It’s been three years since Sarah Simmons wowed her way onto the NBC reality show, The Voice. Audiences reacted strongly to Sarah’s 5-octave range and her uncanny ability to adapt to practically any genre of music. Though she didn’t win, the exposure has been its own reward and her first full-length album titled Freedom is set to release early this summer.
“I wrote part of this album while driving across the country from California to Nashville,” says Sarah, who now calls The Music City her home. “That’s when I started feeling an intense freeing from people, places, heartaches and all kinds of situations.”
A modern rock and pop powerhouse, Sarah can deliver the vocal thrills of Ann Wilson or the down home grit of Grace Potter, all with the vulnerability and Southern sensibility all her own. If Janis Joplin were alive today, she’d find a soul sister in Sarah Simmons.
Born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, Sarah recalls watching old classic musical movies with her grandmother who loved the jazz finesse of Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. Her dad, meanwhile plied Sarah with the classic rock of Jimmy Hendrix, Neil Young and Led Zeppelin. The end result was “all kinds of music at a young age that I came to respect and love,” she says.
Worship and inspirational music also impacted the future singer, especially as a young child at church and singing along with her mother and sister in the car. Sarah saw the great Belinda George-Peoples sing the Carousel standard, You’ll Never Walk Alone and it hit her hard. “She sang from her soul and it moved me in a way that changed my feelings about music forever.”
In fifth grade, Sarah discovered her own musical aptitude when she blew away her teacher and classmates with a spontaneous, a cappella rendition of I’ve Got Rhythm. Vocal training soon began, including lessons with a retired Juilliard affiliate, Eleanor Trafton, who taught the 11-year-old about such fine points as breath control, a quality that distinguishes Sarah’s singing to this day.
A year later, she discovered how to channel her voice into big bold performances thanks to hearing Dead Can Dance vocalist Lisa Gerrard and her defining song from Gladiator, Now We Are Free. Sarah remains a fan to this day: “If Eddie Vedder and Lisa Gerrard had a child, that’s what I want my career to look like.” For the rest of her formative years she was heavily involved in musical theatre. Sarah has always dreamed of writing and singing for movies and television.
Sarah had already been writing poetry when, at 15, she was given a guitar from her dad. It holds a special meaning to this day. Then struggling with addiction, her father had been in rehab when a fellow patient left him a guitar before checking out. When Sarah saw her dad next, he placed the guitar in his daughter’s hands and simply said, “Put this to good use.”
She spent a few years at the University of Mobile majoring in voice and worship leadership before transferring to the Memphis-based Visible Music College. There she befriended fellow student, Sean Reeder, who told her about a television show called The Voice. He suggested she audition. As it happened, the Grammy award winning President of the college recommended Sarah to the show’s executive producers, and she made the cut. “Then it was living in a hotel for eight and half months,” she says.
One of the most impressive voices on The Voice, Sarah made it to the final eight in 2013 on the fourth season of the Emmy Award winning singing show. Those who saw her only got a glimpse of her true talents, which are on full, confident display on Freedom. Produced by Nashville pro Marshall Altman (Amy Grant, Eric Paslay, Frankie Ballard, Citizen Cope) at House of Blues studio, the album lets Sarah’s unique voice and style shine throughout. The result of her debut album carries with it an emotional honesty and intensity worthy of Adele that also takes advantage of rock’s ability to create epic moments.
“I’m a big Led Zeppelin fan,” says Sarah. “I tend to make songs a little longer than normal, the way it used to be. Back in the day, a lot of people would put on a vinyl, lie down on the floor and listen to it like a journey. I really want Freedom to be that journey.”
Just as impressive, Sarah wrote or co-wrote nearly all of the material, including such standout tracks as the hook-laden Southern rocker, Honey I’m Fine, and the anthemic closer, Staring At The Sun, written over the tragic death of Sean Reeder, the friend that was such an encouragement to her. Both of these songs will be released as her first music videos.
From The Voice to that voice, Sarah Simmons seems destined to be a star. She has recently signed with leading song-licensing company, Cutting Edge Group, and has been co-writing with film composer Deborah Lurie (Safe Haven, Footloose, Dear John), yet she tosses off any thought of fame, happy that music has always been there for her. “Music,” she says, “has really been the thing that has gotten me through everything.”