Katonah’s Musical Prodigy, Michael Sabath spends a day with B&NC Mag’s Arts & Culture Editor, Drew Bordeaux.
Many of us remember our early twenties as a time when we were studying for college exams, or making the best of our first ‘real world’ job. Not so for Mike Sabath, a Katonah native who eschewed the paths of his peers and followed his heart to a career in music. And what a career it already is: At 22, he’s evolved from a boy who drummed in the family garage band to a formidable producer, songwriter and musician. A whiz-kid who said ‘NO’ to Harvard, his roster of collaborators already reads like a
quick scan of the Billboard Hot 100 charts, a list that includes Meghan Trainor, Lizzo, Selena Gomez, The Jonas Bros., and more. On a brief visit home and respite from his busy life in LA, Sabath and I went on a walk in the Ward Pound Reservation to discuss his musical inspirations, his critical decision to turn down the Ivy League, how the pandemic has impacted his thinking, and how he navigates the crazy music business.
Within moments of meeting Mike, I felt like I was speaking with an old friend, and his ease and mild-mannered disposition defy the age-old tropes of the young, maladjusted, hotel-trashing rockstar. Throughout our conversation he offered a mix of boyish wonderment about
the world we’re living in, with a mature sense of purpose that drives his creativity. There was also a hint of ‘cosmic knowingness’ about the right next move – whether it’s a micro choice on what note is best for a song or a macro one on what’s best for himself as an artist.
When asked about his start in music, Sabath modestly offered, “It was just little moments when I was six to ten… I was playing drums and singing while my dad played piano and guitar and my brother played guitar and sang. We would literally cover Green Day, you know, whatever. So I was always performing. It was drums first, I was always behind but on stage, and now that I think about it, I feel like that has infiltrated a lot of my approach and vibe as an artist. Because I’m slowly sitting into whatever it is, the whole coming into the front, but it’s like my vibe is ‘the drummer’. I like being there, but I’m not trying to make it all about me.”
As a distinguished producer, Sabath feels a deep connection to his inspirations. His admiration takes shape as a forearm tattoo with a quote from the legendary producer Rick Rubin that simply states, “Leave space.” I asked where his love of the recording studio originated. Sabath continued, “I loved seeing them at the boards, them being in the booth. Watching the recording process was sick to me, it’s like you’re watching the moment that it happened and then it’s forever. Creating music is so special, and art in general, because it’s like it just happens one time, and then it literally exists for eternity. That’s so powerful.”
Two of the days that had the biggest impact on Sabath’s rise were marked figuratively, and in-one case literally, by their ups and downs. On the day he did his first noteworthy collaboration with the artist Wale, he almost didn’t make it because he was stuck on a rollercoaster. On a trip to Six Flags in LA with his friend Pete, the two embarked on a Superman-like ride harnessed only by their chests. “We’re going up, up, up, up, and at the top of the drop, it just shuts off.” The ride froze long enough for crowds to form and once things were fixed, they were still forced to finish the ride. While he was stuck, Sabath had received a call to make his way to the Atlantic Records studios post-haste, as a window to work with Wale had just opened up. Nauseous (and still wearing the theme park appropriate shorts and t-shirt), he set out on an hour-long Uber ride to the studio and pulled it together long enough to deliver an important and well-received performance in the recording booth. Sabath observes, “The pop industry, like the songwriting pop industry, is doing sessions on Zoom. They’re literally at home making songs on Zoom which is wild. For some of my friends it’s kinda working – which is great for them – but it’s really difficult to capture that magic on video chat. To me the best music is just…it’s real energy in real moments.”
Another example of the stars aligning in Sabath’s favor came on the day he turned down Harvard. “I knew I was going to at least take a gap year. Because you can for them, you can take a gap year and then go, there’s no problem. So I knew I was going to do that, but then half way through the gap year I was just like no. I just didn’t want to do that yet, you know? Just wasn’t time, I wanted to try to keep going with music, so I literally emailed Bill Fitzsimmons, the Dean of Admissions at Harvard, and I wrote a whole letter, and boom, boom, boom, and within maybe two hours of sending that email…I got my first offer from Sony!”
It’s clear that Sabath’s success as a collaborator is because, at least in part, he brings a calmness and positivity that make him the musician you’d most want to have in a room. So in a time when being in the same room as his collaborators isn’t always an option, I asked how he is fairing – from a distance.
When I asked Sabath where he wants to be in ten years, he responded, “I just hope that I’m happy, and that I’m still making music, and have made a lot of great art that I’m proud of, have made real relationships, and have contributed to society as a whole in a positive way.” As for who Sabath admires most professionally, he names musical artist Eddie Benjamin, “Because he is extremely educated and skilled and passionate about music in a really special way that inspires me.” And when I tested Sabath on which four musicians, dead or alive, he would put together to play with him in a five-piece band, he quickly declared, “No question on that count… John, Paul, George and Ringo.”
“I watched the Linkin Park Jay Z Collision Course video, like literally every day. I was obsessed with that.”
And those real moments have shaped Sabath’s love of music and sense of purpose when it comes to creating, even when times get tough. “This is… It’s just what we love to do. It becomes a bigger thing because humans love art, humans love when people are real, whatever it is that connects them to their art…but nothing deeper than that moment, just being captured. And that’s why I love being here, because it’s simple and it reminds you that you’re just a person and it’s not that deep. One day you’re Paul McCartney and you wake up hearing Yesterday in your dream and record it. And then it’s one of the greatest songs of all time. That moment is just a moment, but its impact is its own thing, and that takes on a life of its own.”
“I have an incredibly loving and supportive family and really appreciate getting to have time together.
About coming home from L.A.to Katonah to visit family, which Michael does often, and how his family has reacted to his stardom, he offered, And coming home means a chance to hit Camerons in Cross River to pick up my favorite sandwich – the Buffalo Blue – and then usually go back the next day for an egg and cheese on a roll with hash browns, hot sauce and salt and pepper. My family has been in my corner every step of the way, and it gives me joy to share the journey with them. I think they were cheering so loud in Katonah, watching on TV the day I appeared on the Ellen DeGeneres show with Meghan Trainor, that neighbors in Katonah came over to see what was up. And it was my absolute pleasure to have my Mom, Dad, and Brother Jeremy and his wife, with me at the Grammy Awards, along with my fantastic manager Don Isaac to all celebrate Lizzo’s wins for her album Cuz I Love You – which I’m so proud to have worked on.”