Jack Colwell x Sarah Blasko
Jack Colwell was a fan of fellow Aussie musician Sarah Blasko long before he picked her to produce his debut album. In this exclusive chat the two talk about what they learnt from each other in the recording process, their studio antics, and making deeply personal music against a background of political unrest.
J: So I'm sitting here with Sarah Blasko.
S: And I'm sitting here with Jack Colwell... I've known you for a couple of years now...
J: Yeah, we met at Mclean Stephenson's photo exhibition - at the Black Eye Gallery.
S: (laughs) Oh, I don't remember that, I remember going to the exhibition, but I don't remember that...I think I'd just had a baby a couple of weeks before that, so it was my first night out. Then I asked you to come on a tour that I did in Australia for my album Eternal Return, we got to know each other a little bit then, and then we just started hanging out to talk about music and you wanted to play someone some songs.
J: We did the concert at The Enmore, for marriage equality, and we started hanging out after that.
S: We had that funny time at the rehearsal studio together, where we recorded ourselves for two hours making a sketch about the music industry.
J: It was about the music industry and how it has changed into some kind of different beast.
S: Yeah, it's like we wanted to get all this stuff off our chest.
J: I remember we talked about relationships and music and it was almost like a two-hour therapy session.
S: I haven't really listened back to it, but I really should... I think at that point I just wanted to be a comedic actress instead of a musician, we were both going through a very ‘discouraged by music’ phase, so for some reason that was the first thing we wanted to collaborate on, but it didn't eventuate into that! I think we both realised from that experience that we could be safe in being complete imbeciles in front of the other person, and just play – there's not many people you could just get together with and sit in a room and talk a whole lot of shit. We were talking over the top of each other, we were just making up a weird thing which feels very much like being a kid – that kind of ridiculous play. I think it's part of our dynamic now – the ‘dramatic play’ component. When we were making your album we made up a lot of characters.
J: Yeah we did, we had the German minimalist who was a composer who loved silence, the sound of nothing. And you had a character who was obsessed with Irish Breakfast tea whose name was 'Katie'.
S: I don't remember much about that, she was British, I think I borrowed it from characters I've seen in Escape to the Country.
J: Yeah, we did spend a lot of time when we first met being characters – and then during the recording.
S: The big thing about the German minimalist composer was he just loved when people did nothing. "More than when you do something" – but then there was a bit of truth to it. I don't think either of us would disagree about that being an important component in making an album.
J: Yeah, I'd agree with that.
S: I think that often less can be more... and then sometimes more is more!
J: Well, it's true that I have a bit of a problem where I always overwrite things or always put too many things in... I have a real problem with more is more!
S: But you're able to do more, that's why. Because I'm very basic in what I can play and you can just play anything. So, I guess it's a good combination, or a frustrating combination [laughs] of people to come together. Because I am sure I was probably pretty annoying when I was saying things like "Play less!" and "It's too much on the piano!"....I can tell I was by the way that you're laughing!
J: There was one time when we were recording 'In My Dreams' where I was playing the piano and you said through the control mic, "Can't you make the piano sound cooler, you're playing like Billy Joel"
S: I did not say it like that though! I wouldn't have said that!
J: You did! Well how did you say it then?
J: Maybe I'm using the wrong tone... you did end up saying that if I could play [the piano] like Nick Cave that would be better.
S: It was my first time producing someone else's record. So, I think I was learning how to be tactful.
'One time when we were recording I was playing the piano and you said through the control mic, "Can't you make the piano sound cooler, you're playing like Billy Joel"'
J: How did you feel in that role as a mentor?
S: I don't know if I view it necessarily that way. I think along the way I realised how much stuff you learn from making lots of albums.
J: How many albums have you made now?
S: I've made six of my own, and a couple of records with other people [Seeker Lover Keeper]. So I kind of realised how much you know, but also how much... I think every time you do anything you flip between thinking, "Oh yeah, I know what I'm doing" and “I have no fucking idea what I'm doing.”
J: That's kind of like making anything, because there's always variables in the project: who you're working with, other people's experience, where you are; whether it's a live performance or a recording. You know? There's always going to be unique challenges to that situation.
S: Definitely. I think I always go into it thinking that it's a learning experience. I did feel very responsible, any strong opinions I had would be followed in my mind by "What the fuck do I know?" It's sort of weird when you feel so strongly about something when it's not your own work, there are these moments of conflict where you wonder if you're taking it in the right direction, you don't want to ruin what someone has naturally, because people can kill the vibe easily.
J: I don't we had any conflict during the recording.
S: No, I was talking about internal conflict. There was probably a few moments where we didn't quite see eye to eye.
J: I can only think of one, and it was guitar related.
S: Ah yeah, I've got some guitar issues [Laughs] early Noughties guitar stylistic problems. And I did say early on that I wasn't going to work on an album that used the chorus pedal.
J: And lo and behold there is no chorus effect on the record!
S: I felt bad because chorus pedal is fashionable right now!
J: Well, it is, but it will come and go out of fashion.
I loved getting really dressed up for the early performances I did when I was 19 or 20 because I really loved Patrick Wolf and he had these really outlandish outfits which I tried to emulate, you know? Twenty bowties, and giant furs and suspenders.
S: I think because there's an age gap between us, it was interesting to me how little things like that have very different... I mean, it's not even about age gap: I found that when I was recording in Sweden that people have different cringe factors or things culturally.
J: What was the Swedish cringe factor?
S: There were a few things. When I went over to record As Day Follows Night, I just realised that I was a product of Australia and there were a few things that I was afraid of or made me cringe really easily – that were outside my comfort zone. There was this one time where we put some saxophone on the album, and I was like “Blergh no”, just stylistically it jarred with who I thought I was as this Sydney artist. It was a really good thing to shatter, being overseas.
J: Is that something that helped you grow as an artist, getting out of Australia and recording elsewhere?
S: Oh, yeah! Everyone was speaking Swedish to each other, and they were speaking English to me here and there, but I was working with a Swedish producer. I mean, it was actually quite rude in a way, he was talking a lot to them in Swedish, but then it made sense because I'm in Sweden and they're not all going to be able to speak English. I felt a little on the outside quite often when we were recording – but it was good for me to get out of the bubble, and it broadened my palette. It removed a lot of those cringe things. I think it's really great to shed as time goes by, as your confidence grows you realise you don't need to be afraid of any style. You can use anything to make it your own.
J: Do you think I was afraid of any style?
S: No, I don't think you are. I think you're much more open-minded than I was at your age, or when I was making my first album. I was very rigid, and I think I still am to some degree. It's not a great trait.
J: You've always told me a first album is really important in that in can set up your identity. When you made your first solo record, The Overture and the Underscore, what were you trying to capture at that time?
S: I think I was very aware of putting myself forward as my own person. And, in trying to do that, I did some things that I just can't stand to listen to now. I was singing in this really Australian accent that is not even my natural accent, I was accentuating it – I can’t even listen to 'Always Worth It', which is one of the singles off that record!
J: God, that is so interesting to hear! What about 'Don't U Eva'. Do you feel the same?
S: To be perfectly honest I haven't listened to any of them for years. It struck me the other day because I was watching RAGE [Australia's longest-running music video show] and Rainbow Chan chose 'Always Worth It' and I was really embarrassed watching the entire thing, apart from the fact I couldn't believe how incredibly young I looked – I was kind of infatuated with my youth. But then the other part of me was like, “What the hell?! Why was I singing-slash- acting like that?” It was such a long time ago – I guess it was 15 years ago. As time goes by I've become more confident in knowing who I am, and not have to force those things.
J: Do you think the album you made in Sweden, your third record, As Day Follows Night, is probably the album that you did start to feel like yourself on?
S: Yeah, I mean I did work with my partner at the time on my first two albums, and I didn't feel very free working with him. He is probably a more rigid person than me, so I felt really liberated coming out of that work and romantic relationship and going on my own. But then, Bjorn [Yttling of Peter, Bjorn and John] was really hard to work with in Sweden. But he also taught me so much because, like I said, I feel like there was a rigidness to the way I recorded before that, and when I worked with him he was really, really bossy and was just producing me–
J: –Whether you liked it or not!
S: He taught me so many good things because we only did really short days in the studio, 11am-6pm. And we did everything live and he would make decisions about which take we were keeping within five minutes. It made my head spin, I couldn't keep up with him – but then coming out of it we made something that felt really fresh. We made something so quickly and didn't labour over it, and it felt really magical and I really liked that way of recording. Before that I was doing recordings that were going on and on for weeks. Stuff that doesn't really exist so much anymore, although I guess a lot of people record at home and labour over it in that way, but this was recording studios for 12 hours a day for three weeks, and then you would mix the album straight afterwards. 'As Day Follows Night' was the opposite of that and it was all mixed and done in three weeks. I definitely brought what I learnt from Bjorn into what I make now, including into your record, because I just think having too many days and too much time just doesn't work. I know at some point you wanted more recording time, and I was trying to pull it back. I think we could have done it in way less time than we did. It's unnecessary, especially if you want to do live sounds and capture a feeling. But I feel like we’re talking too much about me! Let's talk about you! There's a lot that I know about you from working with you, like your history and things, but what I don't really know is when you actually started writing your own stuff. You went to school at a music school and were always playing, but when did you feel you actually wanted to write your own stuff?
Sarah and Jack by Maclean Stephenson
J: I went to the Conservatorium of Music, which is a classical music high school, and we really didn't look at any other type of music, except for maybe a little bit of jazz, so it was basically classical music all the time. In some ways it was a very serious school, and in some ways it was a very silly school. In the same way that you and I play these characters, it was very normal for people to be like that in our environment. Growing up, I desperately wanted to be a great pianist. I loved the piano.
S: Because your mum was a pianist wasn't she?
J: Yeah, my mum was trained as a concert pianist, but she never let me have piano lessons, I had to have double bass lessons.
S: Why didn't she let you have piano lessons?
J: I think because she had a bad experience, maybe. She has never really said but I begged her to have lessons, and she just didn't encourage the idea. But I spent nearly every day of my childhood teaching myself how to play using the skills I had by learning other instruments more formally like the bass guitar or classical double bass. It sounds so corny to say, but I always loved music. Music is my one main interest in my life that I've always had, and I think I will always have. I started writing when I was 14 or 15 as a way to work out my feelings. I've never felt like I wanted to write a song about dancing, or going out – I've always used songwriting as a diary I suppose. I had a first boyfriend who made me a mix CD – god, this is such a clichéd story, but anyway it had songs by Carole King and great songwriters on it... And my mum also really loved folk music like Peter Paul and Mary. Some of my happiest memories are of singing harmonies to those songs with my Mum, like that really embarrassing scene from Nick Hornby's About a Boy, it reminds me of how earnest my mum and I were singing these songs together. So yeah, I dunno, I just decided that I really enjoyed writing songs, and I followed any opportunity that I could get to do that from when I was 15. I remember finding out that my first bass-guitar teacher had a really basic Mini Disc recording set-up, and I asked him in our lessons if I could record some of my own music, and he was encouraging – I just kept writing and trying to make demos anywhere possible. I became obsessed with it, and the idea of writing different kinds of songs. Often in the beginning a lot of imitations of other people’s songs, which is a good learning experience in a way because it does teach you how not to write the same song all the time, about not getting caught in stylistic traps.
S: When did you start performing your own songs?
J: Just after I left school I made some folk songs, I guess everybody did around 2007.
S: Is that when you said you played the ukulele? [laughs]
J: Well I always wanted to be like Tori Amos, all of my early songs have two minute piano solos in them where I imagined myself as being as good at piano as Tori was, which I will never be. But they're also a little bit folky because that's what was popular around that time in 2007/2008, the indie boom where suddenly people were using orchestras. Actually, come to think of it, because I was at a classical music school, and for some reason classical music kind-of aligned with popular music around that period – bands like Arcade Fire were using orchestras and Joanna Newsom was playing the harp and Sufjan Stevens had all that sort of stuff too – it seemed really logical to me to start writing songs. I had this small collection of songs – these 10min epic piano pieces [laughs] – and I organised my own show for my school friends, and my good friend Gen Fricker who is now a host on Triple J opened the show for me and sang some backing vocals.
S: Like, 'Yes Anastasia?' I’m trying to think of a Tori Amos song that goes for 10 minutes.
J: Ha, yes!
S: I still love that song!
J: Same! That's basically what all my early songs sounded like, which I couldn't imagine doing now, but that's how I began writing and performing music. I loved the feeling of playing live and making something. I was a very depressed teenager, but I felt writing this music just gave me so much joy, and I loved getting really dressed up for the early performances I did when I was 19 or 20 because I really loved Patrick Wolf and he had these really outlandish outfits which I tried to emulate, you know? Twenty bowties, and giant furs and suspenders. I’d get so dressed up for these small shows in Kings Cross.
I think all that happened was that I was organising gigs like this myself and it slowly became a little bit more serious – someone asked me if I wanted to use a better recording studio than what I was using, and gave me an opportunity to do that, and I made another recording and it seemed a bit more serious so I hired some PR to help me get the music to more people and then all of a sudden it was getting some spot plays on Triple J and other artists became interested in my work and it became less like a hobby and more serious.
S: When did it feel like that?
J: I think when I put out a single called ‘Far From View’, that's when it felt more serious. Actually, I remember going into the studio to record ‘Far From View’ and ‘Don't Cry Those Tears’, which turned out to be quite popular, thinking I'd just give two more recordings a go – I wasn't really sure what they would do. I was excited about it but I didn't really have a vision or a plan for them. But people really related to those songs, I think because they were quite emotional. There was something about them that people liked. I mean, you really liked ‘Don't Cry Those Tears’...
S: I had to keep having to check that you wrote it! Not to say you couldn't have, but I was just so impressed by that song that I was sure it was like a cover of an old song. I kind of became obsessed with “Why isn't this song more well known?” It really incensed me that this song wasn't bigger. I kept playing it to people! I just feel like it should be a hit! That's why we ended up putting it on your album because I felt like it would be a real shame not to put it on. But it also took you a while to put out an album - do you think it's because the album is different now, for people your age?
J: No, I mean, I love albums and records, I think it's more because I'm an independent artist. I think it's funny when you're there on your own in a way. I don't know because I don't know any differently, I can only talk about the experience I've had – but I've always felt really grateful for whatever has happened for me in music, and maybe I should've had a bit more foresight when I made my E.P that an album would come next, but as I said when I went to record my E.P I wasn't thinking about making an album next. I was more thinking about how I had this small collection of songs that were really personal to me, and that I'd put out this small collection of songs and see what happened, and then because I had a really good reaction to the two singles I thought that I'd then finish my E.P and put out the rest of it, and then I would see what happened then – and that's when I decided to write an album. To be honest, if I had recorded the album earlier I think it would be a really different sounding album, and we wouldn't have made it together – because we weren't that close at that time.
S: Well, it's a very, very personal album and there were a few times recording it where I almost couldn't handle hearing some of the songs. I remember when you were recording 'The Sound of Music', you'd recorded a couple of takes of it, and I almost thought I couldn't hear you play the song again. It was very hard. Do you think that was a conscious decision, to make it personal? I think we talked about it a little bit because I heard quite a lot of your songs really early on and they were maybe less personal. It seemed like it was quite a conscious choice at a certain point in the process that you wanted to write really honestly about yourself.
J: Well yeah, I remember you sent me an e-mail. You really helped me workshop the songs in your house. I found coming and playing for you one day a week in the lead-up to recording, was incredibly helpful.
It was an amazing experience workshopping with you, because I always think in anything I do, not just making music or art, but the more accountable I can be to someone else, it spurs me on, and it really helps me finish things. It makes it seem real and it makes it seem important which was very inspiring to me. And then when I got that e-mail I think it made me really think about what I wanted to write about, and what I had to say that was unique, different and personal. I said earlier that as a teenager the reason why I wrote songs was to work through my personal feelings and to work through my identity and I think that's just why songwriting and making music is important to me, that's why I come back to it, and so I think your guidance made me really reflect on what I loved about writing music, and why that was important to me, and that's why I made a decision to reveal some truths about myself through my songwriting. Because I also think that's what makes people gravitate towards music.
S: Would you say that part of it was to do with the intense time in Australia when the marriage-equality debate was going on? Some of the themes on the album seem affected by that, the conversations that we were having as a country were very confronting and upsetting for a lot of people. Do you think that had an impact?
J: Absolutely. When I started writing for the record, songs like 'No Mercy' and even 'I am a DOG' felt very political to me but in a personal way. I always find it difficult to talk about broader political issues in a sense because I never want to get it wrong. I worry about saying the wrong thing, or about speaking for a group of people, so I feel the way that I can do that is to talk about my own experience and how I felt as a queer person, and a queer artist. I mean, in many ways it's only really in the last couple of years that minority artists have gotten a proper look from mainstream music outlets and media and it felt important to me to write those songs, even for myself.
S: Yeah well, I think it deserves to be heard, partly for that reason, and then songs like 'I will not change my ways', 'I am a DOG' and 'Conversion Therapy' are really confronting songs that people need to hear. People that feel the same way that you do, and I think to change other people's perspective. It's who you are and what your life experience is. It's brilliant and I will continue to sing its praises!
J: Well, thank you! I have one last question – what was something that we worked on that you feel really happy about?
S: I adore the whole album. I had a very personal moment with the record just after we recorded. I remember sitting up in my study with my headphones on, listening to it. You have a sort of overload when you're making a whole record when you’re in it, but then you give yourself a week or two and you put your headphones on and you listen to it, and it's suddenly "Oh my god, this is what we've made!" I just had tears streaming down my face, and it was such a special moment because I really felt like we had created something that felt very you, and it felt really strong, it really has something to say – it's full of character. It sounds a bit gushy to say that I'm happy with the whole thing, but I genuinely am, I got goosebumps listening to it, because I felt like it was what we set out to. It's never exactly what you think you set out to do, I think it's more than what we thought it could be. And I felt like I really learnt a lot from you, your generosity of spirit, and like I was saying, I think you're much more open minded than I was making my first record, and really willing to go down paths you might not be sure about and all of that. I learnt a lot. It was just precious to be a part of someone's first record because it's such a memorable time. A really important thing. Also, I loved singing with you, so many times we did a couple of funny backing vocals! Where we were covering our ears and pretending like we were experts!
J: Well, I know you don't like people to gush but –
J: –You know that I was a really big fan of your music when I was a teenager and I must say when I did come for one of our first workshops when we didn't know each other as well, I did think, like, “Wow, it's pretty amazing to have this opportunity to play my songs.”
S: And then I just became... BLASKO! Demystified very quickly, I'm pretty sure.
Jack Colwell's debut album 'Swandream', produced by Sarah Blasko, will be released in early 2020.