On her new album, “Sin of Certainty,” Sadie Gustafson-Zook Embraces Self-Discovery.
Raised in a liberal Mennonite community in Indiana, Sadie Gustafson-Zook grew up playing music and attending quilt auctions with her folk musician parents. Life in a small town where her mother was a pastor was comfortable and straightforward, and she always felt supported in her music-making. On her new album “Sin of Certainty,” Gustafson-Zook explores the process of questioning all that she had taken for granted, through finding a new community in the roots scene of Boston, studying jazz, and coming out as gay.
Gustafson-Zook took a winding path of musical influence which is evidenced by the myriad of stylistic references in her work. Growing up, she sang hymns in church, played fiddle for square dances, and simultaneously played in the school orchestras and choirs. At Goshen College, a Mennonite school in her hometown, she studied classical voice, and was thrown headfirst into the world of opera when she was cast in the lead role for The Marriage of Figaro as a freshman. But as much as she loved classical music, Gustafson-Zook dreamed of being part of Boston’s thriving roots scene, where many of her favorite bands were based.
Leaving home and it’s’ warm cocoon of support,Gustafson-Zook moved to Boston and found a place studying jazz voice at the Longy School of Music at Bard College. At the famed “Brighton House”, a shared rental known for its rotating cast of wildly talented roots musician tenants, Gustafson-Zook found new community, and penned many of the songs that would end up on her album “Sin of Certainty.” “Back when I was at Goshen, I took a class about conflict and violence, in which we discussed ‘the grace of uncertainty’, to quote from my teacher Carolyn Schrock-Shenk ‘one of the first casualties of escalated conflict is uncertainty—meaning that as the tension rises, people tend to become more certain that their particular view of truth is the right one.’” Gustafson-Zook explains. “Years later, I was thinking about these songs, and how I say the phrase ‘I don’t know’ in so many of them, I realized how much that idea had stuck with me. As I have been stumbling my way through my ‘20s, the idea of the grace of uncertainty has emerged as somewhat of a mantra to me. Not only in an academic discourse sense, but in a personal self-realization sense; holding my own truth lightly enough that I can consider other truths for myself as my life winds in different directions. The flip of the phrase into the ‘Sin of Certainty’ speaks to certainty’s underside, which comes out with a vengeance. So far, my ‘20s have been more ‘Sin of Certainty’ than ‘Grace of Uncertainty’. Hopefully, as I age, I can become more graceful and less certain.”
The album describes the pain of self-discovery as well as immense gratitude for the new experiences found as a result. Starting her journey with “Maybe I Don’t Know,” Gustafson-Zook sings, “with every wrong decision, I get closer to me.” Later on “Lean In More”, which Gustafson- Zook describes as “the first gay love song I ever wrote”, she sings, “you have listening ears / and you yearn to hear/ all I have to say / even when I am unsure / you lean in more.” Accompanied by Mari Chaimbeul on harp and Alec Spiegelman’s intricate production, Gustafson-Zook’s Joni Mitchell-esque vocals soar with both gentleness and intent, leaving the listener feeling heard and understood just as Gustafson- Zook describes feeling in the song.
The more upbeat “Your Love Makes Me Smile,” describes the experience of Gustafson- Zook finding a new family far from home. “I didn’t realize / there could be people / who would take me in as / their own kin with a drop of a hat / and just like that…” she sings over jaunty drums, which give the feeling of being perfectly in place.”
“Sin of Certainty” was produced by Alec Spiegelman, and recorded in various studios around New York City. Throughout the record, the marriage of sonic feeling and lyrical meaning is a winning combination. “Alec records in layers; he’s very experimental and he has a very expansive vision” explains Gustafson-Zook. “It was really exciting to get to play with all of the sonic options and see the songs grow into their final forms. Maybe that’s a good metaphor for the subject matter on the record as well!”