand. And then I exported to Ableton when I was ready to deal with more of the technology, and I mixed in whatever I could. It started as a gap, and now I’m returning. That’s why I put so much effort into some of the sounds, especially “Heaven Knows,” because I’m like, “Hey, this is my sound; it’s not just for me,” but I wanted to make sure I completed my intentional work before I started serving others.
A: I love a full [album] experience, and I wanted to give that. I still love something that you can play from beginning to end … I tried to do that with this [EP]. It kinda came together quickly, and Fred was very helpful in that because I wear a lot of hats. I did 90 percent of this, but heaven knows I worked a lot with him.
We dug into Ableton together, so I brought him what I had, and I was able to watch him edit and do the mixing in person. He has a very intuitive sense and was complimentary in the ways that I needed to be encouraged because I’ve been doing 100 percent of this in a bubble. I usually send something off to mix, but with mixing [this EP] I was there with him because it’s something I’d like to learn. I was in the room for that, and he mastered it alone.
We had an hour left that was still available, and I was like, “Hey, I happen to have this, and I almost gave up on it.” He was like, “No, let me leave the room for a few minutes … spend some time with it.” I did some editing as a producer on it, and then we mixed it. That gentle openness of support, I would like for every person that wants to create art. To me, that’s the radical act of what is a priority in my work, whether I’m creating an event or a space, music, art, or otherwise. It’s just creating space and letting them be and giving them tools if they need them.
A: Those two other people were remote. I went to Hamilton for the steel guitar for “Time Will Avenge,” and he ended up being next level. Hamilton was also like, “Oh, well you know, I can do bass,” and I was like, “I need bass, great!” And then Fred [Thomas] also hopped on the bass, and it was great … it’s the symbiotic nature that I want. I have another single that I’m working on for later, and [Hamilton] hopped on bass for that again.
Matt was interesting because he’s such a pro. I programmed some of the drums on these [tracks], and he played on top of the programming. I did a couple of takes with him, and he did the first take—it was tight and clean. I don’t have a percussion setup because I’m a post-punk drummer, like I’m cut and dry, and I’m tight and clean, but simple. I was like, “What kind of stuff do you have on there? Would you be able to add some percussion on top of this very tight beat that you did? I want to build up to this heaving ending of catharsis.” He got that on the first take, and that was the “heaven” that I was looking for on “Heaven Knows.” Working with somebody like that is such a pleasure because it’s quick, and that is a joy that I never experienced.
Q: You’re part of Magic Guts Collective, a creative studio and record label focused on intentional visual and aural storytelling, experiential-based events, organic marketing, and authentic content. How do you collaborate with a collective of artists based in Detroit, Denver, Los Angeles, and New York City?
A: I contribute a few things to that, and it’s a few people in Detroit and some friends in Denver and L.A. I can’t do it all alone, so we work together to make that happen. We use it for me, but we’d like to help others … so when they’re doing installations in Denver, they’ll sort of pick our brains. It’s not our full-time thing, so the best way to do it is to create the concept and keep building. They’ll come to me if they’re doing an installation somewhere else, and I’ll give them tips since a lot of the stuff is technology-based. We love art, and we also love tech, so they’ll be helping me when I do that installation, too, if I need help with projections or lighting. We work together to do that, and we hope to keep helping other artists in the future.
Q: Looking ahead, you’ve considered doing a sound bath and installation experience as well as an “ambient picnic” for people. What’s the status of those projects? What do you have in mind for them?
A: I’m working on an installation or experience that is called Sounds for Discarded Souls; it’s still coming together. It’s a combination of a sound bath and an installation experience where folks can come, and I also do lettering and word art. I’m going to create an object with pieces of paper where folks can come and put in things they want to let go or the things that they can’t say to people. I love sound healing, and I feel like I fall between the categories of people who want to believe it but quite can’t and then those who are super into it. I think I’m right between those worlds where I can offer a space, so I’m feeling that out now and how that would best serve the community and potentially be something that I could travel with.
I am thinking of creating some spaces before just taking all this music out and going out to perform it. In the next couple of years, I may build a band—and a lot of this [music] was done in the studio—but I see myself offering something like that. I do have bigger dreams, but I don’t know where they will go. I do have an idea for something called an “ambient picnic” where people can gather. I’m trying to get creative with it in a way that serves the community as I still get to know it even though I’ve been here for five years.
Q: What’s up next for you? Any plans to write new material or go back into the studio?
A: I think the model of doing singles feels good for me right now. I love a good full record, but I’m technically a new artist in a way. While some people may know me for DJing or not at all, I haven’t lived in Michigan since I was a child. I haven’t done a live performance, so I want to try and record a live session. I’m putting together this next single, and I’d like to record a live version of it with a video and with Magic Guts Collective. And I hope I get to DJ this summer like last summer I did with a few people on vinyl.
Lori Stratton is a library technician, writer for Pulp, and writer and editor of strattonsetlist.com.