Sara Bareilles

Sara Bareilles is sitting pretty — and proud

She has a smash album, a sold-out headlining tour and a refreshingly plucky attitude.

By Naila Francis

Sara Bareilles has put a different kind of power back in pop. Not that the Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter can be so strictly defined, her music bearing hints of folk, jazz and even a bluesy rock edge, all while showing her knack for catchy pop melodies.

But Bareilles, the soulfully defiant voice behind radio’s ubiquitous “Love Song” — also featured in a recent Rhapsody/TiVo commercial — packs an empowered self-assurance into her songs that positions her as a somewhat intentional positive voice for women navigating the murky waters of relationship.

Not content to wallow in misery or give blind chase to the guy of her dreams — though she admits to her fair sharing of longing, heartbreak and dysfunction, albeit with a keen self-awareness, on several songs off her major-label debut “Little Voice” — the engaging songstress displays a feisty determination to be true to herself in a mainstream musical landscape more typically strewn with bold salaciousness, histrionic pining and flashy materialism.

On the piano-stomping “Fairytale,” Bareilles dismisses the saccharine disservice perpetuated by tales of Cinderella and Snow White — which encourage women to be graded on “the sanctity of patience and a dumb appreciation” — while on her second single, “Bottle It Up,” she resists the temptation to be someone she’s not to secure another’s affections.

“I don’t think I realized how much of a feminist I was until I got further along in this career,” says Bareilles, who performs a sold-out show at the Fillmore at the TLA in Philadelphia on Thursday. “I do like the idea of being an example of someone who’s outspoken, which is sometimes easier said than done, and I’m very aware of when emotions get involved, how hard it can be to stand up for yourself, but sometimes, I just get appalled by women who decide to put themselves in a subordinate position. I don’t see the world that way. I like being sassy.”

“Love Song” is a prime example of such spunk, though the album is not without its contemplative, more delicate moments. The song that fueled her breakout success — it pushed her album to the top of the charts on iTunes after the single was offered as a free download last year and eventually topped both the Pop radio and Hot AC charts — was in fact, ironically enough, her battle cry response to her label’s request for a more formulaic track to anchor “Little Voice.”

“Music is very much a boys’ club. That’s how it feels to me,” says the 28-year-old Bareilles, who admits to her frustrations during the recording process observing how often she was overlooked in discussions about the songs. “In my journey, I’ve had to kind of dig deep and figure out how to be outspoken and have an opinion and not apologize for disagreeing with people. … At the end of the day, I wrote these songs and these are my songs. I want to be the one that’s answering questions. I don’t want you to walk into the room and defer to the producer.”

Despite downloads of “Love Song” having surpassed 2 million and her first headlining tour sold out — she recently wrapped a string of dates with James Blunt and heads back on the road this summer opening up for Maroon 5 and Counting Crows — Bareilles is still wary of being dubbed an overnight sensation. “Little Voice” is actually her second album, following 2004’s self-released “Careful Confessions,” and the former waitress definitely paid her dues on the L.A. circuit before being signed to Epic Records in 2005. With her success, however, has come a greater vigilance that necessary commercial promotions do not overshadow her songwriting or live performances. Even her Rhapsody/TiVo spot was initially viewed with trepidation, though Bareilles is now grateful for the exposure that built more than a fleeting interest in her first single.

“I’m really proud of ‘Love Song,’ and I’m really glad that people are connecting to it, but at the same time, I poured my heart and soul into the rest of the record as well, and people are choosing to get the record and come out to a show and so complete that relationship in a more complex way,” she says.

That Top 40 radio has embraced her music, with its earnest, intelligent lyrics, seems to buck an erroneous perception.

“I love that there is a smart audience out there. I think sometimes, especially from the industry side, people don’t give the audience enough credit,” says Bareilles. “They feel they have the formula that works and there’s no way around it. I don’t believe that. Look at Norah Jones having her multiplatinum album; no one expected that to be a radio smash hit — but it was. I feel if you put it out there, there are people that will connect to smart music.”

Still, one gets the sense that Bareilles, self-taught on piano — she quit lessons after learning a few basics at age 5 — and guitar, would be playing and singing whether fame came knocking or not. Growing up in the Northern California coastal town of Eureka, she nurtured an early love of Broadway tunes and soft rock from the 1970s and ’80s, and spent hours tinkering at the piano, writing melodies and lyrics. She sang in her high school choir and in local musical theater productions. She even sang the national anthem before a game at Dodger Stadium — thanks to a teacher’s connections — and auditioned for “The Mickey Mouse Club.”

Undeterred when she didn’t make it, as she also was after being rejected from the music department at UCLA, where she joined an a cappella group instead and majored in communications, Bareilles nonetheless wasn’t aware of how essential music was to her until a junior-year study-abroad program in Bologna, Italy.

“When I first got there, I had kind of a nervous breakdown and didn’t understand why. But I didn’t have music, I didn’t have an instrument to play, I wasn’t expressing myself in any way,” she says. “I remember I called my dad crying, and he sent over my keyboard, which was stupid because it cost way more money for him to send it than for me to go buy one. But it was really an interesting revelation to me at the time, to know that music was so essential and not just a hobby.

“It is so intrinsic to who I am. It’s kind of one of those things where if I’m going through frustration or sadness and I can almost feel it welling up in my stomach, as soon as I get a chance to sit down and kind of go through it in song, it’s almost like it heals itself. I’m so grateful to have it in my life, so lucky to know music and to know what it really does for me.”

– The Intelligencer