Life has been a whirlwind for Sawyer Fredericks, who won season eight of the NBC show The Voice at age 16 several years ago.
Since that triumph, Fredericks (who explores various aspects of folk music in his records) has released several items, including the EP The Golden Tree earlier this year. However, unlike many winners of music-competition programs, he walked away from a major record deal to follow his heart and pursue creative freedom. Regarding his personal life, Fredericks officially came out as bisexual last year, saying that the reactions have been varied.
This conversation was edited for length and clarity.
Windy City Times: I want to start with The Voice, which must seem like a lifetime ago…
Sawyer Fredericks: Yesand very recent! [Laughs]
WCT: Indeed. I'm a little curious about what made you go with [judge] Pharrell Williams. I thought you would go with Blake Shelton.
SF: I thought I would go with Blake or Adam Levine because I thought their music was closer to my kind of sound. But it actually came down to what they said on the show. They cut out a lot of what the judges said, but Pharrell talked about how my sound reminded him of other artists. I could tell that he was very, very into the music and he asked me about my inspirations; he was inspired by it. That spoke to me as very honest and real. Blake was just, like, "So you grew up on a farm, huh? That's country." [Laughs]
WCT: It must've been surreal when you won. How long did it take before it really [sank in]?
SF: It didn't really set in for a bit. It was a whirlwind after the show. I was immediately in the studio recording and I was back in New York City to do interviews on TV stationsso it didn't feel like the show was quite over. It probably sank in after I released the A Good Storm album [in 2016].
WCT: I understand that you actually walked away from a major record deal. What gave you the courage to do that?
SF: That record deal that I got after The Voice was with Republic Records. I left them really because I felt I wasn't getting enough creative freedom. I felt they were pushing me into a style I didn't want to be in. I just didn't want that. I've been very happy since I left.
WCT: I listened to Flowers for You and The Golden Tree. Regarding the video for the single "The Golden Tree," where did you find the people?
SF: Actually, the director for that was Jenny He and she also did "Born," off Flowers for You, as well. The dancer in "The Golden Tree" video was a friend of hers and I think the painter was actually the videographer. Both of those people had been working in the arts; when I suggested to Jenny that it'd be cool to show three people starting in the arts from a very young age, she reached out to those people and they had pictures of themselves when they were kids. You should also check out "Born" as well.
WCT: Are you a big believer in covers?
SF: I'm not a big fan of putting them in my albums but I'll do them as singles. When I release an album, I want it to be all my workalthough that may change at some point.
WCT: Who would be your dream collaborator?
SF: That's always a hard question for me because I don't know what writing styles people might have. But I probably say John Fogerty, Ray LaMontagne or maybe Florence and the Machine. I love her writing and she has such powerful songs.
WCT: You talked about finding creative freedom and your own voiceno pun intended. [Fredericks laughs.] Would you say that's the most important lesson you've learned about music?
SF: Yes, as well as being open. Something I'm starting to learn now is to not try to take control too much. When I released the Hide Your Ghost album [in 2018], I feel like I was being a bit nitpicky; I wanted everything a certain way. I'm trying to let the [other musicians] express their creative freedomand I feel like I got that with Flowers for You. Also, be open to working with others and don't always assume you know what's best.
WCT: Regarding The Golden Tree, how would you describe that EP?
SF: So I feel the sound is very inspired by me watching the movie O Brother, Where Are Thou? I think of the folk ballads from that movie. I think it was, like [singing], "As I went down to the river to pray…" It's that kind of comforting soundthat's what I wanted to capture, especially with [the band] The Accidentals doing strings and harmonies. It definitely has a melancholic feel.
WCT: But it also sounds a tad hopeful.
SF: Oh, for sureespecially with the song "So Smooth," which is why I picked that song to end the EP. I normally want my EPs to end on a more hopeful note because the rest of the songs can have their ups and downs. "Lonely Bear" is about my dad; I love him to death but the songs [deals with] elements of toxic masculinity.
WCT: You mentioned collaboration earlier and your upcoming show features a co-bill with Chastity Brown. What can you tell our readers about her?
SF: She's touring on her newest album, Sing to the Walls, and I hadn't heard a lot of her music until I started touring with her. She's really incredible live. She has a very soulful, bluesy sound and was almost like a one-[woman] band. I think she has a full backing band now; I haven't heard her with that [setup] yet.
WCT: Switching to your personal life, I know you came out as bisexual last year. How has the general reception been?
SF: It's been mostly good but there have been some strange [reactions]. I've always been open about it; I just hadn't officially posted about it. I was a bit shocked by everyone's reactions. Suddenly, I was in the papers. I hadn't expected that because it was just a posting; it wasn't like I said it on a reality-TV show. [Both laugh.]
Most of the reception was good but I also received messages like, "You're an abomination." That took me aback because these people don't know me and they're judging me. It was very hurtfulplus some patrons just immediately left.
WCT: To me, bisexual people occupy a very unique position because they seem to get blowback from within the [LGBTQ+] community as well as outside of it about being undecided about their sexuality.
SF: I did notice that. Some people have said, "Sawyer would never actually come out as gay," and I'm like, "What are you talking about?" Also, I'm in a heterosexual relationship right now so I got some blowback about that.
WCT: And the terminology can change rapidly.
SF: I'm beginning to feel like I'm demisexualattracted to someone I have a close emotional [attachment] to.
WCT: And then there's being sapiosexual, which is an attraction to intelligence.
SF: InterestingI hadn't heard of that. There are so many! When I came out as bisexual, I was unaware of the different things I could be when I was growing up; you were either gay or straight. I figured that, since I liked women, I was straight. [Laughs] But I'm ever-changing.
WCT: And would that be your advice to the next generation of LGBTQ+ peopleto be yourself? It can be really tough, as in Florida, where students can't talk about sexuality in school.
SF: That's just insane. I also have a lot of things about school in general; I grew up on school [but] never went. [Laughs]
[But for advice,] I would say to always embrace who you are to embrace change whenever it comes to you.
WCT: Is there anything you wanted to add?
SF: As for The Golden Tree, my plan for the rest of the album is to make it a folk-rock one. The first half will be folk and the second half will have more of a rock sound. I'm still writing all the rock songs, but that's my general plan.
Sawyer Fredericks will be performing at City Winery Chicago, 1200 W. Randolph St., on Wed., May 3, at 8 p.m. See citywinery.com/CHICAGO/Online/default.asp .