Picture by Kylie Coutts
In the fully exposed, glassed-walled conference room plonked in the middle of the floor at her multi-national record company, Sarah Blasko isn’t pissing about with soft terms or obfuscation.
“My identity was completely broken,” says the multi award-winning singer/songwriter/producer with surprising, almost shocking frankness. “I came into writing this album a broken person.”
Having spent most of her 16-year solo career being what some might call buttoned up – literally, in her favoured high-neck, long-sleeved, three-quarter-length retro dresses; figuratively, in her measured, controlled, public presence – she now seems prone to frankness. Eager for it even, as she discusses her sixth album, Depth Of Field.
“I’d had a couple of really huge life shifts,” she says. “I think no one can have a kid without their identity being questioned. I think it’s a real existential time. So while it’s really beautiful and amazing, my identity was put into question, with things that you think you know about yourself and then you go through a really huge time.”
The “really huge time” is not really an exaggeration.
Although her son was born prior to the release of album number four, 2015’s Eternal Return, the full repercussions, both hugely positive and complicating, of that change in Blasko’s life have been playing out in the three years since.
Concurrently, Blasko split with her management, who had been friends, buffers, supporters, as well as business and professional representatives. It was not an easy break, nor a comfortable time, as her ragged answer, not to mention several pointed lines on Depth Of Field, attest.
“I had to get myself … I had to work out who I was from all of the … I had to rid myself of a lot of unnecessary stuff and start again. There was plenty of fuel to the thing,” she says of the self-examination which fed into the multi-character songs that draw from but are not limited to her own life.
“The springboard is, and it always has been, what’s happening in your own life. It needs, for me to come from the place to be genuine and to be authentic and real. The things that mean something to you, because it means something to you, you hope it will mean something to someone else. I’ve always operated on that principle.”
As Depth Of Field plays through both a muted synthesiser sound and a full-throated emotional palette of questioning and doubt, suspicion and anger, happiness and love, the stories told expand beyond Blasko. Yet she remains at the core of them all.
“The darkness and confusion about identity and everything that I felt, it seemed like to kind of explore it I wanted to see from lots of different sides. I was seeing myself from the outside and I was seeing people like me, who I think are like me, in parks – you spend a lot of time in parks when you’ve got a kid,” she laughs. “And trying to look at the perception of somebody and then the reality.
“The drama behind the mundane I find interesting. I’m someone who loves overhearing conversations with people. You get a snippet of something as you were walking past, or you really listen into a conversation when you’re in a café or something, and here the most incredible one-liners.”
Several songs work on the principle that says you see the surface of someone’s happiness, their “perfect” life, but shift your focus a little and you see the furious paddling under the surface of the “happy” mother or the “successful” career.
It’s what that not quite grown up baby-daddy Barnaby Joyce might call, grey areas. It’s what a rejuvenated Blasko sees as stripping back to the things that matter, firstly, and then realigning your life to work in harmony with those priorities. It isn’t, therefore, all gloom (or all sunshine and no pickles on your burger either).
The album not accidentally begins with Phantom, which is just about the most positive approach to that issue on the album. It’s as if she’s setting out a plan to listeners that while things may get difficult, the basis of these thoughts and their outcome is a good place.
“That was really important to me to set the album up like that. There are a few moments like that on the album like Read My Mind, Heaven Sent,” says Blasko. “It feels like all the things that you strive for, all the things that are wonderful - the weighting of life - you can choose what to give them. That’s how the album’s title came into being: things come in and out of focus really easily. You shift focus lightly and you can lose track.
“Maybe I’m a really emotional human being but that’s what I loved about that Bjork song from years ago, Human Behaviour, someone from one moment can be really chilled and then one little thing isn’t quite to their liking or surprises that, and they become a really different beast.”
She declares that even before this emotional and practical reassessment, the people she looks to are those she views as “very consistent in life”. That’s not to mean unchanging, but rather knowing their core even amidst change.
“I really admire those people, because I think that’s the ultimate in life: those people who managed to maintain their morals and not drastically change and not drastically changed because they’re thrown by the wind.”
Morals matter to the woman who grew up in Pentecostal churches and, even as she rejected the fatalism and materialism of those churches, retains a faith. Questioning or directly criticising someone for their perceived moral failings, or for letting her down, feature in several songs on this album: “everybody wants to sin”, she sings.
Among them is the smug bloke in Making It Up who wants his new girlfriend to understand that he is a liar and that’s what she is buying into, so no point complaining. And then even more bitterly, A Shot, where Blasko directly accuses a former friend of bearing falseness.
Questioning yourself, particularly if you are falling apart the securities or the uncertainties, is hardly a comfortable place. In an ABC documentary on the early stages of recording the album, she said that in 2016’s darkest moments “a part of me had been really lost that year”.
Blasko is not one for comfortable places whenever she writes, but this time was different.
“Probably the last time I felt such a big identity crisis was when I left the church. I got divorced when I was 26 and I had to pick up the pieces and work out who I was again,” she says. “I’ve certainly had other difficulties but having to rid yourself of all these unnecessary things you don’t even realise you’re holding on to, that form part of your identity, was hard.”
Tomorrow, Sarah Blasko explores the collapse of the personal/professional relationship which precipitated part of her self-examination, and how she found a way out of that “identity shattering” year. Read part 2 here.
“It was all about reconnecting with [the days] when I started writing songs in a room.”