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Coffee Shop Conversations: Sierra Karr

By Larissa Weinstein

Context: Sierra Karr is a singer in the band Above the Skyline and a high school drama teacher based in Miami, FL. We spoke about her journey into music.

Studying Music

Sierra’s interest in music came out of a lifelong appreciation for and participation in theatre. When she went to college, she honed in on music as a particular interest.

She wanted to learn everything possible about it, so she started a major in music education. Looking for a broader scope, she switched to music business and loved learning about the industry.

She had played in a band in high school, performing at open mics in the area. When she left Miami for college, she stayed on as an honorary band member.

Upon her return, she was still in touch with her old band mates but was busy with work and teaching voice lessons. The band began a search for a new singer, and after recommending a few people who didn’t work out, she realized that the person she really wanted to suggest was herself.

Above the Skyline

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Kalopsian Vision Photography

The timing worked out, and she embarked on a new musical journey as the singer for Above the Skyline. She had never written rock music, but was excited to try.

Zach, the keyboardist and her longtime friend, writes lyrics and melodies. All of the band members bring their instruments, and Sierra brings a personal talent for harmonies.

The band recently recorded an album, and she achieved a personal milestone by writing one of the songs, titled “Breathe In.” We talked about the incredible experience of recording the album.

“It was two weeks of recording, just eat, sleep, music. That intense focus was amazing.”

The band landed a coveted spot at the Florida Music Festival in Orlando. It’s an invite-only festival with industry executives in attendance. From there, they were invited to their biggest gig yet: an opening act at House of Blues.

Musical Inspiration

I asked her what musicians have inspired her and her band mates. She grew up listening to alternative rock and pop, like the Goo Goo Dolls and early Maroon 5. She has also been heavily influenced by musical theatre, which you can hear in the long notes and bravado of “Breathe In.”

Above the Skyline has been classified as alternative rock. Their set list boasts an eclectic variety, and they usually find it simplest to call themselves alternative.

Their bass player Alec has been influenced by Rebelution, and Zach looks to Jack White and The White Stripes for inspiration. The drummer, Chloe, draws upon both reggae and rap music; she’s a big fan of Logic. The guitarist, Eric, was in a heavy metal band, and both he and Zach share Sierra’s love of musicals.

“We’ll sing along to Wicked or Dear Evan Hansen on car rides.”​

Overall their music features a lot of diverse influences coming together. When they create music, writing is one thing, but they also have to consider how it will perform.

A Lifelong Singer

Outside of her passionate work with Above the Skyline, Sierra teaches high school drama with a heavy dose of music. Her students are putting on a musical.

She also just returned from a vocal pedagogy workshop at Penn State, which she called a “fantastically interesting experience.” Her voice teacher is working towards his Ph.D. at Penn State and wanted her to come learn.

Singing is very mental, but there are also physical aspects like specific muscles that control vocal effects. The workshop was specifically for voice teachers who didn’t know how to teach belting, and belting is her personal forte. She found it interesting to see how people are thinking about and teaching belting.

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Kalopsian Vision Photography

Her musical journey overall has mostly consisted of singing. She’s sung all her life, and singing brings her back to feeling happy and like herself no matter what else is happening.

She learned the math of music in school, but being in the band has taught her to feel the music. I asked her about the different experiences of performing, writing, and listening to music. Her favorite by far is performing.

The Experience of Performing

Her love of performing goes back to musical theatre. Becoming someone else on stage means being able to feel and perform anything, and the music can help you get there. Her favorite part of performing is learning to become the character.

Compared to singing in a musical, she explained that stage singing is a much more vulnerable experience. You’re not playing a character who is singing a song, you’re actually yourself singing that song.

She tries to look at each song as a character, but the performance changes with every show because she doesn’t know what audiences will respond to. For example, the House of Blues audience responded really well to the band members interacting with each other.

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Kalopsian Vision Photography

I asked her specifically about the experience of performing the song she wrote.

“When I perform that song I close my eyes but don’t even realize I’m doing it until I look at videos later.”​

“Breathe In” is indeed vocally difficult, but the more important reason she needs to close her eyes is to be able to feel the feelings in the lyrics. She needs to experience the feelings to get the notes and vocal techniques just right. She somewhat feels like a character, but it’s also her.

When she sings duos with Zach on stage, she taps into her musical theatre background to come up with a backstory in her head. She imagines why she’s singing this song in this moment with him, again experiencing it somewhat as a character but also as herself.

Connecting with Fans

With Sierra’s educational background in music business, I wanted to discuss the role new technology plays in reaching fans.

Chloe creates all of the promotional videos and Zach uses the band’s Instagram handle as his own, counting many of his friends among their followers.

Strategically, they employ Instagram posts to remind fans of upcoming gigs and share nice pictures from performances. On their Instagram Story they share behind the scenes looks at the band’s garage practice sessions.

“We use Instagram to be more human and interactive with fans.”​

They use Facebook for the events pages, and they share all videos across both Facebook and YouTube. All of their music is also available on Spotify and Apple Music.

Technology has made it easier to reach people, but it also means there’s a lot more competition out there. In school, she learned about how streaming means musicians can’t rely on recordings music to generate revenue because it’s free to live stream. This makes it a lot harder to make a living as a musician.

They have to be much more creative to make money because the primary way to do so is to perform and sell tickets and to sell merchandise. Right now, they’re not big enough to charge for tickets yet.

They do sell hard copy CDs at gigs, but sales are very low. She actually prefers that people listen to them through online platforms like Spotify and Apple Music because listeners make their online audience larger and therefore more impressive to industry executives.

“It’s almost better for us to ask the audience to just take out their phones and follow us on Spotify at a show.”​

The Big Crazy Dream

I was curious as to whether or not she and the band have a big crazy dream for their future. She definitely wants to be able to work on Above the Skyline full time.

She looks to the evolution of Maroon 5 from their early days to their more pop sound as they became an international success, and sees that she and the band would have to change their sound a lot to be able to appeal to that wide of a base.

She doesn’t rule it out as an eventual possibility, if the opportunity were to come up, but their more immediate goals are to be able to tour and be recognizable to industry executives.

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Kalopsian Vision Photography

She loves and appreciates friends who support Above the Skyline, but the true diehard fans that will enable the band to reach the next level are the ones who hear the music and love the band from the sound of the music alone. Looking forward, she plans to keep writing and performing music and connecting with new fans on social media.

Check out Sierra’s vocals on Above the Skyline’s newest album, Fall Right Into Place. You can also check them out on Facebook and Instagram.

Photos courtesy of Kalopsian Vision Photography.