For Dara Sisterhen, age has never been anything but a number. An immensely talented singer-songwriter with a fresh new voice, she began working with Grammy award-winning producer Dave Cobb when she was just 14 years old. At 18, Sisterhen re-teamed with Cobb (the Svengali behind award-winning albums from Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson) to create one of the best EPs in recent memory. Combining ‘60s influences with gorgeous vocals and insightful lyrics, Boom will leave you stunned and wanting for more.
Sisterhen grew up in the four-stoplight town of Denver, North Carolina (not far from where the Avett Brothers grew up), the daughter of a musical theater actress and a Division 1 football player. Music is in her genes – her great-grandfather was a masterful banjo player. She got her rock and roll education through bands like The Strokes and Arctic Monkeys, but eventually branched out into to the classics.
“My guitar teacher actually got me into the Beatles,” says the affable Southerner. “It wasn’t until I was learning ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ on guitar that I went, “Woah, what is this?’” Soon she was devouring albums by Patsy Cline, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. “I would watch the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions and then go discover everyone.”
By the third grade, she’d already been bitten by the songwriting bug. “I’ve always been a really good writer,” she says. “English was my favorite subject in school. I look back at my early songs and laugh sometimes. You’re a kid, and you don’t really know what you’re doing. But then your vocabulary expands and you get more experiences. It definitely helps you grow. They were cute songs, though.”
Today, Sisterhen has penned over 300 songs, an impressive feat for any artist. Some have been co-writes with Nashville pros, like Jaren Johnston and Tyler Hilton. But most were written alone, either in her bedroom or on the road between acting gigs.
In 2010, she landed a role on the young adult show Victorious (with Victoria Justice and Ariana Grande), which led to pilots with Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network and a part on Disney’s Dog With A Blog. But you should never mistake Sisterhen for a manufactured pop star or Disney princess. She has more in common with Kacey Musgraves, First Aid Kit and Laura Marling than she does with Miley Cyrus.
“People will find out on their own that I’m not part of that machine,” she says, sagely. “I’m not too worried about it. But I’m proud of the acting I’ve done, and I’m looking forward to doing different kinds of roles.”
Shortly after landing her first acting gig, she met Dave Cobb through Christian Williams, her guitar teacher in LA. “He works at a guitar shop and Dave would come in there all the time,” she recalls. “He was kind enough to give me lessons, and after a while he said, ‘Hey, your songs are really good; you should meet this producer who always comes in the store.’”
Cobb invited her to come to his studio and record her debut album, which ultimately ended up being unreleased. “I had a switch in management, and by the time they were going to do anything with it, I had kind of moved on from it.”
A few years later, Sisterhen was ready to try again. “I called him up and I was like, ‘Hey, I have some new material and want to make an EP from it.’ She flew to his Nashville studio for the sessions that would produce Boom. They worked fast, recording the bulk of it in one week.
They named it Boom because that’s what they kept saying after every song was completed. “Everything Dave does, I’m a fan of,” she says admiringly. “We have the same taste. He totally understands what I’m trying to do, so it was really effortless.”
Cobb, who also plays guitar on the EP, put a Beatle-esque spin on the production, building richly layered instrumental tracks and piling on the reverb. “Kids” has a George Harrison at the Cavern Club-style guitar riff, vintage handclaps and an insistent, surf’s up chorus. “Forever’s Not So Long” is built around brushed drums, a strident bass line, cooed backing vocals and Sisterhen’s achy-breaky falsetto. True to its title, it was written in a flash of inspiration. “How ever long it takes to listen is about how long it took me to write it,” she says. The same goes for “Easy To Fool,” which feels like a lost country classic and features a tour de force vocal performance.
“Sets Me Free,” the EP’s single, is a byproduct of the crazy journey Sisterhen has been on since deciding to to pursue her dreams. “It sets me free, hearing that song on that drive,” she croons wistfully over a bed of fingerpicked guitars, “‘cause I ain’t got a home, it’s the place that my heart has to find.”
“I’ve spent most of the last couple of years in Nashville or LA,” she explains. “Last year I went home for a whole summer, which was weird. I felt like I had no clue why I was there. My friends were on a different planet, and I was on a different planet. That song is about how music helped me catch up in life. I’m not the only person who’s gone through these feelings, and I wanted people to know they’re not alone.”
Boom ends with “I Wanna Be Your Girl,” a potent blast of garage rock adrenalin that could fit easily on the British Invasion collection Nuggets II.
Fans of Boom can check out her impressive series of YouTube covers, where she tackles everything from Bon Iver’s “Skinny Love” to Patsy Cline’s “Strange.”
Now 19, Sisterhen’s future includes more touring – and of course, writing new songs. Life moves fast when you’re young, and you have to be open enough to capture the muse when it knocks on your door.
If her next album is anywhere near as good as her EP, you can expect to be hearing about Sisterhen for a long time to come.
Written by Evan Schlansky, American Songwriter