VonderHaar Chooses Music Over Modeling

VonderHaar Chooses Music Over Modeling

Written by Chrissy Mauck, July 30, 2009

You may have seen her work in print—as a professional photographer, she’s had her shots featured in Forbes magazine—or her face on national television as a contestant on America’s Next Top Model (Cycle 8).  But now Sarah VonderHaar is bearing her soul through her music.

“The one thing I have to say about why I love music so much more than modeling is that I get to be 100 percent myself,” VonderHaar says in a recent phone interview with Fender.com. “It’s so much more personal to me. When you are modeling, you are basically playing a part. Whether it’s a runway show or a photo shoot, you are putting on all of these nice clothes and playing a part. Modeling did help groom me for performing onstage, but I get so much more gratification from doing music.”

But back in the fall of 2006, the Lake Zurich, Ill., native still had modeling on her mind as she headed to Los Angeles to compete in the reality television hit show created by supermodel Tyra Banks. The pixie-like, bright-blue eyed VonderHaar boldly professed in her first episode of America’s Next Top Model, “I am fierce. When I want something, I go and get it. That’s my entire personality.”

However, during several weeks of shooting VonderHaar realized that what she fiercely wanted wasn’t to be on magazine covers, but album covers.

Vonderhaar opened up Summerfest with “It’s Not the First
Time,” with the help of her brand-new reissue 1972
Telecaster® Thinline guitar.
Photo by David Butterman

“We weren’t allowed to watch television or listen to music, so you could get stir crazy,” she recalls. “But I had a killer book called Songwriting for Songwriters that I delved into. The guy who wrote it basically interviews all of these very influential songwriters, and so it was very interesting and inspired me to do a lot of free writing. I ended up coming out with a lot of great songs, and deciding that music was really what I wanted to do.”  

With the help of her stepfather (also her manager), VonderHaar returned to Los Angeles in fall 2007 and teamed up with producer Marshall Altman to do some songwriting. A few months later, she entered the studio to record her first album, Are You Listening Now, released in April 2008.

The tracks on her debut album range in genre, from an almost country vibe with emotional ballads to upbeat pop/rock tunes. VonderHaar views the variety as a reflection of her own musical influences, which include the Spice Girls (her first ever concert), the Eagles, Motown artists like the Jackson 5, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Paula Cole and Elton John.

“I listen to a lot of different music, so I wanted to have a broad range of music, not just a CD that was the same song over and over,” VonderHaar says. “If I buy a record and throw it in and it’s the same structure for every song or almost the same melody, it gets monotonous and boring so I really push myself to write a lot of different types of songs, write different melodies, and use different writing patterns.”

The lyrics she wrote for the album are also highly personal.

“This record is like a diary of my life. I write about what I’m going through. If I’m mad at my boyfriend, I’ll write a song about it.” Since she’s sitting on his fire escape in Chicago as she says this, boyfriend is fortunately in the clear—for now anyhow. “And if I’m in love, I’ll write a song about it. If I’m mad at my parents, I’ll write a song about it. I think that helps with the authenticity of the lyrics because I write from everyday experiences.”

The title song “Are You Listening Now” poignantly chronicles her emotions over losing her father to a drug overdose when she was 17.  

“It took me over four years to finally write that song, but once it came out, it was perfect,” she says. “We were very close when I was growing up, but once he started on drugs it was difficult. His substance abuse led to my parents’ divorce, and it’s a difficult monster to conquer. There are only two outcomes; you either conquer it, or it conquers you.”

She also pays tribute in, “Everything I’ll Be,” to her mother, who she credits for her early development as a songwriter.

“My mom is an English teacher and is very big on expressing yourself through words,” VonderHaar says. “She really instilled that in me at such a young age. One of my favorite authors as a kid was Jack Prelutsky, who is a lot like Shel Silverstein. I love that kind of poetry, and back in sixth or seventh grade instead of listening in class, I was usually writing poems or songs. I think you see some of his style of poetry in my lyrics.”

Her mom also kick-started her daughter’s singing career by giving the 6-year old VonderHaar a karaoke machine, something the singer believes her mom ended up profusely regretting since “I would never shut up.”

These days, mother and daughter rock out together in the hugely popular video game Rock Band™.

“We usually play ‘Are You Gonna Be My Girl’ by Jet, or something by Boston,” VonderHaar shares. “She plays the drums, and I usually sing and try to play the guitar. I’m good at the real guitar, but just not the Rock Band™ guitar yet.”

The game could end up giving her just the break her music career needs. VerveLife Entertainment recently announced that VonderHaar has been included in the closed beta trial for MTV’s Rock Band™ Network.

Created by Harmonix Music Systems and MTV Games, Rock Band™ Network will enable musicians to upload their own original recordings and sell their music as playable Rock Band™ tracks through the Rock Band™ Music Store.  Currently running the closed version, the Rock Band™ Network open beta will launch this August.

“Nowadays it seems like there are a lot more outlets for independent artists to reach out to their fans with Facebook and Myspace, and I know it’s still in beta, but I really think this will be one more powerful tool for independent artists to reach out to a whole new fan base,” says VonderHaar. “Plus, I think it will be fun to see how well I do playing my own songs on Rock Band™, and I’m just so thrilled VerveLife helped me to become part of this.”

VonderHaar and her Malibu
VonderHaar also plays a Malibu™ SCE acoustic. ’I'm 5’9,
but I’m still little and it’s just the perfect fit for me. I
get so many compliments on it! I love it!” 
Photo by David Butterman

VerveLife also helped VonderHaar re-release her debut album in early 2009, with new packaging and a pair of bonus tracks.

“I signed on with them about a year ago and their development program in particular has been great,” she says. “They’ve been helping me work on my image; they even helped me with my clothes.”

That may seem surprising since VonderHaar has, after all, strutted the runway in couture, but this Chicago gal says she’s most comfortable in her Converse® Chuck Taylors. Further proof that she’s anything but a diva, the almost 23-year old still picks up shifts in between her musical endeavors at the local Pizza Hut®.

“I started there the day after my 16th birthday, and it’s the best job in the world. I make money driving around and delivering pizzas, which means I am usually in my car listening to music and recording lyrics on my BlackBerry®. On nights when I’m serving, I’ll take my guitar and play sometimes. Plus, I can go away for a few months on tour and when I come back, I still have a job. They’ve just been wonderful to me.” 

VonderHaar’s Pizza Hut® days may be numbered as her musical career appears on the cusp of a breakout. In addition to the affiliation with Rock Band™, Chevrolet recently selected her song “All Mine” for one of its commercials.

“I was blown away when they chose my song,” she says. “It’s one of those songs that just puts you in a good mood. It’s like a summer soundtrack that you put in and roll the windows down and sing along.”

In early July, VonderHaar also took part in the Emerging Artist Series at Milwaukee’s enormous Summerfest music festival.

“I felt so privileged to perform there,” says VonderHaar. “I opened up my set with ‘It’s Not the First Time,’ and I think the high energy from me rocking out and having fun really got the crowd going. We ended our set with the Jackson 5’s ‘I Want You Back,’ and it touched my heart because I grew up listening to Michael Jackson. It was very amazing to pay tribute to such a talented artist who will be remembered not for the charades that went on, but for his music.”

And after already making a name for herself in the photography and modeling realms, it’s music that this determined go-getter hopes to one day be remembered for too.

“I love every single second of it, but I’ve also realized that music is the most difficult industry I’ve ever been involved in,” sums up VonderHaar. “But, if I decide to do something, I set my mind to it, and I work as hard as I possibly can to do that. I’m very determined to make it happen because I’m so lucky to have really found my niche in music, and I feel so at home.”




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