Growing up in Darien, Connecticut, Sarah McGowan was always enthralled with New York City.
It’s where she saw productions of Annie Get Your Gun, Gypsy and Oklahoma! And it’s also where she saw her first pop concert (Jason Mraz at Avery Fisher Hall).
“When I was a little kid,” McGowan adds, “I used to say I wanted to sell apples in New York, for whatever reason. So I think I’ve always been destined to live there.”
On her way to residing in Brooklyn’s South Williamsburg neighborhood, McGowan sharpened her musical skills elsewhere in New York City. With her crafty debut album, For Whom They Sing, set for release Dec. 4, the singer-songwriter-guitarist recently looked back on a few of her Gotham-related transformative experiences.
• In 2010, McGowan began her freshman year at New York University, where she studied music.
Sarah McGowan: “For a while, I actually wanted to do pre-med. Then I changed my mind because you can’t really focus on music if you’re doing medicine, so I started taking music history and music theory classes.
“I had a lot of great professors. I took a recording technology class, and that’s where I met one of my mentors, J Chris Griffin. He taught me everything I know about music production. He was a really great mentor.”
• From 2010 to 2012, McGowan performed at The Red Lion, a Bleecker Street bar-restaurant that’s not too far from NYU.
McGowan: “My first show there was during my first semester at NYU. I was so nervous, I thought I was going to pass out. My set was three hours long — and that’s pretty insane, looking back on it, because now I play 45 minutes to an hour at regular rock clubs.
“I mainly did a lot of covers. It took me a while to get that much material together — I don’t know if I could do that now. I was going through a big Taylor Swift phase, so I did a bunch of her songs. I used to do a cover of ‘Hallelujah’ by Leonard Cohen, more in the style of Jeff Buckley. I did ‘Landslide,’ more like the Dixie Chicks version than Fleetwood Mac.
“[The reaction at that first show] was pretty positive. A lot of my family and friends were there. It was probably from 6 to 9 p.m. on a Tuesday night. There were guys sitting at the bar by themselves. I remember the best feeling was having one of those guys turn around and actually listen to me sing.”
• In 2013, she began a yearlong internship under Griffin at Engine Room Audio on Broadway in lower Manhattan.
McGowan: “I got it through his recording technology class at NYU. We had developed a great bond. [At the studio], the most helpful thing was being able to shadow him — just watching him record or mix something, then having him explain it to me.”
• McGowan recorded her debut album — it’s on par with recent efforts by Sara Bareilles and Ingrid Michaelson— at Engine Room Audio. “Full Moon Kids” was inspired by New York’s own Strokes. Then there’s “Williamsburg Boy,” which takes its musical cues from The Beach Boys and Best Coast.
McGowan: “I didn’t write the song when I was living there. I originally started writing it about my boyfriend, who lives in Williamsburg. He’s definitely not a hipster; he’s kind of nerdy (laughs). As I was writing it, I started thinking of all these stereotypical hip Williamsburg things that everybody makes fun of. I started to play around with that.
“The song became a little bit of a joke. When I first performed it, I thought, ‘This is terrible.’ But people really responded well to it and thought it was really funny. I think it hit close to home with my friends and my age group.”
— By Chris M. Junior