By: Faith Ryan
When I first met Sarah Mendelsohn, one word came to mind immediately to describe the fifty-something blonde with laugh lines around her eyes: cheerful. Unlike the many stressed, over-worked, dissatisfied, or impatient people that we might run into on a daily basis, Mendelsohn is a usually pleasant person. She owes her happiness not to an extravagant amount of wealth, a super-model-worthy appearance, or legions of fans and admirers—things that many Americans seem to believe are the gateways to happiness—but simply from the way she lives her life. She has chosen not to be a slave not to a desk job, but only to one of her most insatiable interests—music. While this may leave little room for an extravagant lifestyle, such things hardly seem to matter to Mendelsohn.
Throughout our interview, Mendelsohn was never far from cracking a smile or sharing a laugh, even—and perhaps especially—at her own expense. In the interview, Mendelsohn was warm and personable—immediately likable—and soon after introducing myself, I felt as if we were more having a friendly conversation than conducting a strictly serious interview.
For those who many not know, Sarah Mendelsohn is the drummer in a nine-piece Bob Marley tribute band called the Duppy Conquerors. Being one of only two females in the band, Mendelsohn must not only act as singer but drummer as well in order to create the higher back-up vocals found in many of Marley’s songs. Though this might seem like a great challenge to many—since singing and drumming both take such concentration—Mendelsohn welcomes the challenge. Singing, Mendelsohn told me, has always been a big part of her life. Through her collegiate and post-graduate years, she was involved with a number of bands. She both sang and played drums in all of them. That ability to multitask was one of the main reasons she was invited into the Duppy Conquerors when the band began. While she enjoys singing and drumming simultaneously, she admits that the practice can be very difficult. “Singing,” she says, “is like adding another limb. I can’t just sing and play every song.” Despite this, she still makes a concentrated effort to sing as often as she can, especially if the drumming parts are not too consuming. When she was a young woman in a band called Shy Five, she sang as well—so much so that she admits that her then-bandmates would say, “‘You can’t shut her up.’” Even today, though she’s first and foremost the only drummer for the Conquerors, she still calls singing her “number-one love.” Luckily, by being a part of the versatile and multi-talented Duppy Conquerors, she gets to pursue this love affair in a way that she cannot seem to get enough of.
“It’s so much fun,” Mendelsohn gushes the moment I ask about her experience being a part of the Conquerors, sounding almost like a love-struck teenager for a moment. “It’s the most chill band. There’s no egos, you know?” The lack of arrogant personalities in the band was certainly a deal-making factor for Mendelsohn, who, in the past, had spent two successive fifteen-year periods in two bands, both which ended badly and left the drummer/singer with a bad taste in her mouth where music was concerned. “[Afterwards] I was like, ‘Okay, I’ve had enough; I’m done with music,’” she says of the first band she was in long-term, Shy Five, which focused solely on original music. The second, a country/rock/pop band with original songscalled Paved Country, ended similarly: “It became old… And it just became really hard.” The break-up of this second band cost Mendelsohn a long-time friendship (which she has since repaired), as well as, again, her love for playing music. It wasn’t until Jeff Robinson, an old friend of Mendelsohn’s—and the saxophone player in the Conquerors—called her and asked for her to join his Bob Marley tribute band that her love for performing music was reawakened. The great thing about the band, and where it diverges from Mendelsohn’s earlier projects, is that it was created—and is still sustained—primarily for fun. While Shy Five broke up due to fighting within the band and Paved Country fell apart because of pressures to turn the band into a business, the Duppy Conquerors exists solely to entertain and be entertained. Mendelsohn doesn’t see herself running into those same problems where the band is concerned.
Being a part of the Duppy Conquerors is “just… fun,” Mendelsohn repeats with a smile on her face that hints that she wishes she could think of a better word to encompass her love for the band and how all of its members mesh together. The leader of Shy Five, she explains, “was like an Olympic trainer, as far as my drumming went. [He’s the reason] why I play the way I do, because he insisted on a certain level, which was great, and it got me there, which was great, but it was painful at times.” Being in the Duppy Conquerors is different. Their laid-back style gives Mendelsohn the freedom that she was unable to find, let alone secure, in earlier musical endeavors. “For the first time in my life, this is all me,” she says about the Duppy Conquerors with a smile. “Every day, I go practice and I’m excited to do so and no one’s pushing me. I just want to be as good as I can be.”
Mendelsohn gives high praise both to her fellow bandmates individually and the group as a whole. From the way she speaks, it is clear that she knows—from experience—that things couldnot get much better. “We’re all just on the same page,” she says of the band’s cohesiveness, sounding even a bit surprised herself. “It’s kind of an amazing thing. We all love it, what we’re doing.” And, in the end, for Mendelsohn, that’s what really matters. After spending years in bands that ended up being more of learning experiences rather than fun experiences, it is clear that the most important thing to her now is that the band is a rewarding experience for her. From how highly she speaks about the group, it is clear that she has found a niche where she can feel comfortable while still continuing to grow as performer.