Sarah Elizabeth Rayner's lucky break came out of having a bad day.
"I was feeling kind of off and strange, but then I had an impulse -- today I am going to buy a ukulele," the 18-year-old Pittsfield native told The Eagle in a phone interview this week.
A 2013 Pittsfield High School graduate, she now attends Westfield State University, where she's a double major in psychology and social work, with aspirations to become a therapist. For Rayner, music is her therapy.
"It's basically something I do to let out my emotions. It's a strong coping mechanism for me," she said.
So on that bad day, March 24 of this year, she and her friends drove over to Performance Music in Westfield, where Rayner -- who also plays violin, viola, piano and guitar -- picked up her first uke.
Sitting in her room, she started strumming, humming and then making up a song. They liked it, so Rayner went into a dorm room nearby and made a YouTube video of a song she titled, "Again." (http://goo.gl/cdyyBd)
In it, wearing a PHS softball T-shirt (she pitched for the varsity team), she plays a couple of happy-sounding chords and starts singing, "I-I I want to tell you, want to tell ya everything I've been feeling" and proceeds to pour out her thoughts and feelings in what she describes as "an embarrassing sappy uke song."
Not long after the video launched, Rayner said she was contacted by a talent scout from Research Music and Sound in Burbank, Calif. She said the agent had listened to the song and was interested in recording Rayner.
According to the recording studio's website, its clients have included popular bands and musicians such as Jason Mraz ("I'm Yours") , Train ("Drops of Jupiter," and will appear at Tanglewood on Aug. 29), Plain White T's ("Hey There Delilah"). The studio could not be immediately reached for comment, but other news sources indicate that the studio specializes in helping young talent launch their careers.
Recently, Rayner connected with another recording studio based in Long Island, N.Y., with Broadway recording credits. She said both connections have inspired her to begin raising the funds to professionally record and distribute an album, and is currently running a campaign for support through the crowdfunding website, Indiegogo (http://goo.gl/363QJE).
"If it doesn't work out, I'm going to try to find another studio to work in that's local and work my way up. Music is a part of me that I will never give up on," Rayner said.
The fair-skinned brunette is reminiscent of the actress Anne Hathaway, with doe eyes and a bright smile that really shine when she's performing. But Rayner said she's not always like that.
"I'm a really, really shy person, but my music helps me say things to people that I wouldn't be able to say ordinarily," she said. "I often have people come up to me after I perform who are crying or who tell me that no one really understands what they're going through and that my music is like opening up someone's diary."
Despite her age, Rayner has had her share of challenging life experiences to write about.
"When I was in 11th grade, I had a really tough time. When I was younger, I had scoliosis and had to wear a back brace. I was really insecure about myself and wore a lot of baggy clothing," she said. "When I got the brace off and started getting my confidence back, I started dressing differently, like a more fitted, tighter pullover shirt and shorts. But then the people, who I thought were my closest friends, staring harassing me and calling me vulgar names. It got so bad there were times I couldn't eat in the school cafeteria without things being thrown at me."
Another time, she said her supposed friends threatened to play a song Rayner wrote about a boy she liked who was named in the song over the school's loudspeaker -- any teenager's worst nightmare.
She eventually talked to a school counselor who helped her, and inspired her in a way, to study therapy.
"A lot of my songs are about overcoming it all, because it was better than writing about feeling like nothing," the young singer-songwriter said.
Music has always been Rayner's sanctuary.
As a child, she started singing at Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish and continued to do so until the Fenn Street church closed in 2008. In fourth grade, she started playing violin. At age 13, she was taught by her grandfather to play guitar. At age 14, she started playing piano in study hall, and took up the viola her senior year in high school. She also played in the school's orchestra and studied various aspects of music for a year under PHS instructors Gaylan Palmer, Ronald Lively and Alla Zernitskaya.
"I was lucky to have all three of them in a year. I learned a lot," she said of her teachers.
She said she wasn't the best student in school, "I was that kid that all the teachers got annoyed with."
During class, she'd often fill her academic notebooks with writings about things people said in class versus the subject at hand. They'd often become lyrics in a song -- one of nearly a thousand that she says she's written.
"I literally have shoe boxes under my bed filled with pages and pages of songs. ... A lot of my songs are metaphors for the things I was learning or thinking about at the time," Rayner said.
A week after she turned 17, the young musician had the opportunity to open for U.S. pop-rock artist Ryan Cabrera, known for his 2004 hit "On the Way Down" when he played the former Chameleon's nightclub in Pittsfield on Oct. 24, 2012.
"I was fairly new to the whole performing thing, but Ryan Cabrera signed my songbook and talked with me. It gave me a lot of fire to go on, a lot of inspiration to keep doing music. That was the turning point. I remember thinking, ‘This is what I want to do in life.' "
Rayner also wants to focus on using her music to help people with their struggles.
"When that thing in 11th grade happened, I didn't leave my house. I just sat at home waiting for my life to happen," she said.
She said a song called "Breaking Your Own Heart" by American Idol icon Kelly Clarkson, helped her cope, as did another Clarkson song, "Standing in Front of You."
During that time, Rayner said she spent a lot of time in her basement writing and playing music.
"Eventually I realized that I can't let the things that happen to me bring me down like this, because life goes on and it's going to go on without me," she said.
She went on to write her college application essay about the songs that inspired her. It's that same outlook on life that gave Rayner the confidence to join the Westfield comedy improv troupe and to be in the running in Berkshire County's Battle of the Bands, sponsored by radio station WBRK Star 101.7 FM. She said she lost this week by five votes to her friend's band, Autographed Apologies.
A minor setback, she said.
"I have a lot of people who believe in me, and that's really empowering," said Rayner.
"I want to be that person who writes the song that helps [someone] get out of something that's troubling them. That's why this [album] project is so important to me," she said. "When I go up on stage, it's about me releasing what I have to say. I try to connect with that one person who can relate to what I'm saying. That's my goal."
About Sarah Elizabeth Rayner
Style: Singer, songwriter, musician. Plays guitar, piano, violin, viola, ukulele.
Where she's performed: Bogie's in Albany, N.Y.; Pittsfield's Third Thursdays; Mill Town Tavern in Dalton; Maple Leaf Cafe in Westfield; Sam's Pizza and Cafe in Northampton, among others. Influences: Sheryl Crow, Ingrid Michaelson, Sara Bareilles.
Indigogo campaign website: http://goo.gl/363QJE