Sadie Gustafson-Zook – Sin of Certainty
Self-Released – 22 April 2022
Born in Indiana and raised in a liberal Mennonite community, Sadie Gustafson-Zook later graduated in jazz studies from Boston’s Longy School of Music and came out as gay. On her new album, she says, “I say ‘Sin’ of certainty because I don’t think that being certain should be something to strive for. Instead, I think we should uplift uncertainty, which can lead to so much growth and possibility.” Sin of Certainty addresses that experience of, as she puts it, “uncertainty and gay stuff” through a musical prism of cottagecore (an idealised aesthetic of rural life) folksiness.
Produced by Alec Spiegelman, who also provides wind ensemble, and featuring pianist Michelle Willis, Zoe Guigueno on bass and drummer Sean Trischka, it opens with rippling fingerpicked acoustic notes and a flurry of woodwinds for the deceptively breezy Birdsong on which she recalls waiting for a bus and hearing birds chirping, but mistaking it for a man wolf-whistling her (“Standing by the road, cig in tow, making all kinds of demands/‘Smile, sugar- sweet’”). The song reveals itself as being about how women are often subjected to sexual harassment and the male gaze as she remembers, “I was nine when I skated by and a big white truck stopped by me/Two grown men were there/I was scared and they whistled at my hiney”.
Accompanied by piano and Mairi Chaimbeul on harp, her voice fluttering airily across the scales, the dreamy jazz-flavoured Maybe I Don’t Know, from whence comes the album title, concerns the uncertainty of searching for a relationship and learning more about yourself in the process (“In the past, I had a plan and stuck to it fervently/But with every new beginning I am finding that I’ve been wrong/And with every wrong decision I get closer to me”). She recalls living with “assumptions about how I was to love” and “writing sad songs to try to process what went wrong–How I couldn’t seem to choose a man or keep one very long”. That same questioning extends into the clear skies piano ballad Go Easy (“It is normal for me to feel this way/I am going through a lot of changes/Things I can’t control and things I pretend I can’t control are making it hard for me”).
On Lean in More, her first gay song, she speaks of her first lesbian relationship and the feeling of being truly cared for (“I have never known such compassion as I have felt within your arms/You’re surprising me with the things I feel that I’ve never felt before/You have listening ears and you yearn to hear all I have to say”) and found. However, despite feeling “that I’m okay in a pair”, as with any relationship, there’s also the question of how much you lose yourself in the process, something that troubles Keep Myself (“Then I lose all my independence–Why can’t I keep myself when I’m with her?/I always think that I am strong enough to keep up my identity when I am one of two”) realising “I must find a way to compromise and be at once in a pair and on my own”. The doubts are echoed in Two where she sings about dating someone who has two different personalities (“You are two, with me that’s three/I don’t know how to go forward with that much uncertainty”), calm and gentle at night when they’re lying together, but then “when the lights are up and I can see your smile, you’re paranoid and wild and I don’t know what to do with the two of you”, leading her to ask “Am I that bruised?/To not see the faults in me–Are we all duplicities?”.
Her grounding in musical theatre is often evident, perhaps no more so than on the harp and piano-based Alewife, a snapshot of Boston’s public transport system (the title is the name of a station) and the humanity encompassed in the commute in all its varying shades, from “As I stepped into the car/I smelled vomit on the floor/Eaten and uneaten takeout laid next to me” to “The morning train doors were too fast/The old man could not get past/With a smirk shared with his partner, he said with grace, ‘We can always get off later and then retrace’”).
While compassion infuses much of the album, in Digestion, she acknowledges that an overload can be a problem (“your compassion is crippling/Being awake won’t solve everything”), a song that essentially shares the same sentiment as Don’t Worry, Be Happy and wittily ends with some sensible advice overlooked by Bobby McFerrin– “everything you’re feeling makes sense, but please don’t forget how to take rest, eat meals, and hydrate daily”.
She returns to her own epiphany and awakening in the final moments, first on the Laura Nyro-ish lazing jazzy brushed drum and vibes coloured Your Love Makes Me Smile (“Sunday afternoon in September–leaves were changing on the trees and I was changing with them too” and its celebration of the openness of the LGBT community (“I didn’t realize there could be people who would take me in as their own kin with a drop of a hat”).
It ends with Everyone, written during a visit to her parent’s house and a reflection on her worries (whether founded in reality or in her own imagination) about coming out and of being judged by her small-town community, the song perfectly capturing that feeling of self-uncertainty regardless of whether informed by sexuality, race, class or whatever as she sings “I don’t know how to be who I thought I would become when I was young/Everyone seems to think that they should have a say in who I am”. Ultimately you have to be true to who you are and be your own person, and on an album that dances on dreamy melodies and her pure soaring voice, her truth is beautiful and beguiling. Lean in and listen.
Keep Myself by Sadie Gustafson-Zook