Human Nietzsche: Sarah Blasko on her new album, ’Eternal Return’
Sunday night in the Sydney Opera House, and Sarah Blasko is hitting her stride, run-skipping to the beat of “I’d Be Lost”, driven by a five-piece band. She’s debuting the 10 songs from her new album, Eternal Return. The Concert Hall feels like a cathedral normally, but the grand organ behind the stage is covered tonight by a large screen, spinning out computer graphics now resembling a large ball of white string.
The record title nods to the Nietzschean theory of eternal recurrence of events, but also is Blasko’s affirmation of love and this life on Earth: a concept in stark contrast to the apocalyptic Christianity that controlled her teenage years. She wears a long black suit jacket and black pants, with black sequins over her hands. “These gloves,” she tells the audience, “are a little impractical, I must say.”
Blasko writhes to the funky synth of “Maybe This Time”. Holding a microphone in one hand, she tilts her head and casts her eyes towards the vaulted ceiling, her other palm spread open. “So beautiful that we’ve reached the top,” she sings, “my love for you won’t ever stop.” She’d been gazing high when rehearsing this song before a music industry audience on Friday night at Sydney’s Trackdown studio, too. But is she singing to her first child, Jerry, born on July 1? Or her partner, perhaps: the musician Dave Miller? Or maybe a higher being?
Eternal Return is Blasko’s fifth solo album and her first made in Australia. After making her 2002 debut EP, Prelusive, in Sydney, writing and recording solo music has always been an overseas affair.
A soundtrack collaboration for Sydney Dance Company’s Emergence with composer Nick Wales was completed in Sydney in 2013. But Blasko’s previous two solo albums, I Awake and As Day Follows Night, were recorded in Stockholm’s Atlantis studio. Abba’s Benny Andersson, another Atlantis alumnus, has spoken of the “melancholy belt” above the 59th parallel north, “sometimes mistaken for the vodka belt ... with five, six months of snow, and the sun disappears like totally for two months, that will be reflected in the work of artists”. Indeed, Blasko soaked up the Scandinavian introspection that propels singers Lykke Li and El Perro del Mar’s Sarah Assbring, refracting their Ingmar Bergmanesque sensibilities as antipodean indie pop.
On Eternal Return, Blasko continues the hurt-happy, angst-joy qualities of her first four albums – dualities often found in the same song. Yet this new album, recorded at Grove Studios, on the NSW Central Coast, is sunnier. More than that, it is moored in the classic waters of love song. It is a pop gem. Blasko employs her higher vocal register more. The best track, “Luxurious”, has the swaying gorgeousness of Minnie Riperton’s “Lovin’ You”. She plays keyboards throughout the album, primarily an M4000D digital mellotron imported from Stockholm, a machine that faithfully takes sounds from the first-generation 1960s and ’70s mellotron tape library.
Seated at that Opera House performance, the delightful discovery about Blasko is her sense of humour: wry, light, self-deprecating and goofy. She jokes about doing stand-up before launching into her powerhouse encore, her voice soaring on “Here” and then stirring the crowd with the chant-like vocals across the transfixing rhythms of “I Awake”, both from her immediate previous solo album. She earns the standing ovation.
Life and laughter
Blasko laughs a lot during our interview, at a cafe near her home in Sydney’s inner-western Newtown. She’s a great laugher. It’s infectious. I ask about the apparent celestial reverence during her performance of “Maybe This Time” and she flips to disarming candour: she was, in fact, worshipping at the altar of Kander and Ebb and their musical Cabaret.
“I completely ripped off the title and some of the sentiment from Cabaret,” she says. “I really love that song because its got real humour: ‘Maybe this time I’ll be lucky; maybe this time he’ll stay.’ Something like, ‘Not a loser anymore like the last time and the time before.’ ” She laughs.
“I was originally going to call it “Maybe It’s Time”, because maybe it’s time I actually decide to give everything, or be in love. I thought, ‘Oh well, maybe I’ll write it as a homage to the Cabaret song. You’ve got this great experience now, but it’s taken a lot of loser experiences to get to where you are. It’s part of my own neurotic character that I don’t take things for granted. I feel like there has been a lot of ups and downs.”
Blasko was married, long ago, to performance poet Cameron Semmens, but the marriage ended a few years before her breakthrough solo album, The Overture and the Underscore, was released in 2004. On “Luxurious”, Blasko sings: “There have been loves before/ That only held me down/ Made me feel that I was never enough or I failed/ But your gentle way with me brings out a lighter side/ Feeling somehow I can finally open up and bloom.”
Is that song about Dave Miller? Blasko laughs. “It’s about my life, yeah. I’ve always written from my own experience, and this album is probably… It’s not real complicated, it’s about my life, it’s about a love story. I always think it’s a shame to have to say what it’s about. It doesn’t matter for people. It’s going to be about them, in the end.”
Might she and Miller collaborate on music? “I think you collaborate with your partner all the time, because you’re always asking their opinion. They’re probably your greatest collaborator.”
What are her hopes for their baby, Jerry? “Dave and I talk about that. You just hope he’ll be a good person and happy. I just want him to feel fulfilled. You don’t want to stand in their way.”
Blasko sings to her four-month-old son, making up songs. She’s been putting him to sleep to Tame Impala’s album Currents: the opening track, “Let It Happen”, clocking in at 7:46, is a perfect length.
“It’s psychedelic with a lot of heavy bass and drums and the falsetto voice tends to put Jerry to sleep.” Blasko laughs. “That’s no reflection on the music.”
Blasko’s family name is Blaskow. She dropped the “w” from her surname to stop a common mispronunciation of “ow”, instead of the correct “oh”.
Her mother, Ellie, a nurse, died of cancer when Sarah was 23. Her father, Nikolai, an English history teacher, born in Berlin with a Bulgarian heritage, had come to Australia as a child, technically an unaccompanied displaced person under the postwar migration scheme, though a young couple looked after him during the voyage.
While still young, the once atheist Nikolai says God came to him, and he became a Christian. Nikolai and Ellie went to the French-speaking island of Réunion as missionaries under an Anglican program, to try to convert the locals to Christianity. Sarah was conceived there.
Settling back in the Sydney suburbs, Sarah was born in 1976. She has an older sister, Kate, who would become a primary school teacher. Kate sings as well, usually jazz, with a deeper pitch than Sarah. Growing up, Sarah wanted to become a vet. She pretended she lived on a farm.
Her peripatetic life, living for years in Britain and Sweden, means she has no pets. “I think it’d be nice to, but now that I’ve got a small child, it’s kind of like a wild animal, so that’s fine,” Blasko says, laughing. She studied English literature and film at the University of NSW.
Ellie was “tone deaf” and liked Olivia Newton-John. Nikolai, with a stentorian speaking voice, today a chaplain at Radford College, an Anglican school in Canberra, was a bigger musical influence.
On Friday and Saturday nights, Nikolai would give Sarah and Kate their choice of records to listen to as they fell asleep: “Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Rachmaninov, as well as Paul McCartney, Simon & Garfunkel, the soundtrack to The Elephant Man, and a selection of op-shop oddities, too.” The girls usually based their choices on the look of the cover, as an “act of defiance”.
The family often shopped at Vinnies op shops. “I hated it. I was really embarrassed as a kid. I’d hide my face as we walked into the shop. My mum made me wear this entire green outfit once to church, because we went to church a lot. I was eight or 10. It was really, really cruel. It was nowhere near Christmas. Green shoes, green socks, green everything. I remember someone came up to me and said the Kermit line, ‘It’s not easy being green.’ It’s a horrifying memory.”
Today, however, Blasko is an avid op-shop buyer. The bargain bins had been where she found CDs she loved, by Sonic Youth and REM.
Her parents tried various churches before landing on an evangelical Assemblies of God Pentecostal church, the Christian Life Centre, pioneered in Sydney by the late Pastor Frank Houston, which, years after the Blaskows left, was subsumed in the new Hillsong Church by Houston’s son, Brian.
The Christian Life Centre, recalls Blasko, was “really fanatical, and I feel like it sucked my family dry. It was speaking in tongues, people casting out demons from other people. Terrible stuff. If people had cancer, it was because of some hidden sins that they had. It was like finding a devil under every chair. It was really gross.
“It was really damaging to me. I feel like I escaped out of a sect. I didn’t feel at 13, 14 I was going to see 30, that the world would end first. It was all really apocalyptic.”
Blasko attended the CLC between 11 and 16. She’s not sure if she has a faith in God any longer. “I always feel guilty that I don’t prioritise that in my life, because my dad’s still got a very strong faith, and I guess my sister does, too. But when I was a teenager I was around a lot of fanaticism. It’s a real turnoff. You don’t trust yourself to think about those things too much, because it’s been tainted for you.
“Sometimes I find myself praying, like some sort of weird habit. I do think there’s a God, but I don’t know why I think that. I think it’s the way I was brought up. These days if I’m doing something spiritual, I’d rather hug a tree. I trust it more, because it’s right there. At least, I think it’s there.”
Church’s one positive influence was group singing. Blasko listened to a lot of Christian music. But it wasn’t enough.
One day, at 16, Blasko sat her parents down and said she didn’t want to attend that church anymore. Her sister felt the same. Sarah, Nikolai and Kate had just returned to Australia as part of a tour of the church’s youth music group to France. Other “kind and warm” church communities they met in France showed up her own church as “disingenuous and false and … bullshit, really”.
Blasko blamed that church for “taking up all our parents’ time. I felt it was splitting up our family, in a way.” Her parents, whose relationship had become strained, agreed. Blasko says she later made up for her “sheltered” teenage years in her 20s, by “going a bit crazy: drinking and just experiencing life any way that I could”.
Today, Sarah and her father are more likely to talk about literature or film than faith. Nikolai is undertaking a PhD comparative study of influential thinkers, including Nietzsche. One of their conversations prompted Blasko to call the new album Eternal Return. “He can’t stop talking to me about Nietzsche,” Blasko says, laughing again.
“For me, calling it Eternal Return – love is something you keep returning to in your life. For me it’s the connection between your childhood and who you are now. Falling in love, there’s a real sense of returning to that childhood state of innocence and openness.
“I love the idea you keep being reminded of certain ideas at times you don’t expect to be reminded. It’s such a simple thing, and love is such an overused term, but in its real, pure state, it’s such an amazing concept.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 7, 2015 as "Sarah’s Return". Subscribe here.