Sarah Aili on Co-Writing & Vulnerability

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Sarah Aili is a triple-threat singer, dancer, and actor from Northern California, who hit the theater scene in New York before landing in Nashville to write songs and perform with musicians who share her love for storytelling. But Aili also brought a bit of New York intensity to town, as the restless and prolific artist has multiple projects in development—an album and a play with singer/songwriter Radney Foster, a musical entitled Box of Letters with musician Eric Erdman, an album of children’s music, and a role in the Nashville Repertory Theatre’s production of Avenue Q.


How does a song typically start for you?

A lot of times, I’ll come up with a melody while I’m driving from gig to gig. Road trips are great for coming up with ideas. If I get a thought while in the shower, I’ll immediately get out to write it down or record it—although wet hands don’t work very well with a cell phone. I also keep a “hook book” filled with inspirations, ideas, lyrics, and so on.

Do you have a specific writing routine?

When co-writing, we will set aside time with the intent of writing something together. I love that structure. But I don’t usually do that when I’m solo. When I’m struck with inspiration, I just stop whatever I’m doing, and I write down what I’m feeling. Or I sit down with my guitar, and I start playing to see what sticks. If an emotion leads my inspiration, I’ll try to turn that emotion into sound. Also, it’s helpful to see the lyrics in front of me, so that I can stay focused on the structure of the song, and let the story unfold. I’m easily distracted [laughs]—lots of projects, always something to do...

Can you tell me one of your favorite “Ahha” moments?

So many! The best is when the song winds up truly reflecting your vision in sound, mind, and heart. It’s a special thing when that happens with a co-writer, because it’s a bond you’ll have forever. The song becomes the messenger of that moment. It’s magic.

What’s your take on co-writing?

Two minds can be better than one, and approaching songs from multiple points of view can be beautiful. I like collaborating with another guitar player, because he or she might use chords that I wouldn’t normally consider, and that can change the structure of a song for the better. Sometimes, I’ll lay down my guitar, and offer some “Yes” and “What if?” guidance to keep the writing session moving. When someone is on a flow, you have to support it, and work with what lands. It’s like improv. You just don’t know where it’s going to go.

Is there an essential element for making a song truly special?

It’s super important to bring vulnerability to the process. Don’t bullsh*t. Vulnerability can be scary, but it is what makes a story genuine and compelling. You must bring you to the art. Live life, and fill it up with personal experiences. Then, interpret it all, and express it!

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