Singer-songwriter Sarah Grain is back with Something Wild, her first release in seven years. Something Wild is a collaborative project featuring a talented crew of musicians dubbed the Billions of Stars, including Doug Sauter on guitar/mandolin, Mina Keohane on keys, Nate Gray on bass and Ryan Koch on drums.
I caught up with Sarah to talk about the making of Something Wild, and the health problems she overcame during the creation of the disc.
Grain planned a truly unique album release party for Something Wild, happening Saturday, September 9 at 8 p.m. in the Catacombs under City Market.
Kyle Long: Something Wild is your first release since issuing Terrain in 2010. There’ve been a lot of changes in your life and work during this time, including the formation of a new band, the Billions of Stars, who collaborated with you on this release. And more seriously you’ve been grappling with some very difficult health issues.
Sarah Grain: So the first gig that Billions of Stars ever did together was in January of 2014. I’d had some strange neurological symptoms since that previous fall, some numbness and tingling, and at one point I kind of lost the use of my right hand.
I remember going to band practice with Mina Keohane and I was like, “If it seems like I’m having trouble strumming, it’s fine. I just can’t really feel my hand. But we’ll get through it.” She’s like, “You need to go get that checked out!” After that second time it happened I did decide to get it checked out. That was the week before our first gig at the Chatterbox. I had an MRI done and I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.
The development of this band, and my journey with this illness have been so intertwined. It was almost like the formation of this band happened because I was getting this illness diagnosis. Because it was something I needed so much in order to ground myself, and give me purpose. When you get a diagnosis like multiple sclerosis or some other chronic illness where you just feel helpless, it’s hard to spin a positive future for yourself. You just kind of imagine the worst thing happening and I definitely went through that.
I definitely went through many months of imagining the worst thing happening and not knowing what to do. Because everybody told me “Oh there’s nothing you can do. You just need to figure out the right med and take that and hope for the best.” But the further I got into my illness, I just felt like that wasn’t the end of the story.
I started going to see a functional medicine practitioner who really helped open my eyes to the impacts of toxins on our body, and to the inflammatory responses that bodies have to food and to environmental stimulus. I went through this really rigid protocol over the past year and a half where I completely overhauled my diet. I did major detoxes both through saunas and exfoliation and diet and I’ve been over a year symptom-free now.
Kyle: The album art for Something Wild reflects your struggle with MS. It’s a profile view of the human brain, with all sorts of plant life and insects interwoven with the biological features. Am I correct that this illustration is based on actual MRI scan of your brain?
Sarah: In February, I had an MRI. Every other MRI I ever had with my illness has been bad news. So there was this part of me where I was expecting bad news, because that’s what I’ve always gotten before. But I also had this glimmer of hope, like this glimmer that something’s different now. I’ve realized something else, and yes, the illness isn’t totally in my control, but I understand something more about how it works, and why the body has immune responses to toxins, and food additives, and environmental stimuli.
I got the MRI results back and I was stable. I hadn’t had any changes since my last MRI which showed me that the path that I was on was something that I had to commit to fully for the rest of my life.
So after that MRI I went to my neurologist and they kind of go through and show you all of the images. There was this one image of the side profile of the brain. I saw this image and I’m like, “Wow. that’s incredible! That’s my brain.” I felt really lucky to be in this moment. I was like, “Stop right now. I need to take a picture of this.” I whipped out my cell phone and I took this picture.
Later that night when I went to band practice we were talking about the album art. I already knew who I wanted the artist to be. I just had this really amazing sense when I met this artist Stephanie Renner, but we didn’t know where we wanted to go yet visually.
When I was talking with the band, we knew the album was going to be called Something Wild. But we couldn’t come up with any good ideas for images for the album cover. But later that night I was like. “I want to show you guys this.” So, I whip out my phone and say, “Can you believe this? This is my brain.” I showed them this picture of my brain and it just hit me.
I was like, “What if this artist can do a Something Wild version of my brain scan?” Because for me, I was in such a positive place where I felt so much triumph, both in my illness and with the culmination of this record. I thought that there could be no better image than turning this brain scan into something wild, which was the album that we were bringing forth. So I brought that idea to the artist. I said, “Do you think you could do a Something Wild version of this brain scan?” And she said, “Yeah definitely.”
Kyle: Did your struggle with MS influence your songwriting on this album?
Sarah: Well, music has always been a therapeutic thing for me. I always tried to make room for songwriting before, but now I see it more as a part of my protocol. It’s a time where I shut the door and breathe. I put away my phone, and I get completely in the flow. In meditation this is everything that they talk about, getting in this flow where time changes, time slows down and you’re tapping into this kind of parasympathetic nervous system stuff. I feel that way with songwriting, and I take it seriously now with my songwriting.
Kyle: Is there a particular track on the record that really reflects your journey through this period of diagnosis and recovery?
Sarah: Yeah, the title track “Something Wild” because there’s this line that says “I am something wild, living somewhere near the truth. Somewhere between my summer birth, and the follies of my youth. Like a current swam upstream, an ox driving a team, an acorn sprout yearning to push through. So I do.”
I feel like that acorn sprout yearning to push through completely encapsulates my journey with MS, because I will push through. Yeah, nothing’s going to stop me.