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Interview: Sara Bareilles on songwriting, her new hit album

When Sara Bareilles' new album was released, it surprised many by heading straight to the top of the charts.

It was a shock not just because it was just Bareilles' second album, coming off 2007's "Little Voice," but also because of the kind of music she makes.

At a time when dance-infused hip-hop is dominating the Billboard charts, here was a 13-track album of upbeat, traditional pop nestled at No. 1, with 90,000 units sold, according to Nielsen Soundscan.

"There's a lot of stuff out there that's dance and club-oriented," Bareilles said. "I'm a traditional singer-songwriter. I have a more organic sound. It's nice to know there's room for everybody."

Bareilles is now touring on the strength of her sophomore effort, and she'll perform at Rams Head Live on Sunday. She said this show is bigger than any she's done before.

The 31-year-old California native said her No. 1 album wasn't just a surprise to the industry, but to herself as well.

"I was in total shock for a couple of days. It was very out of left field," she said.

That's because when she started performing, Bareilles was mostly playing tiny clubs and bars in Los Angeles.

"I never played coffee shops; I just played a lot of coffee shop-sized venues," she said. "I took every venue I could get my hands on."

By 2005, she had signed a record deal with Epic and took a year to record her debut, "Little Voice." The album was an auspicious start. Its 13 tracks feature Bareilles' signatures: perky piano playing, upbeat melodies and a touch of attitude, as in the first single, "Love Song."

That song, which might sound to some like a Michelle Branch cut or a feistier Norah Jones track, was ubiquitous when it was released in 2007. It's an earworm of a song where Bareilles mouths off, without a hint of anger, about a shabby boyfriend, a theme that proved popular with young listeners and that was eventually certified three times platinum by the Recording Industry of America.

Bareilles credits the song with introducing her to the country.

"With the second record, it's been easier because 'Love Song' was a really special introduction for me," she said. We had the good fortune to connect with people with that record."

Bareilles started writing the new album, "Kaleidoscope Heart," after she finished touring with the first. It took a while to come together because she struggled with writer's block.

"My process is evolving. I'm of the ilk of writers that feels you have to be open to the inspiration," she said. "But if you're not, then you can't beat a dead horse."

She usually writes at the piano. Sometimes she picks up the guitar or a ukulele to see what kinds of sounds come out.

"It's different all the time," she said. As she wrote the songs for the second album, she found that she hated all but three — "Gonna Get Over You," "Hold My Heart" and "Breathe Again."

"I was just writing [expletive] songs that didn't mean anything; I felt no connection to them whatsoever," she said.

A friend suggested she try chronicling what was happening to her. Out of that frustration with her songwriting came "Uncharted," and it led her in the right direction.

"'Uncharted' was the song that really helped me feel connected to my writing process," she said. "I thought I was going to have to do a mishmash of old songs [for the second album] because of the writer's block, but once the wheels were turning, I was drawn to the new material."

She said she wrote the rest of the album in less than a month.

She made a surprising choice for album producer: Neal Avron, better known for his work on young pop-rock bands like Fall Out Boy and Plain White T's.

"I'm sort of stubborn," she said. "If there's going to be some kind of strangeness to a pairing, I'm all about that."

Bareilles said she's still trying to get used to the bigger stage, but her fans don't have to worry that she'll become a Gaga-Katy-Kesha clone.

"I'm never gonna be somebody who's gonna fall down from the sky on a trapeze," she said. "That's not me. I really want to make sure that my focus stays on connecting with the audience."



If you go

Sara Bareilles performs a sold-out show Sunday at Rams Head Live, 20 Market Place. Brooklyn trio Elizabeth and the Catapult will open. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.

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