Sarah Blasko: "It’s all very different this time."
Sarah Blasko self-produced her fourth album and, to her credit, didn’t play it safe. I Awake is a bold-of-spirit orchestral album that’s actually quite stripped back, seeming to zoom in and out at the same time as Blasko gets ever more intimate against a bigger and bigger backdrop. She embraces her torch-singer potential on ‘An Arrow’, lifts herself with the gusty build of the opening title track and looks to jazz and classical motifs more often than indie rock or pop.
Following her part last year in the all-star trio Seeker Lover Keeper, Blasko is alone in the spotlight again, even if I Awake features dozens of players and will be launched next year with an orchestra in each capital city. In the lead-up to its release, Blasko talked about collaborating and her first brushes with classical.
Are there any lingering lessons or influence from Seeker Lover Keeper that informed this album?
They were at pretty different times, because with Seeker Lover Keeper we recorded that record almost a year before we put it out. So they’re still quite separate to me. Going from something so collaborative to something where it’s almost like the sky’s the limit – it’s really just your project – there’s something very releasing about that, but also quite daunting after sharing something with people. It was very liberating, but I had become a little accustomed to being part of a gang for a while there. But I think working with other songwriters makes you want to go away and write really great songs. It really inspires you in that way.
Have you talked about a second album from Seeker Lover Keeper?
To be honest, I don’t really want to talk about that. (Laughs) It just doesn’t feel like it’s the right time to talk about it.
Well, getting to your album, I was interested in how it opens with pure drums. I wanted to talk about that decision.
I wanted there to be a connection between the last record and this record. The last album [2009’s As Day Follows Night] is very bass- and drum-centred. I still wanted to have that space, that similarity, between that and this. But I think that song starts very elementally and then just builds and builds. It defies, maybe, what people’s expectations might be for this record. I think it very strongly, at the end, marks a bit of a difference in the record. Does that make sense? A sort of bridge between the two…
Yeah, but what do you think those expectations might be?
Well, I’ve got no idea really. But I suppose with each record you want to present something different. That’s really the main point of difference on this: the orchestral side of things. And it’s much more extreme. The last album had a lot of strings on it, but this is a much more extreme version of that.
As was the case with As Day Follows Night, you recorded the album in Sweden. Was it hard to carve out a new frame of mind in that familiar setting?
I think there were enough things about it that were different, to make we think automatically in a different way. Because I wasn’t working with [As Day Follows Night producer] Bjorn [Yttling] and I was working with Lasse [Marten], who mixed the last record, but he wasn’t really the main engineer on the album. Originally I did want to work on it with Bjorn, and when that didn’t work time-wise, I still wanted to keep working with a lot of the same people [from the last album]. So I think, frame-of-mind-wise, it was me sitting down with Lasse and pinpointing how we wanted it to be very different from the last record and also the similarities I wanted it to have.
It’s just all very different this time. I had a full-on demoing period in Brighton as well, so there was a very strong part of it that was formed in England. Also, my friend Nicholas Wales, who did the string arrangements, came over to Stockholm and we spent a good month working on those. I’ve never done anything like that before. There was enough things that really shook me up. (Laughs)
What was that month like, doing the string arrangements? What was the collaboration like specifically?
To start with, I just sent him lots of references for the kind of record that I wanted to make. I really wanted the strings to have maximum impact. I didn’t want them to be a kind of gentle force; I wanted them to be like an avalanche. I was playing him a lot of stuff where I thought it was like pop music, but they’re used for their full power.
Can you think of any examples?
Yeah. A lot of the ways that Serge Gainsbourg used strings: very simple instrumentation from the bass and drums and guitar and voice, and then these powerful string parts. The same with that Leonard Cohen [album], Songs of Love and Hate. Lots of other ones I can’t think of right now. (Laughs) So we started there, and he sent me references and things like that. Then I would sing some melodies for him and record them and he would take that – I would pinpoint where I thought the strings would be within the songs and give melody ideas. Then he would work on it separately himself and I would go over and we would talk through it. So it was like every day we were catching up and just fine-tuning things and listening. It went on like that, pretty much day in day out, for three or four weeks.
You’re doing the tour with an orchestra from each capital city. I imagine they will be quite different shows, factoring in the personalities of the different players. Is that interesting to you, to see how each launch will be its own thing?
Yeah, that’s what’s exciting about this kind of thing. A few years ago I did a tour with like a chamber ensemble and it was the same kind of thing: basically we would play through the songs [for the first time] in soundcheck. It’s amazing how different it would sound each night, with different people. I think the thing’s that gonna hold it all together is I’ll be touring with a conductor. Having that person who knows all the nuances and the subtleties, it’ll have some consistencies.
For the Opera House show it’s a 40-piece orchestra. Do you have any fears about being dwarfed by the music at all?
No, because I feel that, the way we’ve written it, there’s so much space. On the one hand, yeah, on the record there’s 52 players – well, 65 really, with the brass and woodwind. But nah, I think we constructed it in such a way that there’s still so much space. I haven’t wanted people to think it’s totally this orchestral album, because it’s really not. It is really a band album, in a way. The orchestra is obviously a really big part of the sound of the record, but we just tried to use the orchestra to what we thought were its strengths and the way that it can work in pop music. But it is daunting because there’s so many people involved. (Laughs) But it’s something I’ve always wanted to do, so I’m really looking forward to it.
Can you remember, maybe as a child, certain classical or soundtrack pieces that really stood out to you?
Yeah, well, my dad’s a big classical music fan. He used to play my sister and I records every night – well, not every night, but often on the weekends. My mum was a nurse and used to work [weekends] and my dad would look after us. He would ask us which album we wanted to listen to while we were going to sleep, and we would often just choose them by covers, because we would have no idea what the music was. (Laughs) A lot of classical music: a lot of Rachmaninoff and Beethoven. He had a lot of soundtracks. One was The Elephant Man soundtrack, which has haunted me to this day. (Laughs) A lot of circus music.
But the funny thing I said to my dad was: “I just want you to know, dad, that I’m never, ever going to like classical music.” ‘Cause he used to play it to us all the time. That’s partly why I dedicated the album to my dad, because I do like classical music. (Laughs) I really credit him a lot with my appreciation of music in general, because he was always such a fan. That was my most special time listening to music, even though at the time I hated some of them with a passion. It really taught me a lot.
I Awake comes out Friday. Sarah Blasko will tour Australia in February.