On April 14th 2011, a 16-year-old girl who dreamed of life beyond her Isle of Wight home wrote a just-very-slightly melodramatic entry in her diary: “I’ve been contemplating my future. I honestly think if I don’t get a record deal … I’m going to die. I honestly do just think I will die. I don’t live for anything other than music.” Six years later, in the summer of 2017, a 22-year-old Sarah Close read out this passage to her three quarters of a million YouTube subscribers in a video titled I SIGNED A RECORD DEAL. But while the video documenting Sarah inking her deal with Parlophone Records resolves one particular subplot, the story of this extraordinary singer-songwriter is really just beginning.
Sarah’s fans are already well-acquainted with this expressive singer’s smart take on modern pop thanks to this year’s impressive Caught Up EP and lead single Call Me Out — both released through The Kodiak Club, the label whose vision Sarah concocted not long after that 2011 diary entry. Call Me Out immediately set the agenda for Sarah when it hit Number One on the official physical singles chart and there’s much, much more to come, drawing on intense recording sessions with a core group of collaborators such as Jennifer Decilveo (Anne-Marie, Galantis, Beth Ditto), Lostboy (Becky Hill, Ella Eyre), Bruno Major (Liv Dawson, SG Lewis). “I’m from a small place,” is how Sarah puts it, “so I only need a small group of friends.”
The small place she’s talking about is actually a small village on the western side of the Isle of Wight, meaning that Sarah grew up physically separated not just from the mainland — and the music industry — by a body of water, but also from most of the island’s social life. “My school was right across the island,” she recalls, “and other kids would arrange to meet each other at 7pm once they’d had dinner. I didn’t have that at all, in fact pretty much the only other kid in my village was my brother.
Sarah immersed herself in music but, as she remembers, didn’t immediately find an outlet for her passion. “In the end, when I was 14 I started a YouTube channel hoping it would lead to a music career, but I didn’t want to admit that because it wasn’t seen as a very cool thing to do, and when I was younger my friends had laughed at me when I’d told them my dreams. At the same time, at the back of my mind I knew there were 14-year-old girls on the mainland whose parents were driving them to London every weekend where they’d meet A&Rs, managers and all these people I wanted to meet. For me, YouTube was a way to build a profile I couldn’t build by physically being in a place.”
To begin with Sarah — who describes her personality as one that ricochets between being outgoing and fairly shy, as happy with a decent book as she is with a group of friends — didn’t tell her friends or family about her YouTube channel. In fact she hadn’t even told her parents she’d been learning guitar. “I’d been sneaking my mum’s guitar up into my room late at night,” she laughs. “I was very independent as a kid and if you told me to do something, I’d go and do the exact opposite. So my parents didn’t push me, even though I knew they wanted me to learn an instrument — they’re both really musical, and I’d grown up with them playing in local bands. With the benefit of hindsight their non-pushiness was a classic case of reverse psychology. I was always going to end up with an instrument one way or another.”
Something else did indeed grow, with Sarah’s YouTube channel quickly passing several important milestones: for instance when she hit 100 subscribers (which is when she decided to tell her parents what she’d been up to), when she hit 10,000 (“my biggest achievement — I felt like I was on my way to making it”) and again when she hit 140,000, the population of the Isle of Wight. As her profile rose Sarah was also venturing off the island with friends, traveling to Portsmouth at 17 for her first-ever gig experience: Gabrielle Aplin, an artist whose transition from YouTube to the charts had been something of an inspiration to Sarah. More importantly she’d hatched the idea for her own label The Kodiak Club, named after a song she’d written in 2013. That song, which Sarah hopes will make its way onto her debut album, “was the first time I thought: I don’t know where that came from, and I don’t know how I did it, but this feels like the start of something. It was a magical song for me.” She also started gigging locally, performing at Bestival founder Rob Da Bank’s Quay Arts Club nights. A slot at Bestival, meanwhile, came about after Rob DJd at the wedding of a mutual friend — Sarah’s Spanish teacher, who’d also booked Sarah to sing the first song.
At 18 Sarah was finally ready to move to London, taking her parents’ advice (“don’t just move — go there to do something”) and enrolling on a songwriting course at north London’s Institute of Contemporary Music Performance, while pursuing her career in her spare time. “My strategy was to buy CDs, get the credit booklet, find out who an artist had worked with then email them going: Hi, I’m Sarah, and I want a manager’,” she laughs. “There’s no ‘music industry for dummies’ guide book — but I really enjoyed figuring out how everything works.” By the end of her second year she felt ready to step out on her own, so she quit her course, hooked up with songwriters and found management. Throughout, she continued uploading songs to YouTube with funny, creative videos whose refreshing tone celebrated flaws as well as triumphs — when she moved to Hammersmith and lived in a flat near the hospital, it became a running joke among subscribers that Sarah’s sessions would invariably be interrupted by the wail of ambulance sirens.
The days are long gone when artists making their name through YouTube is in and of itself remarkable — the platform’s now as much a part of any new artist’s armoury as a demo tape or gig poster might have been in the 20th century. But it’s also true that Sarah is part of a generation of new artists who, when signing their deals, can hit the ground of running. She already knows how to be ~famous, talk to fans and manage her online presence, and that’s not something she’ll let fall by the wayside. “I’ve watched a lot of artists leave the platform — they don’t make videos any more, but you can’t forget where you came from,” Sarah explains. “The relationship between artist and fan is nothing without authenticity, and you can always tell when someone’s putting it on. But the most important thing at the end of the day is the music. You’re nowhere if the music isn’t any good.”
That won’t be a problem for Sarah. Her Caught Up EP may have set the tone, but what’s to come further showcases a dynamic and intuitive songwriting talent that’ll push her to the brink of stardom. Only You, written during a period in which Sarah experienced a crisis of confidence, is a great example of her intimate but open lyricism. “It’s about that decision when you realise you’re going to leave someone you’re with,” she begins. “You know that it’s not working — and the reason it’s not working is that you don’t like each other. On paper you’re right for each other, but it can’t work, and even if it could work you’re not ready for it. And that’s a painful thing to admit to yourself.” Another song, Fake It, finds Sarah viewing that same relationship from a different angle (“it’s about before the relationship breaks down when you’re angry and you realise you’ve wasted your time”), while Rumours came from a session when, feeling briefly beaten up by the music industry, Sarah simply went out of her way to write the biggest pop song possible.
And as the songs that’ll form the bulk of Sarah’s debut album prove, she’s not afraid to look outside relationships for inspiration. “When I was growing up I was very disinterested in having a boyfriend or dating; I always felt a little angry at the music industry because there were so many love songs and I didn’t care about love,” she laughs. “Classic moody teenager. But I don’t want all my songs to just be written about love; there’s so much more to life than that.” So Kicking Teeth, for instance, tells the story of how Sarah dreamed of moving to London, while Kodiak is written from the imagined perspective of having moved to London and still feeling that a thirst is still somehow unquenched.
These songs and others come together as a fresh and potent collection that’s reflective without feeling over-sentimental, often brutal in its honesty but never in a way that keeps the listener at arm’s length. In common with the YouTube endeavours that marked the first chapter of Sarah’s career this music is inclusive, straightforward and hard to ignore. “People know a lot about me through my videos,” Sarah adds, “but while YouTube is about showing people what you’re doing, music is still the best way to express who you really are.”