“This album covers a lot of ground. So what connects the songs? I think they’re all about love in some way, though most are not ‘love songs’; nor is it always obvious how love plays into their meanings. These songs are about losing love, healing from love, hoping for love, finding love, and then navigating love as it grows and ages and is tested.”
North Carolina-based folk singer-songwriter Heather Sarona grew up in a small town in the Uwharrie Mountains where the tradition of folk music and bluegrass was an intrinsic part of the culture. At age 14 she found her dad’s old guitar in the attic and felt an immediate kinship, later picking up banjo and ukulele while developing her own unique way of playing guitar with metal fingerpicks, often associated with the banjo, turning them around backward to execute intricate patterns and solid percussive strumming simultaneously.
The nine songs on Head Above Water make up Heather’s first full-length album, and also mark the first time she’s collaborated with other musicians in a studio setting. “When I released my first three-song EP in 2017, I had only been playing music live for about a year, and I just wanted to have some music out there if people ever looked up my name,” she says. “This release has been much more labor-intensive.”
For a debut album, Heather certainly was able to assemble an impressive team: the album features, among other personnel, Andrew Marlin (Mandolin Orange, Watchhouse), Libby Rodenbough (Mipso), Sarah McCombie (Chatham Rabbits) and Lizzy Ross (Violet Bell) on harmonies, as well as Hank Smith on banjo, Marcel Ardans on guitar, Alex Bingham on bass, and Jason Cecil on percussion.
“The human experience is just so universal once you start looking at our emotions and love and relationships - those are the things I write about,” she says. “That’s why I want people to hear these songs. I want to let the way that I have processed these big feelings, big decisions and big changes to help someone else get through those same things they’re probably experiencing, too.”
“For Me” describes the emotions Heather felt when she first met her husband, right after the end of a very long relationship. “Falling in love can feel like being saved - we carry around all the scars and damage from our pasts, and new love can make us feel seen for the first time. My now-husband looked at me in this way that no one ever had before; it was intoxicating,” she says of the track. “I wrote this song when I was in a place where I felt like I just wasn’t special enough to be truly loved. I felt apprehensive about whether those long, loving looks would fade one day. There is so much magic in new love, and I wanted to hold onto every bit of it. And just in case you’re wondering, he does still look at me the same way.”
“I’ll Be Lost,” picked as part of IBMA’s 2021 Songwriter Showcase, features Sarah McCombie of Chatham Rabbits as well as Libby Rodenbough. Heather wrote the song after going on a trip to the beach with her kids while her husband stayed home to work. “I didn’t know where to sleep alone in a big bed,” she says. “When I got home, I wrote the first verse of the song quickly, but I couldn’t figure out what to do with the second verse; the first has such a strong metaphor (‘You are the anchor in the ocean of my bed’), where do you go from there? A year or so later, the word ‘weathervane’ popped into my head while I was playing the beginning of the song, and from there it was an easy song to finish. I realized ‘weathervane’ was in my head from reading a book to my two-year-old and pointing out the pictures to him.”
“Window To Break” offers a look at vulnerability, and what it means to offer that vulnerability to another person. “I tend to be very honest and open, and I generally think that’s how other people are going to be, too,” Heather says. “For better or worse, that leaves me in an unguarded position more often than I’d like. I’ve written quite a few song lyrics about being like glass shattering in your hands, here I use that metaphor for vulnerability - my window’s yours to break.”
“I’ve always found it so amazing how, through music, I can take feelings or experiences that are very specific to me, put them in a song, and people can then hear that song and think to themselves, ‘Oh yeah. I get that. I’ve been there. That’s my life, too,” she says of both the album and her music as a whole.
While Head Above Water is her first full-length album, it follows the release of her 2017 EP, Waltz, which melds acoustic guitar, banjo and ukulele to create warm, folk-inspired songs, unified by a 3/4 time signature. Her songs, infused with a lifelong love of music and a years-long dedication to her playing, often have a folksy twist, inspired by bluegrass musicians like her grandfather, who taught her how to play her first song on guitar and how to pick a banjo.
Heather was selected by the International Bluegrass Music Association as a showcase songwriter for the 2021 and 2020 World of Bluegrass Music Festival. Her songwriting has been recognized in the Mid-Atlantic Song Contest, the Don Gibson Singer Songwriter Symposium, the Backwoods Beat Music Festival Songwriting Contest, and the WHIW Songwriting Contest.