Marking the 10th anniversary of her third album, As Day Follows Night, (which technically came out 11 years ago – but let’s not quibble) Sarah Blasko is releasing a special edition of the record. Including a vinyl version.
A top 5 charter in Australia and ARIA nominee for album of the year, it was not just a contrast to its predecessor and the reason for her winning the ARIA for best female artist, but, as is pointed out in an accompanying documentary also freshly released, a turning point for Blasko as a songwriter and creator.
Wind Back Wednesday pulls a chair in the middle of 2009 and finds Blasko in the process of reimagining her work, and herself.
How bizarre, how bizarre.
Sarah Blasko is sitting in what you could call, if you were being extremely generous, the "boardroom" of the little warren which is the Surry Hills office of her management company.
It was in this room, sitting at "the crappy, out of tune piano" she calls Everett and keeping office hours and office habits, that she spent many weeks last year writing the songs which ended up on her new album, As Day Follows Night.
There is no natural light but there is, directly above the piano, a giant framed platinum award for classic one-hit wonder, New Zealand rapper OMC whose song How Bizarre also summed up his career trajectory.
"I did get quite philosophical looking at that," Blasko says with a hint of a smirk. "It made me realise just how short life is.”
Blasko, who good friend and fellow songwriter Darren Hanlon describes as having a goofy sense of humour (and a mean karaoke voice quite unlike her stage voice) is caught between laughter and seriousness in the shadow of OMC. An understandable position, really.
“Looking at awards like that, for people who aren't necessarily around, it's like writing in a graveyard. But I think it's always good to think about one's mortality, musical or otherwise."
Ok, but what was she doing working in an office? While she may dress like a primly stylish office manager-cum-librarian from the early ‘70s (today she is in a high neck, paisley patterned grey and brown dress with her little brown boots laceless) you don't expect people to be creative in the shadow of the Bundy clock.
"I do think it's quite reassuring to see other people while you're working," says Blasko, explaining that she had been living alone in a little Newtown bolthole until very recently. Perhaps even more pertinently, not only was she living alone but for the first time in her career the fine-boned Sydneysider was writing alone.
Her long-time personal and creative relationship with Robert Cranny, with whom she had written and produced the first two albums, had ended some time back. So now at 32 the woman always thought of herself more as a singer and writer than a musician, was flying solo.
"I felt like I had to. I felt like if I didn't do it now I would always wonder why," she says. "I really love writing with other people, I always have, but it was coming to a point where I was finding it a little frustrating with other people. Not because of them, it was just I felt I needed to not have any compromise.”
On the first listens of As Day Follows Night it may sound like without compromise meant without the musical complexity and lyrical opaqueness of her quite stunning second album What The Sea Wants, The Sea Will Have. This is an album, much to the pleasure of her record label, which is simpler, cleaner and more optimistic than its predecessor.
But take a closer look and you see that things are much more complicated than that. It begins with Blasko declaring that she is "down on love", later she tells a putative lover how can you know me “when I don’t even understand me”, and doubt and loneliness underpin even the sunniest melodies.
At the Sydney Writers’ Festival she told the audience that she had come out of a relationship and needed to make sense of that, but what you read first as romantic motifs across the record turn out to be, in part, more like songwriting tropes. It’s easier to couch things in terms of love but this wasn’t the tail end of a love affair, it was the tip of something very close to depression.
“To be honest, I genuinely went into quite a dark period and it was broader than just [a breakup],” Blasko says, her discomfit at the subject stark as she half turns away, tightly bound with her arms wrapped around herself.
“It was a really, really tough time. One of those times when you feel like you are questioning everything in your life. You are questioning the main thing you do in your life, which is writing and playing music, feeling a bit of hopelessness.”
It was then that she found herself listening to, really listening to, the likes of Nina Simone and Billie Holiday and a lot of soul music. “These great singers who responded to heartbreak seemed really relevant to me when I was feeling kind of rock bottom I guess, to use a cliché,” she says now, adding with a half laugh of embarrassment at what she fears is another cliche. “I was emotionally exhausted.”
Three years ago Blasko talked about feeling that she had finally been able to put aside some of the complications of her past, like her conflicted attitude to faith after a childhood in various Pentecostal churches and an early unsuccessful marriage. She was ready to move on with greater confidence in her own ability to change, she said.
But the propensity for darkness never really leaves, though this time Blasko chose not to wallow but instead use the writing as a way out for her and as a pointer for others.
"I think it's something that I am constantly struggling with. I don't know whether it's like a family curse but I think there is a darkness," she says. "That's why the record really had to be about pulling yourself out of that because anyone who's gone through any kind of depression or felt literally like you can't go on [knows] it's about changing the environment. These songs were in part that for me.
“Stuff like Sleeper Awake and We Won't Run and Down On Love, they are all about that feeling of a loss of hope but desperately trying to find that again. Trying to make it into a positive."
Blasko’s answer makes even more sense of a comment about her from another Sydney songwriter, Josh Pyke, who has watched her from side stage ("she is fairly transcendent when she is performing," he says admiringly) and listened with some intent to an artist he describes as feeling like she is beyond his scope as a songwriter.
“Some writers will lead you back to yourself with their words and their music, but Sarah's music has always taken me right outside my own life, and into a kind of romantic, imagined existence,” Pyke says. “The sonic palette, her voice and the arrangements aren't at all parochial, and for me, that creates a feeling of real escapism when I listen to her stuff.”
Escapism in one sense is what Blasko wanted this album to provide.
Without the oblique lyricism she had favoured previously, and with simple arrangements and straightforward music, the new album colours the emotional turmoil in a completely different hue. It is, as she keeps returning to in her answers, something meant to be understood.
“Generous” is a phrase she uses often to sum up her intention.
“The thought of making - and I know it's a cliché - these things universal, to make them relatable to other people, was really important to me,” Blasko explains, beginning to unfurl her narrow body a fraction as her tension retreats. “I didn't want to be unnecessarily wordy, just cut to the chase. And I think the idea of it, relating to other people, having that generosity, is what made me feel better.
“I feel that this is my project, to make something that's bigger than my story."
This is why her choice to write on her own this time is all the more interesting as Hanlon says “she went into this album terrified but determined to write it all by herself”. Beyond confidence about whether she could do it or not, it would have been tempting to rely on other people to do the work, to take some of the spotlight off her and her singular concerns.
She did change gears to record the album, in Stockholm, with a more collaborative approach alongside Bjorn Yttling of power pop group Peter Bjorn and John (“that was just liberating,” says Blasko of having another voice in the process) but the focus remained not just being straightforward but being transparent. Not just about the depression and the way out but also the mixed feelings about those moments of heightened emotion.
"Much of the album is about that awakening, seeing things for what they are. That's probably why I chose that particular style of being obvious in a way,” says Blasko. “It's like when everything around you becomes painfully clear and that's really wonderful, like a heartbreakingly good time. It's odd how at the hardest time there is almost something wonderful about it that you never want to lose: you don't want to lose that feeling of being really in touch with what's real and you can so easily forget those things when everything is easy and quiet.
“So I think there's a bit of a wonder in it which I really wanted to capture, that feeling that you are seeing everything anew which is harsh and hard and revealing and good. Everything, at the same time."
How bizarre? Not so much.
A mini-documentary about the creation of As Day Follows Night has been released.
Sarah Blasko will perform As Day Follows Night in a livestream concert across three time zones on October 8. Tickets for those shows can be purchased here.