NEW YORK — Feeling “lost” after Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election, Sara Bareilles found herself in a meditation class to help deal with the new American reality.
“I felt like the world was on fire and I didn’t have any tools to just cope with the idea that I was in a catastrophe,” she said. “It was just like apocalyptic for me.”
The one thing she could do? Write songs.
Her emotions, combined with navigating through an increasingly divided country, led to her latest album, “Amidst the Chaos.”
“For me the thing that always stays the most important is to feel that I’m being authentic and truthful in terms of what my messaging is,” Bareilles said. “And I think I’ve gotten less afraid.”
“Chaos,” released last month, marks her return to pop music after a nearly six-year hiatus. It follows 2013’s “The Blessed Unrest,” which boasted the successful single “Brave” and scored her a Grammy nomination for album of the year. During that gap, she wrote music for and later starred in the Broadway musical, “Waitress.” She’s earned two Tony Award nominations and released the theatre album, “What’s Inside: Songs from Waitress,” in 2015.
Bareilles said theatre “took over my whole life,” and she wanted to write music for herself again. That’s when she got in touch with iconic producer T Bone Burnett, who has won 13 Grammys and an Oscar.
“The algorithms may place her in more of a pop place with Katy Perry or something like that. (But) as an artist, as a songwriter, she’s much closer to Dylan,” Burnett said.
Labeling “Chaos” a political album, however, is fair — and unfair. It’s filled with camouflaged love songs like “No Such Thing” and “If I Can’t Have You.”
“Those are basically direct love songs to the Obamas, which I feel like at some point I’m gonna get a cease-and-desist because I’m such a fan-girl,” Bareilles said with a laugh. “I’m a proud believer in their messaging and their leadership and their grace. So I found that after the election, I was really heartbroken. I think a lot of people were.”
But don’t be confused — “Chaos” is not anti-Trump music as there are no mentions of the president by name on the project. Instead, it features Bareilles speaking out more than ever.
“I’m 39 now, I turn 40 this year,” she said. “When I look back on my life, I want to feel like I was outspoken for the things that really fall into my belief system and the causes and the people that I believe deserve advocacy. I really want to be someone who speaks up for them.”
She added with a sly smile, “If that’s upsetting — sorry, not sorry.”
The Bareilles-Burnett combo has been decades in the making, even if he was unaware. “He’s been on my bucket list my whole life,” she said. “Wrote letters to him when I was in my teens.”
Burnett helming the project gave her the opportunity to sit at a master’s footsteps. “I had a little journal with me and there were so many bits of wisdom. And every time T Bone would say something, it sounded like a freakin’ fortune cookie.”
But what might be surprising to Bareilles is that Burnett, 71, reciprocates the sentiment.
“I look at her as a teacher as well,” he said. “I’m almost twice as old as she is, so I can understand how I could slip into a teacher role. I’ve certainly had a lot of experience. She’s a smart person, and I have great respect for Sara.”
So much respect, he said her song “Orpheus,” a tune about being fearless and hopeful in a chaotic world, is “one of the best songs I’ve ever heard.”
The confidence Burnett stirred up gave Bareilles, who will launch a tour this fall, the freedom to try things she had never accomplished before. For instance, her song “Saint Honesty” was recorded in one take. Burnett said love made it possible.
“I just remember loving her and appreciating what she was doing,” he said. “And if you genuinely love the thing that you’re doing and the people you’re working with, it’s an easy job.”
Love is a concurrent theme pulsating through Bareilles’ music. While there are songs like “Armor,” birthed from her Women’s March participation, and “A Safe Place to Land,” a collaboration with frequent Trump-critic John Legend created when she and co-writer Lori McKenna saw footage of detained immigrant children last year, it’s still an album filled with stories from the heart.
“Love has always been my deepest motivator,” said Bareilles, who wrote the track “Poetry by Dead Men” about her boyfriend.
“I think that if there’s any one message that I believe is worth sending — it’s that to love and be loved this is the greatest gift.”
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Gary Gerard Hamilton, The Associated Press