Sarah Sharp is a writer and musician based in Sheffield. As Tsarzi, she creates eccentric cabaret-infused synth tales of ornament hoarders, doomed romances, and dying seaside towns. Her first album Last Decade of Love was hailed as ‘an eccentric and striking debut’ (Pink Wafer) and ‘wonderfully observational, witty and blissfully imaginative’ (Fifty3 Musings). Playing Bad Indie Movie on his 6Music show, Tom Robinson called it the most imaginative record he listened to all year. She curates Audiophile on CAMP Radio, a monthly exploration of the weird and the wonderful, from opera to electronica. Her next project is Gone to the Dogs - a theatrical exploration of Brexit, England & imperial nostalgia, presented by a latter day Britannia. In this interview I ask Sarah about how she started as a musician, why she decided to up sticks from London to Sheffield, what helps to support her financially, and how the lockdowns have impacted her work. At the end, Sarah puts a question to you to take away and have a think about.
How did you start up as a musician?
Well if we’re going back to the very beginning - I studied piano and violin as a kid, and a bit of singing. It was very formal. I did up to grade 8 and sang in choirs and played in orchestras. I was good enough to look accomplished to the non-classical world, but not good enough to really go anywhere. My father was incredibly obsessed with grades and discouraged improvisation, so I never really developed my own style. The intense focus on results gave me a crippling anxiety about being ‘wrong’ - so from the age of 18 I barely played or sang in front of anyone, and never dared try to make my own stuff.
The change came at 27 when I took a comedy improv course. Improv forces you to be ok with imperfection. One of the mantras is ‘mistakes are gifts’. It was a lightbulb moment and gave me a green light to try things out of curiosity, rather than a need to be ‘good’.
I’d always wanted to play guitar - nothing fancy, not like how I’d learnt before. Just enough so I could sing songs I liked. I learnt some basic chords and it was like a drug. I know it sounds cliche but straightaway little songs started forming in my head. Words threaded themselves together into tunes. I think because guitar for me was an instrument that didn’t have any of these formal conditions hanging over it.
And as soon as I started to write songs - I didn’t want to be doing anything else. I’d been scrabbling around for years, working ‘normal’ jobs in the day, with my fingers in multiple creative pies the rest of the time - acting, comedy, writing. Now I had a clear mission. Music felt like the perfect balance of writing and performing, of private self and showoff exterior.
Everything dovetailed with me deciding to leave London. When I moved to Sheffield, music was my religion. I threw myself into doing open mics - up to 3 or 4 times a week - getting to know people, honing my style.
In time I started to play violin and piano again - at first as accompaniment to other people’s stuff, then as my own songwriting tools. I played in Yellowcake and Mysteron and toured with The Unsung. And finally I came full circle to write and record my own album!
Was there anything holding you back before you made the decision?
Pretty much everything. All I had was my conviction that I had found my creative form and the knowledge that things couldn’t continue as they had been before. I spent most of my 20s wanting to be creative but not knowing how. I was so scared of making a fool of myself. Overwhelmingly, there was just the sense of being an imposter. There were financial concerns too. How was I going to make money? And I was worried about being too old. If it was going to ‘happen’, I told myself, it would have happened already. So yes, lots.
Why did you decide to up sticks from London to Sheffield?
When I was a student in London it was great. But when I came back (from studying in New York) it was awful. I couldn’t afford it and I never found my tribe. Then one morning I woke up to find a little slug on my bedside table. I don’t mind slugs but they don’t belong in human bedrooms. It was a moment of clarity when I thought - perhaps hubristically - ‘there’s got to be a better life than this’.
I came to Sheffield initially to housesit for friends of friends - just a way to gather my thoughts and not pay rent for a bit while I considered what the hell I was doing. But the opportunities to make music and the balance of culture and countryside was too heady a mix, and I never left.
What were the main concerns you had about changing your lifestyle?
I don’t come from a family where a career in the arts was seen as a viable option, so there was never any rubric for what it might look like. My main concerns were that I would not be ‘allowed’ to - as if there was some sort of border guard who would turn me back without the correct papers. It was uncharted territory. I had no idea what it would look like.
How does this compare to the reality that you’ve experienced since then?
Obviously, we all hope for the film moment. The protagonist finally makes their stand, breaks out on their own, and then everything is a montage towards success. The reality of course is more patchwork. I’ve still had office jobs along the way. I’ve achieved both more and less than I expected - more, because your potential is an unknown quantity while you’re still dreaming. I never could have dreamt up the music I’m making now. Less, because when you’re dreaming (rather than doing), you tend to imagine success based on what it looks like from the outside. When I started, all I wanted was to get signed to a label and start doing really big gigs. Now, I relish my independence and gigging is only one part of what I do (and I definitely prefer the smaller weird ones).
What helps to financially support your work as a musician?
All sorts! Like I say, I’ve had a fair few office jobs still, though mercifully since I went totally freelance I don’t have to sit through meetings or play office politics anymore. I’m good at writing, so I do some content work. I started cleaning recently for my friend’s company. Some people might see this as a downgrade but I find it very therapeutic. It’s nice to earn money doing a good job that isn’t based on how much people like your ideas.
Do you still have time/energy for your music alongside your other work?
It’s difficult to juggle but it’s been easier since going freelance. I took on a studio at Yellow Arch earlier this year which has been a lifeline. More than anything else, it makes me turn up. You have to be pragmatic. Being brilliant is good, but it’s an idea, rather than a practice. The most important thing is showing up. Again and again and (one more time with feeling) again.
Where’s your go-to for creative inspiration?
Hmm, I found this one really hard to answer. I think because it’s not so much a question of ‘where’ or ‘what’ as much as ‘when’. When my tap is switched to ‘on’, everything is inspiration. Little song fragments pop into my head constantly. My phone is full of voice memos of random lines that make no sense but get pieced together later on. Everything is something and sparks a connection. Then, when the tap is off, there’s nothing. I’ve learnt to respect this as ‘processing’ time. It feels like nothing is happening but you have to trust that it is. The worst thing about modern life is that we feel we have to be productive all the time - but productivity can take on lots of forms, and not all of them look like much. I have two modes: Ideas and Sorting Out. Half my work as an artist (and a person) has been learning how to cope with the switch, and find systems to file the chaos.
What’s been the best way for your music to reach people?
When I won the SYFN competition in 2017 with Ornaments, a lot of people watched that video, and I think it helped with the album launch the next year. Tom Robinson played Bad Indie Movie on 6music, which got a lot of new interest. I’m slowly building a little community on Instagram, which is a nice way to connect more directly with audiences and other musicians. I’m on spotify etc but Bandcamp is the most artist-friendly platform! If you want to support artists you love, add them to your playlists on Spotify but buy them on Bandcamp.
How do you handle things when they don’t go your way?
Badly, but I’m getting better. Every lousy gig used to trigger an internal meltdown. I’ve learnt to separate the knee jerk feelings of shame and embarrassment from the reality of what’s probably happening.
In practice - take a step back, take a breath, do something else for a bit. Then show up again tomorrow and get back to it.
Sometimes it isn’t tomorrow, sometimes it takes longer. I did a funding application recently, the biggest one I’d ever gone for. It was for my next album, which is an idea I’ve been developing for a while and am deeply invested in.
Not only did I not get the money, but they graded my music 5/10. That one knocked me sideways for quite a few months, I’ll be honest. I know I’m not the best budget strategist, but I believe in my music 100%. So it hurt, deeply. And it made me question myself - I just didn’t want to work on anything for a while, my brain kind of shut down.
But eventually, you give yourself some time, you can take a more objective view, the cogs start turning and you get back in the saddle. It’s hard work and sometimes I fucking hate that saddle, but I didn’t sign up for this thinking it would be easy. And I did sign up for it - I made a choice to do this. There’s always the option to stop doing it. But I think that would make me so miserable, to be trapped in an uncreative life again, I’ve kind of just got to crack on.
What would you really love to see happen for musicians like you?
Fix streaming so it pays artists fairly. I love the discovery possibilities of Spotify etc but I don’t think people realise how catastrophic it is as an economic model for the musicians. There’s no reason for it to be this way - they could fix it if they wanted to. These things are starting to be debated in parliament - but essentially we are asking big corporations not to exploit workers/content makers just because they can, and that’s part of a much larger social issue (look at Amazon, Uber, etc.) So I’m not sure how soon we can expect progress.
Also, Brexit has decimated the opportunities for many independent and mid-level artists to tour more widely across Europe. The paperwork needed now is so extensive it makes it financially and logistically impossible for artists without significant financial backing. There’s talk of a special musicians’ permit for specific periods - kind of like a work visa. Fingers crossed! I really want to do gigs in Europe in future.
How have the lockdowns impacted you and your work?
Financially - abysmal! Most of my music income came from gigs and most of my CD sales happened at gigs. And streaming does not pay the bills - see above. A lot of my content work also dried up as I was only newly freelance.
But the chance to step back has been creatively rewarding, and I’ve been able to explore things that I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. I’ve been getting to grips with new equipment and exploring different sounds and thinking bigger in terms of the sound I want to bring to my live performances. Because I couldn’t record in a studio, I had to develop my skills at producing my own tracks - which culminated at the end of last year in my first completely self-produced release (When This Is Over).
I started hosting a radio show on CAMP radio, which is something I’ve wanted to do for a while. Radio is one of my favourite things and I enjoy this kind of curatorial role. It’s led me to discover new music, reach out to more fellow artists, develop my own presenting skills and generally just have a lot of fun.
And finally, one thing I could never have foreseen - I started honing a practice that became known as Tiny Ransom Notes. These are tiny post-it poems made of old words from magazines. They are enormous fun to do and got me out of a creative funk when I was feeling low last summer. People really seem to connect with their tiny offerings of wisdom and sometimes cheekiness, so I made them their own insta (@tiny.ransom.notes) - and in May I’m due to start running workshops with them via Little Bird SOS!
What’s one powerful question that you would ask somebody considering a career change to support their creative work as a musician?
Who are the artists you like, and why? What do their lives look like, and which bits would you like to reflect in your own? Before I began making music I think I had a very naive and singular view of ‘success’ - but everyone’s worlds are made up of different parts.
I first came across Tsarzi when Joe Willis recommended her as an artist to contact about creating the music for my podcast, About The Adventure. She did a wonderful job and we've since become friends, sharing walks on Kinder Scout in the Peak District. I really enjoy her radio show and I've discovered lots of artists through listening to it.
Tsarzi's show Audiophile goes on the last Sunday of each month on CAMP radio.
You can listen back to all episodes on mixcloud.