The past year has been something of a whirlwind for Sara Bareilles, but last Sunday was especially dizzying.
The unassuming pop singer-songwriter was on the red carpet at Los Angeles' Staples Center at the 51st annual Grammy Awards. She was up for two. Her smash, the catchy "Love Song," garnered nods for song of the year and best female pop vocal performance.
"I couldn't believe I was there," Bareilles says, still sounding awe-struck. "It was one of the best days of my life. It was such a special experience. You're looking around at all these artists and movie stars that have inspired you all your life."
But hit British acts Coldplay and Adele walked away with the gold gramophones.
"It would have been more amazing to get a Grammy," Bareilles says. "I was shocked to have been nominated."
The artist headlines a sold-out show at Rams Head Tavern in Annapolis tonight and tomorrow. Bareilles became an instant pop sensation after "Love Song" received prominent placement in a 2007 commercial for Rhapsody's availability on TiVo. In the memorable clip, Bareilles plays the song at a piano in the living room of a Rhapsody customer as he strolls around in a towel, getting ready for the day. The response to the commercial was immediate, as sales of her debut, Little Voice, doubled two weeks after the ad first aired.
The single also became a smash on iTunes, topping the digital sales charts and selling more than 2 million downloads. Little Voice has been certified gold. The Rhapsody spot was hugely instrumental in introducing Bareilles to a larger audience. But initially, the artist, 28, didn't think the ad would have much of an impact.
"I certainly didn't expect that commercial to connect the way it did," says Bareilles, who last week was calling from a tour stop in Nashville, Tenn. "It was an opportunity to connect. The idea trickled down from management. At first, I had trepidation because I'm sensitive about where my music is placed. But the way the commercial worked out - it was very natural. I was being myself, playing the piano."
The ad also helped sell Bareilles' ingratiating, slightly geeky image. Her sound (a solid fit in the adult contemporary female singer-songwriter mold; think Sarah McLachlan and Fiona Apple) isn't daring. She covers very familiar lyrical terrain: the ups and downs of falling in and out of love. She doesn't possess McLachlan's poetic touch or Apple's needling sense of humor. But Bareilles is warmly soulful. Her vocal range is expansive, her style unforced and conversational. Songs such as "Fairytale" and "Gravity," standouts on Little Voice, show a gift for metaphor. The arrangements on the debut, which were overseen by Eric Ivan Rosse, are polished and driven by Bareilles' smart approach.
With the album, "I wanted people to hear that I was honest," she says. "Nothing makes it past my keyboard in my bedroom unless I feel it's honest."
Growing up in Eureka, Calif., Bareilles immersed herself in music.
"I started playing piano when I was 6," she says. "My piano teacher was sweet, but I hated piano lessons. On my own, I'd spend hours on the piano."
She taught herself complex songs and early on showed an affinity for musicals. Andrew Lloyd Webber was a favorite.
"The songs in musicals tell a story and form a character's perspective," Bareilles says. "I learned to tell stories from those songs. That's such a big part of what I do."
While a communications major at the University of California, Los Angeles, the artist seriously considered a career in music. After graduating, she spent the next three years performing her songs at open-mic nights in venues in and around Los Angeles. In 2003, she co-produced her indie release, Careful Confessions. She soon started shopping her CD around and signed a deal with Epic Records in spring 2005. Bareilles then hooked up with producer Rosse, and the two started reworking songs from Careful Confessions and writing a batch of new tunes. The result was Little Voice, which hit stores in summer 2007.
About the time the Rhapsody commercial caught on, Bareilles was on the road, opening for acts such as Maroon 5. Now, she's packing a string of small and medium-sized venues under her own name.
But Bareilles still feels the need to pinch herself, especially after the glitz of the Grammys.
"I still have this feeling like I don't belong," she says. "My process of songwriting doesn't change, but I've gone through new experiences. So what I write about may change. I still don't want to think about how radio will receive a song. I want to focus on my relationship with a song. I want to honor the heartbeat of this whole thing - what keeps me going."