wears the trousers magazine


sarah blasko: architect of a new dawn
July 26, 2009, 2:56 pm
Filed under: feature, video, words in edgeways | Tags: , , , , ,

Read the rest of our Australia Week features here.

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words in edgeways with sarah blasko

When we were first planning our Australia Week features, we had no idea that Sarah Blasko was just about to release a new album, As Day Follows Night, in Australia. It was pure good luck that the two coincided, and even better that she was happy to take some time out of her preparations for this weekend’s Splendour In The Grass festival to answer some questions about it. We’ve already talked about the album in some depth this week, so we’ll keep this introduction short. Needless to say, we’re very excited that Sarah will be coming over to the UK in September for a show at The Borderline in London. You won’t want to miss it, not least the chance to pick up a physical copy of the album from the merch desk. It might be your only opportunity for quite a while.

* * *

For the writing of the new album you were working regimented office hours like Brill Building-era Carole King, or the way in which Nick Cave works. Was that a rewarding experience? What did you find difficult about it, if anything?

Yes, it really was a rewarding experience, although challenging. It taught me that you really can be disciplined and inspired at the same time. It was difficult at times, but writing is difficult… There’s always a point where you need to chain yourself to the chair and finish something.

There’s no escaping the fact that the album charts a difficult time of transition in your personal life, but musically it often has a real fantasy, escapist element. I love the tension between those two aspects, and it’s a very European thing, like it’s more ‘Belleville Rendez-vous’ than Disney. Is that the sort of feel you were going for? What sort of reference points did you have in mind?

Yes, that’s the sort of feel I was going for. I wanted the music to transcend the inherent sadness and offer a relief and an escape. All the songs are really about trying to transcend sadness and see the positives so the music had to do that. That was one of the first things I said to Björn when I wrote him a letter about the record. I said that I want the album to be otherworldly, so to sound like it comes from another time and place, but for it to be difficult to define exactly where or when. I had all kinds of references for the album… Morricone, Henry Mancini, Sam Cooke, Talking Heads, Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, Nina Simone, Carole King.

The end of ‘Over & Over’ incorporates some lines from Talking Heads’ ‘Road To Nowhere’ – what’s the significance of that?

Well, it was a lucky accident really. I was playing over the chords and felt that the song would suit a kind of afterthought and I knew it was reminding me melodically of something but at first I couldn’t place what. Then I realised that the melody and words to this song fit perfectly. Somewhere in the back of my mind I’d always wanted to do something like that, and here was my chance! I think the sentiment of the song fit well with the sentiment of these words.

Coming to the album writing on your own for the first time, I read you anticipated that it would make recording easier without the fuss of electronics and programming and the complex guitar figures of the last album…but actually it was just as hard. Did that surprise you? What was the most challenging song to record?

I didn’t choose to not use electronics and programming because I was writing on my own for the first time. I decided to use acoustic instruments because I thought it would suit the songs best. It was actually a pretty effortless album to arrange and record, the least challenging I have ever made. Once I’d written all the songs, it came together surprisingly easily from there. Björn really helped to take them in some interesting directions and we agreed that they were best fairly simple. The most challenging ones get right were probably ‘I Never Knew’ and ‘We Won’t Run’. We changed the key of ‘I Never Knew’ at the last minute and we slowed it down, and I was in two minds about how ‘We Won’t Run’ should sound because it began as a piano song.

What were the main obstacles in translating your piano-based demos into the bass and percussion led songs we hear on the album?

Just my own mind really. I was so used to hearing them as piano songs and to pull that out was scary at first. But then I realised it brought a new life to the songs and it felt exciting and fresh.

Do you think that recording in the Swedish winter helped to capture a quality that you might not have been able to achieve back home in Australia?

I’m not really sure. The cold does make you more introspective, and being away from home broadens your mind and the scope of what you’re doing.

I think it’s fascinating that Björn came to the project having only heard your demos. It’s really unusual to hear of an established artist working with someone who has no prior knowledge of their material, and I was wondering what you thought the main pros and cons of that approach might be.

Well, we sent him the other stuff too, but he wasn’t too concerned with this because I told him I wanted to make a record that was nothing like those two. He was really impressed with the songs on the demos and felt that it could be a really amazing record and that was all that mattered to me. Of course, I had to think a little about how this would fit with what I’ve done in the past, but I was encouraged to not focus on that and I think that was a positive. I needed to make an extraordinarily different record I think. It was important to me at this point to kind of throw things up, to open the windows and let some fresh light in.

You’ve been blogging about the recording process all year – has that been useful to you personally or just something you like to do to keep your fans informed?

I think it was a fun project to do while I was away. It sort of kept me sane. I’ve never been into blogging, but it seemed it was time to come out of my shell a bit. I ended up writing more about films and my surrounds in Stockholm than recording. I didn’t want it to be one of those boring blogs that make recording sound dead boring!

Before working on the album you wrote some music for a stage production of ‘Hamlet’. How did you get involved in that, and to what extent did that experience influence the sound of new album?

Well, the director Marion Potts called me up and invited me to do the music for the production. I had a coffee with her and immediately felt a rapport. I felt I couldn’t really say no to such a challenge, so I said “yes”. I wrote mostly quite minimal piano music with some voice stuff as well. I felt that solo piano was the best instrument for most of the music in the production to convey the loneliness and confusion central to Hamlet’s character, so my main focus was writing music that fit with the play moreso than external influences. The piano has a haunting and lonely sound, which I felt made sense. The set was to be minimal and so was the costuming, so the music had to be also. Also, such a dense play called for simple music that enhanced the mood. I think the idea of keeping the music simple and the use of piano fed into the writing of my own album. Although I wanted the music on my album to have more energy and to be more diverse in style.

Can you tell us what inspired you to record the movie songs that make up the ‘Cinema Blasko’ bonus disc?

I love film musicals and I thought the sentiments of the songs kind of fit with the ideas on the album. Musicals and film music were an influence on the record – like ‘West Side Story’, ‘The Sound Of Music’, westerns, Henry Mancini. Plus there are elements of jazz on the record, so I wanted the bonus disc to sound like it was recorded in a little piano bar.

‘Cabaret’ with Liza Minelli is one of my favourite film musicals so I chose ‘Maybe This Time’; ‘Annie Hall’ is my favourite film, so even though it isn’t a musical I just loved the version of an old standard ‘Seems Like Old Times’ so I had to include it. I also promised a version of this on my blog. ‘Xanadu’ has a beautiful melody and I thought it could sound really sad as a piano song. It’s usually my favourite karaoke tune! ‘Something Good’ from ‘The Sound Of Music’ is one of the most beautiful songs. I always found the part of the movie when Maria and the Captain get together boring when I was a kid, but as I’ve gotten older it’s one of my favourite parts. Christopher Plummer is so handsome and Julie Andrews is so sweet here. ‘Out Here On My Own’ is a sentimental favourite from my childhood. I loved the TV show ‘Fame’ too.

What has the reaction to those covers been like?

Not sure. I’m guessing people may think it’s a bit of an odd decision to make. I kind of did it for myself! I have heard that ‘Xanadu’ is getting a bit of circulation.

Given that your blog is called ‘Theatre Blasko’ and also your writing for ‘Hamlet’, I’m surprised you didn’t make the bonus disc all covers of songs from stage musicals. What would you include if you had?

Most of these musicals I did have been stage musicals at some point, but to be honest I’m not such a fan of stage musicals. I like these film musicals because of the classic cast and I think in film it’s larger than life and magical. Like ‘Singin’ In The Rain’. It wouldn’t be the same on the stage would it?! And you can’t do ‘The Sound Of Music’ without the mountains behind and Maria running along those green, rolling hills in the opening sequence! The stage just doesn’t do the story justice! I do have a soft spot for musical theatre. I have a not-so-secret ambition to be in a musical.

Can you tell us about the ideas behind the beautiful animated video for ‘No Turning Back’?

Well, I just sent the song to Celeste Potter who was someone I’d met, and I’d seen a lot of posters and artwork she’d done and I liked her style. From there I just let her go. She sent me a couple of drawings and the idea she had for the clip and I just said, “Go for it.” I think it’s very cute. I love the unswerving spirit of that little girl. It’s wonderful to see how someone interprets your song visually. It’s cool.

The art reveal cards in the boxset are a nice idea. How do they tie in with the album thematically?

The pictures sort of turn from night to day. From a black and white image with no colour to a brilliant watercolour. The album is about bringing colour and hope to difficult situations.

Can we expect to see the album released in Europe?

I really hope so. It would mean a lot to me to have it released elsewhere. I’m working on it now. I play in London, Denmark and Sweden in August/September.

You’ve got some Australian shows coming up with the brilliant El Perro Del Mar, who is also an expert at turning very sad songs into magical pop masterpieces. What is it that you love about her music?

Yeah, it’s true, she does. I’m a big fan of hers. I like her repetitive, circular style and she has a wonderful, quaint, sad voice. Her perspective is often almost childlike and pure in its intentions. I can’t wait to see her play.

I read that you’ve been sampled by an Australian hip hop artist – are you all in favour of that? Do you listen to much hip hop?

It was really fun and surprising to hear. I think it works in the song, so I’m happy with that. I don’t listen to much hip hop these days, but I went through a bit of a hip hop phase in my teens!

You recently played a show with Holly Throsby, New Buffalo and others to try and save a community radio station that helped you gain a footing in your early career. Why is it so important that we don’t let independent radio stations like that slip away?

It’s important to have stations that are music-focused and focused on local community, and to give a chance for diverse styles of music to be played.

There’s been a lot of commentary over the last couple of weeks about this year’s Triple J Hottest 100 not containing a single female solo artist or female-fronted band – what do you think that says about the gender imbalance in music, even in these supposedly enlightened times?

I don’t really know about all that, but it’s a shame that Kate Bush, Björk, PJ Harvey and Patti Smith weren’t in there. Maybe it says something about the Triple J audience. I don’t know!

Do you feel that this is an exciting time for female artists coming out of Australia? There seems to be a lot of them all of a sudden!

I think it’s an exciting time for female artists all over. There’s some really strong individual voices out there. I’m pretty proud of the ladies here in Australia: Holly Throsby, New Buffalo, Pikelet, Bridezilla, Washington.

* * *

Alan Pedder

Sarah plays The Borderline in London on September 3rd. For more details visit her Myspace.

‘We Won’t Run’

‘No Turning Back’

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