“I know it’s been a really long time since I made a record,” said Sara Bareilles, introducing a night of mostly new music at the Troubadour Tuesday. Hearing some shouted assents from the audience, she parroted back what she heard to be some fan umbrage about that. “’You bitch!’” she echoed, bemused. “Well, I’ve been busy.”
Busy “Waitress”-ing, for the better part of the last five years, by her count, as composer, promoter or occasional leading lady of that Broadway show and its touring and foreign productions. She’s returning to her day job with the April 5 release “Amidst the Chaos,” her first album of non-theater songs since 2013. The four club dates Bareilles is doing this month — virtually impossible to get tickets for, for even the nimblest-fingered fans — present a way to test 11 out of 12 new songs out in what a real piemaker might know as a soft opening.
“You just have to brace yourselves for sitting through unfamiliar songs and make us feel like they’re very familiar,” said Bareilles, shortly after using her loose tongue to laud the fact that she and her fandom were being reunited at the “Trouba-f—in’-dour.” The formerly L.A.-based, now NYC-hearting singer spoke at length between the new tunes about two things that had deeply influenced the writing of these songs in the last three years: falling in love with a new guy and falling out of love with America’s leadership.
Rather than write anti-Trump songs, though, she focused on the bittersweet and wrote some pro-Obama numbers… very well disguised as lost-love songs. “I’m gonna tell you who it is about after you hear it,” Bareilles said before premiering “No Such Thing,” which she has described in album notes as Roy Orbison-esque and which, in the initial hearing, doesn’t come across as country-lorn or anything other than lovelorn as she sings, “You’re on my mind all the time / But I can’t fix it by fixating on a rewind … No such thing as over you.”
“The main catalyst that sparked my need to make more music was the election,” she explained afterward. “And not long after the changing of the guard, I found myself in the pit of despair, because Mom and Dad had left us with a new babysitter. And I was just like, ‘Where did you go? I’m never going to get over the Obamas.’ So I wrote a lot of songs about the Obamas. And simultaneous (with the) inauguration, I suppose, was the women’s march,” she added, leading into the exuberantly feminist debut single released in the fall, “Armor.”
And then, “If I Can’t Have You,” a deceptively optimistic-sounding, old-school R&B charmer that says, “Though I don’t want to, I have to do my best to recall / That I’m thankful that I held you at all”? “It’s also about Obama,” she said. And how about “Wicked Love”? “It’s about Obama,” Bareilles said — and then made it completely clear that this time, at least, she was joking. “They’re gonna send the Secret Service after me: ‘You need to stop it.’”
But from some of the other new songs, it sounded as if she might have found an even more suitable boo than Barry. “Also something that happened in the last three years is that I fell in love, and kind of to the soundtrack of Nina Simone. So I wrote a song about it. Which is what I do,” she said, seguing into “Miss Simone,” a song about courting behind closed doors, if not in secret, with only the late diva being in on the developments. Bareilles also referenced some not-as-good moments early in the relationship, before things settled in, “but I got two songs out of it,” she noted, one of them being a breakup song that forecast a breakup that didn’t actually happen, “Poetry by Dead Men” (one of two co-writes on the new album with hit songwriter Justin Tranter).
The 95-minute Troubadour set also included a greatest-hits component — “Love Song,” “King of Anything,” the “Waitress” standout “She Used to Be Mine” and a band-less “Gravity” — but Bareilles said that after assuming she’d end with “Brave,” she really wanted to go out on “A Safe Place to Land,” performed as a duet on the forthcoming album with the Jesus to her Mary Magdalene, John Legend. It was prompted by the refugee crisis, although, like most of the other socially or politically aware songs on the record, it wears its heart, not its wokeness, on its sleeve.
Other new songs included “Eyes on You,” which mentions the real names of fellow strugglers she encountered upon signing up for a meditation class after going to a dark place in the days following the 2016 election. “I don’t know if you all can relate to this,” she said, “but I am someone who for the rest of my life will have a relationship with anxiety and depression. They are my friends under the bed who come out every once in a while.” Whooping ensued, which took Bareiles slightly aback. “It’s weird to clap for them!”
Bareilles’ band for the show included two members of producer T Bone Burnett’s utility crew, drummer Jay Bellerose and bassist Dennis Crouch, along with one-time major-label act Butterfly Boucher (whom she said she’d been trying to get forever, and finally landed, with the promise of it being just four shows) on guitar, and two more longstanding bandmates Rich Hinman and Misty Boyce — all stretching to at least partly recreate the more textured sound Burnett went for on the upcoming record. “One of the beautiful things that T Bone instilled in this process was that this whole record was about performance, not perfection,” she said. “There are mistakes on there. There are breaths you can hear. There are hands on instruments. You get the clack of fingers on keys. This record really breathes.”