Welcome to KQED Arts’ Women to Watch, a series celebrating 20 local artists, creatives and makers who are pushing boundaries in 2016. Driven by passion for their own disciplines, from photography to comedy and every other medium in between, these women are true vanguards paving the way in their respective communities.
Go to an indie music concert in Oakland or listen to a record from a local band, and you won’t see or hear Sarah Sexton — but chances are she’s the woman behind the scenes who made it happen.
Sexton overcame self-doubt to create Oaktown Indie Mayhem, which books and produces for a number of Oakland music venues; she also co-founded OIM Records (with musician Angelica Tavella, and producer Jeff Saltzman), featuring Bay Area artists like Foxtail Brigade, Be Calm Honcho, Lila Rose, and TV Heads. Sexton’s motto: Try not to get caught, and never say sorry.
Where do you live?
Describe yourself in one word.
What did you do last night?
I spent the evening talking label business with my partner over drinks at the lovely Starline Social Club, then caught a quick bit of rad music there.
What can’t you live without?
I would wither away without my animals, f(r)amily, plants, and music.
If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would it be?
I’m absolutely dying to get over to Berlin for a stint and get to know the scene there.
Who is your personal hero? Why?
This changes regularly, but one inspiration that has never changed for me are the pioneers of lady fronted rock ‘n’ roll and punk, specifically Joan Jett, Kathleen Hanna, and Pat Benatar. They taught me as a young girl growing up in the south (Florida) that it’s OK to not play nice, to take what you want, be who you want to be, and never be sorry for it. I would say my other hero is my mom, she was a timid woman but knew how to love and feel compassion for others like no one else I’ve ever known. I try to always remember, although I don’t always succeed, we must live with relentless compassion in our hearts.
How did you find your creative voice?
I have been on my own much of my life and although I’m cool with being a loner, I guess I’ve often satisfied my urge for some type of ‘family’ connection by bringing other like minds together. I started off by co-creating a poetry slam as a teenager where I could vent about the pain inside, you know, teen angst. That was the beginning. I found others that I could connect with, which helped immensely. Then when I got to a really low point mentally in my early- to mid-twenties, all of a sudden bringing people together and hosting creative platforms came to the forefront again, and it kind of became a necessity for me. Nothing makes me feel connected to others the way art and music does.
What is something most people don’t know about you?
I will lose my mind on you if you try to serve me eggplant. It’s the only vegetable I despise.
What do you do when you feel uninspired?
In those moments, I desperately need to be alone. I spend so much of my time supporting others’ creativity, sometimes I have to let myself enjoy solitude for a while to dip back into who I am and what inspires me to create or to be able to continue supporting others in their creation.
What’s been your biggest ‘learning moment,’ and what did you take from the experience?
I’d say my biggest learning moment was deciding to leave my job waiting tables. I had been working in the service industry since I was a teenager and had never really thought that I could make a living off my craft. But then an amazing friend, Cortt Dunlap of Awaken Cafe, offered me a position booking music for his cafe after a couple good experiences together on shows. I didn’t trust that would hold true, so I said yes, but kept my job for the next six months as a safety net. I finally let go after a talk that revealed he really valued me and my work and wanted to build our relationship together. That was about three and a half years ago, and was the leap of faith that became one of the biggest turning points in my life. I’m no longer booking shows there, but I’m forever grateful to Cortt for the opportunity he gave me. Learning lesson: Never underestimate your value to the world, and never make decisions based off of fear. Just hold your breath and dive in.
What’s your greatest achievement, and how has it shaped you?
I think the label is definitely one of my greatest achievements. Just 10 years ago I was bouncing around listening to songs my partner produced on the radio, and now I’m here with him (and our third amazing partner who brought us together) helping birth rad indie music into the world together. That’s still mind-boggling for me sometimes. Also the fact that I haven’t had to compromise on who I am for it to happen. It has certainly reaffirmed for me the importance of staying true to who you are.
Coffee or tea? What kind?
I adore coffee but my stomach has recently said “no more” and so now I’m on Ginger Green Tea with honey and it’s rocking my world each morning.
What does a perfect day look like for you?
Easy. Sleep in with the loves of my life, a.k.a. my girlfriend Kevn, my dog Gemini, and maybe our kitties too. Wake up (slowly) to a cup of tea and a joint, and head out into my garden for a couple hours to hang with my animals and take care of my plants. Then I would make a big dinner for my brothers, auntie, and girlfriend, go apeshit on some dessert (probably cake), and spend the rest of the night show-hopping with friends.
Who are your local inspirations?
Currently I’m pretty enamored by the lead singer of King Woman. She is an amazing musician and isn’t afraid to talk about really difficult things or call people out on their shit. Women like that inspire me to be a stronger me. I’m also very inspired by Zakiya Harris, who is a powerhouse if I have ever met one. She helps run Hub Oakland, works hard for the Hack The Hood youth program, and is an amazing musician, all while being a mother as well! Talk about a wonder woman.
Hands down, Arizmendi Pizza (San Pablo Location). They make dreams come true.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
Hopefully buying a home in Oakland (let’s all try not to snicker at that one), and going on tour with some of our bands at the label. If I could be doing that full-time, with a little booking here and there, I’d be mega stoked.
If you could live in a book, TV show, movie, play or painting, what would it be?
Cool question. I think I’d like to be in a Tom Robbins book. He is such a weirdo, and I think I could work in that context.
Where and when can people see you or your art in action?
Check out our label at oimrecords.com and stay tuned because we have a lot of great releases planned for this year. Also, my next shows are at the Starline Social Club on July 22 and July 23 with Be Calm Honcho, Hot Flash Heat Wave, and more. I would love to see you all there.
Curious about who else made the list? Check out the Women to Watch series page, including photo galleries, interviews, and videos.