Meet säje, the vocal supergroup thriving on female empowerment

Sara Gazarek, Amanda Taylor, Johnaye Kendrick and Erin Bentlage came together this year to form the already acclaimed vocal supergroup called säje.

While each of these outstanding artists has a thriving solo career, together they’re something that is incomparable to anything out there today. The group performs not only compelling original material but also mind-blowing reimaginations of music that crosses a number of styles.

As further proof that they’re something special, säje was nominated for a Grammy Award for Desert Song, the very first tune they wrote and arranged together.

Sara Gazarek explains what makes the group work so well.

There’s been so much of a buzz around säje. Are you sensing it? Are you getting the feeling that this is something big?

It’s hard to wrap our heads around it. We love each other musically and otherwise, and we’ve come together with a pretty unified approach to artistry and creation. Anything else that happens beyond just the love and admiration that we have for each other is just icing on the cake. We have been very blessed to even have had the opportunity, because we’re spread out across the United States. Even in the formation of the ensemble, we were prepared to create remotely. When the pandemic hit, there was no reason to stop. Ultimately, we’ve just been grateful to have the opportunity to continue to explore our sound. The group essentially debuted in January, and the response that we’ve received is really thrilling, of course, but we’re just keeping our heads down and creating.

You have done a lot of your own work. People might go, “Wow, a Grammy nomination, you’re all set.” But that’s not the case, right? You’re still going hard at it.

Absolutely. I can probably count all of our performances on my left hand, because we debuted in January and the pandemic hit in mid-February. We had a number of shows ready to go, and of course they were cancelled. For all intents and purposes, we’re still a pretty green group. The song that was nominated for the Grammy is our first original composition. We have two songs on Spotify. We don’t have a record label yet. We don’t have a manager yet. So everything that we’re doing is at our own hands. There’s reason for that: We want to learn and make sure that whatever voice is out there is our own artistic voice. That’s why we do a lot of the recording, editing, mixing and mastering. But when it comes time to actually release things, it’ll be interesting to see if we continue that, à la Jacob Collier — being in control of everything and learning how to do it at the level that we want it to be done — or if we’ll start to surrender things to people who specialize in those categories.

How did the group come together?

Everybody in the collective has been aware of each other for a very long time. It’s a pretty small, tight-knit community of people who are doing things at the level we’re doing it. Everyone knows each other eventually. I was performing as a guest artist with Amanda’s previous vocal group, Groove for Thought. I fell in love with her, personally and musically. I’m a solo artist through and through, but hearing Amanda and hanging out with her that weekend, I immediately ran up to her and said, “I don’t know if I have the skills to do this, but I really want to make music with you. Would you ever consider being in another ensemble?” And she said oh my God, yes. Amanda knows Erin really well through the arranging scene, but I know Erin because she’s a great jazz vocalist and composer in Los Angeles; she composed and sang a lot of the background vocals on my record, Thirsty Ghost. And then Johnaye is a pretty rockin’ jazz vocalist in the Pacific Northwest; she’s very well known and highly respected, and she’s one of my best friends. Vocally, we all have pretty similar approaches. Musically and artistically and personally, we’re all on the same page. We threw the idea out there, and other than Amanda, no one had been in a vocal ensemble before. We had a fan of mine who volunteered that we could stay at her property in Palm Springs if we wanted to have a retreat. A few of them had never met each other, and so we had four days together where we essentially wanted to brainstorm music, but instead we just drank margaritas and swam in the pool — and we wrote Desert Song. We realized how empowering it was to be in a female collective, and to not feel a shift in energy, because we had been conditioned to feel things differently around male collaborators. It was a really different experience to write and work specifically with women. We couldn’t have anticipated that, honestly. I’ve never been the kind of person to think about that. But in this collective, it created such a special space.

Did you talk about that and acknowledge it?

Yeah, that’s what Desert Song is about. It’s all about the freedom in embracing the limitless potential of unburdened female collaborators.

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Your tone and unisons are just gorgeous. Anybody who has sung in a choir knows that that’s the goal — to get those beautiful unisons that break out into those chords. It seemed to happen so effortlessly. When you first got together, were you focusing on a sound or was it more organic?

At this point we’ve done about 15 songs, and the tone of the songs really varies based on the arrangements. Jolene is a pretty brassy, loud sound, because the arrangement needs that. Desert Song has a really tender, beautiful sound that never really gets above a seven on a dynamic scale. Sometimes the songs call for a specific tone, and I feel very grateful that everybody has a wide array of different colours that they can call upon. I will say that as a solo singer, it’s really changed the way that I approach creating music. My voice is very different from Amanda’s, our lead soprano, but when she writes arrangements, she’s the one singing them, so it’s fascinating to have to create a mirrored sound in my instrument to make sure that I’m matching the tone and spirit of a song. In that regard, it’s very challenging, but it’s a challenge we all welcome. We can support each other’s weaknesses with our strengths.

I know it’s hard to make plans right now. How far ahead are you getting when it comes to making plans for recording and touring?

Right now, the plan is just to create as much as possible. We’re still sussing out what our sound is and what we want to say to the world. For our first performance, we had essentially arranged an entire 60-minute set without an idea of who we were as an ensemble. We have that music, and now that we’re honing in on what it is we want to say and do, we’ve been grateful to have had the opportunity during the pandemic to arrange a song a month, and to share those songs on our Patreon as they’re being created and gauge the response — just see what resonates with us. Of course, it’s in the hopes that in the next year or two we’ll release our first record. But Patreon is a great gift for musicians because it allows us to tuck away funds to be able to create something should a major label pop out of the woodwork.

This interview has been edited and condensed.