Sara Bareilles spoke to Tom Power in the Q Studio at the Canadian Broadcasting Centre about Waitress, her life and more.

The quick little sidebar piece of trivia about Waitress the Musical is that we do have real apple pie scent in all of our theatres – there’s nothing like it. There’s a smell of a real apple pie; we tried a synthetic pie smell for a while, because we were like ‘oh what’s the fastest, easiest way to get this smell in the air’ and it was nothing like it, so actually there’s a convection oven in every lobby of every theatre that we go and play in and they make real pies.

Who gets to eat the pie at the end?

Sometimes the crew, but but the ratio of spice is off, so it smells extra pungent, so I don’t know if it tastes as good as it smells. I think they still eat it! But I think after so many years of smelling that, they’re over it.

Do you never want to smell a pie again?

No, I do love pie – I’m a pie girl. There’s cake people and then there’s pie people and I’m more of a pie person.

I like lemon meringue.

Oh me too. When it’s really tart – I like a really tart lemon meringue.

So this musical has been part of your life for like four years now…

Longer than that – turns out it’s like seven years.

What about the lead character? Do you connect to her story at all?

Oh very much. So her circumstances are very different, but it was actually really interesting to kind of dive into this material and examine her as a person. I think you know she’s someone who feels invisible at times and is deeply loyal and cares for her community and sort of has has lost herself along the way in certain ways, and those are all things that I definitely relate to in my life and in my journey. When I wrote the first song I wrote for the show, “She Used To Be Mine,” which is our lead character’s main song, the penultimate song she sings towards the end of the show, it’s really about her kind of reckoning with the person she thought she would become and the person she actually is and I think everyone can relate to that. I know I certainly could.

How do you relate to it?

I think when I think about who I thought I would be as a little girl and I imagine my life, I remember having very specific plans like ‘okay, I’m gonna get married at 26, two kids by 28’. I guess I should have done the math – ‘start having kids by 28’ – you know ‘have a little house, pets, animals’. I thought I was gonna be a teacher. I think I thought there were all of these things and then my life took nothing but left turns and I’m so grateful for it, but it’s also… so often sometimes I surprise myself with not being a better person or I’m like I make a choice and am like ‘why did I do that’ or disappointing myself or or surprising myself in a positive way.

This show kind of crystallises for you that your life, your circumstances, aren’t permanent and it’s hard to figure out what your path is gonna be. A bunch of turns can come in. That the show itself was a place you found a changes in your own life.

Completely – it was like a fulcrum, I mean it’s a pivot point in such a profound way. The majority of the people I hold nearest and dearest in my life are people that came to me through Waitress. My artistic collaborators – Jesse Nelson and I are met through Waitress and now are working on other projects together; my boyfriend came through meeting him through Waitress; some of my very, very best friends came through engaging with the theatre community in a deeper way. My move to New York, my decision to stay in New York – it just it all kind of pivots from Waitress.

The opening jingle – why did you take it upon yourself to write the jingle for turning off your cellphone for your musical?

Well we had we had had a discussion about you know – how do you handle that phones are such a problem in the theatre? It’s extraordinarily bad – people videoing it, just forgetting they’re not engaging in an experience that’s normal – I mean concert goers alone are so glued to their phones, that’s something I’ve noticed over the years is that more and more people are watching you through the screens of their phones. They’re standing in front of you, but they’re paying attention to what they’re getting on a video, which is such a strange kind of phenomenon to have evolved. But the theatre, for all intents and purposes, is still a sacred space that way, where we sort of make this agreement that we’re not going to use our phones but people still do it. They forget, sometimes it’s accidental – they just forget to turn them off, so you get a cell phone ringing, which is bad enough but there’s a lot of videoing. There’s a lot of misunderstanding of what that agreement is and so we thought maybe we could do it in sort of a cheeky, funny way to to remind people that phones are not allowed.

That’s kind of nice.

It doesn’t work – people still bring out their phones all the time.

I went to a Jack White concert not that long ago and he does that thing where you’ve got to put your phone in the pouch and then you could do unlock it on the way out and that’s when you get your phone back.

I just did a little four show promo tour – I have a new record that just came out – and because people weren’t familiar with the material yet, nobody took their phones out, which I thought was amazing cause I haven’t looked out at an audience in a long time and had them not be holding up their phones, so I thought that was really interesting. Just remember to put your phone down sometimes guys.

When you first signed on to to do Waitress, you had had a big hit – I mean I knew you from “Love Song” especially – but you were still kind of new to Broadway. I don’t want to give any examples, but pop artists or like singer-songwriters historically haven’t always had the best relationship when they moved to Broadway, whether it be from the welcoming from the theatre community or just the response from from the audience. Sometimes it doesn’t work. Was that something you were concerned about?

It wasn’t a large concern of mine, maybe in some part because the theatre, in general, and musical theatre, in particular is such a love of mine and such a beloved space for me. I grew up listening to musical theatre; those are my first records were cast album recordings, so there was a part of me that has such a deep reverence for this medium and I think sometimes where people make a misstep is that they may or may not have an understanding of the history, that’s the thing that theatre folk are the most proud of is the legacy of this medium of this kind of storytelling. It’s harder and you get less money for doing more work than anywhere else in this world – like TV and film is a piece of cake, compared to having to do a show eight times a week and you’re exhausted and it’s a two show day. It’s such a grind and so you have to do it from a place of passion, so I think when you come in with a sense of reverence and respect, that is well received but I really did feel so warmly embraced. I felt that there was really a lot of encouragement from the community at large and and then they seemed to like what we gave them, so happy for that too.

You’re a really funny person on stage. I like people like you and Ben Folds and a group called the Milk Carton Kids – you guys have it all figured out, because you get to be really, really funny and then sing a devastatingly sad song…

Yeah, I think it’s nice when… it’s like not a part of the ticket price for me to make anybody laugh, it’s just it’s gravy then I get to feel very free to find the funny and the Milk Carton Kids, in particular, it’s like a stand-up show. And then you’re like in a pool of tears.

Were you funny as a kid?

I honestly don’t know – I like to think so but I was a little bit of a misfit. I was like chubby kid and got teased a lot and was very internal in some ways, but also like deeply curious about the spotlight and being a ham and wanting attention but I had a good voice so I got some attention for that. It was an interesting mix of a way to come of age, but I found the theatre really early and you got so much space to just roam.

You could do all the things you’re good at right?

Yeah, I’d be an idiot and do it on purpose. I really enjoy the between bits on stage – I really do – I love singing the songs but I also found… I did a tour where things felt a little more curated and we had made very specific choices about what would bleed into what and I found that that was really limiting because I love what’s alive about being on stage.

What was going through your life when you wrote “King Of Anything”?

I was entering my second album cycle on Epic Records, which I’m still with, and they’ve been wonderful partners over the years but I was re-entering the phase where you’re sharing songs for the first time and you’re opening yourself up to feedback, so ultimately what happens is you’re taking a big chunk of time and you’re writing songs and you’re calling together what you think will make be the makings of an album or your next statement and then it goes to the A&R folks and it goes to your managers and it goes to people at the label and everybody tells you what they think about what you do and everyone has an opinion and everybody’s right and you have to start filtering that constant feedback loop of the world reflecting you back to you. I just remember I had taken kind of a nice long break after the the end of my first record… everyone, including myself, was sort of surprised at the success of that record. It was a much longer touring cycle than I had ever prepared for, so I took a nice long break and then I dealt with writing block and trying to get back on the horse and I was just getting these songs together and they felt fragile and they felt tender and I didn’t know if they were good or not and then having people be like ‘yeah this one’s not that good’ is just gut wrenching, so I wrote that song as a lot of my songs are sort of pep talks to myself. I was like ‘yeah, you can have an opinion, but I didn’t ask you for it and it doesn’t mean you get to be the one who makes the decision’.

You are also the subject I think of an urban myth around “Love Song,” which is in many ways that story. Someone told me last night, did you know that that was her response to her record label asking her to write a love song? And it’s not that’s not true…

It’s not exactly true, it was a distillation of a feeling. No one ever asked me ‘would you write us a love song?’ That was my sort of metabolising this whole experience of turning in songs and having them not be good enough or not read. I was just waiting for the green light to go into the studio and get started and I couldn’t figure out why they weren’t letting me be in the recording process… there’s so much that’s not true in the world.

You’ve said in your book that, ‘I’ve spent my whole career worrying that the big bad pop monster was gonna eat me when I wasn’t looking’. What does that mean?

I think I always had a fear of “selling out” – I always had a fear of making a decision that wasn’t ultimately gonna feel like me and then end up down a path that gets born of that choice and not be able to course-correct. I came up at a time where there was a lot of a different kind of pop artist – the young female artists were Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera and Hilary Duff and Mandy Moore… people that just kind of lived in a slightly different place than I did and I always struggled with that, to be honest, like I just didn’t quite know where I fit. I obviously wasn’t putting on a red leather jumpsuit – as much as I may have done it privately in my own home – I wasn’t ready to do that on stage. I’m a big fan of that, I was a big Britney Spears fan but I knew that I wasn’t inherently the same kind of artist and I was always worried that someone was going to take more from me than I was ready to give and then end up being kind of chained to that. What gives you successes… I mean I’m gonna play “Love Song” for the rest of my life…

Are you OK with that?

I am actually because even though some there sometimes I get tired of it; it’s such an important moment in my life. It’s a mile marker in such a profound way, so I feel kind of endeared to that song in some way.

Radiohead wrote a song about that right they wrote “My Iron Lung” is about “Creep” – something keeping them alive that they despise. I feel like Waitress was a way of you getting to assert yourself. It’s you saying, ‘hey, I’m not gonna be Britney Spears, I’m also not gonna be Norah Jones or Tori Amos’ and I know you quoted them before. It was a bit of a left turn for a big radio hit maker to do a musical. I felt like that in itself is a bit of a statement.

I mean it wasn’t all that well considered when I did it. I think I was in such a deep place of seeking, personally, at that moment. I just moved to New York, I was going through like a mini-existential crisis you know – left a long-term relationship, left my manager, I left my band, moved to New York from Los Angeles that I’d been living there for 14 years or whatever at that point, so I was really looking for something to anchor me… and then Waitress arrived and it really has become this incredible little boat I’m still riding in.

I love when people create their own lane. Often, if you don’t follow the path you’re not gonna do it…

You know who’s great about this and who’s a dear friend and was a good encouragement – Ben Folds. So we did a reality TV show together, we were judges on “The Sing-Off,” which is an acapella competition show and Ben would always use the word ‘punk’. He’d be like ‘that’s so punk rock to do something like write a musical’! He’s like ‘that’s actually really punk rock’ and like there was something… only Ben Folds can make writing a musical feel cool. He has that particular brand of like nerd stardom that you’re just like ‘yeah, if you think I’m OK, I’m OK.

Tell me about “Armor.”

So one of the great catalysts for me returning to songwriting ‘as Sara’ was the election and our current administration and the Women’s March. I felt a sort of call to action in my own way to want to speak to some of these these intense issues that are bubbling at the surface, one of them being this sort of new feminist movement, that never really went away, but is getting a resurgence in some way. Going to the Women’s March was was deeply impactful.

Where did you go?

To DC. So I made the pilgrimage with some of my best friends and my sister and I was really changed by that experience of being a part, not only sort of intellectually, but physically, a part of a movement. It was really transformative and I never felt more peaceful. It was so safe, that’s the craziest part about being there, and I was talking about this earlier – that you know, as women, it’s just not often that you’re in a big group and you feel completely taken care of and there was… it was so peaceful actually. It was really incredible.

So then you went home and just started?

It came out with a little more angst and a little more directive anger and trying to grapple with… I have a hard time with anger, personally, I don’t find it to be that productive sometimes, but how to kind of wrestle with those feelings and make them into something that is a call to action in and of itself.

There’s a song you have, with John Legend, called “A Safe Place To Land” about the refugee crisis.

I was in Nashville and writing with a woman named Lori McKenna who I’m a huge fan of. She’s spectacular and we wrote several songs together for the new record. All of the news footage was erupting those days when we were together in Nashville and we were seeing images an audio for the first time of little children on the phone and crying and wanting to go home and we just sat in the studio and cried. It was just that idea of nobody leaves because it’s good – like you you’re gonna put yourself in peril and your children in peril because things are great at home. Nobody wants to leave home. And so that’s where that song is and getting to know John through Jesus Christ Superstar Live was beautiful and he’s such a natural. He has this incredible ability to kind of marry his advocacy and his activism with his artistry. It’s just a seamless world for him and I love that and so he said yes.

I just wanna go back to Waitress for a second and your relationship with Broadway. So when you listen to the new music you’ve been writing for the new record you know, as you mentioned it’s propelled by an activism, it’s propelled by a different kind of thinking, but do you think it’s also propelled by like a sense of theatricality? Has your time on Broadway changed your own music?

I think it has in a few different ways, but one of the main ways actually just being a sort of resurrection of my belief – to stay on Jesus themes – resurrection of my belief in collaboration. I think really early on in my career I had some bad experiences with co-writers and collaborators and it made me really insular as an artist and I got really skittish about sharing that intimate process with anybody, but Waitress is all about collaboration so this was actually a an album and that is a reflection of that. I brought in songwriters, I brought in Lori McKenna and I got to sit with her and not come away with songs that felt any further away from myself but actually more of myself and working with T-Bone Burnett as my producer… it was I was less precious about what the outcome had to look like which makes for a much more rewarding creative process because you’re not going in with any limiting beliefs about any of it. It’s just like let’s see what happens when we collide.

I asked T-Bone Burnett what’s the number one mistake producers make when they’re making a record. He said ‘perfection’ – he said seeking out perfection is the number one mistake they make.

I took so many notes, I didn’t want to like record or have like a videographer with us for that for that time, because it felt very private but I had a little pink journal that I was keeping all these droplets of wisdom that would just pour out of him.

Do you remember any of them?

One of them I remember was ‘soft is loud’ – the idea that there’s this incredible push or pull towards ‘oh the song should be faster, if it’s not, or if it’s slow they’ll get bored’ or there’s that kind of push-pull as an artist and he was all about the intensity and the intention. It’s like if you have that crystal clear, the intent is really clear and the intensity of the song is in place. Soft is loud.

There’s a life lesson there too.

I think so too.