When Sarah McElhaney got a job doing research at the College of Medicine, her mother was thrilled.
“She was hoping it would ignite a secret desire in me to go back to school and become a doctor,” said McElhaney.
McElhaney’s passion is music. That’s what she’s known for – just not necessarily in the halls of the medical school, where she serves as a research assistant for Heather Flynn, associate professor and vice chair for research in the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Social Medicine.
To her legion of fans, she’s also known as Sarah Mac – lead singer in the Sarah Mac Band.
The band recently launched a new album, “Florida,” and performed at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Music Festival in Austin, Texas. That more closely defines McElhaney’s idea of professional success. It certainly aligns with her dreams – if not her mother’s.
“From what I see when I am in the clinics doing research, doctors are not just trying to heal people, and keep them from dying, they are dealing with all kinds of other stressors,” said McElhaney. “That’s the kind of stress that I don’t want. I appreciate a person who can handle that, because I do not think that I could.”
She does handle the pressure of performing in front of large crowds and being a full-time singer, songwriter, guitarist and pianist for the band, along with being Flynn’s research project manager by day (since July 2014).
“It wasn’t until I decided to interview her that I realized Sarah McElhaney was Sarah Mac,” said Flynn. “I had seen her play on one occasion. I knew of her. But she was highly qualified based on her research experience and her master’s degree in social work. She’s an outstanding musician, and she’s outstanding in her role here. She supervises students, organizes research activities and does a lot of community outreach. She’s a tremendous asset.”
The Sarah Mac Band performs all over the country, from Los Angeles to Clemson, South Carolina, and, of course, Tallahassee. McElhaney, Claire Swindell and Charlie Vanture formed the band in 2005. While it may be glamorous at times, there’s a harsh reality in trying to make it in the music business.
For the first 10 years the band traveled to its gigs in a van that eventually had more than 200,000 miles on it. Then they finally, almost grudgingly, decided to upgrade to a newer van.
“That weekend, we were headed to Birmingham to play at a very cool and relatively well-known venue,” said McElhaney. “We hit the road, and 62 miles outside of Tallahassee, on the inaugural voyage, the transmission blew on our new van — the one that we bought to avoid putting a new transmission in our old van. We called a tow truck and had our van towed back to Tallahassee, and then my parents came and rescued us. It was pretty hot, but it wasn’t raining, as we sat on the side of I-10 waiting for a rescue. We did all get sunburned. Afterward, we went to a restaurant in town for drinks. Because, what else can you do? Chips and salsa and margaritas…”
The band is popular and well-known, but not profitable enough to allow its members to leave their other jobs. Swindell is a marketing consultant. Vanture is an attorney. McElhaney has worked for various FSU researchers since 2007. When she discovered an opening to support Flynn’s work in maternal depression, she thought: “I have found my perfect job.”
At first, she deliberately avoided telling people at the medical school of her other life as a musician.
“I don’t think I told anybody until around the time of our annual Christmas show,” said McElhaney. “By then, I felt comfortable that I had established myself as ‘Sarah the professional.’”
While she enjoys touring for their new album, McElhaney especially enjoys performing in front of the band’s local fan base.
“Tallahassee is really, really good for us,” she said. “We played SXSW this year for the first time, and before we drove to Texas we had a send-off show that was packed out. It was crazy, and it was so wonderful. SXSW turned out to be wonderful, too.”
She had no trouble keeping the appearance at one of the world’s most popular music festivals in perspective, however. Even in Tallahassee, the band was once assigned a parking space between massive, customized motor coaches belonging to other bands.
“We were invited to be a ‘local opener’ for some very big country bands that came for a new music festival associated with Springtime Tallahassee,” said McElhaney. “It is always fun to play on those huge stages and have stage hands who will carry all of your equipment. With anything like that, you have a choice to feel intimidated by all of the other bands’ grandness, or to just kind of laugh at the whole thing and enjoy the absurdity of the situation. I mean, who ever thought that one of the stage hand’s struggles in life would be attempting to back a minivan into a space between tour buses of world-famous pop-country bands?”
The love she gets from her local fans carries over to her role at the College of Medicine.
“A lot of the folks in the community know of Sarah from the music scene and recognize her and think it’s very neat that she’s working here,” said Flynn. “She’s just outstanding in everything that she does.”
As much as McElhaney enjoys her “perfect job” under Flynn, she also has a specific musical career goal in mind: “I would like to perform on ‘Austin City Limits,’ the TV show. That’s when I’ll feel like I’ve made it.
“I would also like to have the band be my only job.”