Sara Bareilles didn't tune in to the Grammy nominations broadcast on Dec. 6; she didn't think she needed to. So she missed Enrique Iglesias announcing her third major-label release, The Blessed Unrest, as one of the contenders for the Academy's top honor, Album of the Year. (She also got a Best Pop Solo Performance nod for her chin-up anthem ''Brave.'') ''I thought I was on my way out, to be honest. If you're looking at record sales, [Unrest] was successful but it wasn't like 'Oh, s---, this is making a huge wave in the world,''' Bareilles, 34, admits on a cool January afternoon in Santa Monica. ''My manager was screaming into the phone. And I was screaming right back at him and just shaking. I was so shocked.''
It's fitting that the California native's greatest triumph would come from an album sprung from one of the most tumultuous periods in her life one that saw her ending a relationship with a boyfriend of six years, splitting with her band, and ditching Los Angeles her home for 14 years in favor of the fresh energy of New York. (When we meet, she's back in L.A. to do the TV rounds, including a live performance of ''Brave'' on Ellen.) Following the end of the intense touring cycle for 2010's Kaleidoscope Heart, her only chart-topper to date, she took her first real break in nearly a decade for what she describes as a ''soul quest,'' indulging in yoga, meditation, and therapy in an effort to find some direction. ''I was really burned-out,'' she recalls. ''There was a stagnancy in my life in general.''
Getting past that meant completely rethinking how her music is made. ''The first and second records I approached from the same place: me alone in a room writing and pulling my hair out until I have the record finished,'' she says. ''I wanted to open myself up to collaboration.'' Her friend Sara Quin of Canadian pop duo Tegan and Sara stepped in, playing fateful creative matchmaker between Bareilles and fun. guitarist Jack Antonoff. ''We were at dinner and Sara said, 'Oh my God, you should meet my friend Sara Bareilles,''' Antonoff tells EW. ''She wasn't even talking creatively, she was just like, 'She's so neurotic and funny, and you guys would get along so well.''' After an email exchange the two met up in New York, and within two hours ''Brave'' was born. ''I was so proud of it,'' Bareilles says of the song that would become her biggest hit since ''Love Song,'' her equally defiant 2007 breakout. The lyrics were inspired in part by a gay friend's struggle to come out, but also, she says, by ''looking at my life and wanting to make these strong, courageous moves, and feeling so small and vulnerable.''
On the charts, ''Brave'' performed moderately well, mostly thanks to its semi-viral music video, directed by Parks and Recreation actress Rashida Jones. But it took another song, oddly enough, to propel it into the center of a pop culture hurricane. Within hours of the release of Katy Perry's ''Roar'' in August, the Internet blazed with allegations that the tracks' similarities went beyond coincidence. YouTube was flooded with mash-ups, and a battle raged on Twitter over whether Perry was ripping off Bareilles. ''I was surprised and, to be honest, disappointed at how vicious people were,'' Bareilles says. ''Katy and I have known each other a really long time, she's a friend of mine, and it seemed like there was this infusion of people wanting to create conflict and drama. I find that to be really fatiguing.''
Still, it was a boon for both Bareilles and ''Brave,'' which surged back into the zeitgeist, selling more than a million downloads and scoring high-rotation ads for Windows. It also became the soundtrack to a spate of inspirational viral videos. ''It's one of my favorite moments of my career, because I've seen it take on this life of its own and become something bigger than I thought it could be. You do run the risk of it getting annoying,'' she acknowledges. ''I'm seeing that pop up on Twitter now, like 'I f---ing hate that song!' But that's a champagne problem for sure.''
The unexpected Album of the Year nod certainly softens any social-media knocks on her self-esteem. ''I've always had the impostor syndrome, like I don't really belong,'' she admits. ''I keep waiting for someone to tap me on the shoulder and be like, 'Uh, you have to go.' I think I'm finally relaxing a little bit about that. Love me or hate me, I've earned my place here.''
That confidence has emboldened her to diversify her personal and artistic portfolios. She branched out into TV in 2011 with her turn as a judge on NBC's a cappella contest The Sing-Off, and now ''I want to try on all these different hats.... I want to explore being a writer for musical theater. I want to explore being a book writer.'' Check and check: Bareilles is in the midst of writing the music and lyrics for a Broadway musical based on the 2007 cult-hit film Waitress, and she'll be spending the month after the Grammys wrapping up a book of autobiographical essays set to be published by Simon & Schuster.
As for the personal, ''I want to maybe have babies at some point,'' says the singer, who is currently single. ''There's a million things I want to do, and the most exciting part about that is that it's not totally focused on the next radio hit. I want a full life.'' If this makes it sound like Bareilles is a little ambivalent about pop stardom, it's because she is; what she seeks is longevity. ''In my dream world,'' she says, ''my career looks something like Bonnie Raitt or Carole King.''
For her fans and collaborators, that kind of wide-screen approach can only be a good thing. ''Sara's not on any trajectory besides her own,'' says Antonoff admiringly, ''which in my opinion is more exciting and artistically fascinating than a lot of what's out there.''
What Bareilles isn't counting on, however, is a prize come Grammy night. ''I feel slightly unattached to the outcome, just because this was such a shock,'' she confesses. Then she flashes a grin. ''At the same time, I almost feel like 'S---, I already won.'''