When Beth Sorrentino talks, she races through dollops of information about her life, the music she's adored, and how these obsessions connect to her piano playing and her compositions. Like her finest tunes, it's as if Sorrentino must pack every one of her strange dreams and chord progressions into each single moment.
"Am I babbling?" she said. "I just love talking about music."
The Lancaster native is known to MTV's 1990s generation as the singer-songwriter leader of the piano-popping trio Suddenly, Tammy! They came to prominence with tight, quirky, original pop albums, but after a single album (We Get There When We Do) with Warner, the band was dropped and left unsigned as of late 1996.
Sorrentino has spent the time since then living in New York, teaching music to children (in particular, at the IDEAL School of Manhattan, where she started her own creative-arts program) and writing original productions for children.
She continued recording and self-releasing albums. Suddenly, Tammy!'s Comet, which had remained unreleased since the Warners goodbye, got a digital release in 2010. There's also a solo album (Nine Songs, One Story) and several live albums. This month sees the release of Would You Like to Go, a collection of the harmony-filled, sunshine melancholia of the late producer and songwriter Curt Boettcher, who worked with the Association and Tommy Roe.
Currently back in Lancaster, Sorrentino is focusing on her solo career, and will perform at the Tin Angel on Sunday.
"I love teaching, did it between tours with Tammy!, and will always teach," she said - she received her master's degree in music education from Teachers College, Columbia University - "but I want to play out more."
Playing more has never been a stretch. "No matter what I did or where I was, playing piano was my one constant."
Now 46, Sorrentino was a child pianist who, by age 8, amassed a catalog of self-penned tunes she kept private. Growing up in Lancaster meant there was little exposure to different kinds of music. "Mainly, it was Top 40 radio and country stations when I was a kid. But Top 40 then was pretty great. So much piano-driven pop - Carole King, Elton John, Supertramp - was heaven to my ears." She sought out great piano lines and catchy melodies.
Sorrentino said her life changed when she caught art-pop superstar Kate Bush on Night Flight, the USA Network's eclectic 1980s music-video program. "Seeing Kate Bush made me realize that there was so much more going on and so much more I could do," Sorrentino said. She saw that lyrics could be highly personal and ironic while maintaining a surrealist edge. Melodies could have hooks wherever the composer chose. ("I liked that.")
Sorrentino's best songs mirror the qualities she loved in Kate Bush: strange poetry and gorgeous melodies sung in a clear, often fraught voice. "My own stuff doesn't follow conventional pop's rules," she said. She jokes about loving Suddenly, Tammy!'s discordant moments (as in "Babee") and how their biggest hit, "Not That Dumb," was merely a snark at her Warners bosses pressing her to write a hit.
Her time with, and away from, the majors didn't scar her. Self-releasing albums and composing children's musicals for her New York school programs (with at least eight plays with 20 songs each, she's nothing if not prolific) show she's comfortable controlling her catalog. "I have to be confident. I don't know if more than 12 people would buy it," she said, with a laugh. "Plus, there's so much of it."
Generating revenue through making music by-any means necessary - as well as a writer's block - led her to cover the legendary Boettcher. Boettcher was a progenitor of the baroque sunshiny-pop movement with his production/songwriting for the Association, his involvement in the California-pop super-group Sagittarius (with Glen Campbell, then an L.A. studio musician, and Beach Boys sideman Bruce Johnston). The lost 1968 sundown-psychedelic classic Begin, from Boettcher's band the Millennium, is an album notorious for being (at that time) the most expensive (and least profitable) production in Columbia Records' history.
In 2010, a friend gave her a copy of Begin and her life changed as it had when she heard Kate Bush. "I was born in 1968, so it's special for that reason," said Sorrentino, whose next album follows that year's least obvious hits. "Begin blew me away with its layered harmonies, sunny melodies, and even its dark edges," justly served by quiet moments on Would You Like to Go like "The Island" and "I Just Want to Be Your Friend."
Sorrentino befriended members of Boettcher's family and got to know his backstory (he died of a lung infection in 1987 at the age of 43). Like Sorrentino, he was prolific and did anything within the confines of making music - such as writing jingles, a not-so-respected trade during the antiestablishment 1960s - to make a buck.
"I heard stories about Brian Wilson traveling the halls of the same recording studio to hear Curt work, listened to demos of his songs, and couldn't believe how much of his legacy had all but disappeared," Sorrentino said. "It became important to echo what he did through my voice."
Ben Taylor/Beth Sorrentino