Before the making of her fourth album, The Blessed Unrest, Sara Bareilles was given a book about the cosmos. She began reading about planets, stars, and constellations, specifically Cassiopeia, which was named after the mythological queen who would brag about her beauty. This would eventually inspire her favorite song off the album, “Cassiopeia.”
Her research eventually led her to the topic of supernovas, the brilliant bursts of light that stars give off when they explode.
“I started to think about how that might feel to personify, you know? The idea of being a star and so far away from everything around you,” she told Radio.com in a recent taped sit-down (above). “What if a star falls in love? The song is this idea that you give something up to come together.”
“When stars collide they explode,” Bareilles continued. “So it’s that sort of idea that you give something up to come together. But it’s worth it in the end.”
This story-behind-the-song might sound a little too New Age-y for some, but for Bareilles, it’s the clearest example of how she’s trying to expand her horizons as a musician.
It’s been three years since Bareilles released her last album, Kaleidoscope Heart, and a lot has changed in her life. The 33-year-old singer went through a break-up (which is addressed on the “Someone Like You”-style ballad “Manhattan”), moved to New York and started taking a closer look at her career.
Bareilles admits that the making of 2007’s Little Voice, which welcomed her to the mainstream with the hit “Love Song,” was a bit of a blur. “I was so overwhelmed by the process, I felt like a deer in headlights a lot of the time,” she said. “I don’t think of it as a negative experience, but I was really young and really overwhelmed.”
By her next album, 2010’s Kaleidoscope Heart, she was in a really safe place, but that hindered her from taking risks. “I think I was dealing with the pressure of it being a follow-up record,” Bareilles admitted. “It’s a blessing to have had success with the record, but I wasn’t expecting it.”
Now that Bareilles is a little older and a little wiser, she wanted to expand her horizons and experiment with her sound on The Blessed Unrest. “As an artist, you need to do that to know your creative boundaries and also to just stay interested in what you’re doing because it gets boring,” she said. “You’ve got to get your juices flowing.”
One thing that helped her get the creative juices flowing was writing with fun.’s Jack Antonoff. The two were introduced through their mutual friend, Sara Quin, one half of twin sister duo Tegan and Sara, who felt the two would hit it off.
“He’s the most incredible human,” she said of Antonoff. “He’s so inspiring, so funny, so dear and sweet and charming and talented.”
The first time they sat down to write together, Antonoff played a few tracks that he had been working on, one of them being the instrumental for the album’s first single, “Brave.” The two also wrote another song that made the album, called “Chasing the Sun,” and Bareilles says there are a bunch of other songs from her time with Antonoff that she hopes will be released at some point in the future.
Another way she expanded her horizons was by getting a little deeper into astronomy.
“This feels like a little bit of a new interest for me,” she explained. “I think that I have a lot of awe of the universe and I think especially in terms of the natural beauty that surrounds us at all times.”
Bareilles hadn’t really touched on this otherworldly element in her writing, but says it felt like a really welcomed partnership mentally to draw from these new places as a writer.
It was “Satellite Call,” the first song she wrote for the album, that set the celestial theme in motion. It also had her breaking from her typical cheerful pop mold to make something a little different and maybe something a little weirder than what her fans might be expecting.
“It’s more like a poem set to music,” she said of the song. “That song kind of gave me permission to play outside the box.”
While it doesn’t sound like Bareilles previous singles, she hopes it won’t keep her from being heard on the radio, citing Norah Jones’ “Come Away With Me” as an example of something out of the ordinary that found its place in the mainstream.
“Norah Jones didn’t sound like anything that was on the radio at that time,” she explained. “No one would have guessed that ‘Come Away With Me’ would be one of the highest-charted songs of all time. There’s always room for something different.”
But it’s “Cassiopeia” we return to when getting at the crux of Bareilles’ new direction.
Using twinkly notes, spacey blips and bleeps, and a loop of Bareilles voice in place of percussion, she tells the tale of two star-crossed lovers who just happen to be actual stars. It’s a bit everything-but-the-kitchen-sink, and Bareilles expects it’ll be a challenge to work out its live instrumentation once she hits the road next month. But it’s what she was going for — bombastic and cosmic, with production that feels “massive.”
Her new, more ambitious sound could potentially fill up a larger live setting, but it’s worth noting that Bareilles has never thought of herself as a high-profile pop star. Instead, she perceives herself as an indie singer-songwriter who happens to have a few pop hits. When looking at the trajectory of her career, Bareilles hopes people see her as a career artist.
“I want to be able to play shows for the rest of my life,” she said. “And I think that I could make that happen. I might not be playing Madison Square Garden, but you know, my heart and soul is on stage with my fans.”