Finding the magic in melancholy with Sarah Blasko

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Finding the magic in melancholy with Sarah Blasko

Words by Zachary Snowdon Smith

Sarah Blasko is Australia’s master of melancholy. Her records, each one gently palpating a fresh wound or sweet spot, are all the more effective for their spare and clean-cut style. In her upcoming album Depth of Field, Blasko asks listeners to consider how well they really know one another.

“It can be very hard to know exactly who somebody is until you’re behind closed doors with them,” she says. “In your everyday life, in those little moments between the bigger moments – that’s really who you are. It’s about those simple choices that you’re making on a day-to-day basis and who you are behind closed doors.”

More grounded than 2015’s synth-embroidered Eternal Return, Depth of Field grapples with how religious beliefs can drive people apart. A child of missionaries, Blasko first sang publically in church, but stopped attending services in her early twenties. Now, she visits churches for the architecture.

“I spent a lot of my childhood and adolescence thinking about where I was going to go when I died,” Blasko says. “I was kind of obsessed with the afterlife. When you’re communicating and trying to get along with each other, these thoughts often get in the way and make people think they’re different from one another when they’re not.

“When I was a kid, we all had this notion of creation, being created in the perfect image of God and going to the afterlife. Now, I don’t care where we came from. I don’t care where we’re going. I just believe it’s so important to be focused on relating to each other in the here and now.”

These ideas come to the surface in ‘Heaven Sent’, a brisk and hard-edged track whose agnostic narrator has chosen to get on with life in spite of her uncertainty.

“I thought about it a lot when my mum died. It’s such a confusing feeling. Someone’s such a big part of your life, and then they’re gone. It’s hard to think that you won’t see them again, somehow. But I don’t think any of us can really know.”

Blasko’s solo career has been a slow journey from the alt-pop eclecticism of 2004’s The Overture & the Underscore toward the austere self-unity of her past two albums. She brought her perfectionist impulses under control with the help of the many musicians, producers and engineers she’s worked with, including Björn Yttling of Peter Bjorn and John.

“Björn taught me that it’s really essential to make music that has flaws and mistakes, that isn’t over-thought,” Blasko says. “It’s really important to know when to stop and not overload a song. It’s always tempting to make it fuller and more layered.”

Blasko reveals that Depth of Field is not an album she would have been capable of putting together when she was starting out. She began working on material for the album during a two-week residency at Sydney’s Campbelltown Arts Centre, where she and band members brainstormed and tinkered freely onstage. Inspiration came from a stack of experimental films Blasko had discovered at one of Sydney’s few remaining video rentals.

“I find writing lyrics the hardest part of the whole process,” she says. “This time I was writing them up until the last minute. I kept finding myself not quite happy with certain lyrics and changing them around.”

The record’s spartan style owes much to engineer Collin Dupuis. Dupuis is perhaps best known for his work on Lana Del Rey’s Ultraviolence, but here he exhibits an almost Martin Hannett-like command of empty space, leaving Blasko’s words room to hang undisturbed before the listener’s ears.

“My life has changed a lot over the years,” says Blasko. “At this point in my life, I have a fairly stable existence. I have a partner, I have a child. It’s not really a world that I’ve seen into before and, as you find yourself a part of it, you see and hear things that have eluded you in the past. For someone who writes songs, it’s hard not to be influenced by where you’re at in life.”

Blasko will take Depth of Field on the road this May and says she’s looking forward to playing some standing venues, where having the audience on their feet helps shape the show’s atmosphere.

“The record has a certain rawness to it,” she finishes. “It’s honest and pretty upfront, so I think the show will be reflective of that. I want it to be simple.”