“There have been times when I’ve struggled with and suffered from depression,” the voice on the end of the phone suggests, before slowly fading away like an aural mirage. “I don’t really want to go into it all…”
In the eight years Rip It Up’s been interviewing Sarah Blasko on an almost biannual basis, the dialogue has followed a familiar route. The pervading aura is one of respectful distance; enigmatic performer and badgering writer skirting around out-of-bounds issues like urbane duellists. The songwriter earns her points for deftly rebuffing the more prying enquiries, her interrogator scores when his queries elicit a revealing soundbite.
Today is different. The 36-year-old sounds less guarded, yet troublingly disconsolate. Despite November’s fourth album I Awake revealing Blasko at her most unswervingly, unnervingly remarkable, her waning whisper suggests an artist drained of the wild-eyed fire that drives her latest opus. Is Sarah Blasko happy? It’s the response to this humble question that leaves the artist sounding more exposed and vulnerable than at any time during our past conversations.
“Ummm…” Blasko breaths in. There’s a long, awkward pause, before an uneasy, questioning chuckle slinks in like a beaten dog. “Yeah? Gosh, I don’t know. I think so. I feel stronger in myself, so maybe that’s happiness?”
The obvious discomfort the Sydneysider radiates suggests she’s not on very good terms with happiness.
“It’s not like I don’t have happiness in my life,” Blasko offers, fumbling for a different tack. “Humans change from day to day so I just don’t know. I don’t know if I am happy, to be honest. It’s not like I’m unhappy. I’m just about to go to my friend’s wedding, so maybe I’ll be bursting with happiness then?”
While the strident title of I Awake on one hand suggests someone assertively taking control of their life with steely-eyed determination, there’s a troubling flipside to be examined. Beautiful, perfect dreams fade as one awakens, consciousness snatching away the restorative alternative realms of sleep. Has happiness been wrestled from the sad-eyed songstress like an evaporating dream? Have the constant geographical upheavals she’s enacted for the recording of her albums (Los Angeles, Auckland, Stockholm) left her emotionally and physically adrift? What seems certain is that I Awake marks a point where riddles have made way for revelations.
“I’m 36, time has moved along,” Blasko says. “At the time I was making I Awake it was important to me to drop any unnecessary stuff and hit at the most important. I want people to feel I’m baring my heart – I don’t want to feel shielded. It is a more honest me, but I don’t think you’ve [previously] been shielded from who I am. The last album, As Day Follows Night - that’s a real heartbreak album but had more lightness to it, whereas on this one the orchestra tumbles you around and really pulls at you.
“I spent a lot of time on my own writing this album – probably too much time on my own. Home takes on this larger-than-life dream and has an epic-ness, so I think a lot of it came out of that displaced feeling. Feeling like you’ve lost your connection with home.”
Recorded in Sweden with Blasko acting as lone producer for the first time, I Awake maintains strong familial connections despite Blasko’s distance from home. In a nod to her paternal heritage, Blasko enlisted Bulgaria’s New Symphony Orchestra to assist her create the swelling, propulsive elements of I Awake. Both her Bulgarian grandfather and her father, a widower for a decade, were emotionally touched by the songwriter’s cultural repatriation.
“My grandfather was really excited to know that I’d gone there and done that, so it was really special for him and my dad. I was in the room with my dad when he first heard I Awake. He’s quite a passionate man, Nikolai Blaskow. He’s an emotional man and had a tear in his eye. I dedicated the album to my dad, so he felt pretty happy with that.”
A few months before I Awake emerged to another wave of critical plaudits, a Melbourne poet named Cameron Semmens quietly posted a poem titled The Ink Of My Youth on the ABC’s social media website Pool. The piece saw him musing over the fading Shinto tattoo on his shoulder – “It reminds me who I once was, and where I’ve been”. While positive and reflective, the post avoids mentioning Semmens is Blasko’s former husband – and the songwriter herself has the corresponding Shinto tattoo on her shoulder. Although Blasko has previously detailed to Rip It Up how her tattoo symbolises the “revolution of the universe”, she’s rarely gone into detail about the marriage that ended before she found fame with solo debut The Overture And The Underscore. The passing years have provided new perspective. Like Semmens, Blasko now appears to be entering a time where she can be reflective about the mistakes of her past while also looking ahead.
“I think I feel at peace with everything now. You always think that you wouldn’t go about things the same way now, but I was much more fuelled by emotions and not maybe as thoughtful or as aware of my actions. I feel like, for better or worse, I’ve made the right decisions as I’ve gone along. I’m glad I didn’t ignore what my gut was telling me, but those things are difficult at the time because you know you’re hurting someone. In the end though it definitely saves a whole lot more hurt down the track.”
There is perhaps just one person in the Australian music industry still doubting the statuesque talents of Sarah Blasko. And that’s Sarah Blasko. Perhaps the small but significant admission she’s reached a point of peace with her distant past means she can now look to the future. A future that deserves to be filled with confidence, happiness and many more breathtaking additions to her formidable music catalogue.
When Sarah Blasko paired up with fellow Aussie songwriters Holly Throsby and Sally Seltmann for 2011's Seeker Lover Keeper album and tour, she went into the project as the most high-profile of the three performers. Nonetheless, Blasko is gracious about the “escape” from her regular solo duties SLK offered her.
“The three of us wanted to escape what we do in our everyday musical lives and to do something relaxed without pressure. That was our aim in doing something together - a bit of fresh air to re-inspire us and give us a chance to get to know each other better. It was very different from what I do and I drew a lot of inspiration from both Sally and Holly. I learnt lot from both of them.”
WHO: Sarah Blasko
WHAT: I Awake (Dew Process/UMA)
WHERE: Festival Theatre (with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra)
WHEN: Fri Feb 1