“I DO give them a little tip with the meal.”
This is Sarah Blasko’s quick-witted response when one of her songs is randomly played over the stereo in a busy Melbourne cafe. It’s a icy blast of rock called ‘A Shot’, and it opens with the lines: “And so I turn the pages over/I’m one year older and wiser” – but she doesn’t mean that literally.
“The line is that I am technically older and I am technically wiser, and yet why am I feeling something that I felt a long time ago? I’m meant to be feeling more confident, I’m meant to be feeling wiser, and I just feel a bit taken back into the past a bit. I guess that’s what I was trying to say. That I didn’t feel that way.”
The night before Sarah showcased new material for media and close friends at a gallery space in the backstreets of Collingwood. Musicians such as Clare Bowditch, Marty Brown, Darren Hanlon, Alexander Gow from Oh Mercy, and her new management team Look Out Kid (Courtney Barnett, Jen Cloher,
Sarah says she tells “stupid jokes” when things get awkward, and it only takes about two songs before she lives up to her word. She’ll later describe the performance as reassuring, but also terrifying.
“This sweat is making me feel alive,” she tells the small crowd, pausing for dramatic effect. “More than alive – whatever that means.”
The fact she’s here, performing stripped-back versions of her songs on a keyboard, is miraculous considering the creative hole she found herself in. Before she even penned a note for Depth Of Field – her first record in three years – this celebrated songwriter says she was plagued by a feeling that every artist, no matter the discipline, dreads: Do I have anything left to offer?
It was a feeling made even more acute following the birth of her son Jerry in 2015. Sarah was spending a lot of time in parks, doing mundane parent things and turning over a bunch of existential questions in her brain.
Why am I doing this? What’s it for? Do I even need this in my life? Is this still me?
So Sarah went back to basics. She reconnected with what made her become a songwriter in the first place. She turned a two-week residency at Sydney’s Campbelltown Arts Centre in 2016 into a recording session, replicating the feeling of a live performance as a device for teasing the songs out. She projected experimental films on the wall. She blasted her father Nikolai reading Nietzsche through the PA. She brought in a disco ball.
The whole experience was captured in an eponymous doco by director Brendan Fletcher, which prompted yet another existential line of questioning: If this is my story shouldn’t I be the one telling it?
I’ve read that you found it quite painful to watch the doco. Have you revisited it since?
No, I kind of got more involved in it than I had planned to be. At a certain point Brendan played it to me and … I was trying to be as objective as I could be, but I just didn’t really feel like it was quite telling the story of the time there [at Campbelltown Arts Centre]. So he was like, “You know, I’m more than happy if you want to give me more.”
And so I just recorded all this stuff for him, telling my story. I didn’t realise that it was going to be about my life as much as the experience of writing an album and everything. Once it became more like, “This is the story of your life”, I thought, “Oh god, oh no.” [Laughs] It was like, “Well, if we’re going to do this, I’m probably never going to do this again. I might as well really feel like I’m telling more of what I think has happened.”
Then it got a bit weird because then I just thought, “Oh no, I shouldn’t have done that”, because then it sort of looks like it’s my film. It’s never going to be quite my story. It’s his version of what my story is.
It all got really existential. [Laughs] But then there was a point where he wanted more of my feedback and I just couldn’t give my feedback anymore. I couldn’t watch it anymore. I’ve watched it a few times and I felt that it wasn’t really right for him to have to keep getting my approval … I’m never going to have a great response here. Nobody likes watching themselves. [Laughs]
It’s interesting, though. I guess over the years you’ve seen little mini-versions of your life story told by other authors in a variety of mediums, in print and in radio interviews or whatever. Do you feel like your personal life story is really such an important narrative [in the context of] your album, or your art?
I guess it is. It has been the starting point for each of my albums, your own personal experience. It’s definitely where it starts because I think, for me, it has to start from a genuine, “This is what I’m thinking about right now. This is what matters to me. This is what I love, this is what I hate.” And then, I think you take that and then you kind of apply it. You look at the world through that mindset and it’s a project of trying to look at it from various angles.
The great thing about music is that it’s a dramatisation of everyday life and it’s based on real life, but it’s not real life. I love that you can just make something sound huge and magical, or from another planet, and then it’s not really linked as much to your life. Then when you go and perform it, each year you perform it, each song kind of becomes about a different thing because you apply it to where you’re at in order to perform….
I can understand why people want to know about [my life]. Yet on the other hand it doesn’t matter what my life is. It doesn’t really matter about the specifics, but I guess the general message is important.
If anyone wants to know specifically what something is about, I almost couldn’t really tell you to a degree anyway. Because, even though – yes, it might be about one situation – it still relates to other situations. It is a made-up thing as well.
And this is quite a character-based album, too.
Yeah, there’s definitely that element. There’s a few songs that are really deliberately from another angle, trying to look at something from a different perspective. But it’s not all that. There are some songs that are really just blatantly raw.
I guess because I was interested in the idea of perspective and how it can shift and each person contains within themselves many different selves. You can kind of see it from almost different sides of your own self with different characters. You can look at yourself like a character, but that character changes from day to day.
I was really obsessed with the idea that … If you take someone completely out of their comfort zone, they take on a completely different personality. I guess it’s sort of challenging as well to me: the idea of wanting to be somebody who isn’t that changeable, somebody who you could throw anything at me, and I would still remain me.
But I think that often I have felt – and I see it in other people – the shifts are really huge in who you are depending on what comes at you. If somebody came and tripped me over, all of a sudden I could be a really angry, aggressive person…
There was that quote in The Age interview about you wanting to maybe give it all up.
It’s kind of weird, that conversation because … You feel like people are really looking for sympathy when they say that kind of thing, but I’m not. I wasn’t looking for sympathy. I was just being honest about where I was at.
That’s just honestly where I was at. I’ve always thought that if I didn’t really feel it anymore, I think it’s just better to go and work on something else … So it was quite a scary feeling because I just thought, “Yeah, maybe I don’t have anything more”, or any more fuel in the tank, to use more of a cliche.
Do you feel like musicians here have more of a shelf life than they do in other countries?
I don’t know. No, not necessarily. Maybe less so because it’s a small place. People maybe churn through new stuff [quicker] … From the beginning you’re kind of new, and then you’re sort of still new, and then you’re new-ish. [Laughs] When you’re not new anymore you have to really face up to, “Well, who am I?”
More than it’s like being new to yourself or keeping things fresh for yourself more than caring about [being new to others]. But there is that element of just feeling a bit underestimated sometimes by people thinking that they know what you have to offer.
Sometimes, I think as you go along, you actually think that you’re doing your best work, but then you feel like people maybe don’t want to delve into that because they sort of think, “Oh yeah, I know what she does.” And there is an element of truth to that because I think that with other people’s music, too.
It seems so particular to musicians though, because with filmmakers, writers, doctors – there’s a sense they get better as they get older.
It often feels like it’s a young person’s game. [She takes a bite from her plate] I’m just going to dramatically wipe my mouth. [Laughs]
I really love the line in the bio about exploring the darkness of monogamous relationships. Is that something you [initially] wanted to explore or just the world you’re in, or the conversations you’re having with friends?
Yeah, it’s just the world that I’ve found myself in, because I haven’t really been in a kind of a stable, long term relationship for a really long time, and certainly not with a child. It does feel a bit like I’m kind of looking into a world that I haven’t really seen before. Being someone who’s exposed to that every day … I’ve never spent so much time at a park in my whole life, but with a kid you’re just always at the park…
I feel like I’m always over-hearing really interesting conversations and I see a lot of darkness, or turmoil within people having a child. It just struck me how dramatic it all is. You have to do that when you’re living a fairly structured life. You have to bring the art a bit, the inspiration … That’s just really important, generally, in life is to always try and see the ridiculousness of it … I felt like that was very healthy for me to try and look at things that way.
It’s funny because I think now more than ever, people can present through social media a really sanitised and perfect version of their life.
Yeah, it’s really amazing that people do that.
Yeah, and then maybe you get a sense there’s no real darkness behind these perfect Instagram pictures.
I think people start assuming that about each other, yeah.
I wanted to seize on a line from the doco: “Write, and perhaps all will be well again.” Is that a kind of philosophy that’s sustained you throughout your life?
I was being really quite English literature student there in my kind of wanky tone. [Laughs]
I guess I was trying to make, like I was saying, the day-to-day into a poetic thing. Sometimes, I think, to pull yourself out of a rut, you really have to create this – I don’t know, a vibe for want of a better word. But yeah, I think that’s just been a really important reminder to myself over the last year or so. I’ve had to go full circle back to the basics of: “Why do you do this? Why do you think you need this? Why, why, why, why?”
And then just realising you don’t need all of these things, and just reconnecting with the beautiful simplicity of sitting down at a desk and just choosing to write. It’s a simple exchange. Somehow, in my mind, things had gotten really complicated. It’s just stupid. I’d forgotten it. It’s a very simple truth … I guess part of it’s having a kid and trying to – your life’s kind of shattered and you need to work out who you are again. That’s what I feel like I’ve been trying to do, is work out who I am.
“If you start thinking too much about what you want to do next, then it kind of robs what you’re doing in the present a little bit.”
I love the idea of you trying to replicate the live experience as a way of … I guess you were in some kind of songwriting rut?
It’s not true, actually. I actually hadn’t even tried to write anything. I wasn’t really in a rut. I just felt uninspired in life, just generally.
There’s a song, ‘Read My Mind’, that I wrote before I went on the residency. So, no, I wasn’t really in a songwriting rut because I hadn’t done any. I just felt like I couldn’t even be bothered. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew I didn’t want to just sit in a room and write on my own for months and months. I just knew that that would not end well.
It was a good time to just have kind of a lively approach; write with other people and have fun. Make it as enjoyable as process as possible.
I guess they were quite enjoyable sessions?
Yeah, it was really enjoyable. It was similar to the way I approached the last record [Eternal Return] where we wrote all the stuff in houses. We went away for a couple of days on one occasion, and then I went away another time with [composer] Nick [Wales]. We wrote with the same people, but I was just in and out of houses, in lounge rooms. Because that was a really enjoyable time I thought I’d like to do it again but maybe just in a slightly different context.
And so the bulk of the album was written in that two week period [at Campbelltown Arts Centre]?
Yeah, the only one that wasn’t was ‘Read My Mind’. That was written beforehand. I kind of tried to finish most of the lyrics for that song while I was there. Everything else was written there.
"From the beginning you're kind of new, and then you're sort of still new, and then you're new-ish. When you're not new anymore you have to really face up to, 'Well, who am I?'"
How much of an influence did the band have in shaping these songs into what they are?
Yeah, a really big influence because I wasn’t working with a producer. I was just doing it myself. I find it confusing sometimes when you work with a producer and you have to keep consulting each other … I find it a bit hard sometimes. You’re both sort of in charge. You’re sort of sharing this vision, but this allowed me to just quietly decide within myself what I wanted at each point in the process.
The beds of the tracks happened when we wrote them at Campbelltown. Then the next thing I did was a couple of days of recording with Donny Benet, who played bass on the recording, and Lawrence Pike [from PVT]. So I did a couple of days just laying down the drums and the bass.
I was pretty specific about the way I wanted the drums to sound. Lawrence and I really knew this particular studio and it was going to be perfect for what we wanted. He had this particular cymbal that was perfect. It was like a really dry ride cymbal, this ’70s cymbal. We used that a lot.
The funny thing was, actually, we made everything really tight and dry, and then the guy that mixed it [Collin Dupuis]…
Opened it up?
I told him that he could do whatever he wanted, but I wanted him to give me a really extreme mix. Then he just put reverb on everything. It just works. It made sense. He did a really great job.
But I don’t know. I don’t like dictating too much, because if you really respect a drummer or bass player, I don’t think there’s any point saying exactly, exactly what you want them to play … The last album was really lots of parts, lots of melodic parts. This time it was like, “No, no. No parts.” The strings were quite part-y, but everything else was like…
It had to be an atmosphere, or it had to come in and break everything. It had to be an anti-part, so that was a general rule that we kind of applied to all of the synth stuff. It wasn’t allowed to be melodic. Everything had to be soundscape-y. There’s just a lot of keyboard melodies on the last record. I always react towards the last thing I did. I don’t want to come up with another keyboard hook, I just want it to be weird and then Nick can work on some melodies with the strings.
What were the musical touchpoints? Because I think it’s always so much focused on your lyrics when people talk about your records.
It was all pretty vague. It wasn’t really specific. I guess the records that had influenced me before making it, my favourite records of the past couple of years have been Solange’s album,
There’s just something of an essence of those I carried with me, but I don’t think you can hear it in the record or anything like that. I think there’s a sort of straightforwardness, and there’s just a real honesty to both of those records. There’s not an overproduced quality. That’s just stuff that I like.
[Depth Of Field] was way sparser before. I actually added a lot more than I maybe intended to add. I really love the Solange album particularly, because it’s really understated, and I love that something so understated has become so popular because it’s an album that really gets under your skin … It’s got a confidence that’s not showy.
Yeah, I felt the same way about the Frank Ocean record.
Yeah, a lot of people haven’t really responded to that, but I love that album.
It took me five listens, I reckon.
Yeah, me too.
Do you feel like the record [Depth Of Field] has connected you back to why you did this in the first place, why you became a songwriter?
Yeah, I enjoyed the process more than I think I’ve enjoyed the process of making any of my other records. And that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good record or anything. [Laughs]
More than ever I just got hold of the fact that it is all about the process … I guess it was an enjoyable record to make because it was just in my own hands. I just chipped away, just worked quite consistently over time, and moved at my own pace. That was really satisfying.
I guess it’s weird to ask this on the day that your record’s come out, but are you contemplating the next one?
I think if you start thinking too much about what you want to do next, then it kind of robs what you’re doing in the present a little bit.
But now that it’s out … maybe I am starting to think about what I would do next. I think I will definitely do a very sparse record on my next one. Because I did all these shows on my own last year and I really enjoyed it, and I think that that would be a challenge to me – to make a record totally on my own. It’d be a big challenge to feel like that’d be interesting enough or something, so I think that that would be a good next challenge for me.