Tennessee-born Sara Brimer’s career was jump-started by a lucky break and a five-hour car dash to intercept one of her favourite ensembles. Six years later, she tells Jacquie Hamel how she came to be a lynchpin of the Swingle Singers
Stepping out: The Swingle Singers © Nedim NAZERALI
Soprano Sara Brimer grew up in Tennessee, having been born into a very musical family: her entire family were singers, and it was obvious to her that she would choose music as her profession. ‘As soon as I knew how to talk, I could sing – singing was a second language to me,’ she says. As a child, she enjoyed nothing more than copying other people’s sounds, and experimenting till she become proficient at reproducing different singing styles. Having a supportive family helped to make her feel relaxed as she improvised with different sounds. Later, this became a great boon in her career with the famously inventive Swingle Singers: what better preparation?
She was taught at home between the ages of eight and 14, after which she joined a local high school which had a very good choir. It was here that she was introduced to the Swingles, as well as other a cappella ensembles.
At 18, Brimer was sure she wanted to have a job involved in music, but wasn’t sure precisely what. Initially, she considered a career as a music therapist – but the only university offering that specific degree was too far from the family home. Eventually, she settled on music education, enrolling at East Tennessee State University (ETSU), where she gained an operatic scholarship. There the choral director, Thomas Jenrette, was also a fan of the Swingles, and decided to form a small a cappella ensemble to operate alongside the general choir. As one of the founder members, Brimer was introduced to classic Swingle arrangements.
It was an email from her brother that changed her career path, from Tennessee girl to globetrotting performer. He had seen that the Swingle Singers were looking for a new high soprano, and were touring the US. In two days, Brimer threw together a packet consisting of a CV, hastily organised headshot, CD of her singing solos, and links to her close harmony performances in the university choir. She drove for five hours from East Tennessee to Charleston to present her application personally.
More than three months later, and Brimer having given up hope of any response from the group, a letter arrived out of the blue inviting her to come to London for auditions. She had risen to the top from 70 applicants, there was now the small matter of a penniless music student being able to afford transatlantic flights: the several hundred dollars was beyond her reach, but her parents were able to combine filial investment and her grandmother’s birthday present by buying them both tickets to London.
Part of the audition process involved memorising 11 songs in 17 days, a deliberately difficult test for aspiring Swingles. Fortunately, she was accustomed to performing from memory at university, so was able to cope. The auditions process was also not only about the technical side of things but how the auditionees interacted with the established members of the group. In the final stages of her interview, Brimer was asked: ‘Water or wine?’ ‘Beer, actually!’ was her successful answer – though it might not work in all job interviews.
Despite such rigorous selection processes, inevitably, things have gone wrong since Brimer joined the group. She recalls people falling off the stage, and one colleague who burped during a song. And though she passed the memorisation test, Brimer like most singers has found herself improvising the words of a song written in a language which she did not speak. ‘Fortunately, at the time we weren’t performing in Italy!’.
Looking up: The Swingles constantly look for new ways to move forward
Having been in the group for six years now, Brimer sums up: ‘We’ve changed a lot over 50 years, but the ethos has stayed the same. We’re trying to be on the forefront of vocal music – we’re generally a cappella, but we’ve sung with orchestras. The thought behind the Swingles is doing new things, and while a lot of people want to hear the old stuff, others think the old stuff is twee. Both of those thoughts are wrong in a way: it’s good to give a nod to the history, but also move forward – and we’re constantly thinking of new ways to move forward.’