As Pat Benatar insisted on her 1983 classic, “We are strong / No one can tell us we’re wrong / Searching our hearts for so long / Both of us knowing / Love is a battlefield.” Trapped by (potential) love, Los Angeles upstart Sarah Hollins came face-to-face with a dilemma: and there was no way to be free except through song. “I had been casually flirting/talking to this guy on and off for a few years. He would always ask me out and then never follow through,” she tells B-Sides & Badlands. “He’s another musician, and we would see each other around at venues and go out to see each other play, and he would just let the tension and chemistry hang in the air without doing anything about it.”
That’s when “Heartbeat,” a glistening, ’80s-galvanized banger, rushed to her fingertips. “I had the idea for the hook at first and then realized that the rest of the song would be a great way to talk about that tension and how silly I thought it was to be so scared to even take me out on a date and see if anything could come of the feelings going on between the two of us,” she continues.
In the accompanying visual, bathed in spooky pinks and blues, Hollins gets intimate, drawing upon the juxtaposition of “vulnerability and strength,” she explains. “A big booming chorus about confidence is so much better and is more honest if you show the vulnerability and doubt that allowed you to get to that point. You can’t have one without the other. As humans, we’re multifaceted, and we feel all of these conflicting emotions at once. I think it’s also important to depict the dual nature of sexuality and sexual connections. While being sexually confident is strong and empowering, you’re also vulnerable by allowing someone into that space with you and trusting them to honor and respect you, your time, your body and your health.”
Too often, society tells women they can’t be both: it’s either one or the other. The manifestation of independence and vigor only means something when it is grounded in honest truth, the exposed and raw edges which define all human existence. “We’re either sexually aggressive or we’re demure and shy. We’re not often allowed to be all of these things at once, and I’m honestly really tired of the virgin/whore dichotomy. We’re human beings; we’re complicated. Sex is complicated,” Hollins admonishes of the ongoing damage of the patriarchy. “The whole thing is a push and pull of aggressive and more vulnerable, timid energies. I think it’s beautiful to own and be confident in both of those sides of yourself. I think that’s why so many female fans (myself included) have enthusiastically embraced the band, LANY. The lead singer is writing incredibly honest and vulnerable songs, from a male perspective, about love, sexuality, and relationships. It’s a breath of fresh air in the pop world.”
On a cinematographic level, Hollins “was really inspired by a lot of the neon and ’80s palettes that Paramore has been using in their newest music videos,” she says. Directed by Nicole Pagan, the colors and tones were paired with onsite photo shoots over the past year (as seen above), conjuring up a similar enough vibe but with enough bite to beckon the viewer into her dark, swirling world. “Nicole had the stellar idea to use a projector to incorporate all of those cool images into the project. It’s hard to do high quality lighting on a tighter budget, so we got creative and used the projector to help us achieve something unique without having to have a big lighting crew/space.”
Filmed in Pagan’s Koreatown apartment, Hollins locked herself away in a room, as a way to tap directly into the crushing susceptibility of the lyrics. “I had the idea for keeping it simple and focused on me sort of pining away. I think that we all have that romanticized idea of how we think about and relate to our crushes. Even though we might see them in the outside world or on social media, we feel like we experience it in this tight space and that it’s something personal that we keep to ourselves in our own little world,” she explains.
Close friend Natalie Swanner choreographed the straightforward but effective movements, electrifying the message with a gentle wave of tension. “I was excited to challenge myself but needed time to get the moves right. There was also some fun hiccups with the projector. We used these YouTube videos that had static and moving images on loops and sometimes ads would pop up or the name of the video would pop up behind me while I was trying to sing and look cool. It definitely would ruin the shot sometimes, and we would all start laughing at how great it was for ’10 hours of disco lights’ to pop up on the wall behind my head while I’m singing ‘heart-heart-heartbeat.'”
“Heartbeat” anchors Hollins’ forthcoming EP, expected later this year. She promises “the rest of the record is a mix of R&B, pop, and 80’s synth and funk influences. I was really inspired by the stripped down/simple R&B of LANY and Frank Ocean, the vocal runs of singers like Craig David, and the fearlessness and grooviness of Prince and Stevie Wonder,” she teases. “Obviously, those influences aren’t present on every song, but I think that you can hear them peppered throughout the record. There’s another song called “You and Me” that’s also a big, dance-y song, but it’s a little more funky. Then, I have a ballad called “Growing Up” that’s pretty traditional old school R&B.
How did the hook “heart-heart-heartbeat” come to you?
This is probably the most random “how did you write that song” moment. I was legit in the elevator of my apartment building, taking my laundry down to the laundry room, and I just started singing the hook. I had my arms full of dirty clothes and was singing “heart-heart-heartbeat.” I used every subsequent trip back and forth to write the rest of the chorus. I took the hook into my producer at Capitol, and he helped me shape the instrumentation for the rest of the song. I ended up finishing writing the verses and the bridge at a local library before our next session, and that’s when it ended up pouring out.
What did you learn about yourself and music through writing and recording the EP?
I’ve been writing songs my whole life, legitimately writing them since I was a teenager in a pop-punk band in New Jersey, but this was the first time I really sat back and thought about what I wanted to say with each and every song on this record. I wanted to make sure it wasn’t just a collection of love songs. I wanted to have something to say about society, about myself growing up and growing as a woman, and about how hard life can be. I also co-produced the EP with Nathan Walters (formerly of Plus One, they had a track on the Pokemon 2000 soundtrack, no big deal), and it was really scary at first to feel confident enough in myself and my vision, but then I grew into myself a bit and felt really comfortable expressing my ideas (i.e. suggesting a mix of live and programmed drums, nitpicking all my vocal takes, creating harmony ideas and suggesting textures and layering ideas.) In the past, I would write a song and trust a producer to help flesh it out, but now I have a better idea of how I want my music to sound and what type of statement I want to make. Not gonna lie, it was also really cool to pull up to Capitol, say my name, and have them open the gate for me. For a Jersey girl who came to Cali to pursue her dreams of a music career, those were totally “pinch myself” moments that I’ll never forget.
When are you expecting to release the EP?
We shot a live video of me performing a stripped down version of the song “Growing Up” at the EP listening party we had at Capitol, and I’m currently working on a music video for another song, “They Say.” Those two songs and videos will come out next, and then, I’ll release the last two songs together later in the summer/early in the fall. After that, the entire EP will be available online. Right now, you can physically buy it from me through my website or through PayPal, old school style. I wanted to do it this way so that my fans wouldn’t have a gap between releases while I start working on new songs. I’ve already written and started production on three new tunes, so I’m super excited to start playing those out live and can’t wait for people to hear them.
Any other song titles/stories you can tease?
“Growing Up” is a ballad about how tough the past year of my life was. I was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s Disease, an autoimmune disorder, and I started navigating some heavy/difficult family dynamics after going through intense therapy and beginning to speak out about sexual abuse I experienced during my childhood. There’s lines in the song like “It’s been a long, long time, ain’t that right mama / Since I felt like I was mine, and not just borrowed” that talk about how I’d been feeling during that low period. It’s a song about giving yourself permission to have growing pains as you navigate difficult periods and allowing yourself some space and grace to not be okay and realize that that’s all a part of getting to a better place/figuring out who you really are.
There’s another song on the record called “They Say” that’s a Black Lives Matter tune. I come from a pretty conservative and privileged background, so I knew that I might alienate some of my audience by writing and releasing this song, but I really didn’t care. I’ve always felt like I needed to speak up about injustice, but when I saw it affecting so many of my friends of color, I had to try to use my platform in any way that I could. I actually dedicated that song to my honorary nephew, Ezra. I wrote it for him/his parents and the way I thought that they might be feeling during these turbulent times. Not that I can really put myself in their shoes, but I wanted to do whatever I could to lend a voice to their cause.Then, there’s also a fun little treat, a Spice Girls cover, because Girl Power is almost always the answer to everything in life.
You were a choir kid. How was that experience, and how did it mold you?
I starting singing in my church choir when I was around three or four. They actually let me in early because I would sit up front, during the rehearsals, and just repeat what the director said (because I couldn’t read yet). From there, I joined choir in elementary school and then went on to audition for and join my local state choirs (shout out to All South Jersey Chorus). We actually had these almost nine hour rehearsals on Saturdays, and if you missed one, you’d have to test to get back in. It was cutthroat. We had these amazing end of year recitals, and we were killer, man. I was in a bunch of choirs at my high school, too: Chorale, Chamber Choir, and Vocal Jazz Pop Ensemble.
I think they really shaped me as a singer. I have a great ear for harmony, whether it’s adding harmonies for my own tunes, singing backup for my friends at their shows, or singing harmonies on tracks for different collaborative projects. It’s interesting to come from that world and a world of classical training/private lessons, and then break those rules by (first) singing rock and then pop. I think that it’s great for singers to learn the correct techniques and build a solid foundation so that they can healthily break the rules. It also helps you develop your own style because you sang so pure/traditionally for so long, and you’re not just trying to copy whatever act you hear on the radio. You’re sort of combining it all together. I definitely miss choir. If I had the time to dedicate to it, I would totally join one now.
What else you take from that into making pop music?
Blending voices and creating great harmonies are super helpful when you’re in the studio and you’re trying to sing to yourself or match someone else’s voice if you’re working on their project. Choir is all about singing with one voice and serving the song, not just yourself and the fun solo you want to sing. I also was held to these crazy high standards starting at such a young age. You had to dress, speak, and behave a certain way. You had to stand the right way on the risers, hold your folder a certain way, be responsible for your own music, and you had to take the time to practice and really take care of your voice if you wanted to do a good job and not let down yourself or the team.
I think all of that translates into making music, especially pop music. You show up, ready to work and you have that discipline and work ethic that you carry with you. I also think that once you can sight read in German, sing in Swahili, and dabble in tons of different genres, you can really sing anything. It makes you so strong and versatile as a singer and as an artist. Even though I complained and moaned about it sometimes when I was missing out on friend’s birthday parties because I had a rehearsal or a concert, I’m so grateful I had that experience. It’s really invaluable and I definitely wouldn’t be the artist I am without having spent those years honing my craft in such a special way.