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Sarah Dougher's Transformative Music

A conversation with one of America's most important singer/songwriters.

Interview Jenny Tatone Photography Jim McGinnis

"There's no other way I can get this feeling than when I write or when I'm playing. And when it's going well, I'm the happiest I can get — intellectually, emotionally and physically." — Sarah Dougher
8 January 2002 - Portland, OR.

If Sarah Dougher got any more down-to-earth she'd be buried in it. She's the type of person high-strung people like me are immediately drawn to, if only to breathe in the relaxed confidence she exhales. Seeming so comfortable with her place in the world, the Portland, Ore., folky post-punk singer/songwriter radiates a sense of ease that's delightful and, luckily for me, contagious.

Last January, I was happy to be infected by her essential mellowness at an artsy pizza joint in the "ghetto" — the closest thing my small hometown has to one, anyway — which the city currently claims to be "saving" through gentrification. And since such reform often breeds hip, urban environments, it makes sense that Dougher, a non-radical feminist ("I'm not a didactic feminist. I'm more of a descriptive feminist," she says) and intellectual who holds a Ph.D. in comparative literature, lives in this neighborhood on Portland's North Side. In fact, she rents one of the apartments occupying the second-story space near the restaurant where we met that chilly winter evening.

Sitting on a diner-style stool with her arms folded casually across the long bar in front of the wall-sized window, Dougher, 34, looks smart, simple and most of all oddly familiar. Draped by medium-length, choppy, straight brown hair, her fair complexion shines naturally as her oval-shaped face forms kind and thoughtful expressions. I just know I've met her somewhere before. But I haven't. The sensuality she exudes is the sort that only comes from within, and she has an alluring magnetism.

As she chats comfortably with me, seemingly holding back nothing, I get the feeling she's herself no matter who she's with. She knows she's unusually perceptive with her firm grasp on life's big issues, but would never consider it something to brag about. Nor would she cloak her sensibility in silly modesty; that would require pretending to be something she's not, and she's far too real for that.

Dressed simply, almost conservatively, in navy slacks and a thin tan sweater, she doesn't seem to subscribe to any particular hipster scene or retro movement; she's definitely her own person and seemingly could care less about being a member of some group. Although she's spent time as a member of The Crabs, with Sleater-Kinney/Quasi drummer Janet Weiss, and Cadallaca, with Corin Tucker (also of S-K), her loner individuality has brought her greatest success, as a solo artist.

Dougher has put out four full-length records, self-releasing her first cassette-only (now out of print) recording entitled Handmade Luck in '96. Her K Records debut, Day One, was released in '99; 2000's The Walls Ablaze was her first Mr. Lady Records release. Also on Mr. Lady is her latest raw, cleverly-written folk rock album, The Bluff, created with her musical partner John Nikki, who lives in San Francisco. It received a rave review from famed rock critic Greil Marcus in the New York Times and has garnered widespread, positive attention beyond her "wildest dreams," as she put it.

At the forefront of The Bluff is Dougher's intimate, low-voiced singing. An impassioned intensity comes through its quiet-loud transgressions, making the music feel so pleading, on the verge of breaking. Such heartfelt emotional exhaustion and soul give the album the power to move. Driven by a sense of personal closeness, the record feels as much inspired by country sensibility and folk storytelling as by post-punk's jagged sparseness and pop's can't-get-'em-out-of-your-head melodies. With its moods sometimes disturbed and angry, other times content and at ease, The Bluff finds Dougher earnest and experienced, intellectually motivated, poignant and, in the end, seemingly satisfied. It's as if she's come to terms with previous struggles, letting go of her worries and tossing them off the bluff. "But I know what the difference is/ Between my heart and my brain," she sings on "My Kingdom," with a sense of small revelation and reluctant acceptance. "And my heart wins just the same."

Slouching slightly and sipping at a pint of beer, she has no difficulty speaking coherently and at length about her music and herself as she provides unique, thinking-person's responses to my questions. Intermittently throughout our conversation, her eyes widen in bookworm-like fascination as she delves into philosophical subjects, such as how linguistics dictate behaviors and beliefs among cultures. "Bad lyrics, bad poetry simplify people's relationships to cultural ideas," she explains. "What I want to do is make it possible to create a way for lyrical music to connect people to worlds of ideas."

At another point in the interview, she leans in, frustration and resentment emerging as she discusses briefly international-scale capitalism's sexist consequences. "Poverty is so connected to the underachievement and under-representation of women across the board," Dougher says. "The reasons for poverty are so clear to me — capitalism, the institutionalization of capitalist culture.

"Sounds like I'm a fuckin' Marxist," she adds, laughing, acknowledging, as she did repeatedly throughout the evening, that her statements are broad and idealistic.

And later — as the second beer begins to vanish — her dry and quirky sense of humor kicks in, making me giggle and wonder which side of the line we're on: stupid or clever? "I have this idealistic vision of myself as this incredibly successful songwriter. Like, Shania Twain sings my songs and then meanwhile I'm writing albums based on Virginia Woolf," explains Dougher, waving her Woolf book entitled "Three Guineas" in the air and half-snickering about her dream to be a country songwriter behind the scenes in Nashville. "Just me playing the piano and sending off demos to the Dixie Chicks."

For now, she's writing powerful songs for herself. She's also working as a copywriter for a local design/studio magazine called Plazm, writing a book about sex in graphic design, and preparing to teach a two-quarter mythology sequence at Evergreen (a liberal arts college in Olympia, Wash.) next fall and winter. And, oh yeah, one other thing: touring in the U.S. and elsewhere. Phew.


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