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Interview: Sarah Blasko

Australian indie singer Sarah Blasko is continually looking to develop as an artist and forge new directions in her music, and her latest project working with an orchestra in Bulgaria is typical of her left field approach to music making. Our online editor Seb Law caught up with her to discuss the new track and her plans for the future…

Sarah Blasko – All Of Me from Sarah Blasko on Vimeo.

Planet Notion: How was it different working with an orchestra? Did you feel like you had a lot of control over them or were they kind of running away a bit?
Sarah Blasko: Basically, it changed the way I had to view the recording, because we started off just recording with piano and bass and drums, so it was making sure there was plenty of space for the orchestration, because otherwise there’s not really a lot of point. I didn’t want it to be a token element where the orchestra was just this thing that was there; I wanted it to be a very dynamic part of the sound. I didn’t want it to be tame; I wanted it to be impactful. So, to begin with, it was all about leaving plenty of space. I worked on the arrangements with a really good friend of mine, and we talked a lot about the way that we wanted the orchestra to function on the record. It was very important to work out what the guidelines were, and so we did a lot of planning. We kept referencing things like Serge Gainsbourg’s ‘Histoire de Melody Nelson’ and ‘Songs of Love and Hate’ by Leonard Cohen. It’s not really orchestras on those recordings, but I love the way that the strings are used. When they come in they’re terrifying and you’re fully there.

PN: I was just thinking about being moved by an orchestra and the string section, because I know that with film soundtracks sometimes the use of the strings really just gets you. Was that the kind of thing that you were aiming for?
SB: Well, I think some of the first recordings that really got to me as a child were orchestral, because my dad used to play us classical music all the time, and I hated him for it! I remember sitting him down one day in a very patronizing way when I was ten and telling him that I was never going to like classical music, and I did that because it actually got under my skin and it annoyed me. Consequently I have always, somewhere inside me, really loved the impact of those sounds and the drama. I found that song ‘Avalanche’ by Leonard Cohen terrifying as a child, because the strings were really playing with your emotions. So yeah, we just had to be super organized before we went to Bulgaria to know exactly what we wanted. The main thing was conveying to the conductor the subtleties of what we were trying to do, and then communicate with the orchestra, and we had to have an interpreter to get all of that across.

PN: I guess there’s not a lot of jamming with the band if you’re working through an interpreter, through a conductor, to an orchestra. There are quite a lot of layers. Did you find it satisfying altogether?
SB: Yeah, I found it really satisfying. More than anything, I just truly felt that we got what we wanted out of those sessions and I felt that as soon as we’d done them, I’d made the record I wanted to make. I just felt a huge amount of relief.

PN: It’s not often you get to say that.
SB: Yeah, it’s really not! I feel like there have only been a few moments like that where I feel like a) this is really what I want to be doing with my life, and b) this is what I set out to achieve. It can be such a shaky kind of existence.

PN: It’s the same with journalism! I read some interviews, and there’s a bit about you exploring the place of the orchestra in pop music. Where do you see that? Because it’s not the kind of thing that many artists feel that they can take on. Do you feel like you know the place of the orchestra in pop music now?
SB: Well, I felt that if an orchestra was going to be there on my album that it had to count, just like anything else. I just thought about what I didn’t like when I saw pop. This is generally the way that I think as a human being; I think about the things I don’t like first, and I thought about the kinds of recordings done in pop music with orchestras, and I didn’t like it when it felt unnecessary or it felt like a token element. I felt that on my last record it was about the bass and the drums having a little character, each instrument having this face so you can hear the qualities in them that make them unique, and it was the same with the orchestra.

PN: I guess it’s quite hard in traditional pop and in the cycle of making an album to have that space. How do you convince your label that you need more time? How do you negotiate that?
SB: I was really lucky with these because I feel that I’ve just worn them down over the years [laughs]! This was my fourth record with them, and they’ve got used to the fact that whenever they suggested things, I would… not do the opposite, but I’ve always been independent, for better or worse. I just have to do what I feel: good decision or bad decision, who knows? I just told them the next step after my last record was to produce myself and do it with an orchestra. In some ways I just think, “What was I thinking? Why did I want to do an orchestral record?” I call it an orchestral album, but at the same time, it’s sort of just an album that happens to feature a huge, massive orchestra [laughs].

PN: It’s nice to think like that. I guess that’s the thing with producing yourself: it’s a lot to take on, but you must have felt like you were ready for that. So, as it was your first time producing, what would you say you learned in that process? What was easy? What was hard?
SB: You’ve got to stick to what you can hear in your head. At certain points people advise you and they have different ideas about what they think you’re trying to achieve, but you have to keep steering it. I think to begin with it was really about keeping the band elements very simple and trying to keep reminding everyone, “There’s gonna be an orchestra here, so we probably don’t really need to play all those parts.” So it was really about holding things back a bit in that part of the process. When I was working on the orchestration elements with Nick it was just about defining what it is that you want and looking for any way that you can to explain what it is that you’re going for. I think with this record and the last one I wanted them both to be classic sounding, in a way. It’s hard to even define what that is, but I wanted them to not be traceable, necessarily, to a specific time. I like things feeling old-fashioned and classic, but also feeling fresh and new.

PN: Did you want them to be placed in a geographical sense too?
SB: No, I kind of like things being a little like a dream. That’s where the orchestration and the instrumentation come into play. You can be writing these songs and they can be very personal, but I love the way the orchestration can turn it into a magical thing or completely change the landscape and make it so much more all-encompassing and rich, and take it to more of a dream state. That’s where all the sounds come into it. It’s a simple little song that you just wrote in the moment, and then it becomes something that’s so much bigger than you are.

PN: Was there something about recording in Bulgaria and your family history that led to recording with that specific orchestra?
SB: The family history, definitely, also a bit of the romantic notion of the full circle of things. My dad was born in Germany, and his father visited Bulgaria every now and then, but we don’t have a lot of real contact with that place. When I read about that orchestra and how they did all that film music, I guess it was a bit of a romantic idea, but I’ve got no real functioning connection to the place. It’s more of an imaginary connection. I knew that we had a couple of writers in the family who were very well known in Bulgaria. It felt like if I was going to record with an orchestra, that was where to do it.

PN: Do you think you could have made the same album with a different orchestra in a different country? With a Swedish orchestra or French one?
SB: No. I really believe that the subtleties of things affect what you do. There are certain aesthetics that happen when recording in Sweden. A few people that I’ve worked with there have great knowledge of music history, and they’re very nerdy in their appreciation for music that’s come and gone. That dedication the masters and all the different styles of music comes into play. I do think that the Bulgarian Symphony Orchestra added something that would have happened differently in other places. Some of the subtleties and inflections come from their musical backgrounds. Some of it was written with that in mind.

PN: You spent a lot of time on your own during the writing process. Was it quite lonely?
SB: Yeah, it was. I was living in a town I hadn’t lived in before and spending probably too much time on my own. It was lonely, but at the same time liberating. You can just be whatever you want to be and do whatever you want to do, and get immersed in what you’re writing and what you’re reading. It’s kind of wonderful at the same time. I think with a lot of people who do creative stuff, it can be good to isolate yourself.

PN: And you wrote them on the ukulele as well?
SB: Yeah, some of the songs.

PN: Why did you choose to use that instrument?
SB: A friend of mine left a ukulele at my house one day and it was in this slightly weird tuning. I’d always thought of the ukulele as a strummed, kind of dorky instrument. This one was very beautiful and sounded a bit more like a harp or something like that. I thought it was beautiful how fragile and pure it sounded. I couldn’t help but write something on it.

PN: A number of chance encounters that influenced different parts of the record, in terms of writing and recording. A lot comes out of that. I’m really interested in works of art being created as representations of a certain time and a certain place. Obviously, you’ve moved around quite a lot in the last decade. Do you think that your record could have been made anywhere else? Do you think you would have made the same record had you made it in a different place?
SB: It would be different if I recorded it somewhere else. I think when I recorded in New Zealand, there’s something in there; I had some Maori singers, and they had a particular tambour in their voices that always made me hear New Zealand. But I like the idea of not being in your home town.

PN: Building on the idea that your last few albums all recorded in different places, have you thought about what you’re going to do with your next record?
SB: Yeah. I bought a baritone guitar, and I’ve never owned an electric guitar before. So that’s probably going to change things. I had to acknowledge recently that I’m probably heading towards something much more intimate than what I’ve done before. Maybe I’ll feel the need to do a record on my own. There’s an intimacy, of course, to my other records, but I think I’m going more in the direction of doing more myself. It’s just that self-satisfaction.

PN: Is that a really instinctive approach?
SB: Yeah, because I can’t really do it any other way. It’s not like the sky is the limit. I just blindly go forth. Step by step, I get somewhere. I love the element of chance and mystery and magic in it, because that’s kind of all I’ve got in a way. I’m not saying that in a negative way. I really like not know what I’m doing. It’s complicated.

- Seb Law

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