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Sarah Simmons has always wanted to sing in front of people. Ever since she was five years old watching black-and-white movies with her grandmother, she’s dreamt of living out the musical sentiments of luminaries like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald.
Now, with a debut album releasing on August 25 and her recent standing as a finalist on Season Four of NBC’s The Voice, Simmons' dream is being realized. Freedom exemplifies her fiery, soulful voice and profound take on age-old themes like stubborn love, and strength in the face of adversity.
Simmons was raised in Birmingham, Alabama, by her parents and grandmother. The generational range in her family dynamic exposed her to everything from Neil Young and Pink Floyd to Ira Gershwhin, whose seminal jazz standard “I Got Rhythm” provided Simmons with her first a cappella performance number at a parent-teacher event in fifth grade.
“My teacher heard me singing that song in the bathroom,” Simmons says. “She basically told me I had to sing at the event, and people there told me I had an amazing voice. That started my love of sharing it.”
Four years later, when Simmons was 15, her father brought home a guitar to help her start playing with the poetry she had been writing. That naturally led to songwriting. Upon graduating high school, Simmons traveled 300 miles north to University of Mobile, but, after two years, she grew tired of rote college life and started looking toward the horizon.
“I just wanted something real,” she says. “I wanted to experience something different and have a challenge.”
She transferred to Visible Music College in Memphis, and during the final year, Simmons experienced a tragedy that pushed her to pursue a career in music. A close friend died in an accident—right after encouraging her to tryout for The Voice. With the support of the college’s president, her teachers, and her friends, Simmons stepped out of her last year of school to give her dreams a shot.
After a knockout first performance, Simmons chose Adam Levine as her coach, affording her multiple opportunities to record and meet some big names in the entertainment world, including movie producer Marty Bowen (Twilight, Dear John), who offered to pay for her first album. After she was voted off The Voice in the top eight finals, Simmons relocated to Studio City in Los Angeles to write.
“A lot of people think The Voice is do or die,” she says. “But I look at it as just another experience. I’m grateful for it as a platform, but you have to remember that it doesn’t make or break your career.”
What did make Simmons’ career was her move to Nashville, where she began working with local producer Marshall Altman (Eric Paslay, Amy Grant) on Freedom. The album took almost a year to record, but was worth it to lay down spirited heavy-hitters, like the opening track “Freedom” and her first single “Honey I’m Fine,” released June 10. Almost every song features lulling, operatic vocals over simple acoustic beats, setting Simmons apart from legions of other country-soul singers. But Simmons isn’t competing with other artists—she’s still focused on that childhood dream:
“I just want to perform and touch people’s hearts,” she says. “It’s all about people. I want to share happiness and life with them.”