Sarah Niemietz happily recalls growing up listening to Cole Porter, Betty Carter and Ella Fitzgerald — “all those great voices of jazz” — and eagerly wanting to sing with a band playing at an LA jazz club. To be invited onstage, she needed to know several standards. She learned them — and soon found herself sitting in with the band.
It’s a telling episode. Now 25, the Santa Clarita resident performed on Broadway at age 10 in Carol Burnett’s “Hollywood Arms,” and has been mentored by Emmy-winning “West Wing”/“thirtysomething” composer W.G. “Snuffy” Walden since her teens. They’ve collaborated on several EPs and Niemietz’s first full-length album, “Travel Light,” a tasteful, ear-pleasing confection of jazzy precision, R&B grooves, and soulful balladry. Niemietz’s clear intonation and lightly husked ache reflect the influence of Fitzgerald and Janis Joplin. “They’re pretty different,” she acknowledges, “but they both sang with such honesty.”
The music’s informed by Niemietz’s tenure alongside Walden with the Babylon Social Club, a convivial ensemble of rock and R&B veterans who individually backed the likes of George Duke, Chaka Kahn, Bonnie Raitt and Stevie Wonder. For several years Babylon Social Club held down a residency at Café Cordiale in Sherman Oaks — a nurturing experience for Niemietz as she developed her own style. When Babylon performs Wednesday at Monrovia Station Square Pavilion, she promises songs from her 2015 EP “Fountain and Vine” and hopefully “Travel Light,” along with vintage R&B and rock covers.
“When you’re playing with people of that caliber and renown, you know they’re going to be there for you,” she says. “They’re not going to leave you hanging or not have things together. You can be free from worrying about the little things. You can just enjoy the music.
“I definitely grew up with them. I was about 18, 19 when we started together. I hadn’t had a lot of experience playing live with a band until that experience with Babylon. Now it’s family. Snuffy always calls it ‘the uncles.’ [Laughs] It’s just a party. We’ll practice and everyone hangs out and has a great time.”
Several “Travel Light” songs were born when she toured Europe and North America with Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox. Niemietz would sneak into venue bathrooms before soundcheck with her travel guitar.
“It’s hard to find quiet, solo places on tour with that many people,” she explains. “Usually the bathrooms and venues aren’t open during the daytime, so if you go in there you have that great reverb, and you have the whole place to yourself. A lot of original ideas were recorded in buses or bathroom stalls.”
Lighthearted in performance and conversation, Niemietz is nonetheless driven in her career.
“Absolutely,” she says. “There’s no real time that I think, ‘OK, now I’m working’ and ‘Now I’m off.’ Because it’s always something I like to do. Even when I’m on vacation, I’m always thinking of songs I can write or people I can collaborate with. I just love doing music.”
Babylon Social Club featuring Sara Niemietz at Monrovia Station Square Pavilion, 1601 S. Myrtle Ave., Monrovia, 7 p.m. Wednesday, July 19; free admission. Info: (626) 256-8246. saraniemietz.com, facebook.com/BabylonSocialClub, cityofmonrovia.org