In "Saint Honesty," for which Sara Bareilles won a Grammy for Best American Roots Performance in 2019, she sings the praises of rain on one's face, of it coming in through the windows: "How wild it was to find it/ to finally feel the climate/ instead of only staying dry and warm." And when she draws out the single syllable of "rain," spiraling up and away in her clear, steady mezzo-soprano, one wonders if a singer from anywhere but Humboldt could wring as much joy and relief from the word.
Bareilles lives in New York, where she shoots the musical comedy series Girls5eva, now in its second season, but she visits her family and friends in Eureka fairly often. Over the phone from Vancouver, Canada, where she's visiting boyfriend actor Joe Tippett on set, she talks about her return to Eureka for a free outdoor concert at Halvorsen Park on Oct. 16. It's a gig she's been wanting to play for years, a way to give back and celebrate the place and people she credits with inspiring and informing her music and writing, her character and the choices she's made in her career. "I just feel really called to come home and try to ... put on an event to really make the community happy," she says, "a little bright spot, a free concert."
At the age of 42, Bareilles has garnered eight Grammy nominations, two Tony nominations for the music she composed for the Broadway adaptation of Waitress and three Emmy nominations. She's duetted with Joni Mitchell and sang for the Obamas. But the first stages she sang, danced and acted on were in Eureka, where her mother Bonnie Halvorsen was active in local theater. In her bestselling 2015 memoir Sounds Like Me: My Life (So Far) in Song, Bareilles describes singing with her sisters Stacey and Jennifer in front of their fireplace as an ersatz stage for her mother and father Paul Bareilles, and later in school musicals and community theater productions. There she found her people and her place, reveling in the camaraderie of choirs and casts, and connection with the audience. She writes, "I felt powerful. And strong. And important. And beautiful. I was hooked."
Writing in her journal was another creative outlet and source of solace she turned to in childhood that continues to serve her personally and artistically. "The seeds of why I became a writer at all are all embedded in my life in Eureka," she says. She wrote about relationships, family, the overwhelming emotions of love and sorrow, adolescence and growing up — all territory she returned to in songwriting, including her formative first heartbreak that bloomed into the song "Gravity." She says, "All the seeds of my creative output kind of all root back to my time in Humboldt County ... the house I grew up in and the redwood forest around me."
As a self-described chubby kid, Bareilles says she was teased and bullied in elementary school at St. Bernard's. Along with pushing her toward her journal, it had a profound and lingering effect on her sense of self — particularly throughout her career in the public eye — something she's written about in Sounds Like Me and the song "Beautiful Girl." In that song, she sings as the voice of experience ("Baby, I've been there, too") to a girl who feels ugly and in the shadow of others, offering, "Let me remind you one more time that just maybe you're beautiful but you just can't see." Painful though it was, she says she's grateful the experience taught her empathy and the value of kindness. "It takes time to learn kindness," she says, noting she holds no grudges against her old classmates. "That period of my life really cemented the feeling in me that I do not want to be someone who makes anyone feel outcast," an ethos that's come to feed into her political voice since the 2016 election.
As a "humanist" who says she tends toward a "bleeding heart," Bareilles says she recognizes, "I'm in a very privileged position to have a platform. I try not to talk too much about shit I don't know about," but she's not afraid to express her opinions. "There's a lot of people who want to tell artists to 'Stay in your lane; don't have opinions.' I've been told to fuck off many times online. It's part of the nature of the beast right now."
Most troubling to her these days is the breakdown of communication between those with conflicting political views. "I come home to a community that is a very interesting dichotomy ... we run the spectrum of belief systems." This, she notes with a laugh, leads to some interesting conversations with family members. "I'm not coming home to stand on soapbox," she says, adding that she wants to focus on music, humanity and community. "But I'm not gonna apologize for the fact that there are things that really matter to me in the world. And if it comes up and I wanna talk about it, then I'm gonna talk about it."
It's a sentiment echoed in the gentle anthem "Brave," which she struggled with at first, afraid it was "too poppy" and a little tough to nail live (comforting news for those of us who've struggled to hit that high note in the car). Inspired by a friend's difficulty coming out, the song took on a life (and a hashtag) of its own as a theme for all sorts of people struggling with life, health, secrets and who they were. It also became Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign walk-up music, to which Bareilles, who endorsed Clinton, Tweeted an enthusiastic "YAAAAAAAAASSSSSSSSS."
Over the years, Bareilles has put her humanism where her mouth is. In 2011, in the aftermath of the massive earthquake and resulting tsunami in the Tohoku region of Japan, she and her bandmates on tour volunteered with a nonprofit organization called All Hands to help with cleanup in Ofunato, clearing gutters and taking down moldy walls. "The level of devastation was nothing I had ever seen in my life," she says. "But it was also incredible way to sort of see after disaster ... the silver lining is how humanity can show up for each other."
Eureka Mayor Susan Seaman says she's been impressed with how Bareilles has shown up for Eureka, too, citing the performer's donations of musical instruments to Eureka High School, scholarships for local girls to attend the nonprofit Girls with Impact Business Academy, gifting books to the Humboldt Literacy Project and funds in support of Betty Kwan Chinn Homeless Foundation and Humboldt Area Foundation. In fact, two days ahead of the Eureka concert, Bareilles will be playing the Masonic Auditorium in San Francisco in partnership with the Good Tidings Foundation, which raises money for music spaces and equipment for children.
Good Tidings Founder Larry Harper says he wanted to work with Bareilles partly because she's from Eureka, which he feels is often overlooked in terms of funding. At Bareilles' direction, proceeds from the Oct. 14 show in San Francisco will go to the cost of refurbishing the stage at the Boys and Girls Club of the Redwoods, as well as building a jam space and full recording studio (all with a local construction company), bringing in new furniture and equipment, and a mural by local artist Mir de Silva.
The concert in Halvorsen Park is no small favor, either. According to City Clerk Pam Powell, the cost for the show produced by Live Nation includes professional stage, lighting, crew, sound and security. But the city of Eureka only committed $25,000 to the cost of the stage, porta-potties and fencing, in addition to in-kind staffing help from the Adorni Center staff, Parks and Recreation and Economic Development, while Humboldt Bay Fire's fire marshal will do a safety check and the Eureka Police Department will assist with security outside the venue. Bareilles is covering the rest.
The capacity for the park is 11,000 people, but the cap is set at 8,000 for the show, for which hopeful attendees are already on the Eventbrite waiting list for free tickets, as people swept them up within hours of the announcement Tuesday, Sept. 20. Beer and wine sales will benefit local nonprofits and there will be informational tabling as well.
"The quality of it is far more than we expected," says Seaman, who says she initially thought, "OK, we'll put out a stage, she'll bring a piano." She laughs recalling the initial idea she had while on a walk with Journal contributor Linda Stansberry to honor Bareilles after her Grammy win. "I was gonna be happy with a Zoom." Instead, she reached out to Bareilles' mother, who carried a letter along on her next visit, starting a long conversation about what an event might look like. The result is a plan for a pro-level show, thanks to a large investment from the singer herself. "This just goes to show that her connection with our community is truly something. She must really love us."
Seaman has seen Bareilles live before — the first time as an ensemble player in a Ferndale Repertory Theatre production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat. Even as a kid, Seaman says, "She stood out." But, according to the mayor, her stage presence and awards aren't the only things that make Bareilles "a great representative for our community." She says, "For someone who has as many accolades as she does, she just feels very much like a hometown person." Seaman sees a small-town humility and authenticity in her. "She also is resilient; she talks about her struggles and how she's overcome them," including the depression and anxiety Bareilles has been forthright about in her book and interviews. "And she's strong. ... She's diversified [her career with acting, Broadway, composing and writing], she's not just a pop singer." To Seaman, strength and willingness to branch out, along with a little cussing now and again, are very Humboldt qualities.
Bareilles would seem to agree. "Humboldt County ... is part of why I'm scrappy and part of why I do it the way I wanna do it, and why I've been a tough cookie in my own way and forge my own path." She says she views the people here as "sensitive, tough and powerful ... We're all like the little guy." That Humboldt scrappiness came in handy, she says, when toting her 90-pound keyboard from gig to gig at the start of her career, playing anywhere and everywhere she could. It gave her the nerve to start her first tour with "no idea how to run it." And, as Seaman guessed, the Humboldt "woven into" her personality helped her take "a lot of left turns [from] tours and records to theater and writing a book, then TV, then acting." Bareilles feels her Humboldt upbringing gave her the guts to take risks, despite insecurity and outside voices, and in "the pursuit of a creative life. ... Being a young woman in a big industry, there's a lot of saying no."
When she visits home, Bareilles says she spends most of her time with family, taking nostalgic strolls through Old Town, stopping at Ramone's and Los Bagels, visiting Sequoia Park and marveling at the natural beauty she grew up with, even just along the drive from Eureka to Arcata. The Oct. 16 show will be a big production, but she hopes "we can just kick back and enjoy the beautiful place we all live in or came from and listen to music." It'll also be a wish fulfilled for her. "I'm coming home to share music and celebrate the community and really genuinely offer something that is out of my love for where I come from, for my family that lives there, for my friends, for the people that have impacted my life along the way, and just simply say, 'Thank you,' and 'I love you,'" she says.
Seaman has been looking ahead a little obsessively at the shifting weather forecast and hoping for dry weather. She's planning to have ponchos on hand. "We're a tough community," she says with a light chuckle. "I hope we all get out there and get wet if that's what it takes."
It hardly sounds like a little weather will put off the woman who sang so earnestly about the Baptism of rain on one's face, not when she has so much to say to the folks at home. "This is my language ... making music," Bareilles says. "So that's what we're gonna do is come back and make some music for people."
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill (she/her) is the arts and features editor at the Journal. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.Editor's note: This story has been updated from the print edition.