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säje on their Grammy-winning song and the emotional space that feminine energy allows

The vocal group säje
c/o the artists
The vocal group säje

säje, the vocal group made up of singers Sara Gazarek, Amanda Taylor, Johnaye Kendrick and Erin Bentlage, won their first Grammy on Sunday for their arrangement of “In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning.”

They recorded it with one of the most admired musical minds today, Jacob Collier. And like much of what has happened with säje so far, that recording was both unintended and totally right, somewhere between the reward for the hard work of talented artists, and magic.

The story plays like a dream. One day Jacob Collier stopped by the LA recording studio, where säje was working on their debut album. One thing led to another and he ended up playing a few free form takes of “In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning.” There’s footage of it online and you can see him improvising his arrangement. You can also see his childlike enthusiasm, his playful energy, his request to do just one more take, because he was having so much fun.

After Jacob left, the singers in säje built their vocal arrangement around what he had played. It’s a beautiful marriage of improvisation and arrangement, and the result ends up sounding completely inevitable. They contextualized Collier’s spontaneous approach, brought it fully into their world, built a frame for his impressionistic gestures, and then filled in the landscape.

This was not their first experience with serendipity. Before säje was säje, back when it was just an idea floated by Sara Gazarek in 2018 to put some kind of vocal group together, the four women gathered at a rental house in Palm Springs, California to get to know one another and discuss the possibility of doing something together. They came out of that weekend with a song “Desert Song,” a sound, and the makings of a story.

The members of säje don’t live in the same place (Sara and Erin live in Los Angeles, Johnaye and Amanda live in Seattle), but they started to work as a group, and eventually recorded “Desert Song.” They submitted the song to the Grammys—their first song!—and it was nominated in 2020.
Eventually säje released their debut album in 2023. It featured guest appearances by Ambrose Akinmusire, Michael Mayo, Terri Lynn Carrington, and of course Jacob Collier, among others. But at the core of the album was the signature silky säje sound which is a little hard to define, but very easy to identify. It’s technically challenging to execute—suspended chords and interweaving lines—and very satisfying to experience. They like to say that they ascend beyond their training, and into artistry.

We met at a photo studio in Gowanus, Brooklyn late last year and had a beautiful talk about their formation, their journey—from that first weekend retreat in Palm Springs to the release of their first full length album and its subsequent Grammy nomination for Best Arrangement Instruments and Vocals with Jacob Collier for “In The Wee Small Hour of the Morning,” collective lyric writing, managing logistics and juggling four schedules, the emotional space that feminine energy allows, and discovering who they are in public.

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Leo Sidran is a Grammy winning multi-instrumentalist musician, producer, arranger, composer, recording artist and podcast host based in Brooklyn, New York.