by Jackie Carter
Sarah Ramey was working on the Obama Campaign in 2008 when the pain from a preexisting injury became too much for her to bear.
“It was literally a dream job and an incredible experience,” Sarah said. “But early into the campaign I started experiencing extreme pain in my abdomen, pelvis and spine, which made it difficult for me to walk. I moved back with my family in Maryland and underwent a couple of exploratory surgeries, which failed to locate the cause of my pain.”
Sarah kept writing for the campaign from her bed as a Blogger, reaching thousands of people while in her pajamas, but with time her pain usurped all of her attention.
“Fortunately, I received a call from a woman who had experienced a similar mysterious condition as mine,” Sarah said, “After undergoing treatments through a respected acupuncturist in San Francisco, she had totally recovered. At the end of our conversation, it was obvious I had nothing to lose, so I packed and moved to San Francisco.”
“After eight months of treatments,” Sarah said. “The pain was still there, but my energy had finally returned. I’d become a terrible recluse and needed to get out and connect with other people, and to my writing. Also, I felt a strong need to delve into music again.”
Sarah’s face lights up as she reflects on her early singing endeavors. “I was in a series of bands during my college years. There was one very loud Rock and Roll band that was completely antithetical to the music I do today but it was still very fun. After college I joined a band called, SeeKonk, a rather underground but well-known band in the area. That was when I really started getting into music. Unlike the previous band who took their leads from the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Led Zepplin, everyone in this band was like a music aficionado, steeping their time together into really beautiful music that grounded great friendships.”
“Leonard Cohen comes up a lot for me, because he was the one who gave me the insight that, while his lyrics are not simple, the music can be. I’d always felt developing a song would be too hard for me, as I was just a singer and assumed I’d have to learn music theory and such to accomplish such a feat. However, when I looked at his chord charts I realized then, I could do this! It was such an incredible revelation for me!”
So one evening in February of 2009, Sara stepped outside into what would be a journey that would change her life. “I’d been told about Hotel Utah, which has a very popular open mic night occurring once every week in San Francisco. Now, I’m generally not fond of open mic venues, but this place had a very vibrant and fun community of amazingly colorful people, indicative of the many parts of San Francisco—from bikers to hipsters to Haight-Ashbury hippies.”
In order to perform, one had to put their name in a jar and wait for it to be drawn. Sarah had been thinking about taking a stage name because from her perspective, “I’d always liked the idea of just being able to to create a space where it’s not always about you. Music can feel great when it comes from you, but I’m truly just a channel for it to flow through.”
This was the night that Wolf Larsen was reincarnated through Sarah. “So Wolf Larsen is my grandfather’s name—Paul ‘Wolf’ Larsen, it’s a great name! There’s a poem that my cousin wrote about my grandfather that starts and ends the album. While the name is so not me, I enjoy carrying his name onward as my grandfather. He was like a superhero in our family. We have pictures of him riding-the-rails with his sleeves rolled up and his usual big smile, while looking for work during the Depression. He ended up being a football coach in Nebraska, which is where he was from; so it’s nice to resurrect his spirit and honor his name.”
Sarah found her introduction to Hotel Utah as a very loud and crowded venue, making visibility of the stage difficult. “It was not easy to compete with the noise, but that was actually good for me, as it forced me to be louder than what I was accustomed to, and push for a stronger presence during my performances. It had to be all about the words being heard. When they pulled Wolf Larsen out of the jar, I picked up my guitar and played my first song by Leonard Cohen.”
For four months Sarah had only enough energy to remain dedicated to her health treatments and playing cover songs at Hotel Utah. That was until another musician, Scott Simmons, confronted Sarah with a challenge. “He pulled me aside and said, ‘You’re talented, but you’ve got to write your own songs. We all write our own songs, so it’s time for you to throw in your own hat!’ He gave me three weeks to come up with something, with a penalty if I failed. Now words are always going through my head and some land on paper, but finishing it is a problem for me and many other writers. Scott’s antagonistic challenge worked. On the specified date, I performed “Out of the Kitchen Door” for the first time outside of my bedroom”.
Looking back at her experiences at Hotel Utah, Sarah says, “I’m very indebted to my friends at the Hotel Utah, as I was quickly befriended into this lovely community of music enthusiasts. They asked me to perform and do shows together, and while I’ve always been a quiet person, they helped me to create my own space and share what was inside of me. Every song on my CD was written during the time I was going to the Utah.”
While Sarah’s health issues still invade her physical endurance each day, her motivation continues to expand. “After I’d written all of these songs, I wanted to go into a studio to record them, but I only have about two to three hours a day when I can be out and about, and then I’m down for the count. Once in a studio you’re consumed there from about 10 am to 1 am, so I quickly realized I just couldn’t do it, even though the studio had been paid for,” said Sarah.
So friends at Hotel Utah connected Sarah with Nick Shargu, who works full-time for Sony. Sarah describes Nick as, “a multi-talented guy who is a genius, a comedian, a sound engineer and a gifted guitar player and drummer on the side.” He’d introduced her to another album he had recorded in his shoebox-sized bedroom. When Sarah was asked to write and record a song for a friend’s video, Nick stepped up and completed the recording of “Maybe Baby” in less than two days. The song was later played in Times Square. That motivated them to complete her entire album.
Often Nick would come to Sarah’s home, set up the equipment in Sarah’s bedroom and record all of her vocals and guitar parts, while she was sitting upright in her pajamas in bed. “Originally my intention was for everything to just be acoustics, but then Nick suggested adding strings to some of the songs.” Sarah agreed. “So Nick forwarded the songs to his friend, Anton Petzner in an e-mail, who responded back that the songs were pretty, but he had to go on tour in a couple of days and would have to do it that night – and with no input from us! He said we would just have to trust him! Nevertheless, Nick did manipulate some changes to Anton’s addition in slicing maneuvers, but in the end it all came together very well, and Anton approved.” On March 31, 2012, Wolf Larsen performed at the Swedish American Hall. One couldn’t help but notice how the whole audience melded with the pulse of her music. Sarah has the ability to calm the tides that surround us, tickle our spirits with her softly-mannered humor and refresh our hearts. From Sarah’s perspective, “Everything is so loud today that I love when other people help me explore those quiet places, which is my fortress of safe space.”
Sarah’s path continues to broaden with every new horizon she crosses, and the changes she so gracefully acclimates to. “I’m now in a community of female entrepreneurs, which has motivated me to manage my music. While record labels have approached me, I can’t meet their expectations of tours and the time they require right now. I’m sure there’s a lovely record label out there I could work with, and maybe one day it will happen. For now I’ve decided I’m just going to take advantage of this and do it myself. However, there’s so much fear and challenge to deal with, but I love what it awakens within me!”
Whatever Sarah learns from her own challenges each day, she looks for ways to share with others in the days to follow. Here she explains another of her interests: “I have a very strong feeling there is a fourth wave coming in the Women’s Movement—a really profound one. Today it’s not only the progressive countries—it’s happening everywhere. We support The Girl Effect organization, and exploring their videos convey how, if we invest in the education of a girl, the entire community blossoms. This is a major initiative in the U.N., because it is the one silver bullet that does alleviate poverty. Using all the metrics that you can measure anything in will show improvement in areas such as: nutritional, health care, and educational standards, where women are wonderful stewards.”
“The other half of the world needs to be more involved to bring about needed balance. What if there were more women helping to make decisions, or sharing their perspectives? It’s about investing in women, but it’s also incumbent on women stretching beyond our comfort zones and into what’s available. That’s scary for many of us! It’s scary for me to be in charge of my own record label, but that’s what has so inspired me to change my life and believe in it. ”
“What further encourages me is it’s not such an uphill battle anymore due to so many men understanding and accepting these needed changes. For example, more men are now standing behind Planned Parenthood. That’s a big change! It’s no longer a separate feminist agenda, but normal equitable behavior! Also, my focus is not about rallying a lot of women together, but instead rallying everyone together on one thing that helps us all, not just women. Women do deserve it, but we all deserve to have women contribute. It’s not a radical or unsexy thing to talk about anymore.”