Over the last decade, Sarah Berentson has been a steady presence in the Spokane music scene — as a solo artist, as a singer and keyboardist with the defunct folk-rock collective Terrible Buttons, and fronting her own band Mama Doll.
It's that last project, which started in 2013, that established Berentson as a songwriter to reckon with: The band began as a duo, developed into a mostly acoustic quartet and later (with a few more lineup changes) settled into a fuller sound, with Berentson always at the helm.
But that chapter of Berentson's musical career is coming to a close: She's leaving her position as an English teacher at St. George's School and spending a year in China, teaching English at a sister school in the province of Chengdu. It's more of a cliffhanger than a finale — Berentson isn't giving up music, and a new Mama Doll album will be released sometime in the fall — but it nonetheless represents a loss to the Spokane music scene.
Mama Doll is playing its final shows this weekend (at the Lucky You Lounge on Friday night, and at Sandpoint's Utara Brewing Company on Saturday), and Berentson sat down with the Inlander for a long conversation reflecting on her 10 years playing music in Spokane — about wrestling with self-doubt, the evolution of her sound, and what lies ahead. (Responses have been edited for clarity.)
INLANDER: How would you say Mama Doll's music has evolved over the years?
BERENTSON: It started out as a little more delicate, but still fierce. The content was really raw, and it was more stripped down. At the time, that was exactly what it needed to be. As the songs and the writing progressed, it just was lending itself to a fuller [sound], but the content of the music was still similar. It's really personal story writing. You could just map my whole life for the last six years out in the songs I've written in chronological order.
Why are you bringing the project to an end?
I got divorced this year, and I had always wanted to go abroad. I've been in Spokane for 11 years. I had this big change happen in my life, and I think maybe it's a little cliche, but I definitely had a feeling of, "Alright, now's the time. Let's go see what else is out there." But I feel like I'm going from a place of strength and empowerment and excitement. I feel like the luckiest person in the city. I'm probably never going to find something like I have with Mama Doll now. Sometimes people leave jobs and houses with bitterness and resentment, and I'm leaving at the top of the mountain of joy. But I also think there's other mountains of joy to go climb.
Looking back, is there a piece of advice you'd give yourself when you were starting out?
I would tell people, "You are a musician if you want to be a musician." Nobody owns that title. Nobody has to give it to you. It probably wasn't until this year that I would ever describe myself as a musician, even though it's something I have poured myself into for a decade. If people in conversation said, "This is Sarah, she plays music," I'm always like, "And I'm a teacher." And I think that comes from feeling like an imposter, feeling like people are going to find me out — that I don't actually know that much about guitar or I'm making it up as I go along.
Can you pinpoint any memorable moments while playing music?
I played a solo show at the Bartlett, and some of my former students came and sat in front. As I got on stage, I started getting nervous because I realized, "You guys are about to experience your teacher in a way you never have before. I'm not up in front of the classroom telling you about my divorce, telling you about my heartache." There were other people at the show, but it just felt like it was me and those kids. And I remember partway through the show, saying to them, "I think it's really important that you guys know it's OK to be sad. It's OK to sit in that sadness. And I want you to feel like you have every right to feel sad, happy, joy, fear, all of those things." Who else gets to do that? It was one of the most unique experiences of my life as a musician.
What's next for you?
I'm gonna play music [in China]. I'm gonna bring my guitar and just kind of see what happens. Someone asked me recently, "What's your end goal with that? What are you doing?" And I realized I just love it. Music is something that doesn't let me hide. And I will play wherever I go in the world. So whether that's in the middle of China, or Spokane, or some other unknown location, I have to keep playing because it's a part of my being. It's in my bones, and it ultimately makes me a better, healthier person. I feel so thankful to get to tell my story. ♦
Mama Doll Farewell Shows • Fri, July 19 at 9 pm • $8 advance, $10 day of • 21+ • Lucky You Lounge • 1801 W. Sunset Blvd. • luckyyoulounge.com • Sat, July 20 at 9 pm • $10 • 21+ • Utara Brewing Company • 214 Pine St., Sandpoint • utaraidaho.com