The Authentic Experience
Sara Bareilles and Mike Mains Take Different Directions

I’ve been thinking about what a strange beast authenticity is.

I know some people for whom authentic expression is the most important element in music. If the artist is putting on a show, or putting up walls of artifice, these people would say the music is worthless. I, of course, disagree with this – I love the artifice sometimes, and enjoy trying to crack the code of artists like David Bowie and Beck, who throw up persona after persona, and yet create very personal art in the process.

Like a lot of things, authenticity can be bought. Or rather, the appearance of authenticity, since it’s sort of a genre unto itself. People often assume that if something sounds naked and full of soul and emotion, it must be. I don’t think that’s true. I think artists can deliver irony with an acoustic guitar just as easily as truth, and can speak with piercing honesty behind the gaze of a mask.

I don’t say this to make you distrust every troubadour with a six-string. I just find it fascinating that the physical sound of some styles of music seem to speak directly to the heart, because those sounds and styles can be created at will. I don’t at all, for instance, doubt that Sara Bareilles is an honest, earnest songwriter. I’m a fan. I like her work immensely. I just think it’s interesting that you can tell when she’s aiming for pop hits, and when she’s delivering a singer-songwriter work like her new one, Amidst the Chaos.

For this one, she worked with T Bone Burnett, who has made a career out of capturing authenticity, both in style and in substance. Together they’ve crafted something beautiful – this is one of Bareilles’ best records, if not her best. They assembled an army of fantastic players, from drummers Jay Bellerose and Jim Keltner to guitarist Marc Ribot to keyboardist Patrick Warren, and this dream team has coaxed the best out of this set of pretty terrific songs.

Amidst the Chaos was written as a reaction to the first two years of the Trump administration. Several songs here are disguised as longing odes to lost loves, when they are in fact nostalgic yearnings for the Barack Obama years. Splendid first single “Armor” is a #metoo-inspired anthem of womanhood: “You think I am high and mighty, mister? Wait ‘till you meet my little sister.” Album closer “A Safe Place to Land” is about the migrant crisis at the border, Bareilles and John Legend standing in solidarity with those looking for the security of our land of plenty: “So say the Lord’s prayer twice, hold your babies tight, surely someone will reach out a hand and show you a safe place to land…”

Other songs are less overtly products of our times, but they’re no less well crafted. “Miss Simone” is, of course, about Nina Simone, who provides the backdrop to a perfect romantic evening: “On the rooftop thinking no one needs to know a thing but Miss Simone.” The absolutely delightful “Poetry by Dead Men” sports my favorite vocal melody here, and offers a well-observed snapshot of a lost relationship: “I wanted to be your girl with your hands on my skin, stirring in the cinnamon while you read me poetry by dead men…”

The production here is organic and folksy, with some dips into rock (“Eyes on You”) and soul (“If I Can’t Have You,” one of the Obama songs, and it’s so much better when you know that). I don’t know if the sound of this thing will earn Bareilles more respect than her more pop-oriented records have, but she has always been this good. Her voice is strong, her songwriting voice even more so, and she shines in this setting. If Burnett’s participation brings in more fans of thoughtful, well-written songs, that can only be a good thing. Those of us who have been here for a while already know what a treasure Bareilles is. But don’t worry, we’re a welcoming bunch.

Mike Mains has gone in the opposite direction, sonically, and that’s equally interesting to me. Mains and his band, the Branches, knocked me out when I saw them at Cornerstone in 2012 – they were a scrappy rock band with a shout-along style, and their first two records, Home and Calm Down Everything is Fine, captured that feel. Guitar-heavy and propulsive, galloping from song to song, Mains and his cohorts sounded barely restrained on those albums, just a hair less explosive than they were on stage.

So how to explain When We Were in Love, the third Branches record? It’s a naked bid for wider exposure, full of keyboards and pop production. The shout-alongs have become singalongs, the energy has been replaced with a more danceable vibe, and just about everything that made Mains unique has been scrubbed away. This sounds like something you’d hear on Alt Nation six times a day.

And I have no doubt that was the point. Songs like “Endless Summer” and “Live Forever” sound like they were crafted to capture that particular audience. It’s taken a few listens for me to hear past the sheen to the songs, and they’re not drastically different from the ones Mains gave us in the early years of his career – I quite like “Holy Ghost,” which riffs on the old Catholic school maxim for school dances (“Leave room for the holy ghost!”), and closer “Swamp” is pretty swell.

Some of these songs, in fact, are as good as anything Mains has given us. I’m listening to the aforementioned “Holy Ghost” now, and it’s great. “Around the Corner” is a rousing positivity anthem that I could see catching fire, given a chance, and that one begins with the line “Do you feel like hanging from a cross, do you feel like paradise is lost?” What’s missing is the edge, the live band feel, but it sounds to me like Mains believes these songs as much as anything he’s done, and it’s only the production that makes them sound inauthentic.

Which is fascinating. While Bareilles has consciously chosen to aim for an audience that respects respectability, Mains is specifically looking for some of that alt-pop superstar attention. I really hope this record makes him famous. It sounds like it was crafted to do just that, and he’s toiled in the trenches long enough to deserve it. I don’t love this record, but I bet these songs are better live, and I’d like to hear them recorded in the same edgy style I’ve grown to expect. I’m pulling for this band, and this record makes it a little harder to do so, but I’m still on board.

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See you in line Tuesday morning.