“The nerves have started a little earlier than usual today. It’s good to be nervous though. I get more worried when I’m not because often that means I’m not focused or I make mistakes.”
Sarah Blasko has good reason to be apprehensive. Not only is she headlining Splendour in the Grass’ GW McLennan stage tonight, this show marks her long-awaited public return to the live arena (bar a handful of small warm-up shows) and the festival baptism of her new album As Day Follows Night. And while her audience may never know, it also heralds the rebirth of an artist who’s been through “hell and back” just to get back here.
Which might just explain why she’s arrived eight hours early today. “Normally I do like to get to gigs early,” she explains matter-of-factly when we meet a few hours later. “I’m a really nervy type of person so I don’t like to leave it too late. I like to be nearby and get organised and familiarise myself with the place.”
She shouldn’t have to – having played three Splendours in the past, she’s practically a local now. We head to her dressing room, a temporary demountable decked out with two loungechairs, a clothes rack for tonight’s outfits, a full-length mirror and a mountain of music gear. It’s so early the rider is nowhere in sight although that’s a good thing, says Blasko.
“I sing a lot better when I don’t drink,” she says over the bassy rumble of Bridezilla in the distance. “I used to drink quite a bit before I played which wasn’t so good. You get this type of tunnel vision but then you hear things back and realise you weren’t as with it as you thought!”
By all reports, the 32-year-old singer-songwriter is criminally shy but in person she’s quietly charming, chatty and even cheeky (“Oh I love interviews, absolutely!” she tells me sarcastically).
Up close, as suspected from a distance, Blasko is beautiful in a slight, somewhat awkward way. All angular cheekbones and soft brown eyes, she’s both striking and delicate. Today, as always, she’s dressed in her Sunday’s best – a blue paisley sundress and black cardigan.
If she hadn’t done it so many times before, it’d be hard to picture this self-confessed homebody pouring her heart out later tonight to a horde of partying punters (some of which Rolling Stone spied puking and pissing in the bushes on the way into the festival – at midday).
“I do enjoy playing festivals and Splendour’s a nice one to play. The tent seems to draw people in so it feels like a huge, big venue. I don’t usually get heckled but I do get a few offers of marriage. It’s usually like “MARRY ME!” in a really aggressive voice which is kinda scary.”
There’s no such offers tonight when Blasko hits the stage, dressed in a cute black cloak with a rainbow tie, but one informed fan does yell out ‘How was Sweden?’ Backed by her six-piece band of merry men, she opens with ‘Down On Love’, the lullaby-like intro from the new album, all twinkly piano and swirling strings, before launching into the ghostly guns-at-dawn vibe of ‘All I Want’. As the song takes a breath at the bridge before crashing down with all its might and strings for the crescendo, her voice is as clear and captivating as it is on record.
“This is very nice. I should say it’s splendid but it’s a silly joke,” she giggles between songs. And then, she’s off, lost in the music and her now-famous oddball dance routines. She busts out the Wacky Waltz to ‘Lost & Defeated’, the Running Man to ‘Planet New Year’ (accompanied by violinists Nick Wales and Cye Wood) and the Happy Stomp to ‘Hammer’.
“I kind of go in and out of reality when I’m performing,” she tells me after the show. “It can be really moving, really fun and exhilarating. Sometime I get really emotional but you have to go there. If you want to take people to another place, you have to get lost in those experiences, you have to lead by example.”
It’s a tough slot tonight – she’s up against first day headliners Bloc Party – but the tent’s still three-quarters full, even if her audience is hard to read. Some bop, some sway, some sing every word and others just stand there, transfixed, especially during the perennial favourite ‘Explain’.
“It’s been fun playing to you,” she says as the drums of ‘No Turning Back’ kick in. The show ends with rapt applause and drummer Jeff de Araujo trashing his kit up which takes everyone by surprise. Blasko looks genuinely shocked, maybe a little thrilled as we file back to her dressing room.
“I really enjoyed that. I felt very free and happy and the nerves disappeared very quickly,” she beams as she plonks herself on the lounge, looking excited and relieved all at once. The room fills with congratulations and laughter as bandmates and friends attack what’s left of the rider. Well, except for de Araujo who’s sorting out his drums, like a naughty boy forced to clean up his own mess.
“That doesn’t normally happen but we haven’t toured for a while so maybe it’s all that pent-up energy,” says Blasko as she spies her string section draining the last drop of vodka. “Well, I guess that’s the end of the vodka then?” she yells playfully across the room. “I said I guess that’s the end of the vodka then! Okay, people, party’s over!”
As Day Follows Night was released on July 10 and debuted on the ARIA charts at number five a week later (it may have charted even higher if not for the deluge of post-death Michael Jackson Best Ofs). It’s a bold step in Blasko’s journey as an artist and one that strips off the layers of her previous work to expose both her startling talent and her most naked emotions and fears. Drawing mainly on piano, drums, double bass and strings, she wraps them up in a sound from another era – think classic show tunes and vintage cabaret – that’s part melancholy, part musical.
Her lyrics are her most confessional yet (“Lately you’ve been down on love / You think that it’s a poison cup” she laments on ‘Down on Love’) and as the title alludes, they’re tinged with the blackest heartbreak (“Is My Baby Yours”, “I Never Knew”) and glimmers of hope (“Over and Over”, “We Won’t Run”). Blasko says she was inspired by artists like Carole King and Nina Simone who always conveyed the passion and the pain without “the whine”.
“I took comfort in that kind of music because it’s so soothing. You can hear the heartbreak and the sadness but it’s beautiful. You know it’s from a difficult place but an honest one.”
And for the first time ever, Blasko has let herself read the reviews, which, luckily for her, have been almost unanimous in their praise (Rolling Stone awarded it four stars two issues ago).
“I’ve been very pleasantly surprised actually. It’s really encouraging because it was scary to open up. I probably would have been pretty gutted if people didn’t like it. I know a lot of bands say they don’t care what people think, but I did for this one.”
Blasko started work on As Day Follows Night in late 2007 a week before wrapping up the final tour for her last album What the Sea Wants The Sea Will Have (which won the ARIA for Best Pop Release that year). At the same time, she was invited to compose the soundtrack for the Bell Shakespeare company’s adaptation of Hamlet at the Sydney Opera House. The chance to write music about someone else’s story – not her own – came as a fresh challenge and a welcome respite.
“It was totally amazing,” gushes the singer. “Often I think it doesn’t suit my personality to be an artist who’s the centre of attention, because part of me hates it and finds it really stressful and hard. So to do Hamlet was really refreshing because it was about Marion’s vision, not mine.”
Sarah was such a fantastic collaborator,” recalls director Marion Potts, who says she was drawn to the “haunted beauty” of Blasko’s music. “She’s very passionate and generous to a fault. On the first day of rehearsal, when she stood up at the piano and sang, the whole room went quiet. You could hear a pin drop. I think she’s an extraordinary artist.”
As fate would have it, Blasko ended up on stage anyway, singing live every night as part of a band of travelling musicians but she loved it. Between rehearsals, she’d work on her own songs on a piano backstage and when she wasn’t there, she was writing in her ‘office’ (actually the meeting room of her managers Bill and Edrei Cullen) in Darlinghurst.
“This time I didn’t want to rely on going away to an inspiring place. Everyday life can be equally inspiring and I wanted to try something new. I think Bill and Edrei found it exciting to be so close to the creative process.”
Of course, the most telling difference between As Day Follows Night and her previous albums is she wrote this one alone. What The Sea Wants and her 2004 debut The Overture and The Underscore had been co-written with dear friend and fellow musician Robert Cranny, but this time she decided to follow her own path.
She says there were numerous reasons behind the decision – she wanted to try something new, he’d started his Enchanted Recordings label and was busy working with the Redsunband – but when I mention I’d heard they were also in a relationship, her eyes darken and her face fractures.
“Well, Rob and I are still very much friends – there’s no bad blood. It’s a bit awkward, I mean… I don’t really want to go into my personal life because I just don’t want to. I had to be very open with him that I wanted to make this record on my own and I’m sure that was hard for him because he’d poured a lot of his life and time into the first two.
“On the other hand, I think we both knew it was time to do separate things,” she says, before adding “It’s hard because people have described us in ways that are a bit unclear,” even though she could set the record straight right here and right now.
“Do you need to confirm it?” she asks. “You can just say we worked very hard together and we know each other very well. I don’t need to say anything else…” And she doesn’t and I don’t and then our time is up – at least for now.
So besides performing and privacy, what else is Sarah Blasko passionate about? As we head into the hills of the Byron hinterland for Rolling Stone’s photo shoot on Sunday afternoon, we delve into what else makes this Sydney girl tick.She says she loves to cook but she isn’t a fan of Masterchef, or TV in general for that matter). She likes Byron but she’s not a beach person (“I don’t tan, I burn”). She has old-fashioned tastes – in clothes, music, art and manners.
“I like things that are old and have been lived in,” she says fondly. It probably started as a kid when my family shopped at Vinnie’s because we hardly had any money. I like things that stand the test of time.”
Her favourite movie of all time is Annie Hall by Woody Allen (she’s wearing him as badge today) and she’s currently reading Big Sur by Jack Kerouac. Lately she’s been doing pilates and is considering taking up horse-riding lessons to “learn something practical.” She prefers gigs and “daggy dancing at house parties” to clubs and yes, she does get noticed out a lot.
“Sometimes people say hi and ask for a photo and you’ve just had the worse day of your life. It’s pretty awful. You just want to burst into tears and they want a photo.”
She’s not the biggest fan of photo shoots either but today she’s doing well and quite possibly even having fun. As the sun sets the clouds alight with a heavenly hue, she alternates between pensive poses and goofy faces when she feels like it’s all getting too serious.
With the shoot done and dusted, we drive back to the Splendour site discussing Blasko’s other recently discovered love – travel. Last November she headed to Europe for a month, partly to finish her songs, mostly just to get away. “It was brilliant. I don’t know if you’d ever travelled on your own before, but it’s sort of challenging and lonely and exciting,” she recalls dreamily.
She spent several weeks writing in a Parisian apartment and then travelled to Stockholm to meet Björn Yttling of Peter, Björn and John fame to discuss producing her album (he’s recently worked on Lykke Li’s Youth Novels and Primal Scream’s Beautiful Future). Impressed, she returned in February to record at his Atlantis Studios, although it wasn’t all smooth sailing to begin with. Their work ethics were worlds apart and Yttling, who’d just had a newborn baby, was on a tight timetable.
“At the beginning, I just thought ‘what the fuck is this guy doing? We’ve only been in the studio for five hours and he’s going home!’” recalls Blasko. “But it actually taught me if you’re organised and know what you want to do you don’t need much more time. He really encouraged my singing and my songwriting and assured me that the rest would fall into place if I just trusted him.”
Yttling recalls being equally impressed with the result. “Of all the takes we did, she never sang a fuckin’ wrong note. She’s an amazing singer,” he tells me on the phone a week before Splendour. “We’d record it and all the takes could have been the final take. Yeah man, we were all impressed.”
“Boy, there’s a lot of wasted people around,” says Blasko as we take a seat in the artists’ backstage bar. It’s 6pm on Sunday night and every one is on a mission to cram as much partying as they can into the festival’s final hours. The walls shake with the bass from Grinspoon’s set and even more disturbingly, occasional gusts of wind carry the stench of severely-punished port-a-loos through the bar. All in all, it makes for a strangely incongruous location for our last deep and meaningful of the weekend.
On the topic of her new songs, Blasko maintains her confessional lyrics aren’t about her story per se, but characters she’s invented within the record. I challenge her that this may just be a roundabout way of writing about her emotions and protecting herself at the same time.
“The basis is definitely my life, but I like to take it into a heightened reality. I like the idea of ‘the character’ on the record. I like musicals, I like it to be fancy. This isn’t me bullshitting. You write these songs from your own life, but you keep developing them. In this case, the character on the record is feeling rather hopeless and struggling to see any positives. That’s what the album’s really about.”
For what it’s worth, I argue that if you listen to the songs closely enough, the character’s story – and her own? – centres around a girl breaking up with the love of her life. In the aftermath, she questions everything – herself, him, their relationship, love and even life itself. Bruised and broken-hearted, she hits rock bottom and only then does she rediscover hope and beauty and eventually finds happiness within herself.
“That’s a very neat story. No one’s life is like that,” she smiles. “That’s not my story. That’s the story you’ve taken from it so that’s good. Tick! It doesn’t really matter what my story is, does it? It actually doesn’t. You have the basis of the story right, the chronology’s wrong. I’ll just grab the red pen out.”
While she won’t go into the details, Blasko does reveal that last year was one of the toughest of her life. “I was having a really, really hard time,” she says, her eyes darkening once more. “I don’t even feel like I need to say it because if you hear the record, you know when somebody’s gone to hell and back and when somebody hasn’t. You just can feel it.”
And while the most foreboding clouds may have dissipated, she admits she’s fighting a constant battle inside. “It’s a constant struggle, isn’t it? I don’t know if I bring it upon myself but I feel like in the last ten years, I’ve had a lot of full on things to deal with.”
When she did hit rock bottom, Blasko poured herself into her art – her music became her confidant, her therapy and the lifeline that pulled her out of her big, black hole.
“It helped me survive,” she says bluntly. “Writing this album brought a lot of beauty and happiness to my life to be. I don’t think I’ve even found it so cathartic. It really pulled me out of my life and into – without sounding kinda hippy – a magical world, a spiritual thing.”
Of course, the irony is she emerged from the darkness with her most compelling and courageous album yet. “I feel pretty confident with the record,” she confesses, brightening visibly. “I fell in love with it, which sounds really up myself I know, but I feel like I can say that because so many people worked on it. It’s exactly what I wanted it to be and I feel really proud.”
And is ‘the character’ still down on love? “By the end of the album, they’re not really. By the end of that song, they’re not really down on love. They turn around in 3 mins,” she giggles.
If only it was that easy.