WHEN we talk on the phone about her album art Sarah Mary Chadwick is walking her dog in Melbourne.
A week later I’m in London. On a whim, I take the tube to Hampstead and head downhill through the leafiest suburb to the Freud Museum, where Sigmund and his child-therapist daughter Anna lived.
In her interview, Sarah had talked about undergoing psychoanalysis, and how that kind of free-association spelunking compared to songwriting. She had also mentioned an artist, Alice Anderson, who had exhibited at the museum.
That’s not on anymore; the current exhibition, Solitary Pleasures, is about masturbation, featuring artists such as Annie Sprinkle and Valie Export. It’s not really Sarah’s speed – much of her art (including her album covers and the work she exhibits, as seen on Tumblr), is derived from watching porn videos, and involves multiple participants. Her drawings have titles like “waiting in line at a gang bang’ and ‘leopard print piss’.”
An autodidact (she failed art at high school), Sarah has developed scratchy line-work that seems to take form with an unsentimental haste and a whirl of movement. The bold watercolour hues are unapologetic and playful.
It’s a contrast to her music (although equally undressed): Sarah’s fourth solo album since disbanding NZ outfit Batrider, Sugar Still Melts in the Rain, feels solitary even when she has other musicians backing her up.
On what kind of occasions do you think people put on your music?
One of my friend’s dads said, “You wouldn’t put it on at a fucking dinner party, would you?” I think these days it’s got a little more application than it used to. I notice on my Bandcamp stats that Sunday is always a big day for my music, that bummed-out hangover day!
You’ve got a sparse set-up with Sugar Still Melts in the Rain: bass, loosely played drums, piano… and sometimes piano alone. Was that to create the same mood throughout?
I was listening to heaps of solo John Lennon and using the Rhodes piano of a friend who passed away a couple of years ago. When I did Eating for Two (2012) I wanted it to be quite collage-y, in that ’90s, Neutral Milk Hotel way of little bits and bobs and segues and stuff. With 9 Classic Tracks (2015) I wanted it to be super-samey. I hadn’t heard that Nico album, The Marble Index, till afterwards, but when I heard that I thought, “Fuck, that was what I was trying to do.” I wanted it to be continuous and really difficult. With Roses Always Die (2016), I was making lots of notes about Liza Minnelli. I wanted it to be a big live version of a show tune.
Is songwriting instead of or as well as therapy? There’s one song, ‘Waiting on a Season’ that almost seems as though it’s to a therapist. [“There has been much more tragedy than I thought there would be in my life/I’m still waiting on a season that carries no misfortune for me”]
I’ve always had anxiety since I was a kid and I’ve always felt really stuck in the past, but I’ve been seeing a psychoanalyst for three years and it’s been significant for me. Psychoanalysis works by you talking and working it out afterwards, which is a similar idea to songwriting and why it resonated with me. When I first started doing it I found it really disruptive because of the headspace it puts you in. You’re doing your normal job [a chef, in Sarah’s case] but you’ve just spent all morning talking about stuff that happened to you when you were five, which can be quite jarring.
Do you get heartfelt correspondence from people who assume they know you?
I used to get it a lot more when I was part of a band; maybe people feel less guilty accosting someone than when they’re by themselves. I came to realise it’s not part of the transaction for me. My transaction is I agree to play and the audience transaction is they agree to watch, so that doesn’t include getting caught up in a very emotional conversation with a stranger afterwards. I’m wary of sounding flippant about it because in a lot of ways it sounds very spoilt: “Too many people want to talk to me!”
But being able to speak to someone through your art doesn’t necessarily equate to being a people person.
I can actually pull off a super-good impersonation of being a people person. Then I’m like, “What the fuck? I’ve been talking to this person for an hour-and-a-half!” The thing is, I’m such a self-critical person that I can hear a million nice things and it doesn’t really feel like anything.
[The album] is gently scathing at times, such as the track ‘Bauble on a Chain’. And there seem to be themes of disappointment and loss. [ “You just want a bauble on a chain/You don’t wanna hear about the pain that life brings daily/You want a smooth cheek and a name/To sit around and hear you talk with eyes aflame.”]
For sure. I write quite bleak songs, but because of the tendency for women’s art to be positioned autobiographically, whereas male art doesn’t have the same demand put on it. I am somewhat reluctant to frame my work personally.
So when, say, Elliott Smith wrote a deeply personal song, you think people respected and revered it for what it was?
I’m a mental Elliott Smith fan and I remember watching a documentary about him [Heaven Adores You]. Hearing his girlfriend talk about the song ‘Say Yes’, it felt like I had been encroaching on somebody else’s property because it was so definitively hers. Sometimes I do tell people what the songs are about and it robs them of their own interpretation. I remember being very disappointed discovering that The Beatles song ‘Long, Long, Long’ was about God and not a love song.
"I always have porn on the laptop and then Friends on TV behind it."
Do you think women’s art also gets analysed differently to that of men’s?
There’s an art critic and psychoanalyst called Darian Leader, and he was on a podcast panel talking about the art of Alice Anderson. It could arguably be considered quite ‘feminine’ art – she draped hair outside the Freud Museum and people thought she had been too demanding of the space. Darian said he found it interesting that the more successful she got, the more interested people were in whether she created art autobiographically or not. He posited that the same could not be said of male artists, and that male art could be left as itself and doesn’t need that justification. Feminists in the audience objected to that, saying female art is steeped in a long tradition of story-telling, like quilt-making and that kind of stuff. Then Darian said you can’t say there’s such a thing as male or female art, and how can you argue that Mondrian’s grids are less autobiographical than a quilt?
Was art a form of escapism for you as a kid?
I would mainly read all the time, and I wanted to be a writer. Or I wanted to have a comedy cooking show.
Did you ever study album art in your bedroom, staring into it like it was a portal?
No, because I was a huge reader I was more into Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake – and that informed the way I draw. I went through that whole Hunter S Thompson and Ralph Steadman phase. I quite like William Blake. As a teenager I was really into Chester Brown and graphic novels like Ed the Happy Clown, which had lots of exploding heads and gross stuff. These days I like abstract graphic things, like the French artist Pierre Soulages, who puts black oil paint over the top, it’s very aggressive. And the sculptures of Paul McCarthy because they’re so strange. I did a sculpture of Anna Nicole Smith. Paul McCarthy also does film and there’s one called Pirate Party with weird, scantily clad women running around a barge.
Do you keep journals?
These days I focus on songwriting in one of those big diaries and fill it with songs. I pick 10 from 40 to record. I get in the habit of writing a lot so when it comes to making an album I’m not struggling to find material. I keep it quite clean so it’s decipherable later on. I write the chords out properly.
So you’re exercising that muscle all year?
Yep, all the repetition. You find out different things at different times.
Your first album, Eating for Two, actually features art work by someone else – your mate Nick Wholton.
When I first met my partner Steph about 15 years ago she was in a band called Birth Glow that were extremely weird and extremely good. Nick was in that band and he’s a very good friend of mine. What I like about his art is he’s not trying to do naïve art, he’s trying hard to make that as realistic as possible.
Then your second album, 9 Classic Tracks, introduces a new pervading theme – the porn gang bang. I’m curious as to what role porn plays for you – for me it’s the ultimate distraction from something I don’t want to think about or do, because it’s a vortex for your attention.
I think it’s something different for me. I always have porn on the laptop and then Friends on TV behind it.
It sounds like you’re not taking it seriously, Sarah.
I was always too shy to go to life-drawing classes. I used to watch pornography recreationally as well as to draw from and then at the beginning of last year I had an exhibition in Adelaide with a friend and we decided to go for quantity. It was a bit easier for her because she’s a printmaker. I had to do 30 drawings in a month, so every day I was watching porn with Friends on in the background and it broke my brain a bit. I feel like I’ve seen it all now. It doesn’t have the same appeal.
In a way, your drawings are way more real than pornography. The majority of porn bodies are homogeneously male or homogeneously female.
I was quite surprised that people were offended by my almost indecipherable pastel drawing [for 9 Classic Tracks] because at the time there was a J-Lo and Iggy Azalea video [‘Booty’] where they were lubed up and writhing on each other, and that was apparently okay.
Do you think your unconscious mind bubbles up through your drawings as much as it does in your songs?
I’ve never really examined it. Maybe it’s making light of something that can be quite devastating, I don’t know. I’m aware there’s something more than it just being salacious for me, but it’s not like I’m someone who’s ever been sexually conservative and it all has to come out somehow. There’s a print you get with the preorders of the new album and that’s four old guys fondling one young woman. I took one to my psychoanalyst said she said, “Oh, it’s very you.” I wasn’t sure what she meant by that. What do you think? It’s a way of not taking my desire seriously, that’s what you probably want me to say.
If it was me I would probably think it was about the power dynamics in my life.
This brings us to what we spoke about in the beginning. Once you’ve put something out, my ownership of it is finished. I have to watch that I don’t talk too candidly.
Let’s move on to the woman reclining on the cover of Roses Always Die.
That’s meant to be me. I’m so crap at likeness. Full disclosure: I don’t think I’m very good at all, but it’s a case of always putting music out and needing stuff. Even though I don’t rate what I do, I often don’t rate what anyone else does either, so I get in the habit of doing it myself. I think I’ve got a good eye for colour.
The ball-sack is amazing.
But other than that I’m not sure of myself.
Can you describe your art set-up at home?
I get out my tray of pastels, two watercolour palettes, I steal whatever brushes of Steph’s are lying around, I go and buy some paper and a couple of black pens from an art shop. I never used good materials. I’ve started using nicer paper just so it lasts longer, but I use cheap watercolour and pastel. I set up my laptop on the coffee table on a pile of books, open the Stan application and start playing Friends. Then I start looking at shit on the internet and I sit there on the ground in front of the couch.
I don’t think I investigated Friends properly…
Really don’t, it’s so shit!
No, in terms of why you’re watching it.
I’m one of those people that needs something on in the background. I’ve done it with Peep Show too but Friends has 15 seasons or some bullshit, with 20 episodes each season, so there’s a lot of it. The other day I said to Steph, “I feel like I’m actually enjoying it this time.” She said, “You’ve been watching Friends for seven years, what are you talking about?”
It’s a creepy juxtaposition to porn because it’s very sanitised.
Actually, it’s almost the same in some ways because Friends comes out with some pretty intense jokes couched within a family-friendly show. There are severely dark undertones. On YouTube you can watch Friends without the laugh track and it’s ominous. It’s also extremely problematic gender-wise, heaps of gay jokes and sex-worker jokes.
With Sugar … you’ve relegated the orgy scene to the back and have gone with a self-portrait on the front. It’s very film noir with the lighting and the blinds.
There’s a beautiful old photo of Simone de Beauvoir where she’s in profile. Half her face is black and she’s sitting against a book shelf.
Have you seen Jean Rhys’ ‘novels’, about her alcoholism? They often have a painting of a disappointed-looking lady on the cover.
I read her Collected Short Stories over Christmas and Dorothy Parker’s The Big Blonde at the same time and I was thoroughly depressed. The Big Blonde ruined me. It’s about this chick who’s a “good sport”, who plummets into alcoholism.
What would be your preferred medium to show off your art – vinyl, CD or digital?
I don’t mind. At home we generally plug our phones into the stereo like everybody else does. I’m not much of a collector of stuff, other than books and trinkets. I struggle a bit sometimes with the finance of putting out a record – it’s expensive to do, about a thousand dollars, and until this most recent one I’ve paid for everything myself, from the money of shit jobs. At least it only costs me about $3 to do the cover myself.
Let’s finish with what’s next for you.
I’ve got this project coming up using the Grand Organ in the Melbourne Town Hall. I’m writing a brand new album for that instrument and then they record it [live, on June 15] and release it on vinyl. The organ is worth about $70-million and it’s ridiculously intimidating. I’ve been rehearsing there and writing at home. You can save your settings on the organ and load the number into the keyboard when you come back. I think they commissioned me because I could get it done really fast. My speciality is quantity not quality.