Sarah Blasko: “I felt a kind of urgency to make something that counted”

Ahead of a national orchestra tour, Sarah Blasko talks to DARREN LEVIN about the album that almost killed her.

Album notes are about as useful to writers as Korean instructions are to buyers of flat-pack furniture. If they’re not hyping a record to death with adjectives like “seminal” and “incendiary”, they’re packed with useless information about who mastered the record, in what city, and who else they’ve worked with (The Killers!? Oh, wow!). Sarah Blasko, on the other hand, decided the first introduction to her new album I Awake would be an introductory note, written in stanzas. Like a poem.

At times I thought this record would kill me.


it was a behemoth!

There were moments I felt I would sink beneath it.

But that’s the kind of thing you choose –

I chose to produce it myself.

I chose an orchestra.

An avalanche of sound,

soaring & shrieking,

simple & striking

to send you tumbling.

I do hope it makes you feel something.

If you haven’t already worked it out, this is an important album for Blasko, perhaps more so than anything she’s done before. The platinum-selling, ARIA-winning As Day Follows Night (2009) is her most successful (and accessible) album to date, but I Awake has been a far more challenging sell. That’s because she’s put every inch of herself into the album’s 12 tracks, and while the results are invariably stunning, it can also be harrowing, confronting and so insular you feel you’re prying just by hitting play. Conceived in solitude in Brighton, England; recorded in Sweden; and featuring a Bulgarian Symphony Orchestra (yes, really), this is a record informed by harsh European winters, and the sort of homesick reflectiveness it engenders in Australian artists, particularly.

When FL met up with Blasko in a South Melbourne cafe a few weeks before the album’s October release, she was back in Australia for good, living in inner-city Sydney and enjoying the warmer weather. “It’s good being back,” she said, sipping a flat-white. “I feel whole again being home. It’s funny though, it only takes a couple of months to go, ‘Oh, I’d like to go travelling again.’”

I want to talk about the letter that accompanied the record. I thought it was a really brave and interesting move. What prompted you to include it?

I think with this album … it felt really like clearing the unnecessary things out of the way a little. I see it as quite an honest record in a way. You get to a point where you don’t really have the energy to be concerned with the things that you were before. You just really want to get to the heart of things and not beat around the bush. Just be as honest as you can be in a way – and when I say honest I don’t necessarily mean super-revealing about myself. I think it was an attempt to give a bit of insight into how I felt about it, and convey something that was honest about how I felt. You worry about how people read into it [the letter] because it can sound so overly dramatic [laughs], especially that line where I say it almost killed me. But I say it with a bit of a smile on my face, because it’s kind of hilarious that you find yourself in those situations where you really want to do something, and when you find yourself doing it you’re just feeling like you’re going to die, basically. [Laughs]

“I had a bit of a Woody Allen approach to life.”

Which part almost killed you, was it the writing or the recording?

I think the recording. It was just really full on. I remember telling the record company, “This is what I want to do”, and they were sort of looking at me like, “OK … Bulgarians in an orchestra?” I think the terrifying moment was probably when they allowed me to do that. When you start doing it you think, “Can I live up to this grandiose thing that I’ve said that I’m going to do?”

Do you think you have?

I feel like it’s what I wanted it to be, yeah. I really do. I felt a real sense of relief that it did go how I wanted it to, particularly with the orchestrations, because I asked a friend of mine [Nicholas Wales] to do it with me. We know each other really well, and we know each other’s tastes, but that could’ve gone a bit – if it had have been a tough collaboration it could have the record quite different or difficult. But that was really smooth. It was like we really just understood what we wanted. It’s definitely what I wanted it to be.

Given how much you put into this record did you come out feeling energised or emotionally spent?

A bit of both if that can even make sense. You know that feeling when you have a night where you don’t sleep and then you somehow, in some strange way, can feel more amazing that day than you have if you’d had a full night’s sleep? You feel really in touch with what’s real, but you’re exhausted at the same time. I just felt a relief that I had gotten through it. [Laughs] I had a bit of a Woody Allen approach to life where I’m like, “I’m glad I survived.”


Did you come out at the end of it a different person?

Yeah, I think so, and I think when I was doing it I felt like a different person than when I’ve made other records. I just keep going back to that honesty thing, feeling like you’re not holding back. I felt like that when I was making it. I felt that with the guys that I was playing with, and they were commenting about the way that I was singing. I guess it’s just that feeling where you feel like you’ve got nothing to lose and you can rid yourself of all the superfluous stuff. I don’t know if people can hear that, but that’s just what I hear; I hear that in myself.

I think it’s a really clear statement. Do you think that moment of clarity is setting you up for future records?

Yeah, I hope so. I don’t know what I’ll do next. This might be it. [Laughs] This might be a good way to pack it up.

Did it feel like that at times?

Yeah, I did feel like I wanted to make something that was like, “I’m not going to muck around this time.” I think you always feel like that, but more so this time I thought, “I’ve got no time to do that.” I felt a kind of urgency to make something that counted.

Do you care about the response? It seems like it’s a record that’s focussed on process more than outcome in a way?

I’ve got no idea what everyone will think. In some ways it’s probably harder to get into – I presume – than the last record [2009’s As Day Follows Night]. I don’t really have any clarity on that, but I think it’s a heavier album than the last one. I don’t know what will happen, but I think you just always hope that if it means something to you that it’ll mean something to other people.

It’s a really personal record but I guess the themes are quite universal. You wrote most of the album in solitude, is that right?

Yeah, I was living on my own in Brighton. I had a few friends there. [Laughs]

I just imagined you just sitting in this house alone.

I was sitting in the house on my own a lot, way too much I think. I did a lot of walking. It’s very dramatic – there’s these beautiful walks … These beautiful, dramatic, fructuous walks, and these ridiculously mournful sounding seagulls. These massive seagulls that were kind of scary, you feel like you’re in The Birds, or something. I did live there on my own; it was a very intense time, just really thinking a lot about home. It’s interesting when you live somewhere else, you sort of start to feel like, “What’s my real life?” Maybe it’s because I hadn’t really done that before, but I had a few years of living over there, and you sort of feel like you’re losing yourself a bit: “Am I in a dream world here, or is that reality?” That’s just the way I tend to think sometimes. You’re thinking about all of these things in your life that aren’t immediately part of your everyday life, which was really strange. I’ve never had an experience quite like that before … So I indulged in it a little bit.

It seems strange that the UK brings that out in Australian artists – from the Triffids to even The Panics’ last record [Rain On The Humming Wire]. Do you think it’s the UK in particular?

Yeah, it’s a tough place to live, I think. We’ve got such a good quality of life here [in Australia]. It’s not like it’s the worst place in the world to live, obviously, but it’s quite tough music wise. It really pushes you and there’s so much going on that sometimes you just think, “What’s the point?” A lot of people, they don’t care about Australian music. We have a funny relationship with England. I’d always heard people talking about the weather and thought, “Come on! Stop going on about the English weather”, but it is cold! [Laughs] The weather is just something else. It’s like you never see the sun. When you’re used to that, it really kind of gets to you.

And living right by the beach is pretty strange without the sun.

Yeah, it was really strange. When it was summertime I’ve never seen people act so bizarrely when the sun actually came out and people were getting sunburnt. They didn’t realise that if you sit outside for the entire day you end up being bright red. It was pretty funny.

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