Illinois-based indie singer-songwriter Sarah Schonert combines classical-sounding piano with ambient washes, vocoded synths, electronic elements, and layered vocals to create a sound very unique to her. It results in My Unwinding State, an album released in late June 2016 that doesn’t span a lot in the sense of melodies, instrumentation, or vocal range, but that broaches a number of topics. It sounds at times like quickly jotted down journal entries which gives the album a sense of intimacy.
The album’s 16 tracks are laid out in two parts, with an experimental piece followed by an electronic instrumental acting as a break in the middle. The set can be loosely divided into three categories: piano-led, electronic keyboard-led, and others.
Almost half the tracks on the album—all of which feature slow tempos—are built on a delicate piano opening, which is more melodic in songs like the ballads “Crying Miles” and “Hit Save” for example. Most numbers in the set are enhanced with electronic keyboard elements that suit the mood being established—joyful, pensive, melancholic—with some extra features added here and there: soft and muted percussion in the particularly mellow “Break Me Down” to the energetic and more dynamic yet still restrained ones in “Crying Miles”, reflecting its overall delicate nature.
The vocal range is demonstrated in various ways. From the throatiness in “6 O Clock” and “Break Me Down” to the melodiousness in “Crying Miles” and “Hit Save”, all the way to the expression of a broader range of scale and power in “Laundry Day” and “We Were Something”, Schonert consistently demonstrates that she definitely can sing. In some cases, backing vocals are used to add further emotion, such as in the album opener, “6 O Clock”. In “We Were Something”, the already-gentle vocals used at the beginning of the song are further muted, giving it an even more melancholic feel overall.
Amongst the piano-led tracks is “Back Down Soon Under Steady Rain”. Built on a very faint background noise of steady rain pouring, the piano doesn’t come off quite as delicate. Layers also include the usual vocals and some backing vocals; the way the song has been written, each layer is slightly out of sync with the other, at times by only half a second. This creates, in a way, the auditory equivalent of rain falling, the sound of which is harmonious in some ways and completely messy and disorganized in others.
Most of the electronic keyboard-led tracks are, save for that exception, built similarly to their piano-led counterparts. “Experienne” is not just the first such number on My Unwinding State, but is also an instrumental song using the various functions of an electronic keyboard. It feels like an experimental track, as if someone was testing different combinations into which the various sounds that define this album can be put.