Sarah Hudson is undoubtedly the most unsung artist in contemporary pop music, having experienced every high and low the tumultuous industry fosters without ever once losing focus. She has spent the past few years co-penning some of radio's biggest hits for other singers, from Katy Perry to Justin Bieber and Iggy Azalea, but now Hudson's ready to claim her songwriting credit as a solo artist with her breakout EP, Songs From The Sea, due out April 7.
This effort will mark a new beginning for the Los Angeles artist, but it's not her first foray into music. You may remember Hudson for her 2005 appearance on an episode of Project Runway's first season, when designers competed to create the perfect grunge-goddess gown inspired by her "Girl on the Verge" video. She was pegged at the time as being music's "next big thing," with a debut album, Naked Truth, that would launch her to stardom—and it would've, had her label S-Curve Records not decided to fold the LP due to sudden internal restructuring. Still, Hudson's full-length showed early signs of promise: "Strange" offered an anthem for outcasts years before "Born This Way," while "Gandhi" flaunted her clever lyrical prowess. "Unlove You" would later be covered on Ashley Tisdale's debut album, though Hudson's own raw vocals truly made the track.
After her first attempt at conquering mainstream music, a newly rebellious Hudson formed her electro-pop outfit, Ultraviolet Sound, which gradually developed a cult-like following on Myspace. Together, the underground group pioneered a provocative sound, bringing together grizzly EDM production with soaring power-pop melodies—an untouched hybrid that's since become the model for Top 40 music today. Ultraviolet Sound's breakout EP, Fast Cheap and Out Of Control, delivered a spread of exciting sonic innovations that led Hudson to collaborating with fellow Myspace musicians, from Jeffree Star to the Millionaires, and performing shows with names, like Lady Gaga. But upon releasing their self-titled full-length album, Ultraviolet Sound mutually disbanded and Hudson embarked on her songwriting career, eventually co-penning chart-toppers, like Katy Perry's "Dark Horse," Iggy Azalea's "Black Widow" and Justin Bieber's "The Feeling.
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More than a decade since Hudson first created Naked Truth, her forthcoming six-track EP underlines an artist who has experienced years of growth and been challenged to ground herself in an industry that equally attracts and breeds insanity. Songs From The Sea was built around Hudson's spiritual development, pulling inspiration from earthly elements, psychedelics and cults to create an awakening experience that sounds like slipping into an Ayahuasca-induced, underwater lucid dream. Hudson sings about love through the lens of a lustful mermaid, reflects on her anxiety against pounding club production and proudly declares her "Gypsy Girl" identity in a slimmed-down acapella cut that recalls the Beatles' woozy '60s sound.
Today on OUT, we're thrilled to exclusively premiere Hudson's "Gypsy Girl" lyric video, below, and caught up with the artist to learn more about her past, present and forthcoming Songs From The Sea EP.
OUT: You released a solo album, Naked Truth, in 2005 and went on to create Ultraviolet Sound, before diving more heavily into songwriting. How have these experiences informed you as an artist today?
Sarah Hudson: They have completely shaped me, not only as an artist, but a human being, healer and storyteller. Today as an artist, I couldn’t care less about being a “pop star," about conforming, about having a “fuck you” mentality, about proving myself, about being validated—about anything other than truth and pure expression. But I needed to go through these experiences to arrive here. My first ever, and only, solo full length album was one of the most cathartic experiences of my life so far. I grew up not only loving to sing and write songs, but with this relentless vision for myself of complete Madonna pop stardom and domination—everything I ever wanted growing up.
I signed to a major label when I was 21, got dropped, re-signed to another major label, worked with every incredible writer and producer at the time, and for three years crafted this ideal and undeniable (in my mind) pop record. There was this naive delusion of grandeur mentality I had that nothing could go wrong and this was it for me—I was going to be the next big pop "it girl." Just before my album was set to be released, the president of the label left and all the acts got dropped including me. I will never forget the day that my a&r called me and told me. It felt like someone had ripped my heart of my chest—all my dreams and hopes were shattered in that moment. At the time I was completely devastated, but now looking back, it was exactly what I needed. At that very moment, I grew a new layer of the most resilient skin—I was determined to do things my way and I was angry.
So then you formed Ultraviolet Sound...
I almost immediately started a band—I didn’t want a major label deal; I didn’t want anyone telling me what to do and say and wear. I wanted to make the music I wanted to make and literally tell everyone to "fuck off." So I started a band called Ultraviolet Sound and we made some of our first demos in my boyfriend's basement. I went from the most expensive studios in NYC and LA to a basement in New Jersey making dirty, underground electro, dubstep music and blending it with my pop sensibilities—before it was mainstream to be making that kind of music, honestly. I fell in love with the art of it again—all of the bullshit illusion wasn’t my focus anymore. I truly wanted to make music I loved, have fun and do it grassroots, and we did.
I spent the next five years hustling my tits off, so broke—I lived in a studio with cockroaches and no shower, ate subway sandwiches for days and survived on my dream and determination. We were successful as an “underground” band and toured our asses off, played with Lady Gaga before she was Lady Gaga, made independent records and literally did it all for the “art” of it. During these years, I really harnessed my songwriting and hustling abilities, and I met some of my closest friends and collaborators through this process. After 5 years, the band fizzled out—we all became interested in other areas of music. A big thing for me was writing with and for other artists—it was almost like a break for my mind. I could jump into somebody else’s mind for a minute and loved it. But while I love assisting other artists in their vision, I also have visions of my own and needed to let them out.
At what point did you make the jump to songwriting?
When my band was making our record, we worked with one of my greatest mentors, Desmond Child. Desmond told me about an artist named Ferras and said I would love him and told me I should write with Ferras for his project. Up until this point, I never thought about writing for other artists—it just never crossed my mind as something I would be into. But Desmond was so passionate about Ferras and I was intrigued. That night I messaged Ferras on Myspace—yes, Myspace—and the next week, I ended up doing a writing session for my band with him and Lauren Christy. Months later, he reached out and asked us to write with him for his project. It was the first time I had ever written for someone else and I became obsessed with it. During that time, Ultraviolet Sound started to fizzle out and I had been making the transition so naturally into songwriting. I mean, I have been a “songwriter” since 10 years old, so it was nothing new—just taking on a different form.
Let's talk about Katy Perry. You've written several songs together and are co-writing on her new album. How has your relationship affected your music?
Katy is one of my dearest friends and an absolute angel in my life. I’ve known her for many years by just being in the music industry. My band did a few shows with her for Perez Hilton parties and SXSW, and we would always see each other out in the same scene. We connected almost instantly and she really embraced me into her inner circle of friends, who are now some of the most influential, incredible angels in my life. While she was making Prism, one night around 11 pm she texted me and said, “What are you doing tomorrow night?” and I said something like, “Well, I was gonna go to this party,” and she said, “Come up to Santa Barbara and write with me, Max Martin, Dr. Luke and Cirkut instead.” I was like, "Um, okay obviously, duh."
Long story short, I went, and we wrote "Dark Horse." In the months to follow, we ended up also writing "Black Widow" and "Get On Your Knees." Katy is such a genuine artist, songwriter and human being. We have a very special creative bond and I learn so much from her on the daily. She motivates me to be my most genuine and authentic self, and that is reflected in my own music. I am only interested in being authentic in every way as a human being, songwriter and artist—and I have my earth angels to thank for constantly pushing me to grow.
How is the process different when you're writing for other artists versus writing your own material?
When I write for other artists, I make a conscious effort to step inside their brain. I am there to assist them in telling their story. Sure, bits and pieces of my own experiences trickle in there as well, but it's really all about what this artist wants to say and how I can help. I have embraced the fact that I am also a muse—I get off on being a muse just as much as being my own artist. It is a huge part of my destiny and I love it. "Muse" is tattooed on my hand. When I am writing for myself, I am telling my story and sharing what swirls around in my psychedelic dreamland crazy mind—it's my poetry, nobody else’s. I truly love wearing both hats—I need them both.
You've been working on your EP, Songs From The Seas, for years. What took so long?
I started writing the songs almost 5 years ago when I was working with Ferras on his first batch of material. We have such a cosmic connection and would sit at the piano for hours with bottles of wine, sage and our dreams—we would write for him, for me, for whatever we felt at the time. Once my songwriting career really started to take off, I was focusing primarily on that, while piecing together this EP and producing it here and there with my insanely talented friend Nico Stadi. I knew I wanted to make music of my own, but had no concrete plan, as I was super busy with my career. Around this time last year, it all started to become a whole story and take shape into something meaningful—something I was ready to put out there and call my own. I wasn’t in a rush, I just let it happen as it was supposed to, and now just happens to be the right time to put it out to the universe.
When you look at this project as a whole, what do you think is the core message?
Even though we are all here on this earth, in this lifetime, making human mistakes and feeling human emotions, there is something bigger driving us—something beyond our human bodies, a karmic journey beyond the material world that if we can bring ourselves to truly understand, we can achieve true enlightenment. Our heartache, mistakes, addictions and misfortunes are exactly what we need to mend our karma, learn our lessons and transcend into something beyond the physical. I guess you could say the message is to be in the moment and embrace every aspect of the human experience in order to connect with the spiritual.
What perspective do you think you're bringing to pop music?
I think I'm bringing a little bit of poetry and spirituality into pop music. Poets and spiritualists are, and have always been, my greatest influencers. I would love to be 2017’s Enya, to be honest
Who are some of the collaborators on Songs From The Sea?
I wrote "Gypsy Girl," "Love Me This Way" and "Voices" with Ferras all at the piano. I wrote "Mermaid" and "Black Crow" with Ferras and my now fiancé, Sami Diament (AKA Brillz), and I wrote "Wildflowers" with Coffee and Patrick Berger. I wanted it all to basically sound like you just drank Ayahuasca in an underwater lucid dream. I started the productions with one of my closest friends and most genius producers, Nico Stadi. He was so patient with me and my vision and truly made it come to life. We would play each other music we were inspired by before our sessions and geek out on chord progressions and soundscapes. After we had most of the foundations laid out, I brought in my fiancé, Brillz, to add a bit of edge to it all. For "Wildflowers," I had a writing session with two of my favorite writers, Coffee and Patrick Berger, to try and write a song for Madonna and we just weren’t vibing on it, so Patrick took out the guitar and we took a trip into Beatles land and wrote this quirky, trippy folk song—I held on to this demo for a while and always felt so connected to it and decided to put it on my EP as is. There’s something so raw and special about it to me.
There's an atmospheric quality to the EP. Where does this come from?
I grew up in Los Angeles with a hippie rock star dad who introduced me to Joni Mitchell when I was 7 and would give me magical crystals to wear around my neck before I even knew what to do with them. I also suffered from severe anxiety and panic attacks from a young age and would look to anything and anyone for relief. I found what worked for me best was a sense of spirituality, yoga and constantly working on my connection with “God.” I learned to use tools to connect with the divine—sage, palo santo, crystals, the tarot—and after a lot of trial and error, I found the spiritual teachers, psychics and mentors that have become my guides and angels that I look to for guidance. I have always been a seeker, searching for something more than the physical—it is such a huge part of my essence that, of course, it naturally bled into my music.
Talk specifically about the song, "Voices," which is one of the EP's standouts.
"Voices" is about my battle with anxiety and how hopeless it feels in that earthly moment of a panic attack. I have been in therapy since I was 13 and to me, this song is like a groundhog day of me talking to my therapist. I wanted the track to illustrate this driving, repetitive feeling and I also wanted to have a track that alluded to my past of dance music, and this song just lent itself perfectly. The lyric in the bridge is one of my favorite things I’ve ever written: "I’ve relied on cults of psychology, one more dose to change my anatomy [...] I've heard there's a place of serenity, legend says it lives inside of me [...] but I can't find it anywhere."
What's the story behind "Gypsy Girl"?
"Gypsy Girl" is about me realizing that I am an artist and psychic spiritual being. It’s about that blessing and curse of realizing your destiny and deciding to fully embrace every hardship and every gift that comes along with living your truth—the juxtaposition of being a human being and divine being, which we all are. I wanted it to be acappella because I wanted it to be all me—every word, every sound, every second is me coming into my own and screaming out my truth.
What are some of the core inspirations behind this EP?
The tarot was a major influence in piecing this all together. I am a tarot reader and would do readings before each recording session and it would really set the mood for me. The elements were a big influence for me, as well—earth, air, fire, water and spirit—each song represents an element to me. As far as artists go, some of my greatest influences—especially during the making of this EP—are Enya, Sarah Brightman, Kate Bush, Tori Amos, Mazzy Star, Purity Ring, Goldfrapp, Madonna and Stevie Nicks. I was so visually inspired by the movies Holy Mountain, Ciao Manhattan and every documentary out there about cults, the occult and psychedelia.
What was it like growing up with your dad, Mark Hudson, and being around so many iconic musicians from an early age?
My childhood was truly such a gift. Harry Nielson sang to me when I was a baby, Cher would babysit me, I spent Christmases with Steven Tyler, watched Ozzy Osbourne sing his heart out and Ringo Starr play the drums in my dad’s tiny studio. I spent my days after school at the Village Studio in West LA watching my dad work. There was just no question that this was what I was gonna do—I knew it when i started consciously singing at the age of 3. My dad would always say, “Sarah, are you sure you want to do this? It's really fucking hard,” and it was never even a question in my mind. I think it's helped me stay strong through all the rejection to be honest. I saw the insane ups and downs my dad went through and I think it subconsciously prepared me for those times of hardship—and there are so many. But it also taught me about destiny. If you are destined to do something and it is already so deep inside every fiber of your being, you can’t ignore it. You can try, but it will always find away to express itself.