Interview with vocal quartet säje (Sara Gazarek, Amanda Taylor, Johnaye Kendrick & Erin Bentlage)

Suffice to say, there has not been a lot of live music of late. However, online portals have been flooded with live streams, video premieres, and more. So much so, that navigating online musical offerings can be like wading through a trough of jewels in search of those gems that shine impossibly brightly. One such gem is the new vocal quartet, säje (rhymes with “beige”). Founded by American vocalists, arrangers and all-round stellar musicians, Sara Gazarek, Amanda Taylor, Johnaye Kendrick and Erin Bentlage, the group had already planted musical roots when the pandemic hit. It has been a joy to hear more of their creative output during an otherwise unrestful and dull year! Nicky Schrire, for LJN, spoke to the vocal quartet:

säje: (from left) Amanda Taylor, Sara Gazarek, Johnaye Kendrick, Erin Bentlage. Publicity photo

LondonJazz News: Hello säje! For those who aren’t (yet) familiar with your ensemble and music, what was the motivation for forming this vocal quartet? 

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Amanda Taylor: The seeds for säje were planted back in Fall of 2018. At the time, I was a member of vocal group Groove for Thought, a Seattle-based jazz ensemble composed (mostly) of music teachers. Groove hosts an annual festival for scholastic vocal jazz groups, as well as special solo artists who come to inspire our young festival attendees. Sara Gazarek was one of those solo artists and after a performance, she pulled me aside and excitedly tossed out the idea of a female vocal group.

I was thrilled at the idea of experiencing vocal group music in a more collaborative space. We decided to reach out to our mutual friend and unparalleled musician, Erin Bentlage. Once we knew Erin was on board with the idea, Sara mentioned the group to a friend of hers and another incredible artist, Johnaye Kendrick. At this point, it really felt like the stars had aligned, and we simply had to see where this road might take us.

LJN: Were there aspects of existing vocal groups that you wanted to emulate and, similarly, were there traits of the vocal ensemble tradition that you felt needed amending and that you hoped to cultivate and experience yourselves? 

Erin Bentlage: When we first began dreaming up our repertoire wishlist (before we’d even sung together!), we quickly realised that while we all felt connected to the ‘vocal group’ tradition in our own individual ways, we were more affected by emotion and the human experience expressed through music than we were by the instrumentation of the group per se. We were drawn to artists like Laura Mvula, Becca Stevens, Björk, or Maria Schneider rather than vocal groups that came before.

We knew that we wanted to write and/or arrange all of our own music and to create space for the female-identifying voice to express herself entirely in all its forms – tender, angry, reverent, broken, and the list goes on – without apology or compromise. As we began to share our music, we realized we were musically addressing, consciously or subconsciously, the balance and acceptance of the female voice in a context where it had not been previously predominant.

LJN: The pandemic put the kibosh on live performing and I’d imagine you were on the cusp of building upon your first live performances at JEN, Seattle’s Blues Alley and Sam First in Los Angeles. What were your immediate thoughts and discussions in terms of how this would effect your desired trajectory for säje?

Johnaye Kendrick: As our first few cancellations rolled in, we remained optimistic, but once everything was cancelled for the year we rallied together. We have all learned a great deal along the way, from composing, arranging, recording and learning new material to meeting weekly to discuss progress and making future plans.

It has been challenging to remain motivated from time to time but our creative output over the past year is due to everyone’s commitment to the group and our music.

LJN: You’ve used the Patreon platform to further cultivate a following and repartee with your listeners. Do you think you would’ve joined Patreon if not for the pandemic? How has your experience been on the platform and how has it influenced your musical output and work?

Sara Gazarek: Like many musicians who found themselves gigless/tourless for the foreseeable future, we ultimately just wanted to have a reason to create new content, and connect with friends and fans in the ways that we were previously experiencing in live performances. I don’t think we would have picked up a Patreon account otherwise, but being able to interact with fans who have chosen to be there with us, and support us in a monetary way is incredibly special.

We’ve released a number of very special demos and engaged our patrons in a recording project, as the choir for our version of India.Arie’s I Am Light. We also love to host sundäys with säje hangouts with our patrons.

LJN: What are your upcoming säje plans? When will we get that full-length album?! 

Sara Gazarek: One of our current goals is to arrange and record a new song each month – in the hopes that we’ll have a bank of songs and arrangements to choose from when we’re finally ready to make an album. It’s been fun to develop our vision, with the first album as an end goal. Having the chance to try new material out, develop our recording and video editing chops, and cultivate our sound and our vision (with the help of our fans and patrons) is a gift!


LINKS: säje’s website 

Nicky Schrire is filing occasional features under the label Canada Calling. The first one is here.

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