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Five questions with: Singer Sarah Clarke of Dirty Revival

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Dirty Revival w/ 6 Odd Rats

Gabe’s — Thursday, May 23 at 9 p.m.

Sarah Clarke, singer with Dirty Revival. — courtesy of the artist

The soul band Dirty Revival may be based in Portland, Oregon, but they believe wholly in one nation under a groove. I use that reference because the seven-piece collective once shared the stage with George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic themselves, as well as many other soul and funk legends, like the Motet and members of the Meters, George Porter Jr. and Zigaboo Modeliste.

The band brings their infectious soul sound to Gabe’s on Thursday, May 23. Tickets are $10.

I caught up with Sarah Clarke, the incomparable lead vocalist for Dirty Revival, via email before they headed east for a run of Midwest shows, including a spot at this weekend’s Summer Camp Music Festival in Chillicothe, Illinois.

You are a Portland native and still live and work there today. How has that community fostered music into your life? Was there a particular moment or record that you listened to that made it imperative that you become a musician?

I was very active in the choral scene during my school years, but after graduation, life asserted itself and music took a back seat to working. Although it was still a hobby I enjoyed, I didn’t see it as a career option until much later in my life, after my son was born. Our drummer, Terry Drysdale, really encouraged me in the early days of Dirty Revival. My son was very young and I was working a lot. Joining a band seemed fun but frivolous at that time.

I remember, shortly before our first show together, I had the opportunity to travel to New Orleans during Jazz Fest. One of the many shows I saw during that time was Charles Bradley. I was captivated by his performance, by how genuine every move seemed to be, he seemed to be singing to each person in the room individually. I could barely make sense of it all through the tears, but I knew that I wanted to tap into that same power as a performer. I went home with purpose after seeing his performance.

To me, Dirty Revival is a quintessential 21st-century band: defying a single genre, yet seemingly pulling something out of every one of them. How did Dirty Revival first come together?

Evan Simko (guitar), Terry (drums) and some friends decided to start a weekly jam. They invited me early on, I think originally I was meant to play keys and sing but I was so rusty with both I opted to focus on vocals. We filled in missing pieces from there, but Evan, Terry, Chris Hardin (tenor sax) and myself are what’s left from that jam session.

In the early days, we had no idea what we were doing. Playing music and having fun, definitely, but we didn’t operate as a business, we didn’t tour. Some of us were hungry for more and some weren’t, but I suppose that’s how it goes. Over the years we’ve made a ton of changes, bringing in new players (Jon Shaw on bass, Ben Turner on keys and Thomas Barber on trumpet) — our sound has morphed into something new.

We play tighter than we ever have. We also made giant steps with our business, opening an LLC of which all seven members are owners. We’ve invested in a van and trailer. We have booking agents and managers. It’s crazy to think about what came out of those jam sessions six years ago.

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In a seven-piece band, there are probably a wealth of musical ideas constantly floating around. How does the songwriting work in Dirty Revival? As the frontwoman, how do you approach writing the lyrics?

I don’t think Dirty Revival will ever run out of musical ideas. Everyone has stuff to bring to the table. Our bassist, Jon Shaw, does a lot of idea writing and I would say that about 80 percent of the original tunes we play in our set today started as his brain child. Everyone does their part though. We all write our own parts, unless someone has a strong idea, and we try to give space for that as well.

For me, I find that some songs seem to tell me what they need as far as lyrical and melodic content. That’s my favorite thing when it happens, but it doesn’t always happen. Sometimes I’ll be beating my head against a wall, hating every idea I have, miserable because I can’t find a way to speak for the music. When that happens, I find it best to leave it alone for a while. I’d rather hold off on finishing a project than put out work I won’t be proud of in a year.

Dirty Revival comes through Iowa City with a show at Gabe’s on May 23. — courtesy of the artist

Dirty Revival has put together some incredible covers over the years, taking on tunes by Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath and even Nine Inch Nails. How do these covers first take shape? Can you talk about the process of delivering these songs through a female voice?

Yes! Our covers are a big thing for us. We like playing songs people don’t expect from us, and the musical exercise of taking something that strays from our main genre and reworking it to sound like us is a real fun one. And I think it’s changed our sound musically. You mentioned genre bending before — I think our cover choices have allowed for those “bends.” It becomes part of our identity after a while.

I love presenting these songs from a different perspective. There’s a lot of power in some of the covers we choose and sharing that same power but with a woman’s voice is exhilarating. And watching women in the audience glean power from that? That’s exhilarating too.

You have a young son, Donovan George, who is referred to in your bio as the “soon to be 8th member of the band.” Has motherhood changed the way you approach your music?

Ah my boy. I love him so much. He was such a huge part in my decision to really push myself to make music my career. I wanted him to see me for who I knew I could be. Not for what I was going to be if I didn’t take the risk and pursue this dream. I wanted him to know that it’s ok to find your calling later in life.

I miss him so much when I’m on the road. I trade moments with him to tour and share our music, and I often wonder if I’m making the right choice. I guess I’ll know at the very end when it’s time to reconcile if this was all worth it, but I think it is. It does take a toll, and It’s hard on us both.

The band is coming up, but the money isn’t quite there. Sometimes we go out on the road and come back with so little. When I’m at my most vulnerable, I worry that I’m gambling our future on a silly dream. What if we can’t make it? It can be challenging to work through those moments. We all have doubts from time to time, but your drive to succeed has to outweigh those doubts, and mine does. And I believe everyone in Dirty Revival feels the same way.

This life isn’t easy but sharing our music and message with people is such a beautiful, powerful thing. And hopefully, if we work hard and do our very best, everything else will just work itself out.


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