From New York to Boston and beyond, Nate Sabat has traversed the globe bringing his bluegrass quintet, and now his new solo project, to fresh ears.
A graduate of Berklee College of Music in Boston – where he studied the upright bass – Nate Sabat is a multifarious artist who honed his keen sense for music from a fairly young age. Sabat, who made his way to Boston from New York City, now resides in Somerville – a city directly northwest of The City on the Hill. A difference in pace, he admits, but having moved to Boston has helped him in his development into becoming a better musician.
“[One takeaway] from going to Berklee was this idea that music can be silly putty … You can mold it to what you want it to be.”
“One thing that I found really different is in Boston I think the culture is a little bit more introverted as a whole,” Sabat said. “It feels like people are working on themselves and growing internally … In New York, it’s such an extroverted outward culture … It’s been really good for me to live in Boston … to grow in an internal sense. I don’t know what would have happened if I stayed in New York.”
The Musical Attraction
Growing up in New York played a large part in Sabat’s passage. He started his musical journey around the middle/high school age. When he was at the impressionable age of 13, Sabat went to the Manhattan School of Music summer program – then it was free of charge – and began to perform musical theater. “I remember one show we did was Once On This Island and then we also did Seussical.” The seminal moment for the then-aspiring musician was when he finished one of the performances and, after seeing his mom, was “beaming.”
“I was just in love with performing,” he said. “From then on I kind of got more into other types of music. I started singing choral music and performing more rock stuff on electric bass and really I credit that opportunity at Manhattan School of Music as the start in my musical journey.”
The ability to create music on his own terms using his preferred method of recording was what helped him foment his career. Coupled at times with a piano, a guitar or a bass he would sit at his computer and record demo songs he had written. Years of practice and admiration with music and its practicality, along with some curiosity, helped lead him deciding to attend Berklee College of Music. One of the biggest takeaways from his undergrad at the college was that music is malleable. It’s something that is dynamic and can be fostered in innumerable ways.
“One thing that I took away from going to Berklee was this idea that music can be silly putty,” Sabat said. “You can mold it to what you want it to be. I feel like Berklee does a great job of respecting and thinking about and interpreting so many types of music at once, but it can kind of feel like you’re a kid in a playground sometimes.
“You can just take elements from rock or jazz, chamber music – mixing it all together. The teacher and the institution of Berklee are very interested in what the students are doing with that kind of thing and that’s really not the case at every conservatory. I felt really lucky to have that be a part of my education at Berklee.”
The duality of Sabat’s ability to perform in a group and solo has aided his ability to release quality content. Last November, Sabat released his debut solo project, Walking Away. The six-track EP provided him the ability to meticulously plan every aspect of the recording process especially having experience in songwriting, arranging and singing. The inspiration behind the EP comes from his admiration of David Bowie’s 2016 album Blackstar – that released two days before his death. Sabat said he thinks a lot about the album and though it’s short, it comes across in an “epic way.” He said the songs on the album feel as if they’re part of one narrative and he was inspired to create something similar on Walking Away.
It’s no surprise that naming a project is one of the hardest parts of the creation process. The title gives it a persona of sorts that it will be remembered by. The EP’s artwork, places a shadowy figure in a meadow, seemingly walking away and headed toward the horizon.
“I think about this all the time,” he said. “What does ‘walking away’ mean. I didn’t really have a concrete idea when I started working on this album. I think that a lot of time I feel Walking Away pertains to walking away from fear. Walking away from being afraid to express yourself in the way you see fit or being afraid of not fitting in, in a certain way in society.
“I think that a lot of the problems on Earth are stemmed from people’s fear. Fear of the other or fear of failure … I think that walking away from fear is something we can do as a global society.”
The instrumentalists who performed on the EP are all close friends of Sabat’s. At the EP’s core, Sean Trischka on drums, Stash Wyslouch and Isa Burke on guitar make up the rhythm section. Sam Taber, a Providence native and Boston University graduate, on keys and more. Included in Walking Away, was a three-piece horn section that was made up of Josh Shpak on trumpet, Calvin Barthel on trombone and Chris Miller on tenor saxophone – who Sabat said also plays the banjo but “he does crush the bluegrass saxophone which is pretty amazing.” His friend Elise Boeur played the Hardanger fiddle and friend Ellie Buckland helped with some harmony vocals.
Though he finds he could be sometimes controlling, Sabat allowed the musicians to interpret the parts he sent them in their own way. “I think it was a good process for me to let go and let these musicians do what they do best.”
Sabat’s music doesn’t fall into any one category. He wants to consider it folk, but can’t pinpoint where it stands. “I guess maybe intellectually I approach music from more of a jazz musician perspective.” What he means by that is that he takes a melodic theme and shifts it around to create something new. His performances, however, are more rock he said.
“I’m not afraid to really dig in [and] move with my music,” he said. “[I] play super hard if it needs that. It’s not always rock music but I think about that kind of personality [when I’m] on stage.”
What makes Sabat’s experiences special is that he can seamlessly transition to his other endeavor – the bluegrass quintet Mile Twelve.
With Mile Twelve, the established five-piece bluegrass quintet out of Boston, Sabat takes on lead vocals and bass. Along with him, Mile Twelve has David Benedict on mandolin, Catherine “BB” Bowness on banjo, Bronwyn Keith-Hynes on fiddle and Evan Murphy on guitar and lead vocals. Mile Twelve’s inception was in 2014 where Sabat credits Bowness and Keith-Hynes as being the ones who kickstarted the idea of forming a serious band.
“Then from there [they asked] me and [Murphy] to join and we were both really on board with it,” Sabat said. “So then we had our first rehearsal in the summer of 2014 and kind of the rest is history. We got [Benedict] on board a couple years after that and have been going strong ever since.”
His successes have taken him to local venues and around the world, where he has performed in the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, The Czech Republic, Ireland, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia, Canada and Japan. Last March, he found himself with Mile Twelve in Japan for five shows.
“There’s actually a big bluegrass following in Japan,” he said. “So we were playing at this incredibly, incredibly famous bluegrass bar called ‘Rocky Top,’ which is in Ginza – a neighborhood in Tokyo. It’s the kind of neighborhood where you get exceedingly overpriced sushi. It’s a huge business district in the middle of the city [and] then there’s this bluegrass club on the third floor of a building. It was such a wild experience to be a part of that, the community they have. Playing there was amazing. We had all these Japanese bluegrass fans sitting there quietly listening to us. It was kind of an unforgettable memory for me.”
EP Release Show
The performing doesn’t stop as later this month as Sabat will perform at Club Passim in Cambridge for his EP’s release. He previously played at Passim with Mile Twelve and also as a side person with other talents, but this show will be the first time he performs under his own name.
“This is my first time having my own show,” Sabat said. “I’m really excited about it. My good friend Ellie Buckland is going to be opening the show. She’ll be joining the band for a song or two on background vocals. It’s just going to be a really really good show. I don’t know if there will be any surprises, but maybe there will be.”
Performing and recording can be stressful and Sabat believes it’s important to take time for yourself. One of his goals for 2019 is to meditate more. After a trip to a life-changing meditation retreat, he wants to continue the practice especially because it can reflect on how he records new music.
“Every time I do it, I feel like it’s been so helpful,” he said. “I need to have that space. Sometimes I feel like I can get anxious or stressed or feel overworked. There’s [nothing] better than sitting and breathing and focusing.”