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September 02, 2021

Music Talk: Sarah Kang, the Jazz, Pop and Soul Artist Who Found Her Voice Through Music

By Alice Austin 10 min read

Highlights

  • Sarah Kang is a Korean-American artist who writes jazz, soul, pop and RnB tracks
  • She was extremely shy growing up, but music was one of the few ways she could express herself and connect
  • Now she’s one of Artlist’s top performing artists. Her music generates millions of streams and is used in hundreds of projects around the world

Sarah Kang is forever nostalgic about childhood, although she spent most of it on the move. Her music captures the innocence and irresponsibility of that time when someone else told her when to eat, when to sleep, when to play, when to learn. Born in South Korea, Sarah moved to LA when she was 8 months old after her father got a job as a pastor at an American-Korean church. From there, they moved to Chicago, where Sarah’s imagination is permanently lodged, and when Sarah was 7, they moved to Texas. Sarah’s rose-tinted wistfulness for childhood in Chicago was undoubtedly shaped by the difficult adolescence in Texas. So she returns to her happy place through the soft glow of guitar melodies and the gentle rhythm of poetry, all of it so relatable and honest that fans just flock to her, like happy moths to a lovely flame. 

The Artlist effect

Today Sarah Kang is a well-established jazz/soul/pop/RnB artist. She plays New York City’s quirkier venues like laundromats, bookshop basements and art studios that double up as living quarters. She’s released 23 singles and a handful of EPs as an independent artist, which makes her and Artlist a match made in heaven. She became a top-performing artist startlingly quickly with filmmakers, influencers and brands the world over choosing her summer-slick tracks to sell their clothes, air conditioning or make-up. Sarah’s lyrics cover the full range of human emotion - love, loss, joy, solitude - but before Sarah discovered music, she rarely expressed herself. Life in Texas was so punishing that she barely connected with anyone at all.

In 'Summer is for Falling in Love', Kang delivers intimate songs with her soft,

sincere voice over subtle Jazzy grooves and RnB vibes

 

But Sarah's success on Artlist had a major effect on her overall popularity. Her song Summer is for Falling in Love, for example, had around 25k Spotify listens before being released on Artlist in June 2020. The nostalgic love song quickly became very popular on the platform and earned more than 6k video placements, including in ads for international brands like LG, Vogue, ELLE and Uniqlo. A year and 45k Shazams later, the song's Spotify listens reached 1.3 million. That's a massive jump.

performing could be a way to share a piece of myself and communicate in a way that felt comfortable to me.

“I was always kind of introverted and shy,” Sarah says, “and I think that was made worse because I moved around so much.” Sarah’s dad’s job meant they’d move apartment or city multiple times a year, so she’d change school just as often. “I think some people become resilient and get really good at making friends quickly, but I was kind of the opposite case. My core personality type is so introverted and reserved that I think it just pushed me more and more in a shell.”

Speaking over Zoom, Sarah comes across as unassuming and modest; everything she says is considered and thought-through. She has near-straight dark brown hair and a face ready to break into a smile at any moment. She’s a quiet, big-hearted art girl, the kind of person you’d make friends with in gym class as you stand awkwardly trying not to get noticed.

Sarah’s mom is a piano teacher, so she was surrounded by music growing up, but a band called Relient K from Canton, Ohio, was the one that changed her life. Their pop-punk tracks about high school and crushes and escaping suburbia made Sarah feel much less alone, and she still knows the words to every song.

Thanks to Relient K, Sarah started singing secretly in her bedroom. The thought of being heard by another living soul was so terrifying she’d sit in her closet and make secret recordings then hide them in a folder on her computer. She took up French Horn in the high school band and took free guitar lessons at her local church, but even though music filled her life with more joy than anything else, she never considered pursuing it. “As a child of immigrants, the creative career path isn’t always encouraged,” Sarah says. “It’s not seen as financially stable, and immigrant parents don’t want their children to suffer as much as they did.”

'One' features elegant and melancholic songs that blend Jazz and Indie

 

When Sarah moved to Connecticut to study Art History at Yale in 2010, she found her place in the world. She joined an acapella group and realized “performing could be a way to share a piece of myself and communicate in a way that felt comfortable to me.” Then a track Sarah had written and recorded was released on a collaborative university album. Her identity as an artist was beginning to take shape, and soon she was unrecognizable to the person she’d been in Texas. “I think what happened internally was, you know, I’d moved far away, and I felt like I could start over, not necessarily reinvent myself, but I could do whatever I wanted. I could stay out late with friends. Like, I could sing if I want.” 

Yale was extraordinarily positive for Sarah, so moving to NYC in 2014 was a bit of a culture shock. Dirty streets, screeching taxis and forearm-sized rats replaced the clean lawns and boulevards of New Haven, but it didn’t take long for Sarah to adjust. In fact, she feels more at home in NYC than she ever felt in Texas. Sarah studied post-grad music education and used her downtime to perfect her songwriting skills. She wrote her first EP in 2015, and when a friend found out about it, she convinced Sarah to perform it in her dorm. Sarah says her nerves were almost unmanageable that night, but as soon as she started singing, it all just melted away. “It still might be one of my favorite memories of performing,” Sarah says. “I realized the people weren't there to evaluate my songs. They just love the fact that I'm singing and sharing stories.” Finally, Sarah was making up for all those years she’d struggled to connect.

Before Artlist, it was tough to imagine my career being sustainable in a financial, practical sense.

That gig triggered a series of events. She joined a band called FAIR WTHR and started teaching music therapy at a private school. After a year, she realized she didn’t want to do anything but make music, so she quit her job and committed full time with the support of her husband.

'For a Summer' is a wistful Indie Pop gem that reflects on the fleeting nature of life

 

Since 2017, Sarah spent most of her time transforming her thoughts and feelings into song form, recording and uploading them to her ever-growing fan base. She teamed up with Artlist in 2020, which sent her reach through the roof. She’s particularly popular in South Korea, so Sarah’s now writing songs in her second language. “Honestly, Artlist has changed my career for the better,” she says. “Before Artlist, it was tough to imagine my career being sustainable in a financial, practical sense. Like, streaming pays out so little, and people don’t buy singles or albums anymore.” When COVID hit, Sarah’s revenue from live shows was eliminated. “I would say Artlist now is my biggest form of passive income and has made my music career way more sustainable,” she says.

Artlist as musical matchmaker

Sarah loves collaborating with other independent artists and recently teamed up with fellow Artlist extraordinaire Anthony Lazaro. She wrote a duet with the Italian Born, Germany-based musician called Time Traveling which quickly became one of Artlist’s most popular pop and RnB tracks. “We actually connected through Artlist,” she says. “We noticed our music was being used by the same people, so we figured our audience overlaps and they like our kind of music. And at our core, I think we're both, like, very sentimental, kind of romanticists. So lyrically, that really worked well.” The pair enjoyed their collaboration so much they plan to release an EP together in December.

'Time Traveling' is a romantic duet that merges a Pop sound with Acoustic Guitar

and a chill RnB-inspired beat.

 

If musicians are novels, then Sarah Kang is Jane Eyre. Sarah’s is a coming-of-age story; music turned this romantic introvert inside out and helped her connect and find her place in the world.

“A few years ago, a friend from high school was in New York, and we met to grab lunch and catch up,” Sarah says. “After 5 minutes, he said ‘Sarah - I've heard you talk more in the past 5 minutes than I did the whole of high school.’ And that was kind of eye-opening to me. I was like, oh - I guess music really changed who I am as a person.”

If you’d like to use Sarah Kang’s music in one of your projects, check out her page on Artlist.

 

About Alice

Alice Austin is a freelance writer from London. She writes for Mixmag, Beatportal, Huck, Dummy, Electronic Beats, Red Bulletin and more. She likes to explore youth and sub-culture through the lens of music, a vocation that has led her around the world. You can contact and/or follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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