Synth-pop goddess Sarah Belkner is a multi-faceted gem. Vocalist, songwriter, instrumentalist, composer and producer, Belkner's star is on the rise. I am a big fan of her newest album 'But You Are, But It Has', and wanted to find out a little more about what 'makes her tick' as an artist! I spoke to Sarah about what inspired her album, what she loves about touring to the UK, and how to bravely follow your own path as an independent musician. The full interview is transcribed below - I found her responses so enlightening!
You can experience Sarah's stunning solo show LIVE when she opens for myself and Phia on our 'Sky and Sea National Tour': The Oxford Art Factory (Sydney, Thursday 27 July), and The Toff in Town (Melbourne, Thursday 3 August). Love, GF xx
Georgia: I adore the mood you've created on your recent album 'But You Are, But It Has'. What was inspiring you (lyrically, texturally or otherwise) during the making of that beautiful record?
Sarah: Thanks so much Georgia! We wanted to focus a mood more so I'm pleased that’s coming across. Texturally I wanted to make something where all the parts were very clear. Parts that are singable, have their own identity. I had a rule to have very minimal 'chugging' chords you know. All parts, like a Bach invention. Melody, counterpoint, call and answer, that kind of texturing. And my amazing band (Evan Mannell, Matt Keegan & Neal Sutherland) and Richie really brought that concept to life. We had a lot of fun making it. We don't use the computer very much other than to capture, and the initial skeleton was done to tape.
The studio itself was very inspiring (Free Energy Device Studios, Camperdown, Sydney) and was used as an instrument too. Richie my very talented husband and Engineer/Co-producer has been practising this powerful tool he's built for a while now! We were really into making acoustic instruments sound electronic and electronic instruments feel real. Something I've always been into. Each player has a mix of acoustic and electronic in their palette. Nature and synthesis and how they go together is endlessly fascinating to me.
Lyrically and thematically I see how much the record comes back to looking at a time of getting super stuck and then shedding and finding movement through acceptance of your position. Really looking at where your head and life is at and moving from there. The backing vocals are the commentators, or that voice in your head reacting to what is happening. And that first spark of hope is in there, where you know everything is going to actually be okay. I'm really glad that's in there. The complication and intricateness of hope. There's a lot of musing from there.
Georgia: You've just returned home from playing some incredible gigs overseas - showcasing at The Great Escape festival, and supporting Australia's own Lisa Mitchell for her UK tour. What's the scene like over there? Do you notice any similarities or differences between our own music culture?
Sarah: I have an affinity for England and am super inspired by English and European music but it makes you also see how amazingly talented and creative Australian and New Zealand musicians are. It makes me so grateful and love even more all the incredible musicians I get to work with here and overthere too. It makes me proud of my friends who are epically talented and working to build great ideas and beautiful new work around the globe. I also notice we can be very dismissive and critical of our own scenes instead of building it here sometimes. And there's always going to be grass is greener attitude, but I think it's just different pastures you know. So I love both. I love living here and going over to play to the world, it pries your brain open.
Sarah: We get a bit trampled in the industry and on a government level here with things being glorified for being popular on certain platforms or 'doing well' overseas, and if it's not on that list it kind of means it's failed. Ha ha! And musicians do this to themselves too, make up and believe this bullshit, which is so silly and counterproductive. That kind of 'success' doesn't always have a lot to do with whether the music is excellent and kicks you in the guts. And doesn't always correlate to an artistic life that's sustainable anyway. Which is what I think we are after when we get panicked and start chasing that rabbit at the end of the day isn't it? Getting stuck on a couple of avenues instead of actually making more avenues. It waters down the creation because the focus is tarnished. The risk taking is often lowered to fit in. That's quite human nature stuff too isn't it. I know I'm learning confidence one rung at a time and have so much more bravery to go in my work.
But there are incredible people I'm so super inspired by on this subject who are making amazing new platforms and amazing work in Australia. It feels like a really exciting time and the more the merrier!! If you feel like an outsider and you can't 'get in' or your music doesn't fit into the behemoth, make your own scene and community. Make the absolute best music you possibly can with what you have and go from there. That's my experience of it and what's floating my boat. Don't quit or get put off because you think it's not going to do 'well'!!
Georgia: You produce your own work as well as music for other artists, such as the recent 'Melissa' single for Julia Johnson which has been getting fantastic reviews. Is it quite different, being in the producer seat as opposed to performer?
Sarah: It's so cool, it's like cleaning someone else’s kitchen. You can see the overall scope and really help find out what they are wanting to dig for and suggest and provide tools and ideas to do so. Being asked to work with people like Julia and other great musicians is such a dream. There's a blind spot you will always have with your own work. You learn so much being able to flip to the other side of the glass and sit in someone else’s ideas.
And I'm a “teach someone to fish” kind of person, and love helping musicians get better at what they really want to do and make something they are proud of. Not “make what I want to make” on their record, ha ha! I know what that feels like so want that for others. Being around great ideas and helping them come to life is excellent. I love moving to new stages of perspective as an arranger and producer, there's so much to explore there. The psychology of the studio and the creative process is so interesting too, it's a good opportunity for developing and understanding more about the whole thing.
Soooo... What's next for you this year?!
Well obviously opening for you wonderful babes! Can't wait, I love that you are playing together as opposed to a double bill. That's really cool, getting inside each other’s music.
There's some exciting things on the cards I can't quite mention yet. Playing with some wonderful musicians in their bands and am producing an album for someone later in the year I'm really really excited about. Writing a lot too towards my next album and enjoying being home. I travel a lot which I love but am loving staying kind of still for a minute.
And lastly super excited about a Weds night residency I'm doing at the brand spanking new 'Newsagency' in Sydney starting August 16th. My friend Alison Avron has built this amazing much needed new venue carrying on her great ideas from the original 'Newsagency' and I can't wait to get in there for a month. BYO, there's a baby grand piano! And there are some wonderful musicians coming each week to do the 'Sessions' with me so check it out on my website or social media.
All will be announced in the coming weeks and it'll be great fun, lot's of little surprises along the way too.