Song-by-Song: ‘Sin Of Certainty’ by Sadie Gustafson-Zook

Sadie Gustafson-Zook. Photo: Rachel Gray Media
Sadie Gustafson-Zook. Photo: Rachel Gray Media

Sadie Gustafson-Zook: “I had so many big decisions to make and I didn’t know if I was making the right ones.” Photo: Rachel Gray Media

Moving to Boston, finding a new community and entering/exiting her first gay relationship; huge life events inform this new album

Sadie Gustafson-Zook is a songwriter with that enviable knack of being able to take a very specific moment in her life and somehow imbue it with universality and a common thread. Listening to her songs, you find yourself thinking about your own existence as you learn about hers. Raised in a liberal Mennonite community in Indiana, music has always been a part of her. Singing hymns in church, playing the fiddle at local dances and eventually studying jazz voice at Cambridge, Massachusetts’ prestigious Longy School of Music at Bard College, it’s been a constant companion.

Gustafson-Zook’s latest album Sin Of Certainty draws from her life in Boston. A time of change, discovery and acceptance, it’s an engrossing listen that will resonate with anyone going through their own personal evolution and appeal to fans of meticulously crafted modern folk. Here, Gustafson-Zook reveals the personal inspirations that informed the record’s poignant and distinct story…

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BIRDSONG

I wrote the lyrics in my notes app while I was sitting on the 66 bus in the grungy Boston neighborhood, Allston. I had been waiting for the bus when I heard a whistle, and it made my skin stand up. The sound of the whistle transported me back to a few key moments in my life: my earliest memory of being catcalled as a nine-year-old rollerblading down my street in Goshen, Indiana; the streets of Lima, Peru where I first had the realization of mistaking a bird’s song for a catcall; and my current reality of sitting on a bus in Boston and feeling leering eyes of men on me. The poetics of the situation (and the fact that I had falsely accused the birds more than once) was too much for me – it had to be a song.

MAYBE I DON’T KNOW

Written in February of 2020, I was (unbeknownst to me) entering into my first long-term relationship, and a queer one at that. I was just about to launch my Kickstarter for this project, and I felt like I had so much momentum and things were falling into place, and at the same time, I had so many big decisions to make and I didn’t know if I was making the right ones. Written in my hotel room at the 2020 Folk Alliance International in New Orleans, I had the romantic experience of writing a catchy chorus at a music-networking conference.

Side note: I thought this would be the most recently written song on the album (since I wasn’t anticipating a pandemic would extend the production time so much), and since I already had the album title chosen, I made sure to slip “sin of certainty” into the bridge so it would be somewhere on the album.

GO EASY

This ended up being the, for real, most recently written song on the album, written in October of 2020. After eight months of adjusted expectations and transitions and global trauma and being indoors and adjusting to cohabitation, I had to write this song for myself. I kept it broad though, so you can sing it too.

KEEP MYSELF

In March of 2019 I had just exited my first gay relationship. As someone who has been obsessed with the idea of relationships for as long as I can remember, gay dating opened up a whole new world for me, and unsurprisingly, co-dependence emerged as a theme.

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I also wrote this song at a moment when I wanted to join the psychedelic and jazzy bluegrass band Twisted Pine, so take a listen to them, then try to imagine this song but by them!

Sadie Gustafson-Zook. Photo: Gracia The Artist

Sadie Gustafson-Zook: “I just had to lean into uncertainty to figure it out.” Photo: Gracia The Artist

LEAN IN MORE

This song is a sort of declaration for me. It was written during my first gay relationship, when all of these pieces of myself were finally coming together. I love how you can hear that sense of coming together and the joy of self-realization during the last chorus. To me, this is my most wholesome song, because being in love with a woman made so much more sense than anything I had felt before. I just had to lean into uncertainty to figure it out.

TWO

No one is the same person in every setting, and I found that to be a particularly difficult truth while exploring dating apps, meeting people without any sense of context. One particular date made me question the extent to which variations in personality are normal, and at what point they are cause for concern. And beyond that, aren’t we all multifaceted? Can we notice our own inconsistencies too, or is it easier to see them in others?

Sadie Gustafson-Zook. Photo: Gracia The Artist

Sadie Gustafson-Zook: “The Alewife-bound train-ride exposed the humanity and also the ugliness that can exist in city life.” Photo: Gracia The Artist

ALEWIFE

When I moved to Boston, public transportation was a big deal to me. Coming from Indiana, I hadn’t spent much time in the glory of public transit; forcing me into close proximity with a huge variety of people. To me, the Alewife-bound train ride exposed the humanity and also the ugliness that can exist in city life.

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Side note: My first commute in Boston involved biking to a train station, locking up my bike, taking the train, and then walking to school from the station. My favorite moment in this song is the story about how I accidentally locked my bike to someone else’s bike and left it for multiple days. They left me a passive-aggressive note via a band-aid stuck to my bike seat. Whoops!

DIGESTION

It’s a lullaby for people struggling with spirals and anxiety and feeling so much compassion for other people that there’s none left for yourself. Sometimes the digestion of ideas and thoughts can take up so much room that eating food and drinking water can be hard things to remember. Digestion was initially called Baby but I didn’t want to have a song called Baby so I changed it to Digestion.

Sadie Gustafson-Zook. Photo: Gracia The Artist

Sadie Gustafson-Zook: “Everyone was a simple and quick tune that came to mind while I sat on my parents’ couch, reckoning with my past and present.” Photo: Gracia The Artist

YOUR LOVE MAKES ME SMILE

One of my first landing spots in Boston was the renowned Brighton House, an old mansion of a duplex with two porches and a revolving door of the best up-and-coming Berklee roots musicians. One of my bandmates and friends from home, Ethan Setiawan, introduced me to this house and the accompanying community. I was immediately endeared to the house; the porch-hangs and jams, the communal cooking and spirit of hospitality, and the sense of shared ownership. Although the house is by no means a co-op, a lot of values were inherent in the structure of the house – a host for musicians who are looking for comradery, and a place to stay for old friends. Your Love Makes Me Smile was entirely inspired by this community, and feeling friendship love.

In October 2021, I got a tattoo of the Brighton House to remind me that, wherever I go, I can find community if I look for it.

EVERYONE

When I came out, I knew I would most likely deal with some kind of community commentary. Some would be well-intentioned, some would be projection, and a lot of it would purely be imagined by me. I felt an internal tension to keep things the way they always have been, and a tension to compare my imagined future with the reality. Everyone was a simple and quick tune that came to mind while I sat on my parents’ couch, reckoning with my past and present.

Sadie Gustafson-Zook’s album Sin Of Certainty is out now. For music and more, head to sadiegustafsonzook.com

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