For Sarah Dooley, doing stupid things has been a genius move. The winsome young artist became a YouTube sensation in 2008 when she created And Sarah, a comic webseries centered around the college misadventures of her fictionalized, severely-but-lovably awkward alter ego (think The Office's Michael Scott as a 20-year-old girl). Now with the release of her debut album -- actually entitled Stupid Things -- Dooley's star is on the rise in a whole new way as she proves the ungainliness of young adult life is not just funny, but also poignantly beautiful.
"When people say 'growing up,' they usually mean when you're a child," Dooley says. "But I don't think I grew up until I turned eighteen. That was the time of the most change and transformation."
That's also when Sarah, an Indiana native, moved to New York to attend Barnard College. She quickly found her niche in the theatre department playing zany but vulnerable characters, which cemented in the personality of her wacky webseries protagonist.
A lot of And Sarah comes from such a real place, but I was writing out these scenarios that would only occur if I did everything I was afraid I would do in my mind. As an anxious person going into a situation you're like, "How many ways could I potentially wreck this?" And you're so scared of that but you don't ever do it. And Sarah was me if I actually did crazy things and said stupid stuff all day long.
Dooley combines brassy comedy with such an optimistic earnestness that you just want to hug her, or at least cringe while patting her on the back (see the promotional teasers for Stupid Things). Like a Carol Burnett for the millennial generation, she's a versatile master of heartfelt outrageousness -- a blithe spirit reconciling girlish excitement with womanly experience... through song!
Stupid Things definitely celebrates the transition between childhood and adulthood; its delightfully infectious tracks reference such adolescent hallmarks as clumsy middle-school dances ("Gym Looks Nice"), painful unrequited crushes ("Peonies"), and the brash cheerfulness of youth who have no idea where they're going but are determined to enjoy the ride ("Teenage Elegance"). Dooley's enchanting voice navigates these bumpy transformational roads as if they were dramatic monologues, every note swelled with tangible joy or despair or, most often, wistfulness. There is remarkable nuance in her nostalgia, an overarching search for fulfillment and meaning that belies Dooley's chipper pop style, making her eminently relatable.
Sarah agrees that introspective observation comes naturally to her:
For some reason I'm really drawn to that reflective state. I always wanted to be a writer; I've always kept a journal. That's been my main, most consistent form of writing. It added a whole new level to the way I watched the world, because all of a sudden I was observing things to record and reflect on later.
But while authorship was a lifelong ambition, Dooley affirms, music didn't become a passion until high school.
I'd taken piano lessons for years, but hearing Fiona Apple's Extraordinary Machine was the catalyst for writing music. You can tell she's just lost in the emotions of her songs. I wanted so badly to create and express the way she does on that album that it started a fire in me.
Songs like "I Shook Hands With the Devil" and "I Want You to Wonder" seethe with such lyrical fire that it's a surprise when Dooley confesses most of her songs are written by "noodling around" on the piano and improvising the melody first.
It's such a mystery to me when it comes out, but I just love chasing the unconscious. It's almost like charming a snake or saying the right spell to make the magic come through. If I sat down to actually write the lyrics first, it would not happen. I can't give myself an assignment. So I think what the improvising does is kind of tease out random ideas until something interests me... I do like treating songs like short stories. Three minutes is such a fun amount of time in which to tell a story in, and it's a challenge but so delightful to find the arc and then have a turn at the end. I love a good twist.
In Stupid Things Sarah's three-minute stories almost never turn out to be what they seem. The title track starts as a salute to youthful indiscretion ("You're allowed to do stupid things when you're young/People look the other way, it's okay"), but quickly becomes a tongue-in-cheek admonishment to the perpetually irresponsible ("Hey there mister policeman, I'm young, you can't arrest me!/Oh, that didn't work?"). "Willow Tree" is a deceptively simple standout, a bittersweet lament about adult desires replacing childish dreams; it glides atop the angsty and profound but also veers into darkly funny territory ("Peter Pan is all grown up, he's a dentist in downtown Chicago/And the Tooth Fairy OD'ed on noxious fumes").
The album is also a testament to what a few "passionate kids with vision" can do. Not only is Stupid Things a first for Dooley, it was also one for her producer Matthew Star -- his senior thesis project in Music Production at Columbia University. Star, also a composer, arranged Dooley's songs, recruiting fellow undergraduates Solomon Hoffman and Evan Johnston for additional help. The album's backing instrumentations are ridiculously gorgeous; the recordings, done entirely on campus, contain the equivalent of a full student orchestra. Even the music video for "Peonies" was filmed mostly at Columbia, directed by Sarah's friend and recent Wesleyan grad Conor Byrne.
"This was a once in a lifetime opportunity," Dooley states, "where we could use this amazing equipment and my friend Matt, who I admire and trust, would be the producer. It was a learning process for all of us, but when I hear it, it's impressive that these are like 20-year-olds putting these songs together for the first time."
Stupid Things is truly an accomplishment to be proud of (last month it ranked in the Top 20 of iTunes Pop Charts), but Dooley has no intention of resting on her laurels.
"I have my eggs in every basket at all times," she declares with a laugh.
Currently Sarah is hard at work on two screenplays -- one with a major producer and director already attached -- and, amid the constant creation of new music, plans to do an East Coast tour in the near future. Of course, Dooley admits, live performance generates a different kind of pressure.
I have such a love-hate relationship with it. It's totally different from being in a play or musical because you know what lines you're going to say and who your character is. When I'm onstage as me, suddenly I'm analyzing myself and trying to deliver. So I am still dealing with that -- how to be a real person onstage without freaking out. But it's addicting, it's thrilling. I'm really lucky.
So are we. It will be a genuine treat to watch Sarah Dooley develop in her every artistic pursuit. But for those who were there from the beginning, allow me to say -- don't grow up too fast, Sarah. There's always time to do a few more stupid things.
Follow Jaime Lubin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@jaimelubin