Sara Brimer is a soprano and the token American with the world-renowned Swingle Singers. The first and only Tennessean to sing with the long-established group, she studied music education at East Tennessee University, where she performed leading roles in operas such as Le Nozze di Figaro, Pirates of Penzance, and La Divina, and supporting roles in Carmen, Dido, and Aeneas. Sara has also performed leading roles in multiple musical theater productions, and she joined The Swingle Singers in 2009.
Sara, I know you guys are busy right now and we really appreciate you taking the time to answer a few questions. Now, you guys made the ambitious decision to release two full-length albums in the span of a year as part of the celebration for the group’s 50th anniversary. What different things were you looking to achieve with each album?
The first album, “Weather to Fly,” started off as a collection of recent music we’ve been doing that people kept asking for. It’s turned into something of a stepping stone for the album coming up in 2014. We are so proud of “Weather to Fly” and Bill [Hare] and Erik [Bosio] did such a phenomenal job, we really view it as a perfect set up for the next album.
For “Weather to Fly,” the group worked with well-known a cappella producers like Bill and Erik, but for the upcoming anniversary album you’re working with someone more experienced in pop music and less so in a cappella music. How different is the process, and how do you think it is affecting the group’s decisions for the album and perhaps even in concert (if at all)?
A cappella music is so brilliantly niche and focused yet for those exact reasons it does present some drawbacks sometimes. The process has been really enlightening for us, just working with someone new is eye-opening but when their expertise is not in your genre it’s even more so. We’ve had to decide what works best for us as a team of people trying to produce something groundbreaking. Groundbreaking not just in the a cappella world and that is a daunting task some days. It’s made us consider as a real possibility what we as creative people want to hear, not just what is expected of us.
In the past few months, you guys have been in Sweden, the United States, the Philippines, Poland, Belgium, Italy, and of course the UK. Where have you not been yet that you’d like to perform?
I personally would really like to perform in Australia. I’d also like to do more in South America, places like Argentina and Mexico.
You guys have performed at a number of a cappella festivals around the world. How do you find the audiences at these festivals to be different from your typical audiences?
They get it. You walk on that stage and you are so nervous because everything you do is under Super-scrutiny but at the same time you feel that this audience is holding you up, supporting you no matter what. It’s a fantastic feeling of family and community. A typical audience can be wonderful and so attentive but there will still be some people who walk away not understanding what happened.
With such a long and storied history, does the current group have any relationship with some of the earliest members?
We are still in regular contact with our founder, Ward Swingle. We are great friends with many of the past members, we find ourselves surrounded quite often in the session singing world. You are almost guaranteed to have an ex-Swingle or two or 15 doing music for films and advertisements. It’s pretty cool to be pals with people who have done your job in the past.
As part of this 50th anniversary, have you guys gone back to look at some of the old performances, albums, photos, etc.? If so, did anything surprise or impress you?
Yes, we’ve actually been pretty nostalgic during this whole process, while still looking forward and moving on. Because it is the 50th, people seem to be coming out of the woodwork with old albums and records to show us old photos of the group. It’s really incredible to linked to this kind of magnitude of a history.
You are a classically trained vocalist. What was it like for you being on the stage performing at La Scala?
I will say that I bragged quite heavily to my sister who is actually becoming a successful opera singer. I made it to La Scala first!! I know she will be there one day and in quite a more appropriate role for La Scala. It was a chance of a lifetime and I was totally dumbstruck to be honest. You can sense the people who have sung there previously and the weight of their professional careers. I felt really out of place but also right where I belonged in a funny way.
With such a broad range of styles, the Swingle Singers are probably the most versatile group performing a cappella music today. How do you as a group (or you individually) choose new songs?
We try it out. If something has potential, if the majority of the group like an idea or a song, then we’ll give it a go. There have been songs we’ve arranged or written that filled a purpose for that time and place and then directly afterwards we chucked it in the bin! Sometimes it only takes on person to dislike performing a song and that is enough for us to get rid of it. The important thing I think is that we tried it. How do you know you like a certain type of food or not unless you try it? Music can surprise you, if you don’t try new stuff you don’t allow yourself much room for surprises. If someone has an idea or a song they’d like to try we listen to it and the ideas behind it, decide if it might have a place alongside our other songs and if it might then we try it. What is it about a piece that draws you to it, that makes you listen to it over and over again, can you create that too? What’s keeping you from trying?
This is just a small fraction of the questions I’d love to ask you, but we have to leave something for the workshops at SoJam. Thank you for taking the time, and we look forward to seeing you guys in North Carolina next week!