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Newark Life

The introverted fury of Sarah Koon

Oct 07, 2019 02:41PM ● By J. Chambless

Koon and her band perform regularly at venues throughout Delaware.

By Richard L. Gaw
Staff Writer

For most of her childhood in Newark, Sarah Koon was home-schooled, but in the third grade, she attended a small public school, and one day, she learned that the school was about to host a fine arts fair, where every student was required to recite a poem in front of the entire student population.

Koon was terrified about the prospect of having to put herself front and center, and her anxiety got the attention of her teacher, who told her that she didn’t have to get up on the stage if she didn’t want to. Koon, however, refused to sit it out, and on the day of the fair, she walked onto the stage and saw row after row of faces staring up at her, in anticipation.

She opened her mouth and began to recite a poem she had memorized about Molly Pitcher, an American legend who was said to have participated in the Battle of Monmouth during the Revolutionary War. The third-grader faced down her fears, delivered her poem, and politely walked off the stage to generous applause.

In a sense, the creative life of Sarah Koon has been an exact and mirrored image of that day, ever since.

“I have always wanted to challenge myself, to put myself in positions that are uncomfortable me, and into areas where I don’t feel comfortable,” Koon said recently at the Queen Theater in Wilmington. “And I still feel that. That is not to say that I have no fear, but it’s become the spirit of life in me.”

From the time she returned to her native Delaware in 2012 after several years in Los Angeles pursuing a career in acting, Koon – either as a solo performer or as the leader of the Sarah Koon Band – has used her music as a tributary for a creative life that has included theater, classical training as a pianist, and her love of performance. Her songwriting style is a generous embrace of her life’s experiences, and when melded with other musicians, her songs become a cinematic outburst of swirling moods and transitions.

Her lyrics have been called reminiscent of Kate Bush with heaping helpings of quirkiness tossed in, a la Joanna Newsom, and her live performances at clubs and outdoor shows in Delaware and Philadelphia are a lyrical and musical bloodletting of emotions.

In the past seven years, she has released three CDS: After Shocks, Thoughts and Mathematics in 2013; This Kind of Education in 2014; and Sitting Standing in 2016 – all of which showcase her talents both as a composer and writer.

“I never force myself to write a song,” Koon said. “A lot of musicians I know dedicate a particular time every day to write, and although I am constantly improvising and creating compositions, I need to be inspired to write. Most of my songs come out of my situations in my life. Someone told me they saw a show of mine and said that this concert was a musical theater piece on my life.”

The Newark house that Sarah Koon and her siblings were raised in reverberated with classical music and hymnals and other genres, and all of it was met halfway by the presence of great literature that was an arm’s reach away. As a child, she took piano lessons, attended music camps and memorized monologues from Shakespeare’s plays. All of it, she said, was pursued in order to fill the unquenchable well that she felt growing inside of her, one that consumed music, art and literature as the necessary sustenance to survive.

“Being home-schooled for the majority of my childhood, I didn’t have a lot of influences that one usually receives in a traditional school, so if something was really nerdy I didn’t know that and I just went for it,” she said. “If I had been in public school, I would have been pressured to do the cool thing, but because I was home-schooled, I was able to live in my own world.

“I loved the feeling of being mentally stimulated, and needing to escape into that. I definitely felt connected to that time period and its aesthetics, its rhythms, its emotions and its expressions. A lot of my life centered around home, and I had a piano there.”

Throughout her teenage years, Koon juggled her classical piano training – which included performing at competitions, recitals and festivals – with her growing love of acting. After graduating with a B.A. in Theater Art from Lee University in Tennessee, she spent her early adult years focusing on theater and film performance as an actress. For the next five years, she lived in Los Angeles, at a time when unemployment in the city had reached 40 percent and a writer’s strike that shut down a lot of television and film production for a portion of the time she was there.

While she navigated through the humility of cattle call auditions (“I would walk into an audition and see fifty women who looked exactly like me”), Koon emptied her restless creativity elsewhere in Los Angeles. She joined Americorps, where she worked at homeless centers and created literacy programs and English-As-A-Second Language workshops.

While the door she pursued on the West Coast never fully opened for Koon, another door reopened on the other side of the country and welcomed her back home. In 2012, she returned to Delaware, and very quickly, the move set her on a track that has combined her creative passions and her work in the non-profit world. She took a job with Literacy Delaware, and then at New Start, where she started as a program coordinator and later became the executive director.

At the same time, she began to write her own music, which led to composing, recording and producing experimental music that was featured on After Shocks. On her Bandcamp page at that time, she wrote that she had been writing songs “in fits of introverted fury in my bedroom for years.”

“It was at that point when I felt very fresh with music, and I wanted to begin to tie everything together,” she said. “I began to experiment with other people’s music, but I began to feel that I wasn’t being able to put my full self into it. Writing my own music was a jump for me and it took me some time to find my voice and style and how to take this classical technique and begin to make it my own.”

Soon, the music Koon was producing on her own dovetailed with the contacts she was beginning to make in the local music circuit. She took a part-time position at the Queen’s box office, which gave her unlimited access to dozens of musicians. They shared music. They jammed together. They commiserated. They supported each other.

In addition to her two follow-up CDs, Koon formed the Sarah Koon Band with drummer Paul Ramsey and bassist Jacque Varsalona, and guitarist Sam Nobles, and in recent years, has played in several venues, including The Oddity Bar, The Queen, Argilla Brewing Company, Theatre N in Wilmington, Bourbon and Branch in Philadelphia and several outdoor festivals.

“I come on stage now with a presence and a purpose, and there is a story behind each show,” Koon said. “I feel my background as an actress informs everything I do now with music.”

Koon’s music has caught the attention of not only audiences, but musicians who perform regularly on the local circuit. Chris Malinowski, the lead singer and songwriter of The Collingwood, has been performing on bills with Koon for several years.

“What draws me to Sarah's music is the naked honesty and the manic cosmos therein,” Malinowski said. “I love her interweaving of delicate, fierce, inquisitive piano lines with her simple lyrical phrases, the subtext of which are rife with ultra-complicated feelings and behaviors. 

“Sarah is not playing cute for anyone. There are no power chords here or fancy, ironic indie rock dress codes. Sarah is a writer/musician of the most visceral ilk.”

“Sarah’s music is challenging and aggressive,” said Varsalona, who has been performing with Koon for the past year. “Her songs take you on a wild ride, both as a listener and a player. She presents an interesting contrast between classically arranged poise and aggressive, in-your-face bombastic-ness. She’ll give you a break for a minute, but hang on because there are some crazy twists and turns coming up ahead. She keeps you guessing.”

While music is the comforting convergence of Koon’s many influences, she is also blessed with another avenue to share these gifts. Last November, she was named the executive director at the Light Up the Queen Foundation (LUQ), a Delaware-based organization whose mission is to inspire others through high-quality programs in arts, education, workforce development and mentoring. Along the way, LUQ ensures that the Queen Theater remains a “community clubhouse” to engage the entire community through live music.

Of the many programs happening with LUQ, Koon is particularly fond of Smart Arts!, presented at the Queen Theater, that invites children from underfunded schools to experience cost-free, education-based musical performances by visiting musicians. As many as 250 young people attend each performance.

“We partner with dozens of musicians, teachers, school administrators and others within our community to create programs that reach those with the greatest need,” she said. “Ultimately, we hope to provide a foundation of music that fosters long term interest, appreciation, and learning in the arts.”

“Programs like this have proven to cultivate a child’s educational pathway. By exposing them to music at a young age, it accelerates brain development, particularly in the areas of language, math and reading, as well as stimulates their intellectual, social and emotional growth, their memory skills and their overall literacy.”

Currently, Koon is working on what will be her fourth CD – Problematica -- a project that’s been in the works for the past two years and is tentatively scheduled for a winter release. She’s working with fellow musicians Nobles, Varsalano and Ramsey, as well as Brian Bard, Melissa Forsyth, Mike Glessner and Harmony Mooney.

“I am working on eight songs for the CD now, and they’re all taken directly from my life,” she said. “A lot of these songs are the beginning of putting to bed some of life’s struggles that we all have, and it’s filled with an entire prism of emotions.”

In palaeontology, research can unearth stories that provide a glimpse of what life was like millions and billions of years ago: the colors of animals, the last meal consumed or the depth at which a marine organism may have lived in the ocean. Yet, within this research lay unexplainable phenomenon that defy classification and bear no resemblance to any other known form of life. They are misfits. They cannot be easily caged into a definition.

They’re called Problematica.

Throughout her musical journey, Sarah Koon has side-stepped the easy comparisons and the pigeon-hole definitions that too often are applied to music and genres and artists. In a musical sense, she has become that mysterious thing, poking its veritable originality into the coagulation of discovery, pulling every influence along that she’s ever had in her life. 

She’s still the child fighting through her fear and getting on a stage.

“When I was an actress, or when I was memorizing Shakespeare, I could disappear into a character,” she said. “I was always someone else, but now, I’m Sarah Koon and this is the Sarah Koon Band and it’s me and my life and the inner workings of my brain that come out in my songs. It’s much more personal and more vulnerable as well. I am playing piano and singing at the same time. It’s much harder than acting, but it was destined to be and I couldn’t get away from it.

“I am compelled to create music. I have to. It will always be an element in my life.”

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email rgaw@chestercounty.com

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