Interview: Sabrina Song on imposter syndrome & staying true to yourself
As a first-time SXSW attendee, I was equal parts excited for a week full of music and nervous to be setting foot on Texas soil. Another thing I didn’t realize I was, until about three hours in on the first day, I was wholly unprepared. In my attempts to navigate the near-endless list of events and shows that SX had to offer, I spent weeks before the conference listening to as many artists as humanly possible to compile a hefty list of live acts I was excited about.
One artist wowed me on first listen. I had stumbled across Sabrina Song’s 2021 NPR Tiny Desk submission with her song “Thaw” months prior, was thrilled see her on the list, and was even more surprised to see the many sets she was scheduled to play throughout the week. My excitement led me to attend not one, not two, but three of her shows (including one a week after the conclusion of SXSW, in a dimly lit bar back in New York).
The graduate from the infamous NYU Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music had a voice that tapped into a gentle, yet effervescent quality — enchanting enough for me to follow her into a creaky bar on the outskirts of Austin and even into the corner of an Athleta, where she serenaded shop-goers on a quest for leggings with just a keyboard and a mic.
I sat down with Sabrina to talk about her (equally disorientating) time at SXSW, TikTok, and the importance of community.
How has SXSW been for you so far?
It’s been awesome. I came last year for the first time alone and it was a huge learning experience. But this year, I have my little band with me, who are my good friends. I know so many people here this year, and it feels great to reconnect. We’ve seen great new bands, done a lot of shows, we’re taking every win and trying to enjoy it as much as we can, and really enjoy [it]. I’m like, “You can’t take everything seriously, but I’m also trying to learn how to just have fun. Why am I doing this if I’m gonna torture myself with the stress of it all the time?” I’m just really happy with how everything’s turned out.
Who have you seen lately?
I know you stayed in New York after college. Tell me about why you decided to move to New York from Long Island.
[Long Island] was a great place to grow up in terms of like… it was near the beach, and I love my friends. But I always wanted to live in the city. The older I got, the more it felt like growing up in a vacuum. Everything felt so small. I’m kind of out in the south middle of the island and it’s a really small town; I just desired so badly to live in the city and get away and it was definitely a pretty white neighborhood and there were definitely some instances that made me feel like, “What am I doing?”
It took me a long time to process, as I got older, what it was like to grow up there because I think as a kid I had blinders on. I didn’t really think about it until I started to gain consciousness of the social and cultural dynamics at play. I love Brooklyn. I’ve been living there for a few years after I finished school and the live music scene is just amazing. I’ve met so many bands that are my favorite artists now who play so much locally and I just really appreciate them. They’re workhorses. So many venues are walkable to my apartment. It really shapes what I listen to and how I think about live performance.
What was your experience like at NYU Clive Davis?
I would do it again. Everywhere had its things that can improve, but I think the community of people… I wouldn’t trade it because so many people I work with, write, produce for, or the people in my band, like my best friends, are mostly from the program. It really gave me community and I really did not have any music community before. I barely had been writing music when I was attending high school, so it was a new experience for me. I grew up doing theater because that was just the way to perform in my town. There wasn’t really any people in bands that I knew; I didn’t even think about that being an option. I would sing at the restaurant in my town that I also hosted at and once I got older, I reconsidered if I really wanted to do theater… or do I just love music? I still love seeing shows, but I think writing was always something I was afraid of until I pushed myself to do it.
Sometimes it doesn’t take until every other aspect of your life has changed, because when you’re 17, you just think you know what you want based on what you’ve done as a child in terms of your hobbies and passions. I just couldn’t picture going to school for theater.
I initially found you through your NPR Tiny Desk submission and heard you even got a Phoebe Bridgers co-sign. How did that feel?
That was so crazy. I think that was the first time I was like, “Oh my god, someone is saying they like this,” at that level. Getting that recognition… I was just so honored and happy. We worked really hard on that video. Me and all my friends who played in it are some of my closest friends and when I found out it was going to be Phoebe and Bob Boilen talking about it, I was just like, “I do not care if I win. This is the prize to me.” It was really validating and very motivating to hear, so I was just super stoked.
Tell me about your EP, When It All Comes Crashing Down.
It started with “Doors,” which was the first single off it. I had basically made another EP that I was going to release and then kept being drawn back to “Doors,” which was completely different from the stuff I was making.
I realized I needed to scrap everything and start again around “Doors” and do what was making me excited, even if it was different and out of my comfort zone. I started writing again from there, not trying to have any specific sound and let the songs become what they did. I’m super happy and super proud of it. It felt good to follow my intuition on that.
I’ve listened to the EP and all the tracks feel intimate. What were you feeling when you wrote them?
It was a very transformative time. It was actually the year after I graduated college. I felt the transition was actually pretty smooth, but the year after — entering year two — is when everyone started moving. People were switching cities and working full-time and it felt like this defining shift of things not going to be like how they were. I was thinking a lot about the relationship dynamics in my life, with my family. I was in a new relationship that I’m still in that continues to be a source of inspiration musically. I think I’m interested in exploring dynamics between people, not just romantic, but also learning how to set boundaries with people in your life and letting yourself advocate.
What does your creative process look like?
I’m a huge lyric-driven person. We were just talking about this, my band. We each have a different take but I can’t really know what a song is or wants to become until I know the story… the lyrical story. Very rarely do I start a song with the chord progression first. A lot of the time I will just sing out loud to myself, like in the car, when I’m walking out on the street and record a voice memo and then go back later and flesh it out. I have a lot of lyric notes.
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What are your thoughts on musicians using TikTok?
I think there are a lot of talented artists on TikTok who are just doing what everyone’s being encouraged to do, which is sharing their music and having people discover it and hoping it goes viral. Everyone you talk to when you’re trying to get advice is like, “Post on TikTok,” so whenever I see someone spamming with their song, I’m like, “That’s so real.” Do what you have to do, but I think it’s influencing people to try to make things that will go viral. It’s resulting in a lot of trend-driven songs or songs that use phrases that are of the moment.
That’s something I’m trying to not let influence me because I think I’m always trying to focus on: “Will I like this? In five years will it feel true for me?” And I think TikTok is useful but I try not to let it be the end all be all, because I feel like I’ll end up just not happy with how it ages.
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Now that you’ve been songwriting for a few years now, how do you think you’ve developed from when you first started?
Before college, I’d finished and written like three songs. I applied to school with those songs, I was just like, “These are my songs that have never existed.” The first few years of really writing and taking writing classes or just really trying… I just thought I was terrible. They were bad. They weren’t as terrible as I thought in my head and I felt like such an imposter. “What am I doing here with these kids?”
It’s such a skill to actually be able to write and actually finish and be able to edit and move on and not just beat yourself up so much that nothing gets written. I had one professor who’s really amazing, Mike Errico, and he was like, “Writing a verse is not a song. You can’t judge it until it’s finished. Write the first draft, write the song, finish it, and then let yourself judge or nothing’s gonna get done.” I didn’t even have enough [of a] body of work to be judging. Now I feel like I can tell pretty quickly when I’m writing whether it’s sticking or not, rather than just [letting] everything be the end all be all.
All I have control over is the quality of the work and me feeling like I can really stand behind it. The chips are gonna fall where they may; I can only try as hard as I can. I’m not driven by validation or any other reason that would get old.
Do you write your music for yourself or is there an audience you write for?
I write alone and produce alone and it can feel very insulated but I think I’m always thinking about, “Am I going to enjoy performing this live? Is this story reading for an audience?” Because I think I want to feel so good about the song and be moved by it, but I’m also trying to make sure this is something I would listen to. I try to weigh both sides equally and not let one or the other be more important.
Yes, I have to have an audience for it and feel like it’s going to read, but I also just never want to be doing something just for external.
Would you say you’re your own biggest fan?
Probably not. I know I can be self-deprecating and joke, but I used to be so self-deprecating that it was like, “Aha… the music is bad.” I didn’t even let myself have a chance where I really am proud of what I’m doing, but at the same time, I’m such a huge fan of other artists. I’ll always be a lifelong admirer of what some other people were doing where by no means do I think, “Everyone, why aren’t you listening to me? I am the star of everything.”
What’s next for you?
I’m honestly just trying to put together my first album. First long form project is the goal. Grinding away on that.
Do you plan on releasing your latest singles as part of the album?
No, it’s a completely new project. I thought about that but it felt like I did everything I wanted to do release-wise with those. Some of them have videos and I feel like they stand on their own. The album is pushing into new territory for me, which is a little more live instrumentation and some folk or rock leaning stuff. There’s the two I played on this trip which I won’t name because the names are works in progress.
The album touches on some experiences of womanhood, growing up, being at this point in your life and reflecting on past experiences with new hindsight, like a fully developed brain. “Let’s revisit that because I haven’t unpacked that.” Not in like a, “Being an adult sucks” way but more like a “What’s happened?” way.
Where do you want to be with your music? What will make you think you’ve made it?
I think [I’ll have made it] if I’m at a place where I’m able to perform consistently in front of new audiences or audiences who are there because they’ve connected with my music. The goal is very simple for me. I really feel like building a community around my music — people who feel like they can take something away from it.
I’m genuinely so grateful for literally every single person at any show that if I was ever at a point where there was a community and a consistent ability to work on music for a full-time living, that would just be everything I want.
This interview was conducted by Nancy Jiang in-person at SXSW in Austin, Texas in March of 2023.
Header photo by @livywicks.
A New York City native, Nancy Jiang is a budding journalist covering music, arts and entertainment, and politics. One day she hopes to interview Frank Ocean, but for now, she’s bumping Endless and spending all her money on vinyl and concerts.