Smile Politely

The evolution of Sass: Sara Siders’ journey from college athletics to making music

Sara Siders in a blue denim shirt and curly hair with her arms crossed and an impish grin. Blurry white light bulbs can be seen in the background.
Sara Siders on Facebook

When it comes to music, word-of-mouth can be the most powerful, but most elusive, marketing tool for an aspiring musician. To activate that superpower, you need to have amazing talent or a palpable passion for what you do. In my very short time immersed in the CU music scene, I’ve heard Sara Siders’ name (or her nickname, “Sass”) come up more than a few times. Once I heard her music, I instantly knew why.

Siders, also known as Sass, comes from Champaign music royalty, despite having grown up in California. Her father is Bruce Hall, the bass player for REO Speedwagon. I asked Siders about her musical journey and the role her father played in her love for music.

“My father’s role was huge. I grew up in athletics, and it was because I was a bit of a Hellion, the family joke was that for me it was either sports or jail,” Siders laughs. “The only thing my parents knew about rock and roll was rock and roll. It wasn’t a kid’s game at that time. So they put me in every sport possible, but I was always around music and I grew up listening to great music.”

Siders’s entire youth was athletics-based. She played everything from softball and soccer to surfing, and it was a full-ride scholarship to Purdue for softball that brought her to the Midwest. She even made the Olympic softball team as an alternate but decided to go to college instead.

While in college, and after five knee surgeries, Siders’ initial plunge into music is when her roommate taught her how to play guitar.

“My roommate, Matt, taught me actually how to play guitar and I think he selfishly did it because I think he just needed a second guitar part [for a song he was writing],” mused Siders. “It turned into something that I just couldn’t stop doing and I started writing. I also started playing and I have horrible stage fright, so I didn’t really get on stage until I was out of college.”

Regarding her musical relationship with her dad now, Siders shared that her father is still a significant influence on her work and is always involved in her recording process. However, she doesn’t often perform with her family, who are spread out geographically and not always able to see her live shows.

Siders also touched on her experience as a musician in central Illinois versus California, mentioning that it’s easier to make a living as a musician in the Midwest. Siders mentions the challenges of making a living as a musician in large cities like Los Angeles and Nashville, where it’s more of a “pay-to-play” environment.

“I’ve found that you can play and make a living at it here,” stated Siders. “I want to play music and I want to get paid for that music and wherever I can do that, I’m good to go.” While larger cities may offer more exposure, Sara has found a home and a sustainable career here in the heartland.

Siders has a commanding voice, and her style can stretch across multiple styles and genres.
As a performer, Siders names some of her biggest musical inspirations as Ella Fitzgerald, Tina Turner, Janis Joplin, and the Beatles. Her father, a big Beatles fan, exposed her to their music early on, shaping her taste and style.

Mank and Sass performing on stage. Mank is closest to the camera, holding his bass and looking down. Sass is off to the right and back a bit, holding a guitar while looking at Mank and smiling.
Mank and Sass on Facebook

Her own music draws from a wide range of genres, including ska, reggae, rock, and country. However, she makes everything her own with a unique style she refers to as “Cali-country.

“I sing a lot of genres, but I make everything kind of my own,” says Sider. And it’s not because I’m super talented. It’s because that’s the way I do it. If you want me to sing and play, I’m gonna have to do it in my rhythms. That’s just how it works.”

“I like to call it ‘Cali-country’. Sublime was a big influence. [Bob] Marley was a big one. I grew up in California, so I was into all the ska bands like Reel Big Fish, No Doubt; I’m big into that kind of shit. And you can hear a lot of that ska uptick in my rhythm sometimes. But then again, I grew up around 80s rock, so I have this genuine love for piano and crazy guitar solos, too.”

The emerging singer-songwriter has noticed a recent revival in the local music scene, which she attributes in part to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think that there was an appreciation for the arts that happened over COVID,” said Siders. “We were all at home and some creative shit had to happen because we were all stuck in one place. Prior to that, there was some shit going on with some of the music venues in town. We were losing a lot of the venues and we didn’t have places to play. Then things actually shut down, but we found each other online, and it’s like we found our voices as original artists again. I think it was like a reset.”

I asked Siders about the most rewarding aspect of being a musician. Siders revealed that witnessing people connecting with her music has been truly gratifying.

“I never thought it was something that I was capable of. It just wasn’t in my wheelhouse to think about because I was an athlete,” said Siders. “I’ll never forget: somebody came up to me after I put out one of my songs, ‘More Than Caffeine,’ and they were going through an addiction problem. They told me that that song really helped them get through it and I was blown away because I just did not know that my words could ever affect somebody in that kind of way. That was very eye-opening, finding out that you’re a mentor to someone that you never met.”

Siders plays all over Illinois and Indiana as “Sass”, either solo or as half of the musical duo Mank and Sass. She says don’t expect her to talk onstage, because she still struggles with stage fright, but her strategy of closing her eyes and losing herself in the song she’s playing will invite you into that intimate space with her. So close your eyes and let that soulful, booming voice of hers take you places.

Rose Bowl Tavern (After Market Show)
106 N Race St
Sa May 13th; 12 p.m.

Wine and Sorbet Pairing, with live music by Sass
Yellow and Company (Mahomet)
604 E Main St, Suite C
Sa May 13th; 7 p.m.
$10 to $25 advance

Music Editor

More Articles