New albums from Mia Dyson and Sarah Blasko
Last week, Mia Dyson released If I Said Only So Far I Take It Back, her sixth solo album. Two weeks earlier, Sarah Blasko put out Depth of Field, which is, coincidentally, also her sixth album of new material. These latest albums show Dyson and Blasko making significant artistic breakthroughs, both as songwriters and as performers, coming up with the best work of their careers. It seems strange to say but these two artists might be only just beginning to realise their potential.
Mia Dyson’s album begins with the poignant “Being Scared”, a song about feeling vulnerable. For a self-reliant, brave artist such as Dyson, it’s an unexpected admission, but this is only the first of many personal insights. Her tender vocals are a revelation, sounding resilient despite life’s inevitable bruises. By naming her fear, she seeks to conquer it. Towards the end of the song, she sings of drawing strength from a fellow musician:
I saw a woman playing drums
And I thought she might be our saviour
She smiled so big it made me think
I might change my behaviour
Oh, there’s no end to being scared
Top or bottom of the stairs
When I spoke to Dyson on the phone from Los Angeles last week, I asked her about the drummer who inspired those words. “She was smiling ear to ear and playing just incredible stuff,” she told me. “And I don’t think I’d ever seen a woman like that on drums… totally channelling the magic and mystery of being alive. That just totally floored me.” Watching this drummer play, Dyson saw a reflection of herself and it reminded her how lucky she is to play music for a living.
Four songs later, Dyson’s vocals become even more intimate and confessional. “Beloved” recalls a trip down the Great Ocean Road with her husband, Karl, shortly after they met. It’s a beautiful song that holds nothing back, wrapping the listener in a generous embrace, a feeling that pervades the entire album. In songs such as “Open”, “Fool” and “Gambling”, the singer celebrates taking risks, making herself available to whatever life may have in store. It’s a philosophy she lives by and one that has served her well.
In 2009, less than two years after the release of her third album, Struck Down, Dyson left a successful career in Australia to relocate to the United States. This was the beginning of a very difficult time. As she ran out of money, things got “really hairy very quickly”. As she explains: “It was tough but it was also the best thing that could happen to me, to absolutely go back to zero.”
The next album she made was a watershed for the artist. The Moment marked a shift away from the blues and roots influences of her first three records towards a broader rock sound, a trend she continued on 2014’s Idyllwild. At the same time, her songwriting was improving in leaps and bounds, becoming richer and more personal. The songs on If I Said Only So Far I Take It Back surpass everything she’s done up to now. Melodically, lyrically, and as an arranger, Dyson is really hitting her straps.
Her guitar playing, always a strength, has also become freer. The fuzzed-up riff that begins “Nothing” gives way to a scuzzy, improvised solo later on. “I was always amazed how when I didn’t have too much of an idea of what it should be was when the good stuff happened,” Dyson says. She’s clearly tapped into her inner punk, something even more obvious on the “Gloria”-like “Open”, which only lasts 2’28”. The record closes with two sublime songs, “Gambling” and “Everything Is Waiting For You”. Simple, heartfelt and honest, with melodies to match, these songs are a fitting climax to Dyson’s best album.
Credit must be given to Dyson’s co-workers. Husband Karl Linder has a co-writing credit on every song, six of which were inspired by his poems. Long-time collaborator and drummer Erin “Syd” Sidney co-produced the album with Ben Tanner from Alabama Shakes, and it was all recorded in the old Muscle Shoals Sound Studio B, hallowed ground for music lovers.
Dyson’s career has been building towards this moment all her life. I think she has never been more in command of her talents, never sounded more like herself and herself alone. Dyson agrees: “I feel like my songwriting started to… meet my taste. I had a vision of how I wanted to write since I was young but I couldn’t actually execute it, and I feel that now I’m finally able to do that.”
Sarah Blasko is another talented artist who has been making work for some time, and usually to great acclaim. Her fifth album, 2015’s Eternal Return, won an ARIA award, the third of her career. She’s performed her songs with symphony orchestras, composed music for the Bell Shakespeare company and Sydney Dance Company, and scored a feature film. It’s hard to imagine such a respected artist having any self-doubt, but two years ago Blasko says she felt like giving up music forever. It wasn’t writer’s block per se: she simply had no desire to write music at all.
This story was revealed in the documentary Blasko, shown on ABC TV in November and currently available on iview. To force herself out of the creative doldrums, Blasko gathered a group of trusted musical confidants in an elaborate performance space at the Campbelltown Arts Centre, where she had been given free rein as part of their forward-thinking artist-in-residence program. Blasko and her friends started creating songs, seemingly out of thin air, while the camera rolled. Only one song on her new album was written beforehand – the rest sprang into existence during those two weeks hothousing in Campbelltown.
In the documentary, Blasko can be seen writing the album’s first track, “Phantom”. While she repeats some atmospheric piano chords, long-time collaborator Nick Wales wanders over to a synth and devises the distinctive electro bass line that opens the album. Wales has been Blasko’s orchestral arranger since I Awake, her fourth album, and his string arrangements on Depth of Field are uniformly excellent. It was fascinating to see the two musicians creating this song together. “Phantom” was initially inspired by a quote from Nietzsche but Blasko takes off on her own tangent, making it about ghosts from her past that she looks to for guidance during adversity.
The troubled times hinted at in “Phantom” come to the fore on the second track, “A Shot”, as wounded lyrics detail a betrayal that ended a long friendship. When I interviewed her, Blasko said it was based on a recent bitter falling out, though not entirely. “When you write songs, it is about one specific thing,” she said. “But then it becomes a broader story… I love that. That’s what’s great about music: it can come out of this intensity of feeling but those things shift and change.”
I was naive to put all my trust in you
When I guess I always knew from what I’d observed
You’d one day cut me loose
I took a shot right
I took a shot right to the heart
“Never Let Me Go” reverses the blame game, with Blasko portraying herself as the guilty party in a toxic relationship. The shifting of perspectives is the reason the album was titled Depth of Field: “In one circumstance a person can be the victim and in another they’re the instigator of something,” Blasko told me. “And I think that it’s a push and pull [that] changes all the time.”
Produced by Blasko and mixed by Collin Dupuis, the sound on Depth of Field is state of the art, employing a mixture of electronic and acoustic instruments. At its core is a tight band of musicians augmented by a large group of orchestral players, which adds a glorious expansiveness to the mix. Sonically, it’s almost a summation of the many phases of Blasko’s career thus far. The lyrics are economical and direct, and the descriptions of ever-changing human relations are easily relatable. Blasko still has a poet’s eye but now her sharply observed songs cut to the quick.
“Heaven Sent” has a soaring chorus melody that is simply heavenly, while the lyrics puzzle over practical questions about the collision of faith with our everyday existence.
Were the ashes of my mother
Her returning? I’ve no way of knowing
If we’re heaven sent
We could be heaven sent
Or just a dream
In the end, the singer appears to be agnostic:
I might be right, I might be wrong but all that matters to me
What is in the heart, not what you believe
“Heaven Sent” sounds like a single to me, although the lyrics may scare the horses a little. The song that follows, “Making It Up”, is a searing portrait of a duplicitous partner who tries to justify their adultery, saying, “It’s nothing personal when I’m on the road / And I have my needs.” Guitars interject angrily, onomatopoeia to a heated argument.
Heartbreaking at times, Depth of Field also offers solace. Songs such as “Savour It” and the closer “Leads Me Back” are bittersweet but ultimately optimistic in their outlook. They are two of the finest songs Blasko has written.
As I said at the outset, Mia Dyson and Sarah Blasko have already achieved a lot in their careers, but judging by their superb new albums, the best is yet to come. In my interviews with them, each artist said strikingly similar things about themselves and their work. “I feel like I am sort of late and a slow developer,” Sarah Blasko confessed. “Because I do feel like I’ve made my best records the last few records, and I think I enjoy the process much more than I ever have … I just wanna keep, yeah, just going to work, and just keep going.” Mia Dyson was even more sanguine: “I’m so glad I didn’t have the success in my 20s that I perhaps would have dreamed of having … because I just don’t think I would have developed as an artist. And, look, it’s still true: I don’t have the career that I hoped for as a 20-year-old … But I’ve got something else that’s much better, you know?
VISUAL ART Rosemary Laing: Buddens
Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne, March 22 – April 28
BALLET La Bayadére
QPAC, Brisbane, until March 31
VISUAL ART Diane Arbus: American Portraits
Heide Museum of Modern Art, Bulleen, March 21 – June 17
MULTIMEDIA Superposition: Equilibrium and Engagement
Carriageworks, Sydney, until June 11
VISUAL ART Carbon Landscapes
Sidespace Gallery, Hobart, until March 26
THEATRE To Lonely, with love
La Mama, Melbourne, March 21-25
MUSIC Classic Album Sundays: The Church – Starfish
The World Bar, Sydney, March 20
SCULPTURE Landfall: Lorne Sculpture Biennale
Throughout Lorne, Victoria, until April 2
VISUAL ART Thousand Kisses Deep
Fortyfivedownstairs, Melbourne, until March 17
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 17, 2018 as "Six, the number of the best". Subscribe here.