Sarah Donner, the singer-songwriter whose stewardship of Indie Music Night at the Griggstown Pavilion has given many musicians, from nearby and farther away, a spotlight, is at an interesting place in her life. Since we last checked in with Donner (“Music for the MySpace Crown,” U.S.1, January 10, 2007), she has married (a year ago to husband Michael) and turned 30 (she disclosed this reluctantly, but with good humor), and the self-monikered Cat Lady is enjoying herself. Her new record, “Typing Is Dangerous,” she says matter-of-factly, is “a more grown-up record, which I guess is what happens when you grow up,” she says.
Donner will formally release “Typing Is Dangerous,” her third record, on her CatLady Records, with a CD release party at Small World Coffee on Witherspoon Street, on Saturday, September 11.
Not that Donner, an attractive brunette/pink-haired woman with an outlook and sense of humor both sunny and wry, doesn’t still have a need to explore, expand, travel, and encounter new challenges and situations. Being on the road, says Donner, “totally rejuvenates me. I’m very sad when I have to come back. I tend to feel like I’m in a rut when I’m in one place for too long. I feel like I’m not living as full a life as I could.”
This settled but restless life is reflected in Donner’s new work. “A lot of the songs (on the record) reflect a sort of restlessness I have as I’m getting older,” she says. “I’m just craving that success, the freedom to be able to perform for a living — I’m not trying to be Madonna or anything, but I would like to be able to make a living performing; that would be fabulous. I wrote a lot of songs that reflected that feeling.”
The title of the new album comes from the second song on the disc. “I always try to pick lyrics that are different and not conventional; I work very hard on my words,” she says. “If I’m writing something and it sounds too normal or conversational, I kind of go back and rework it. I like the sound of certain words in my mouth. Because I like to sing so much, I’m aware of what words feel nice.”
As a Princeton University employee — she works as a set designer and painter for McCarter and Princeton’s theater and dance departments — she largely gets the summer off, which gives her a chance to tour the country, which she did happily during the months of June and July. With Michael as Fred/Shaggy to her Daphne/Velma, the couple and their cats, and Sarah’s guitars, hopped into their minivan and went west.
She enjoys visiting the midwest and west, where people are friendlier than back east. This summer’s itinerary took her to Seattle and back for a three-week tour with stops in Pittsburgh, Chicago, St. Paul, Billings, Montana, Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, Seattle, Colorado, and St. Louis. “It was great. I did that last summer too,” says Donner. “This time around it was much better to me musically, financially. I don’t know that I’m getting much better, just that people are coming out to shows and being supportive. I know a lot of artists blame the economy for not being able to get fans out, or for not having the support they need, but I thought this time out, things went very well.”
Donner used social media and old-fashioned word of mouth to get the word out, and she, like many other independent musicians, does house concerts as well as shows at coffeehouses and other venues. “For me, as a solo artist, the house concerts are not only lucrative financially, which is really helpful when you’re on the road, but you automatically have a better relationship with the people who come out as your fans. They say hi, and talk with you, and eat cheesecake with you.”
She has just been named a regional round finalist in the Northeast division in the Mountain Stage New Song Contest. The winner of the contest will appear on the NPR show Mountain Stage, and Donner says she would really love to be on the show. “It’s pretty big. I just found out last week. Just getting to be a finalist is kind of encouraging and validating for me. It makes me feel that I am on the right path and that I’m growing as a writer and as a musician.”
Donner grew up in a Portugese-American community in the maritime and whaling town of New Bedford, MA. Her father is a worship leader at a church there, where Donner sang in the choir. She graduated from Westminster Choir College in 2001 with a B.A. in music performance.
The term Cat Lady fits Donner. She has always loved cats, and she has manifested that love in her present incarnation as the Princeton Cat Lady who also happens to sing and paint for a living. Donner and her husband share their Princeton place with four permanent cats and many others, often hurt or otherwise endangered, who are either delivered to her or which she finds, nurtures to health, and gives away. Near her home, not far from the University Medical Center at Princeton, there has been a feral cat population, and Donner began feeding them and caring for them.
“So, word got out,” she says. “All the cats started hanging out, having their babies. It was easy to catch the kittens, bring them into the bathroom, domesticate them, and give them away to friends. The more cats I collected, the more people called me about cats that needed homes.” The couple’s own four cats are Duncan, Shosha, Rory (“she’s the pretty one, but she doesn’t really contribute anything to our family”), and Puma Bean Jackson (“he’s kind of like a dog”).
Donner’s restlessness extends to her present surroundings. Although she is fairly content here, she wouldn’t mind moving to, say, Chicago, or back to her native New England. Growing up in the Portuguese-American culture, she found it “boring,” but now that she’s not in Massachusetts, which looks outward toward the sea both literally and figuratively, she misses her roots. “Now that I’m separated from it, when I do go home I try to jump back into it. I am kind of relearning and reappreciating what I have, what I always have had. Another thing that comes with being a little bit older.”
Donner hopes that in a few years she will be able to perform full time and make a living with her music. The music industry is undergoing rapid and radical change, with record companies becoming less important (and not understanding how to remain relevant), and publicity and distribution becoming closer to the artist. “I think a lot of (execs) in the music industry have to make some decisions about their business model and how it’s going to work,” she says. “I really do believe it’s within the power of the independent artist to make it. You just need the time to do your publicity and your marketing, while continuing to grow as a writer and a performer.”
Sarah Donner, Small World Coffee, 14 Witherspoon Street, Princeton. Saturday, September 11, 8:30 to 10:30 p.m. CD release party for “Typing is Dangerous,” Donner’s third recording featuring other people’s stories with Donner’s “opinions, insecurities, judgments, and affections.” She is a Princeton resident. 609-924-4377 or www.smallworldcoffee.com.