Words: Alyssa Cavanagh
Hi Sarah, thank you for chatting with Concrete Journal today, how are you?
Fine thanks, yeah.
Your much anticipated fifth album ‘Eternal Return’ will be released on 6th November this year, are you excited about the release?
Yes I am, it’s a little different to the last two so I’m excited to know how people will respond.
Your musical style is always evolving, without pigeonholing yourself, would you say you identify with a particular genre? How would you describe your current and past music to a new listener?
I guess I’ve always been trying to write pop songs and the great thing with pop is that it embraces lots of styles within it. In the past it’s been kinda dramatic pop but I guess with this album it’s kind of nostalgic pop. It’s impossible to describe yourself really because I’m pretty subjective! It’s like trying to describe one’s personality, there are different sides.
How did you start writing music?
It started with bad poetry as a teenager and then I learnt to play guitar and realised I could sing when I was about 18. I mostly learnt by ear.
What’s your favourite part about writing?
Having no idea what you’re going to come up with. Sometimes it’s really surprising what comes out and then you start to piece together a new direction and feeling like you’re on the road with that is always a gigantic relief. I think once you don’t feel that, it’s probably time to give it up. I kinda live for that feeling of discovering some new terrain.
Who are your biggest influences?
I’m not entirely sure if they’re “influences” in the sense that I’m not sure how much I sound like these people or if their influence can be detected, but these people have really inspired me with their musical passion – David Byrne, Bjork, PJ Harvey, Tom Waits, David Bowie.
What are your earliest memories of music?
Feeling emotional when I heard the song ‘Bright Eyes’ [by Art Garfunkel] when I was 3 or 4, making up songs and dancing on the backyard balcony when I was about 10, watching Michael Jackson videos premiered on TV and being so excited, listening to records as I went to sleep (my dad would let my sister and I choose an album to go to sleep to on Friday and Saturday nights).
‘Eternal Return’ is a declaration of love, and your lyrics are often honest reflections of personal experiences. Is it ever difficult to be so open about yourself in your songs? Have you ever felt like you’re over sharing?
It’s not a difficult thing for me really, I think personality-wise I’m the kind of person who will open up about my feelings without too much difficulty. I’m not sure why. No, I don’t feel that I’m over-sharing because there’s a craft to trying to make something relatable to others and so you have to come outside of yourself in order to do that. You’re communicating something, not just in your own head.
Ahead of the release of ‘Eternal Return’ you’re going to perform an exclusive preview at the Sydney Opera House, as part of Sydney’s Graphic Festival, in October. Your performance will be accompanied with visuals by award-winning filmmaker Mike Daly, how important a role has film played in the making of this album?
Not really much of a role, but I love films. I studied film at university. The visuals to accompany my album are going to be something I really care about and get involved in because it’s got to feel right with the mood and the colour of the music.
You’ve previously performed at the Sydney Opera House for the launch of your album ‘I Awake’, how was that experience for you?
Amazing. They were the best shows of my life. I cried when that tour was over. It was such a massive challenge and then to feel like I did it was just an incredible feeling. To stand in front of a 40 piece orchestra and sing makes you feel like the luckiest person alive.
You’ve said before that ‘Eternal Return’ is “quite a departure” from 2012’s ‘I Awake’ album, could you tell us why?
It’s a synth based album. My last two were very much explorations in acoustic music. This one embraces electricity! I say that because it’s not an electro record. I use loads of keyboards but the the band are living, breathing humans. It’s also quite a joyful album in my opinion. I Awake was a little heavier.
You collaborated with Sydney-based composer Nick Wales on the soundtrack for Rafael Bonachela’s ‘Emergence’ as performed by Sydney Dance Company, and Australian fashion designer Dion Lee created the costumes. What was it like collaborating and creating music for a multi-dimensional visual experience such as dance?
It was a real learning experience. I love playing that supporting role in trying to work out how the music can best underpin the work. Nick’s a really generous collaborator, we’ve worked together a few times. He and I wrote a couple of the songs on ‘Eternal Return’ too. Raf, the choreographer is super passionate about what he does and he was easy to work with in that he knew what he wanted. It’s great to work with a bunch of people with strong identities.
The music you created for ‘Emergence’ was distinctly haunting, and very different from any other music you’ve made. You said that you “layered unexpected things on top of each other” and made a “push to be more abstract and esoteric” which I think you were very successful in doing. Apart from being a sensory delight, I feel like you had a lot of fun making this soundtrack, is that right? Could you tell us a little more about your creative process in this project?
Yes, we had loads of fun in parts but there were also some dark times trying to get it right. We started by just going with our instincts and improvising and we both wanted to mess with what we usually do. Nick enjoyed cutting up my vocals, I enjoyed pitch shifting them and for my voice to be used more like an instrument. Basically just getting to fuck with a song structure and juxtapose beauty and dirt together was a satisfying feeling.
Listening to your entire studio discography from the poppier indie melodies in ‘The Overture and The Underscore’ to the cinematic power ballads in your most recent album ‘I Awake’ and now from what I’ve heard in previews of ‘Eternal Return’, your sound has shifted considerably, would you say it’s a reflection of your growth as an artist, or a reflection of your life experiences, or both?
I think it’s a reflection of both. I’ve never been able to do anything other than what feels “right” for me at any given time so I usually stumble upon something – be it an instrument (I started playing piano for ‘As Day Follows Night’ or ukulele on ‘I Awake’ or a prophet keyboard for ‘Eternal Return’) and then take it from there. I think the beauty of being a “solo” artist is that you can shift your musical direction and it can still be “you” because it’s your voice and you bring to each new sound some idiosyncrasies that you couldn’t shake if you tried. I’ve shifted around of my own choosing and to have some satisfying life experiences along the way.
I understand you’re not formally trained musically, however you’ve had some singing lessons, how do you think your writing experience differs from those who are formally trained? Do you feel freedom from the constraints of rigid conventions?
No, I have no formal training you’re right. I think it means that it probably takes me longer to do things and I’m sort of stumbling around in the dark whereas people who are trained know the language better and can communicate it better! But I sort of like the stumble and not really knowing what I’m doing because there’s a mystery in it. I sort of have to speak to people in hand gestures and weird sounds! I’m not sure how much freedom it gives me, but I’m certainly not educated to think anything is too simple or silly which I think can be a positive. I actually love simplicity. Some of the best songs written in the world even I could play!
Let’s talk about your opening track on ‘Eternal Return’ could you tell us about it? You’ve said that you’re “haunted by the idea of being a good person or an evil person”, why has it been important for you to sing about this?
The song is about embracing your dark side and owning it. It’s about striving to be transparent and not wanting to be seen as one dimensional. I just felt it was important to remind myself to always strive to be open and honest and there’s strength in being okay with one’s flaws.
You’ve mentioned a few big names as influences for you writing this album, including Gary Newman, Diana Ross, Bruce Springsteen and Talking Heads, particularly for their 80’s hits, what is it about their work that you found so alluring?
We were trying to produce strong, classic pop songs which all those names have done. It wasn’t specifically the 80’s that we were inspired by. There are sounds from the 60’s and 70’s that have their place on the record too. Because I started writing the songs on a synth, naturally the music of those people became inspirations of some sort.
Concrete Journal, Issue Zero, is about first experiences, and starting from the ground up, could you tell us about your experience starting in the industry? Can you remember your first live performance?
I remember one of my first in Glebe at a tiny pub and I was standing in a corner near a door. It was a thoroughfare and so people were kind of elbowing past me with beers and then out of nowhere came this gigantic cat. It was surreal. There was about 3 people watching me and they were my friends! I just remember the constant enthusiasm, drive and kind of blind faith I had. You know, putting up posters up and placing ads in street press. I learnt how to do everything myself first before I got a manager, booking agent and record label… and then things get complicated in a whole different way!
Love can have a giddy effect on the way we create art, why do you think songs about love are so relatable as opposed to any other mutual or common human feeling/experience?
Love is what we all crave and we probably need it more than anything else so yes of course people want to think about it and revel in it and it’s certainly more pleasant than thinking about many other things! It’s like our base state. As children we love so easily and so we’re always trying to get back there in our hearts.
Lastly, do you have any advice for anyone starting out in the creative industry?
Follow thy gut ∆
‘Eternal Return’ is available to purchase now www.sarahblasko.com