Interview : Sarah Jane Twigg

Today I am stoked to be chatting with the front lady for “The Fly Birds,” Mrs. Sarah Twigg. Thanks for taking some time to chat with me Sarah. Feel free to introduce yourself.

My name is Sarah Jane Twigg. I am a lifelong musician, artist, and mother of 3. I currently reside in the mountains of Western Maryland, but hail from Ellicott City, Maryland. I play music full time with my all female acoustic ensemble The Fly Birds. Guitar and banjo are my main axes. I also teach beginner guitar and banjo on the side to all ages. 

JED: Between 3 little ones and playing with The Fly Birds I imagine your schedule is plenty busy! 

Oh yes, there have been shows when all 7 collective band kids are present. Usually festivals, but sometimes even taking them to private functions. They know the drill for the most part, but it’s never been easy that’s for sure!

JED: Seven band kids?! That is epic. I’m sure that is challenging but I bet it’s a blast too. Those kids are going to have really unique memories to color their life experience with. Tell us a little bit about your beginnings. Your origin story, so to speak. How did you get into music, and what made you choose this path over others?

Music was never something I got into, it just seemed to be a default setting. Coming from a musical family I was always around a stringed instrument. My father and mother both played everything from Led Zeppelin to Ralph Stanley.

JED: Did they play instruments as well? 

My father and mother are the main reason I play music. My mom writes a lot of songs, they both play guitar, and both have sang and been actively musical all throughout their lives. My dad used to be in a bluegrass band called “The Twigg Brothers” and played all around Maryland in the 80’s. I have a lot of their old tapes and treasure them so.

Sarah and her Martin. Photo by Maria KD Photography.

Music helped keep things held together through my childhood and adolescence. It was very much an escape. I started playing violin in my elementary school orchestra, then found a pick with a mandolin to be more to my liking. The melodies and notes obviously transferred seamlessly [they’re tuned the same]. However my interests tend to be broad and my attention span short, so I wanted to try out other instruments. My uncle played banjo along with my dad in a bluegrass band called “The Twigg Brothers” and it always fascinated me. So I eventually asked for a banjo on my Christmas list and was gifted one by my father when I was 13. After that the little bar I had grown up playing music in had a fundraiser in honor of a regular who had recently passed. The sweetest of souls, Gisela who owned the bar, used the funds towards a scholarship. I was awarded this and used it towards taking banjo lessons at The Appalachian Bluegrass Shoppe in Catonsville, Maryland. Not long after the guitar called to me. At 15 I asked for one. My father again came through and I haven’t looked back since. Singing was something I was born to do; sharing the deepest depths of myself or that of another artist. From the age of 2 I don’t think I’ve ever shut up. I have my mother to thank for that mostly, she was always humming & strumming and encouraging me to join. I have no doubt her lullabies inspired me, along with my 4 other older sisters. 

JED: What are some of your earliest playing and performing memories? 

I can remember always singing. At age 2 my mom would sit the guitar across my lap and let me strum. I remember her video taping me very vividly and I even began to make up my own nonsensical lyrics. I would sing with my parents at family shindigs, I remember a red solo cup being passed around where I collected tips at age 5. I first sang on a microphone at an amazing little place called “The Friendly Inn;” a little bar in Ellicott City, Maryland. It’s where I really got my start in live performing. It was a mere 5 miles from my house and had some of the best bluegrass bands around. They would host open mic nights on Thursday and I learned a few songs with my mom. I was 8 years old and remember staring at a bag of Funyuns behind the bar the ENTIRE time I sang. I think it helped me to concentrate because I was a very shy kid and had to work hard to overcome stage fright.

It was the most nerve racking thing I had done up to that point. My family always believed in me and supported me in my musical interest. It was a way of life and still is. Later on I had the opportunity to be a guest with other bands that performed there and met some bluegrass legends as well, such as Bill Harrell.

JED: Ya know I watched an interview recently with Mike Bub and he talked about how his parents were very supportive of his musical pursuits. Not every career musician I’ve met has had that. In fact sometimes quite the contrary. That is a luxurious thing to have as a young aspiring artist. What are some of your favorite albums, and how do they influence your work?

I don’t really have favorites, I mean I do . . . but there are way too many influences I pull from to narrow it down so simply. Albums from Alison Krauss, Dixie Chicks, Lynn Morris, India Arie, Patty Loveless, 90’s alt, Grand Funk Railroad, Neil Young, James Taylor, Tony Rice, Doc Watson, Norman Blake and so many others work I have been drawn to and influenced by.

JED: If you were to pick only 3, who are the 3 artists that you’d say you’re most influenced by?

Alison Krauss, my parents Mike & Donna Twigg and Tony Rice. I heard them the most and they resonated with me on deeper levels. 

Sarah performing at the Bright Box Theatre in Winchester VA. Photo by Frank Baldridge.

JED: Which part of your music career do you enjoy the most – live performance, recording, writing, etc.?

Definitely live shows, there is nothing like pouring it all out on stage. There is something so personal about sharing the internal and people not only connecting to it, but appreciating it. Some of the people I have met and the comradeship I have formed through music is something I will never take for granted. I play locally with my sister Heather at assisted living homes and adult daycare centers. Real magic takes place, the disabled and forgotten bring more meaning to music than the common listener. 

JED: God bless you for that. I mean it. I’ve played in some of those places. I know those gigs can be hard. 

I’ve grown close to many souls in these homes and have wept when I returned to find one has passed on. There was a blind man in particular who every month would be waiting at the front table for my sister and I to sing and play. He knew so much about roots music and always appreciated and extended his gratitude. He made comments about notes and melodies and I can only assume he paid even more attention due to his lack of vision. I’ll never forget him.

JED: That’s beautiful.

Studio stuff is a whole other world of fun, but nothing beats experiencing the essence of my craft in the moment it is being shared beneath some hazy stage lights. Not to mention I have the best outfit of girls to play music with, everything is an adventure. If I could say one thing I detest is being crammed in the car with an upright bass and kids and sound and snacks and everything else under the sun for hours.

JED: Hahaha! Being a Mom and a band mate is a loaded plate! 

It is, but having a creative outlet makes me a better mom! 

JED: That is great. Who are three musicians that you think are underrated or deserve more notoriety for their art?

So many. I know personally a plethora of folks who downright amaze me and are not well known outside of their community. Dori Freeman would be one of them, incredible songwriting and effortless-sounding vocals. I first heard her at Live at Watermelon Park and my whole body froze when I turned to the stage. Her simple acoustic delivery entwined with heart ache, truth, and soul-stirring tones is nothing short of perfect.

My best friend Elizabeth Baker, is an absolute hoss on the fiddle (although she’d argue with me) and banjo. She can write a song in 5 minutes that’s witty or sentimental. Her voice is like the force of the earth and her harmony is quite comparable to gravity for me! I would not be the musician I am today without her.

The Fly Birds; from left to right, Heather Twigg (fiddle), Elizabeth Baker (banjo), Sarah (guitar), Mary Dunlap (bass). Photo by Hannah Keller.

Lastly, Ethan Hughes, his voice would probably be one of my all time favorite male voices. I remember well when I first met him and his father. Their presence in music and friendships are truly telling of what wonderful people they are. He plays the dobro and guitar with such finesse it invokes warmth within me.

JED: Tell us a little bit about your current rig – what does your “rig” consist of? What instrument(s) do you play, pedals, mics, etc.? 

I’m currently playing a Martin D-15 with an LR Baggs Lyric pickup. I normally use a blue chip pick and medium Elixir strings. I currently use an MXL 770 open diaphragm condenser mic, for vocals. Gives more of an intimate feel and allows me to move around the stage freely.

JED: Those Lyric pickups are fantastic. Jake Stargel turned me on to them. I’ve not heard a guitar “plugged in” that sounds as true to it’s acoustic tone as one using a “Lyric.” If you were given an unlimited budget for an album production to record your dream album, what would it look like?

It would be long, most likely in a series.

JED: Oh, like in multiple volumes? 

Yes I’m very indecisive and the vault of songs and music I’d like to record seems infinite at times. Many guests and favorite musicians would be invited to partake.

JED: Who are some of the people you’d want to play on it? Who would you want to engineer it? 

I have so many close friends that are so talented I’d have to include. If I could pick anyone though I’d have my heroes on it somehow although I don’t think I’d be worthy haha. I would want it to be versatile, original, and from the heart. Art would be done by my family as always.

JED: Oh cool you have family that does graphic design / artwork for your projects? 

Everyone in my family just oozes with creativity and talent. All album work has been done by family members of mine and of the band. I can only hope we inspire one another. My sister Holly Smoot painted the cover of my last album. Just as she is beautiful, she exudes beauty in everything she does. She has been one of my biggest supporters my entire life. My band mate’s sister Jill Shields painted the cover of our first album as well as the back of the most recent. Her natural love for music and birds shines through her work. Jack Dunlap, a brother to two of my band mates, helped pull all the graphic design work for the album together in a flash and extended his expertise, we are very thankful for him. We also had help from some artist friends. Lulu Furtado, a fellow musician and friend, is responsible for drawing one of our most favorite pictures that is the face of our CD, T-shirts, and stickers. Caroline McGovern, another lovely band friend, also contributed a painting of birds that we included on our latest release. The next album art should be nothing short of spectacular. 

Sarah performing at Bluegrass In The Barn in Wardensville WV. Photo by Bonnie Smoot.

JED: You’ve definitely got no shortage of help in that department. What is your favorite album or recording that you’ve made to date?

“The Band is Causing Problems” would be the only and favorite full album I have completed and been a part of. It depicts a story of an exhausted worn out musician mom who just wants to feed her passion and her kids all while balancing love, life, fear and celebrating new beginnings. So many loved ones helped to make it a reality and added their own touches to this final project.

JED: Is it a story album? That is a really unique concept for an album; original material centered around the theme of being an overtaxed music mom. Would that be right?

Honestly that’s the one of best ways I’ve heard it interpreted. You could say for sure it is a story of our struggle and determination. It certainly embodies all we’ve been through and all we hope to achieve. 

JED: What are you currently working on?

A new album! 6 songs down 4 more to go, really excited for the quality of this one. Going with more covers that fans have requested and a few originals. 

JED: Keep us updated on the release of that album! Sarah I’ve loved getting to chat with you about your life and your music. Keep us updated on the progress of your album. Stop by and say “hi” again soon!

Keep us with Sarah and her band, The Fly Birds, on their respective Instagram pages. Featured article photo by Amy Kay Ellis.