Sound Before Image

Strumming our pain: after performing for years, Sarah Golden is enjoying “overnight success” following her appearance on NBC’s hit talent competition The Voice.

Sarah Golden rocks out. Way out.
by Alex Grandstaff
Photo by Lewis Jacobs/NBC

Followers of NBC’s second season of The Voice may know Sarah Golden as the funny folk singer who faced off against Juliet Simms in the first battle round. But Golden’s music career has been going strong for more than a decade here in Houston, as followers of both the lesbian and folk music scenes may know.

Born into a musical family, Golden put out her first of several albums, Truth, at the age of 18. After a two-year hiatus, fans will be excited to know that a new EP, Sessions (EP) 2012, is now available at her shows. “I’m so picky,” Golden explained over the phone, regarding the wait. “I’ve recorded them literally hundreds of times and I’m still never satisfied.” With the overwhelming amount of support Golden has received for her appearance on The Voice, she may have more incentive to put out new material more often.

Golden is no stranger to competition as a finalist in 2003’s Kerrville Folk Festival, a semi-finalist in America’s Got Talent, and now back again in a new arena.

Golden auditioned for The Voice banking on its claim of putting sound before image. She had two offers from record companies before The Voice, but those offers came with a catch: go back in the closet to get on stage. After struggling between her faith and her sexuality, Golden had already come out in the Houston community and in her music, and didn’t want to hide again. She was told she could come out after becoming established, but she felt that would be a slap in the face to women like Ellen DeGeneres and Melissa Etheridge, who spent decades in the closet to advance their careers. She didn’t want to dishonor their struggle to come out as celebrities by going back in the closet.

She also felt dressing up couldn’t hide her sexuality. “I would still look just as gay as I do now,” she says. “I would look like a football player in a dress.” Disheartened by the feeling that people cared more about what she looked like than what she was playing, she turned down both deals and dropped out of the music scene.

A personal request to play brought her back to music, and inspired Golden to get back on stage and win back the following she’d earned at age 17. “It was so therapeutic. I was like ‘Damn it, why did I quit doing this?’”

Golden’s unexpected success—along with the overwhelmingly positive reaction to her presence on The Voice from viewers in and out of the LGBT community—has inspired her. “A guy sent me a really eloquently written note. He was a musician and he was in a wheelchair, and no one would give him the time of day because he’s in a wheelchair. He really connected with my story. It doesn’t matter what you look like.” His note reassured her that she wasn’t being pigeonholed as someone pushing a “gay agenda” for staying true to herself. She feels if she makes a difference to one LGBT person, then her time on The Voice will have been worth it, regardless of the outcome.

I was fortunate to be able to interview Golden for OutSmart since she now struggles to find time around her day job to deal with her sudden media popularity.

Alex Grandstaff: You had record deals before trying out with The Voice, but one of them required that you had to change your image and basically dress up and grow your hair out and everything…
Sarah Golden: To clarify, I had two offers—one from a well-known record company and one from a subsidiary of a well-known record company. They were about three or four years apart from one another, and both companies said that they would like to sign me, but there would be stipulations. I was like, “Okay, fine. What are the stipulations?” I was a kid and totally excited about getting on a record label. They said, “Okay, you have to agree not to cut your hair and to wear dresses. You can’t talk about anything in your personal life in terms of your sexual preference, and we’ll go through all of your interviews beforehand to make sure no one ever talks to you about that. You’re going to have to change the words in your songs not to say ‘she’ or ‘girl’ or ‘her.’”

I’d already developed this following, and something kind of big had happened to me. Maybe this was so insignificant to this person, but I still can’t forget it. I played this festival in Houston—I was maybe 17 or 18. This older woman walked by and ended up staying there for the entire two-hour show I played. She came up to me after [the show], and she was crying. I thought something bad happened and she was coming up to tell me to make an announcement. Instead, she told me something to the effect of, “I’m 50 years old and still not out. It’s so inspirational to see you as this young kid who just doesn’t care; I applaud you for that, and don’t ever change that.” I still get kind of choked up about it. It really hit home for me. So when these labels set these parameters, I was like, “No way—there’s no way in hell.”

I feel like you staying true to yourself, especially while competing nationally on The Voice, has made you an idol for young LGBT kids. You’re going to be on posters in their bedroom and stuff.
[Laughs] I never even imagined that. Being a folk musician, you don’t think, “Man, people are totally going to have pictures of me.” But yeah, after everything that happened, I’ve gotten hundreds of touching messages from fans. I think a lot of them are young LGBTs, kind of struggling to make it through life, and that has been overwhelming. I don’t even care if anything comes of this for me, but if I’ve pushed one young gay person not to give up, [it will have been worth it]. I’ve got a lot of transgender friends, and they deal with more shit than I ever do—and I get told I’m in the wrong bathroom every single day. [I want to prove that] if you just keep going with it, you’ll get there and the world is getting there.

I know you write some of your own music. Do you have any old songs that make you cringe now?
Oh man, oh yeah. I have one CD that I put out 10 years ago that has eight songs on it. Some people still love it, so I’m not going to bash it, but compared to the songs I write now, I feel like they’re almost Dr. Seussian in nature. It just feels very newbie. I just feel like there’s so much more depth and emotion in my songs now because I’m coming from a really real place. I’m talking about hurt and I’m talking about heartache and pain and things that really happened. It’s like reading my diary. My first CD is very much “I love you, we’re going to be together forever,” and there’s a couple songs on there that are “You bitch! How could you?!”

Okay, I have to ask this before you go. You have a song on your website called “I Love You More than Jell-O.” Where did you get the title for that?
I love Jell-O. I’m actually an enormous orange-Jell-O fan, and I love it more than almost anything. But at that time in my life, I loved this girl more than Jell-O, and it was a huge deal. This is what I mean by Dr. Suessian in nature. [Laughs] A lot of people liked the song, though, but it’s kind of kitsch.

To hear Golden’s music for yourself, log on to sarahgolden.com.

Alex Grandstaff is a freelance writer living in Houston, Texas.

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Alex Grandstaff

Alex Grandstaff is a contributor to OutSmart magazine.

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