Sarah Blasko: “I felt akind of urgency to makesomething that counted”
Thu 31st Jan, 2013 in Features
What was the house like in Brighton?
It was just like a little terrace place, really close to the water … It was this three-level place, but very small; almost too small for two people but maybe a bit too big for one person. It’s a quaint town and a nice place to spend some time. It’s a great place to be creative, and drink coffee and wander around. [There’s] lots of music going on. I was there for a bit over a year.
And why Sweden again [for recording]?
I loved the studio that I worked in last time [Music and Words in Stockholm] and the engineer [Lasse Marten], and also Frederik [Rundqvist] who played drums on the last record. I kept playing with him after the album and I just love him. He was just such a great guy and such a good player. It just made sense. There was enough people there to work with again. At the start I was going to work with Bjorn [Yttling, from Peter Bjorn and John], who I worked on the last record with and he was right into it – it all seemed like it was going to happen. Then he got really busy and it was going to have to be really spaced out over a long period and it wasn’t going to work with the timing. Then I decided to just stay there and do it myself.
So was it a decision made out of necessity?
Yeah, pretty much, but it’s funny because I think in the back of my mind I actually wanted to do it myself. I was kind of like, “Oh yeah, I want to work with Bjorn because I felt like it had good results that last time we worked together.” But I think I actually did, from the beginning, just want to do it myself.
You picked an incredibly difficult record to make on your own.
[Laughs] Yeah, I know. It’s just like, “Yeah, why did I do this again?”
And there’s an ancestral connection to Bulgaria. Is that why you chose that orchestra [the Bulgarian Symphony Orchestra]?
I’d read about them a few years ago. We’ve got this [family] connection in Bulgaria but I haven’t really grown up knowing anything about the place because my dad was actually born in Berlin. He’d always talked about it as though he was German, and it took years for me to understand the whole connection between Bulgaria and Germany, and why so many Bulgarian people ended in Germany. So for me this was a decision to start going down that path of understanding with that side of my family. I still don’t really know that much about the place. I was just there for six days. I know a little bit. My dad’s grandfather and my dad’s great-grandfather were both writers … My grandfather is 90 and it’s nice to feel like, “OK. This is for them.”
And they had a different sensibility to other European orchestras?
Yeah, I think there was certain points where you could really hear the inflections, just naturally the way that they bend the notes. There’s definitely a few moments where Nick and I were just so sure that it wouldn’t have sounded like that, so naturally, anywhere else.
Maybe like a gypsy kind of element?
Well it seems weird to say that it’s a sparse record given the orchestration, but was that something that you really wanted to do, to have that space?
I still wanted it to be a continuation on from some of the stuff I did on the last record, which I really liked. I liked the sparseness of that and I guess I love hearing the drums and the bass as such a central thing. I really wanted it to be about contrasts. That was something right from the beginning. I started writing the song called ‘Bury This’ … I was really tantalised by the idea of having this little fragile thing [the ukulele] with this massive wave coming over the top of it. I’ve always loved Leonard Cohen’s ‘Avalanche’ … The first time I heard that and the string coming in, it’s terrifying and it really captures the total feeling of the avalanche. It’s so powerful.
Did it push your voice though, having the orchestra on there?
Well, I did a lot of the vocals before, but there were certain moments that I redid because it changed the feeling a bit once the orchestra was there. I did that song ‘Here’ with the orchestra in Bulgaria. That was a really amazing experience.
‘Fool’ is probably my favourite at the moment on the record. were you listening to a lot of soul?
Yeah it’s funny, I don’t know where it came from but I just started writing things that I thought sounded really like songs. I think ‘Not Yet’ has got a bit of a gospel feel. I don’t know how it happened to be honest. It must’ve been that piano that I was working on, maybe it’s the piano’s fault, I don’t know. [Laughs]
Did you write mostly on piano?
Yeah, I did, and just this ukulele that a friend had leant me. There was a bit on guitar but mostly piano. It really helped to inspire the album. It’s something I’ve never played before. I always thought of it as a joke instrument. [Laughs] But this particular ukulele had a warm tone. It almost sounded like a harp. The first few songs I wrote was with ukulele. That’s when I thought, “I’m seeing a different album here.” You’re always waiting for that point where it’s like, “Aha! I’ve got it. Phew!” [Laughs]
Is there a story attached to it? Where did you get it?
I just borrowed it from a friend. They left it at my house and I started playing it. I couldn’t stop playing it. I had it in the wrong tuning. I never know about tunings anyway. I’m really bad at that stuff. But it spoke to me. There was something about it. It’s that tone.
Will you play it live?
Yeah, if I’m not too scared. [Laughs]
There’s some William Tell imagery on the title track … and then you have a track called ‘An Arrow’.
With ‘Arrow’ I was thinking more about the arrow of time, and that feeling of being propelled forward and you can’t be stopped … I wanted the album to have a sense of trying to be fearless. If you speak those words it gives you strength sometimes to speak in these life-or-death extremes. So even if you don’t have the courage, you feel like you can speak it and hopefully it helps you to get there.
There’s a lot of self-help aphorisms on the record.
Well, personal aphorisms: Things you say to yourself to get you through tough moments.
Yeah. Well, ‘An Oyster, A Pearl’, I wrote that for my niece actually. She’s at that point in her life – she’s 14 – where she’s becoming more of an adult. I was thinking a lot about what you could possibly say to somebody at that age; what could you possibly impart to someone else’s life about what’s important. That’s all I could come up with: ‘An Oyster, A Pearl’. [Laughs] It’s hard. Nothing’s straightforward and that’s all you can impart to someone: That that’s OK. It’s fine. That’s life, it’s complex. Sometimes I feel like I grew up with too clear a message about what it’s all about. That can be negative. It’s much more of a relief to be told from a young age, “You know what? You’re never gonna work it out.” [Laughs] We don’t know why we’re here, and it’s alright. You might get some clues along the way, but that’s life.
Was there a catalyst for this whole train of thought?
[Pauses] I don’t really know. I think just being alone and being in a place where you’re not comfortable and you don’t know many people. It can’t help but change how you view your own life and reality … Home starts to feel like you made it up. It feels like you’re in a dream. You feel discombobulated.
The interesting part to me is that you decided to stick it out and see where it would take you, rather than just booking a ticket home.
Yeah, but I definitely had a few moments. I did go home during that time, just for brief things. I think that was why you start to sense all those things. You just let go of a lot of stuff because you think, “It doesn’t really matter here [in England]”; not in a depressing, but in an empowering way.
Sarah Blasko ‘I Awake’ national tour
Friday, February 1 – Adelaide Festival Centre, Adelaide
Monday, February 4 – Wrest Point Entertainment Centre, Hobart
Saturday, February 9 – Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane
Thursday, February 14 – Hamer Hall, Melbourne
Sunday, February 17 – Sydney Opera House, Sydney
Monday, February 18 – Sydney Opera House, Sydney
Saturday, February 23 – Kings Park & Botanic Garden, Perth