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Q+A With LEAF Singer-Songwriter Competition Finalist Sadie Gustafson-Zook

April 29th, 2022

Sadie Gustafson-Zook is a versatile singer, intricate guitar player, and contagious songwriter. Her pure voice and hummable melodies balance with witty lyrics to create charmingly honest and relatable music. Indiana-grown, Boston-nurtured, and Nashville-based, Sadie has brought her lovable stories and songs to audiences across the country, in homes, churches, and renowned folk venues and festivals across the country, including Club Passim, The Purple Fiddle, Walnut Valley Festival, Red Wing Roots, and more. Sadie is a two-time Kerrville New Folk finalist, has been featured on the Folk Alley and the Basic Folk podcast, and holds a master’s degree in Jazz and Contemporary Music from Longy School of Music in Cambridge, MA. On her new album “Sin of Certainty,” Sadie explores the process of questioning all that she had taken for granted, through finding a new community in the roots scene of Boston, studying jazz, and coming out as queer.

NewSong Music: What inspired you to enter the NewSong Contest?
Sadie: I have had a number of friends who have done well in this competition and it seems like NewSong treats the winners super well, especially in terms of continued publicity, and so that was a major factor that made the NewSong contest seem appealing. 
What was your introduction to music?
My parents are both musicians so I was kind of indoctrinated into a family band at the age of 6 (once I had been playing violin for two years), but music has generally been around me for my whole life. 
What is the first song you wrote that you were proud of, and why?
In 5th grade I wrote my first official song called “My Tears Are Melting Away,” which described an incident on the playground in which my crush was taken to the hospital in an ambulance, and I felt so many feelings about it, so I wrote those feelings into a song. I was proud of it because it was my first fully formed song that was more than a ditty, and it was a really helpful way for me to express my emotions (however dramatic they were as a 12 year old in love lol). 
What instrument do you play, and why?
I’d consider myself a multi-instrumentalist, but for songwriting I’ve found guitar to be my chosen instrument. I love (and hate) how complicated and versatile the guitar can be. Even though I started playing when I was 12 I never run out of new things to learn! I also have been working on banjo and grew up playing stringed instruments. 
How did the pandemic impact you as an artist (for better or worse)?
I went through many different phases in the pandemic as it relates to my artistry. I started off with a lot of momentum, running a kickstarter, and practicing for hours every day (though I could only do covers- for whatever reason I was pretty much unable to write for a large chunk of the pandemic). Then I kind of got into a slump where I wasn’t making much music at all. Around this time I also got a remote part-time job (in addition to teaching voice/guitar lessons over zoom), which took a lot of the pressure off of music to pay my bills. I think was a very positive thing that allowed me to start creating music again without the added stress of “I should be booking.” That being said, I felt really removed from music for a long time and I wasn’t sure what my future would look like. Between 2020-2021 I was also recording an album (in chunks) which felt like a really distinct detour from my normal pandemic life (and a reference to my pre-pandemic life). It was a really welcome reminder that I am a musician and I am skilled, but it also felt pretty surreal to travel to NYC, record, have this whole very musical experience, and then come back home to my slow indoor life. 

Does the place where you grew up inspire you as an artist? If so, in what way?
I grew up in a liberal Mennonite community in Indiana, and there was a huge emphasis on the importance of being of service to other people, which I think was confusing to me for a long time as it related to my songwriting. I found myself feeling like I wasn’t doing a good job unless I had a really tangibly service-oriented profession (like being a teacher or social worker, etc). But as I’ve grown up a bit and lived outside of my hometown I’ve found that my songs are actually quite helpful to a lot of people, and that devaluing their power is a disservice to my artistry. So I suppose I keep that in the back of my mind when I write songs now– the acknowledgement that simply by sharing my own experience I can help someone else feel more heard and understood, which is a really important job! 
In what ways does the craft of songwriting still surprise you?
It’s so easy to fall into a pattern of how I write music, and the more I write, the more clearly I can see what my tendencies are. Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of music and writing a lot, and it’s been a joy to notice interesting things that other songwriters do in their work, and to experiment with ways that I can incorporate those ideas in my songs. So I guess it’s just surprising that it’s such a unique process and there are so many ways to write a song!
What are some of your creative goals for this year?
I recently moved to Nashville, and since arriving I’ve found myself really digging into my creative pursuits (in all mediums). I’ve gotten really into print-making and embroidery, I’ve been digging into arranging my room, I’ve been spilling out songs (and keeping track of what I’ve written so even if it’s not a keeper, I still have record of my work), and I started the year strong with morning pages (freewriting 3 pages each morning- an idea from the book The Artist’s Way), which I’m hoping to recommit to soon. In addition to prioritizing these more solitary creative pursuits, I want to work with other people more, maybe make a band (especially since I now live around so many musicians) and play music with my friends!