Sarah Blasko has it figured out. Or has us figured out. Those of us who will hear her fifth album, Eternal Return, and its songs of unabashed declarations of love and happiness and make assumptions. Those who will want to ask why, and how, and who, behind those assumptions. Those who she would much rather were looking elsewhere. Listening, yes, please, she wants you to listen. But looking elsewhere for answers.
"I can hear the sort of piece that people want this to be: ‘Sarah’s settled down and she’s really happy and this is a really happy record, Dave Miller is her partner and they live in the suburbs of Sydney, in Newtown where all the young families are. And this is an album about somebody settling down,” says Blasko, a takeaway coffee in her hand and a determined look on her face.
“But actually this album is about that early feeling of being in love with somebody and about that connection.”
Being in love is no small matter, personally obviously, but also professionally for Blasko whose songs have more often mined a darker seam, of loneliness and isolation, of ambiguity and complexity and of the legacy of a spiritual upbringing in a series of religious communities, including an early version of Hillsong, which don’t speak to her anymore though their imprint has never gone.
When talking about those earlier songs she would deflect or distract, arguing it wasn’t about her. Or not all about her. There’s no deflection today though about Eternal Return. Which may well be part of the problem: it’s one thing to say you’re fine to talk about some things; it’s another to be at ease breaking a life-long habit.
“It is quite clearly a love record,” she says. “There is no disguising that, there is no veil in the language. But then I think to go on too much about my own situation, whether it’s in regards to being in love or whatever, always seems a bummer in a way. Just because you are trying to write an album that’s universal, that people can relate to, you don’t want that stuff to overshadow what you are doing.”
SARAH BLASKO - I'D BE LOST
Still, it’s true enough that Blasko, just turned 39, now has a son – Jerry, a few months old – and a partner who is a musician and “computer nerd”. And in the past year they’ve moved into what might pass for an artist colony or enclave in inner city Newtown/Camperdown, with many musician and filmmaking friends within five or ten minutes stroll. We meet one of these near the cafe way-station on the path to a nearby park, the Presets’ Julian Hamilton out with his friskily running daughter, a pair who regularly encounter Blasko on her daily walks-cum-air time.
Regretting ordering a muffin with that coffee – “I think I liked the idea of the muffin more than the muffin itself” – she sits with a church spire rising above a lavishly graffitied wall behind us, dog walkers in front and a late middle age man in office attire flying some kind of remote controlled UFO a few metres away.
If it seems faintly comic, it’s balanced by the fact her favourite bench is taken, which throws her momentarily even as she mocks herself about it: she is starting to realise that routine has become important in her life.
We’ve walked from the house on this crisp and suddenly bright morning because Miller was putting their boy down to sleep when I arrived and, Blasko joked (probably) that it being his work-from-home day, Miller liked to work in the nude and in an open-plan house that was a bit too much information for one interview.
Yet, it makes some sense to leave the house behind, out of this. It is important for her to have it understood that Eternal Return is neither an album about her son – not one song is about him as “he’s got to earn his stripes,” she says jovially – nor about being a mother. The songs were written before the pregnancy, as she was working and recorded before the birth, while also working on music for the film of her friend, playwright/director Brendan Cowell’s play Ruben Guthrie. This chronology is carefully spelled out a few times by Blasko.
So let’s skip what they are not and start with what these songs are. They are not veiled about love but it’s more than that: they are songs about love without qualification. This may be a misreading of her songs but while she has written about love before, even if sometimes obscured by the play of language, this seems like the first time she has sung about love that isn’t questioned, doubted or tempered. The doubt that comes up on the album is in the context of “this time I am getting past that”, not “will this last?”.
“Yes, that’s true,” she concedes. “I think when you first fall in love, there is no doubt going into it. You’re going in like a child, going in wholeheartedly. It’s great as a songwriter to really be able to capture that wonder period where you are in the throes of those feelings. Some of my favourite records are really in the throes of something significant and …. oh, where was I going with that? [she laughs] I’m having an existential crisis: where am I going generally?.”
An inquisitive dog, trampling on that discarded muffin beside her on the bench, gives an amused Blasko a minute to recover her train of thought now lost in laughter. It’s a reminder that while she often appears serious in public, her discomfort evident in nervous hand gestures and rapid stabs of words, she laughs often and easily away from cameras and recorders.
She takes her comedy seriously too, there not being a coincidence in her son having the same name as the star of one of her favourite shows, Jerry Seinfeld.
Long time friend, occasional collaborator and another relatively recent mother, Holly Throsby, calls Blasko “totally hilarious” and even silly.
“Her sense of humour is a cross between hammy musicals and Woody Allen films and Seinfeld. She can appear quite serious in public but she is a very funny person – dry and ridiculous and she tells a great story,” says Throsby. “I have a video of her and [expat Australian musician] Jim White doing Empire State of Mind at a karaoke bar in New York. Sarah was Jay Z. I laughed till I cried.”
Having shepherded the dog away, Blasko returns to this album and its openness about happiness.
“That was the aim, to chronicle something that was totally emotionally in the moment,” she says. “I have done that before but it’s been not in such lovely circumstances. The last record [I Awake] was very clearly capturing a period of time where I was living in Brighton, and alone with yourself kind of album: very lonely. As Day Follows Night [which preceded I Awake] I described at the time as a hopeful heartbreak album because the subject matter was very much a heartbroken state. So I’ve always done it but this is the first time I’ve captured this happiness.”
This is the first time she has said over and over, I am happy. Just plain, blissfully, happy.
“I think that’s just like ‘I’m in love, I’m in love, I’m in love’. It’s not even about happiness,” Blasko says. “You are wanting to tap into that ecstasy of love and that freshness. It’s a real challenge to try and write a love song and to write a pop song. And they were the challenges I set for myself: I wanted to write a really tight album of great pop songs and, yes, that would be about love because that’s what I was going through.
“I love Smooth FM for that very fact: love songs that are really solid pop songs. I’ve been trying to write a pop album the whole time. No one loves a good pop love song more than me.”
This is accompanied by another Blasko laugh and another confession. She is a fan of big musicals, mostly on film – “I’ve definitely got that sort of camp side. I love a bit of cabaret and musicals.” – with her sentimental favourite The Sound Of Music. “I grew up watching it every year on TV. Captain von Trapp is like my ideal man: Christopher Plummer, I still find him hot,” she smirks.
So she likes a stern, stiff-backed, emotionally closed man in uniform? “My taste in men has changed a little bit over the years,” she giggles. “But that’s where it started. And he was a softie underneath.”
But did she find out eventually that while some of them were softies, stern, stiff-backed, emotionally closed men were … “dickheads? Complete and utter dickheads? Yeah. Definitely been there.”
This category does not include Miller, nor producer Burke Reid who worked on Eternal Return, a surprising choice for some given his background producing exciting but definitely male and definitely rock-based bands.
“I just gelled with him as a guy. I felt like he got it easily,” she says, adding that he “didn’t really give a shit” that she was pregnant if the work had to be done. Instead they lived at the out-of-Sydney studio, spending their recording, cooking, down-time together, “talking about your bowel movements together … .so you might as well make the most of your time”.
He accommodated her clear stylistic choice too, stripping away almost all guitars and making it very much a synthesiser-based album, reproducing sounds from the 1980s for Blasko, who says that “I don’t really like technology all that much” but wanted something electronic but also “organic”. It’s almost like a comfort spot for her, the sounds she grew up with.
SARAH BLASKO - LUXURIOUS
“There’s a definite nostalgia on the record: I think a lot of my albums are nostalgic for something and I guess when I think of a classic love song I think of the 70s and the 80s,” Blasko says. “It makes sense in a way because I think falling in love, like I said before, it’s like a return to something of who you are as a child. It makes sense to have a bit of those nostalgic elements when relating to love.”
So for her falling in love is like a return to aspects of childhood?
“I think that’s where it relates to the title of the album. You feel in life, at various times, like something so familiar to you that it’s like a recurrence of something that has happened here before that you are continually coming back to this elements of yourself and your past. And there’s something really beautiful about that because it’s like ‘oh, wait a minute, this is so familiar, this feels so honest’.
“And all of those feelings connect to childhood because that’s when you are at your most honest, when you are not hiding anything. It’s where a lot of your important memories are from and how you become who you are. The idea of falling in love is letting go and being wholehearted in what you are doing and that’s a very childlike state. I think it’s kind of cool that there is that connection between the love song, childhood and some of these sounds.”
Sarah Blasko’s Eternal Return is out now and she will tour through April 2016. Dates and tickets at www.sarahblasko.com
BY THE WAY
The deadline for the recording of Eternal Return ran close to the deadline for the birth of Sarah Blasko’s first child.
“It was,” she laughs, “hurry up, he wants to get out. No, it was a really special time. When I hear the album I think I can hear somebody who is saying it like it is. It’s an honest delivery I think, and it felt like a very special, honest and open time.” It wasn’t just an emotional effect; there was a definite physical impact as they recorded into the early hours regularly.
“I was really out of breath. I left singing until last, which at the time I thought was the most stupid idea because, literally, between takes I had my arms up against up against a wall [she pants heavily, gasping for breath],” says Blasko. “It’s probably the longest I’ve spent trying to get vocals down. Say What You Want was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to thing in my life. It was like days and days of singing and you are so in touch with your body and what your body needs when you are pregnant and I’d be like [in a frantic voice] ‘I’m sorry, I’ve got to go have a snack and a drink before we continue’.”