First, forget everything you know about Sarah Rudinoff. If you're an ordinary Seattle music fan, that should be easy. Aside from a brief slot supporting Miranda July at Neumo's in May, Rudinoff's forays into familiar rock stomping grounds have been few.
For members of the theater community, the task is tougher. The recipient of the 2004 Stranger Genius Award for theater, the actress has won raves for her flawless timing, and signature blend of bravura and vulnerability. Then there's her singing voice, which benefits from both of the aforementioned assets, as well as its distinctive low register and sheer oomph. Time and again—in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the Leiber and Stoller revue Smokey Joe's Cafe—she's proven her versatile musical chops, fusing elements of rock, blues, and jazz. For her 2006 Theatre Off Jackson cabaret, Last Year's Kisses, she put her indelible stamp on material associated with Jeff Buckley, the Gits, Roberta Flack, even Sonny and Cher. Most recently, Seattle Magazine found its way to Rudinoff, crowing in its 2007 Music Portfolio that "her big brassy vocals sound like they were soaked in Jack Daniels." Cliché, sure, but her inclusion alongside jazz great Ernestine Anderson as one of "Two Women with Pipes to Die For" reflects the growing interest in Rudinoff's vocal talents.
Now, after years of finding herself in other people's songs, Rudinoff has begun searching for songs in herself. Words and music by Sarah Rudinoff, written and performed with collaborator Gretta Harley.
"I never had a band before," admits Rudinoff. "Hedwig was my first experience playing with a real rock band, not theater people who kind of play music." Last Year's Kisses, which featured pianist/guitarist Harley as musical director, Gina Mainwal (Sweet 75) on drums, and Nancy Wharton (Walkabouts, Laura Veirs) on bass and cello, further stoked Rudinoff's desire to make music outside her usual beat.
The final push came when she sang at the closing of the Mirabeau Room last fall. "That show was magical for me," she says. "I woke up the next morning and cried for two hours."
"You do theater, and people like it and they get something from it," she continues. But compared to the feedback of a live club audience? Ha. "Music is so direct and emotional." That September night, well-wishers—both speechless and babbling—got up in her face; the next day, e-mail continued flowing in. Voilà, the light-bulb moment! "Why haven't I pursued this?" she mused. "I have to figure out a way to make music primary for me. Period."
Sean Nelson—singer, songwriter, Stranger alumnus, and Rudinoff fan—saw the Mirabeau gig and talked with her immediately afterward. The obstacle she faced, as he saw it, wasn't her reputation but her repertoire: material from Hedwig and other covers.
"That sort of thing is what all her friends already expect from her, the Sarah shtick," Nelson says. "She's plainly bored with filling that expectation, so my thought was, why not confound it?"
So what if her cachet at On the Boards doesn't immediately translate to the Crocodile? "Rather than being discouraged by that, she should be emboldened," Nelson adds. "She doesn't have to be the theater version of herself. She can create a new version." Music offers a chance of a rebirth of sorts for Rudinoff. To accomplish it, original songs are essential.
The actress is innately musical. She frequently bursts into song to illustrate her points, and discusses Joni Mitchell with the same reverence and ardor adolescent boys devote to sex. But she can't read music and has no background in theory. Which is where Harley—a veteran of local bands including Maxi Badd, Danger Gens, and Eyefulls—complements her. Versatile on piano and guitar and boasting a degree in composition from Cornish, the dark-haired rocker has proven an ideal foil. In addition to Mitchell, their musical points of intersection include Pixies, Prince, and Frank Zappa.
The duo spent this summer woodshedding and hammering ideas into finished songs. At Harley's insistence, and despite hectic schedules, they met two or three times a week. "Even if it was just for an hour," says Harley. "[Writing] was constantly on our minds that way."
So far, they have a handful of finished works. Their rate of progress varies, depending on whose perspective you get.
"The first time we got together, Sarah said, 'Here are some lyrics,'" remembers Harley. Rudinoff sang a chunk of a melody, and she elaborated on it. "I sat down at the piano, and an hour later, we had about half of a song, with chords and harmonies. And Sarah said, 'God, songwriting takes a long time.' After an hour. I thought we were kicking ass!"
They are. After performing the show-stopping "Just Every Fisher's Folly" as part of the You're on the List program at Bumbershoot a few weeks ago, Rudinoff was once again deluged by e-mails and text messages of encouragement.
Nelson caught an earlier airing of one of the Rudinoff/Harley songs at the Miranda July appearance, and was similarly impressed. "Though she was plainly super-nervous, it went great," he says. "There was a lot of her in [the song]: very frank, very coarse, but very tender. And the audience ate it up. It seemed to bode well for the future."
The future includes making a demo, and, more importantly, nailing down a band moniker. "As far as that is concerned, the big thing is defining myself outside of my name," Rudinoff says. "We're going to play throughout the winter and spring under whatever name we come up with and we're going to create our own thing." She is confident that people will find the music, regardless of billing. "There will be some who've already seen my shows that have had music in them, and there will be new people," she says.
Another audience to learn—and unlearn—all about Sarah Rudinoff.