The lovely brunette at the piano has a way about her as she sets fire to a plaintive and soulful take on OneRepublic’s massive hit ballad, “Apologize.” The now contest-winning clip would be seen around the world, Tay Zonday-style. The lovely brunette with near perfect pitch is now signed to Interscope, performing live guest shots with Far East Movement, and her single “New Day” was heard during a pivotal episode of MTV’s blockbuster series, The Hills.
The most important thing you need to know about 22-year-old Tamar Kaprelian is that she is just like you in many ways. She grew up in Scottsdale, Arizona performing for her loving and supportive grandpa, listening to Billy Joel for hours and hours, thinking The Stranger was the greatest, and swooning along to “Vienna.” She wondered, too, what became of Brenda and Eddie, and that old Italian restaurant. The other thing you should know is that her remarkable debut effort, Sinner or a Saint, (think a perfect mix of Sara Bareilles, Ingrid Michaelson and Leona Lewis) is not the standard, perfectly pretty schmaltzy girl-pop album formula.
Kaprelian, as beautiful as she may be, is not your standard, perfectly pretty artist. She never has been, and doesn’t want to be. This is a point of pride for her, and the basis for many of her lyrics.
One of the most striking and immediate reasons to love Sinner is that the gifted ivory-tinkling Kaprelian, who began writing songs at 14, opens the album by admitting, “Before the light, I found the dark/Before tonight I fell apart,” on lead single “New Day.” The words are her own, the admission a genuine one. The big deal? Most rising singer-songwriters entering the contemporary pop world with a major record deal do not start out by openly admitting to not being perfect. Most girls never admit to a flaw outside of the confines of their bedrooms or blogs, and yet, here’s Kaprelian confessing it right out of the gate. No wonder Interscope gave her creative control.
Not one to parade herself down Robertson in short shorts, looking for the next photo op or reality show starring “role,” the Los Angeles-based singer can usually be found on stage or in the studio, at a piano, lyric book nearby. She’s more apt to spend time with family or close friends, not brashly exiting Fred Segal. Kaprelian prefers to let her work speak for itself, hoping to inspire others to chin up, keep moving and take stock of life’s experiences good and bad. Perhaps she should have named the album Resilience, but there’s so much more to it – and her – than that.
Your grandfather is thanked in your album’s liner notes for being your hero and protecting you. What’s the story there?
He was one of the most incredible people on the face of the planet. Everything he had, or money that he made, he would keep enough to support himself and his family and the rest he would give to charity. He was very involved in charity work, and that’s something he instilled in me, my cousins and my brother: if we have it, we should always give.
You and I both share a preoccupation with Billy Joel. What about his work affects you so much?
I grew up idolizing my father. He plays guitar and piano, and [that] is the music he would play in the house. To put me to sleep at night, he would play Billy Joel’s “Lullabye (Goodnight My Angel).” Every time I hear that song, I start crying. There’s honestly something about his music; I can’t describe it because I really don’t feel that way about any other artist. This is how obsessed I am with Billy Joel! Every single time I listen to [it], it makes me feel something. I feel like a lot of artists now… it’s just not the same. He can tell a story like no one else. And the funny thing about him is that you either like him or you don’t. No one touches me musically like he does. I grew up thinking to myself, “My God, I want to touch people the way his music touched me.”
Honestly I do not care if I walk down the street and people don’t recognize me. I want my name to be associated with good work. That is priority number one. [Laughs] It’s probably gonna take longer for me because that is my motive, but I just don’t care [laughing] because at the end of the day it’s going to be so much more gratifying for me.
It’s incredible that you were able to use your own lyrics on this record. Most debut records for artists don’t work out that way. How’d you swing it?
I feel very blessed that I got to make the record that I always dreamed of making. That creative freedom is something that most artists don’t get until their second, third, records and Interscope was very trusting, which was incredible. Honestly I feel very lucky that I got the chance to do that.
Your cover of OneRepublic’s “Apologize” is stunning. Did you and Ryan Tedder write “Sinner or a Saint” together? How was that experience?
We did. It was Ryan and Brent Kutzle, the cello player/bass player. I had heard about Ryan years and years ago. And the producer that I was working with a the time was one of the first producers I had ever worked with – his name is Warren – and [he] said to me, “There’s this guy Ryan Tedder, he’s a really, really young guy and he is one of the most amazing songwriters I’ve ever met.” So his name kept coming up in a couple different circles I was in and I never got a chance to meet him. And then he joined OneRepublic (in 2002), and I’m like, “This is the guy everybody told me to meet!” And the way the whole thing ended up is that he picked my video of “Apologize.”
I got together with them when they were in Colorado recording their record and we got in a room – I was there for a week – and we ended up writing… and Brent produced one of my tracks, “Three Simple Words,” [and] it was on the EP I released a couple months ago. Ryan and I wrote two songs together. One might possibly be a duet that we release later on and then, obviously, the title track for the album.
How was the experience of melding your two minds together as songwriters?
He is one of the most talented people I’ve ever worked with, without question. It’s amazing how quick the creative process is for him. I remember asking him, “How do you do that?!” and he said, “You know what, Tamar? I’m older than you. I’ve just been doing it longer.” It’s all about experience. So that’s the one thing that really blew my mind – how quickly he was writing, and how incredible the things were that were coming out of his head.
I think men and women, actually, we all have dual sides to our personalities, and a lot of people are ashamed to explore that darker, more exploitive side. Every once in awhile it’s okay to stand at the edge and get a little too close. When Ryan and I were writing the song together, he had listened to my record basically from beginning to end. He said, “There’s a side to you that you’re not exploring. I believe this record because it’s so you, but I honestly think that there are two sides to your personality. I think you can either be a sinner or a saint.” When he said that, I was like, “Ryan, that’s the song title, that’s what we’re going with.” I like the track because it’s empowering. It has a strong message behind it, but it’s not too risqué.
Similarly, many lyrics on the record are so upfront about having flaws, admitting that you’re not perfect and have been to some dark places, like with “New Day” and “Should Have Known Better.” Was this important for you to get across? Saying right away that you’re a person of contradictions, and that this is a good and empowering thing.
That’s what we are! [Laughs] None of us are perfect! We try to pretend that we don’t make mistakes, but we do. We make them every day of our lives. I get messages from people saying, “I can relate to exactly what you’re saying.” And that to me makes the work I do so worthwhile. The thought that someone else can relate to something that is so personal to you and then interpret what you’re saying and relate it to their life? That blows me away. It’s an amazing feeling.
Another theme that shines through is one of faith in yourself and always keeping hope alive, like with “March Mornings” and “Purified.” I almost feel that this record is as much for you to keep going as it is to reach your fans. To inspire.
Definitely. It’s one of those things where, and I think this is true in anything that you do, it takes time and a lot of patience. Which is maybe the biggest lesson that I’ve learned the past few years: if you really, really want it, you have to make it happen yourself. You can’t rely on other people to make things happen for you. That’s something that my dad says all the time.
This is a very hopeful record, and what I want people to get out of it is this positive message, because I’m not an angry person. A lot of artists come from an angry place and that’s their way of venting and becoming better. I’ve been through a lot emotionally and personally, so this record for me was a way to grow up and learn very important lessons in my life.
You’re coming across on the record as saying, “I’m one of you. I’m a survivor.” At the end of the day, that’s one of the most constructive things to say on an album.
Yes, but there’s room for everything. There’s room for Ke$ha. There’s room for that. I think Lady Gaga is incredible. There’s so many different facets of what we do and there’s so many directions that people can go on. I think it’s incredible that anyone has the courage to express themselves through art.
–Carrie Alison, Photos by Brian Bowen Smith