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American singer digs Shanghai vibe

SARA Routh teaches speech and drama to children by day, and by night sings at the Cotton Club and other nightspots. She is channeling Shanghai's roller-coaster energy into her first album, writes Sam Riley.

From serving burgers to truckers in the desert of Western Australia to coffee to Hollywood stars in Los Angeles, singer Sara Routh taps a rich vein of life experience when writing her songs.

The American singer/songwriter says her nine months in Shanghai have fueled a burst of creativity that been channeled into material for her first album. She also has a growing fan base drawn to her high-energy live performances.

Routh is a regular Tuesday night performer at Shanghai jazz and blues institution, the Cotton Club, and also performs on open-mic nights at LOgO and Anar Lounge Bar.

Originally from the small United States Midwestern town of Norwalk in the state of Iowa, Routh began singing in her family's church choir when she was three.

Music has always been central to the Routh family - her parents met while performing in a jazz band. Her father was the drummer and her mother the singer.

"I have always been around music. I would go to church choir practicing with my parents and always wanted to sing," she says. "Music has always been there and I have always been on stage."

Routh went on to study music education, specializing in opera.

But after seeing the cutthroat world of professional opera, she decided not to pursue a career on that kind of stage.

After a couple of years teaching special education in Des Moines, Iowa, Routh and a friend decided to change their lives on a flip of a coin.

"We flipped to see if we would live in San Francisco or New York. I was 22 and the coin flipped to New York," she says.

Arriving in New York just 10 days after the September 11, 2001, attack, Routh tried to break into the world of musical theater on Broadway.

Her time in New York included work as an extra on the iconic comedy TV show "Saturday Night Live."

After two and a half years in New York, she moved to Los Angeles to live with her brother.

It was here that she saw fame and stardom first-hand. Her brother, Brandon, was plucked from virtual obscurity to don the famed red cape as Superman in the blockbuster "Superman Returns."

Having the "man of steel" as a brother, Routh says has been both surreal and exciting.

"It is wonderful, he's an incredible man and going through the process of his basically overnight stardom was big," she says. "I never thought of him as anything other than my little brother but he is a wonderful person to look up to and he has always been sort of the mediator of the family.

"It's a whole other world to experience. You meet people you never thought you would meet, like Mike Tyson or getting a phone call and talking to Orlando Bloom. Things happen that you would never fathom happening but when they do, you realize that they (celebrities) are just regular people, too."

Routh's other experience of fame came from working in restaurants in LA that were frequented by Hollywood stars. She says far from the glare of the spotlight most celebrities "wanted to eat their pumpkin pancake, drink their coffee and have a regular chat."

Routh gained a foothold in the notoriously tough LA music scene, drawing a regular following to her gigs.

It was while Routh was working at a youth hostel that she met her husband-to-be, Steven.

After six months the couple were married in Las Vegas.

"My ring was US$2.50 from a costume shop on Hollywood Boulevard and he really didn't propose - we were already basically married at that point," she says.

The couple spent four years in LA before deciding to strap on a backpack and start traveling.

They headed to the sleepy fishing village of Leeman in Western Australia where Steven's parents run a caravan park.

While living in Leeman, she experienced the quintessential Western Australian coastal life, went fishing and even worked in a roadhouse.

"I made the best steak burger you have ever had," she jokes when describing her three months in Western Australia. "I did my amateur crayfishing, I caught a shark and I would get the biggest fish on the boat even though I was the only girl. It was great fun."

The couple headed off to India and their travels included getting lessons in snake charming in Nepal.

The duo landed in Shanghai in April and Routh works in the Julia Gabriel Center for Learning where she teaches drama and speech.

Having recently laid down tracks for her new album of original songs and finding a niche in the local music scene, Routh says she is inspired by her new home.

"Shanghai has so much to offer artists," she says. "You just have to take hold and go with it because the city is developing so fast and you can develop along with the city."

Sara Routh

Nationality: American

Age: 31

Profession: Early childhood speech and drama teacher by day, musician by night


Description of self:

Passionate, driven and spontaneous.

Favorite place in Shanghai:

Anywhere where I can find like-minded creative people who have a passion for life. I am constantly re-inventing my favorite place!

Strangest thing seen in Shanghai:

The amount of things one can fit on a bicycle and still see and steer safely.

Worst experience in Shanghai:

Middle of summer, flip-flops on, started down pouring, no umbrella, stubbed my toe on a random pipe sticking out of the sidewalk, couldn't find a taxi, drenched and bleeding profusely from my big toe ... Not a good day.

Motto for life:

Remember, the sun is always shining brightly behind the clouds.

Things that could improve Shanghai:

Respect, all the way around, from everyone who lives in this city.

Advice to newcomers:

Take every step along your way here slowly. Breathe every experience in, for you may never get to feel that again. Embrace your emotions here. You will for sure go on a roller-coaster ride full of them. Just remember what is real ... You are real and this time in your life is real! Enjoy every minute of it.


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