Packing a Punch | Music | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Packing a Punch 

Singer-songwriter Sarah Anne DeGraw means business.

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click to enlarge Left to right: Mike Sasich, Sarah Anne DeGraw, Brian Thurber and Greg Shaw - KARENA ANGELL   .
  • Karena Angell .
  • Left to right: Mike Sasich, Sarah Anne DeGraw, Brian Thurber and Greg Shaw

On the phone, Sarah Anne DeGraw called a stranger "dude" and dropped F-bombs without a hint of self-awareness. It fit how she looks in the Crook & the Bluff band photo. Neither smiling nor scowling, she wears a long black coat and matching bowler hat. She leans against a wall but slightly forward, as if preparing to push off and sock you in the jaw.

It follows that DeGraw would stand out in a room—have presence. But when I got to meet her at Ruin, two different patrons seem like they could be her. One, at an elevated table against the east wall, is tallish, her hair and coat are long but not black—but she vibes mousy. The other occupies a low table in the back corner, head down, haloed by clean white light. She seems too gentle, too reserved.

I fire off a text and wait to see who shoots back. A survey of the room ends at the back-corner woman, with a smile as bright as her halo and eyes that spark memories of her YouTube videos. In "Ten Cent Lovers," she strolls onstage in a sundress and sweater, saying, "I'm glad to be here. And that's all I am." A jump-cut finds her seated, vignetted by the spotlight, trying to keep her bangs out of sad blue eyes that pop against a red velvet backdrop. She breaks a reverent silence with fingerpicked arpeggios that sound like falling tears, punctuated by single-note harmonics like sighs. In a bewitching, mellifluous, achy voice, she sings.

Someone can write and sing a song and still say nothing. When Sarah Anne DeGraw performs, every lyric, strum, rake, pluck and rest resonates. You're utterly rapt, feeling tranquil and in tune with her. Pity the fool who shatters the trance.

In conversation, DeGraw's tough and tender sides dovetail. "Dudes" and "fucks" abound. She speaks candidly, both making and avoiding eye contact. She wants to share, but has a threshold. When discussing her itinerant childhood singing folk, gospel and barbershop music with her family band and running their merch booth, she politely demands to go off-the-record. What she shares isn't a bombshell, but someday will make a great story.

"I was born in Utah, but I'm not really from a place," she says. As a child, she socialized more with adults than children. "I was outspoken," she says, but her mother didn't take her 8-year-old daughter's protests seriously. DeGraw never relented, but by 14, she turned to songwriting as an additional outlet. She feels that her first song, "Better You," is well constructed but lyrically "really dumb and very naïve. But fuck it—it's the music I was making."

In 2011, DeGraw played her first open mic in Provo at Velour, then started gigging there. She credits owner and "good friend" Corey Fox with giving her support and encouragement, but says she didn't take it too seriously; "I just wanted to play music." Eventually, she moved to Salt Lake City, where she started performing occasional solo shows and joined Crook & the Bluff as their drummer. She says the experience was "fun as hell," the music is "amazing," and respects her former bandmates, but, "I have more to say than just a drum beat."

Sensing a ticking clock, DeGraw left the Western blues band last August to concentrate on a solo career. "You can always do something that's fun or enjoyable, but you ..." She trails off, looking at her lap. "You can't fake passion. You can't fake what makes you tick."

Now 22, DeGraw performs her poignant, confessional songs regularly. "When I've poured out my whole self, I can relax," she says.

She's charmed audiences and peers like local producer Mike Sasich, who offered be DeGraw's guitarist, which led to a full band with Greg Shaw on bass and Brian Thurber on drums. They debuted—after only one rehearsal—supporting Jackie Greene's sold-out State Room performance in September. "It just fucking worked," DeGraw says. "We nailed it."

With her band, she's playing electric guitar and writing louder, bluesier songs. Why the change? "It's still the same writing; it's just coming out differently. It's just a little more gritty and a little bit more up-front and abrasive. Because I feel like it has to be."

Like her younger self, DeGraw wants to be heard. Her voice rises to adjust for the ambience of the increasingly loud, crowded bar. Acoustic shows reach fewer people, she says, especially because smartphones breed inattentiveness. "It's not 1971. You're not gonna sit in the middle of a sold-out venue with people sitting down and shutting the fuck up for just a minute." She insists the shift wasn't premeditated, though—it just happened. "I don't think anything that I've done so far has been really thought-out. Nothing's been contrived," she says.

It's time to go. DeGraw says not to make her look foolish or "I'll punch you," then reaches out for a hug. We laugh and part. A couple of blocks away, she reappears—she's parked nearby—and knocks on my window. "Don't make me look like a fool," she reiterates. "I will punch you."

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