Puffy pants. Tongue piercings. Tattoos. These are just a few of the “things” that Sarah Dooley celebrates on her debut album, Stupid Things, which she released independently this winter. Dooley describes the record as a collection of mostly nostalgic songs about adolescence. “It’s a sweet retrospective on the really dumb things you do and care about as a child and teenager, and longing for the permission you had as a kid to do those stupid things,” she says.
Brooklyn-based Dooley, originally from Indiana, started playing piano as a child. In her senior year of high school she began writing her own music. Until then, Dooley had funneled her creative energy into writing plays and short stories. But after discovering artists Fiona Apple and Regina Spektor, known for their smart and poetic lyrics, she saw an opportunity to marry those interests.
An aspiring storyteller, Dooley found Spektor’s use of character in her songs appealing. She says that exploring different narrative voices in her own early work was both liberating and empowering. “While I’m definitely more comfortable singing in my own [narrative] voice than I was when I first started writing music, there are still moments where it’s fun to step outside of that and experiment with new perspectives,” she says.
Dooley does both on Stupid Things, managing throughout to maintain a sincerity that grounds her often irreverent lyrics. She holds that balance in place with a simple vocal delivery that’s at once measured and effortless. The album has received some attention, and iTunes sales jumped when NPR featured Dooley and her songs.
In the anthemic “Teenage Elegance,” Dooley channels her 18-year-old self, the Barnard first year enamored with, yet still intimidated by, New York City. An ode to unrequited love, “Shadows” chronicles the romance unfolding between the silhouettes of two characters, and “Gym Looks Nice” takes listeners back to the wonderful awkwardness of a middle-school dance.
Dooley’s willingness to embrace the awkward has been a source of inspiration across her creative pursuits. As a first year, she created and starred in the comic web series And Sarah…. The mockumentary follows a painfully awkward student who is struggling to adjust to college life. “I was having all these uncomfortable, embarrassing experiences in my real life,” she says. “Why not put them to use creatively?”
Dooley recruited the help of a Barnard filmmaking student to produce the project and released the episodes on YouTube. Between exposure from the series, which garnered an impressive on line following, and her work as a member of Columbia’s Fruit Paunch improv comedy team, she became something of a celebrity on campus. “It felt good to be recognized,” she says. “For someone coming from a little town in Indiana, it certainly gave me more confidence.”
Dooley says Barnard was creatively stimulating in a significant way. “I felt supported, encouraged, and constantly inspired by the classes, my classmates, and the environment of passionate women following their dreams,” she says. “[The College] was really important in my development as an artist.” From her current manager to her partner on the web series to the student who produced Stupid Things as his senior thesis, members of the Barnard and Columbia communities have played an integral role in that development. “I met the most important people in my life at school. It was just brimming with talented people generous enough to help me out.”
Those collaborators have equal praise for Dooley. “Sarah is so funny and talented— I hardly had to direct her [in the web series], I just let her do her thing,” says And Sarah… cocreator Rachel Mersky ’11. “She has such a great spirit, which to this day makes her one of my favorite people to work with.”
As for what’s next, Dooley says she’d like to tour with her album. “That seems like it would be fun. I’m writing screenplays, too—I’m trying to do it all,” she says. “I feel like I’m not good enough at any one thing to focus on it fully. I’m putting my eggs in all the baskets.
—by Alex Coppola
—Photograph by Matthew Kern, Meraki Collective