Strings to Sarah Blasko's Bow
By Iain Shedden
Sarah Blasko knows only one word of Bulgarian - rakia, the name of the country's celebrated fruit brandy. Such knowledge served her well for three days in May this year when the Sydney singer travelled to Sofia to complete the songs on her new album, I Awake, with the 52-piece Bulgarian Symphony Orchestra.
Given that Blasko, 36, hadn't been to the country before and had never worked with such a large ensemble, she could be forgiven for needing something to settle her nerves.
"It was daunting, but also exciting," she says, sipping nothing stronger than tea in a Darlinghurst cafe.
Blasko hasn't seen much of Sydney since the success of her last album, 2009's As Day Follows Night, a recording that won her an ARIA award for best female artist. Her Bulgarian adventure was the culmination of a few years of working and living in far-flung locations, including England and Sweden.
Now she's glad to be home, to put down some roots close to family and friends, before the demands of her career take her off again.
There were a couple of reasons for going to Bulgaria. Her father, to whom the album is dedicated, has Bulgarian roots.
"My dad's pretty excited about this record because of the family connections," she says. "My grandfather just turned 90 and he'll be able to hear it too."
Blasko read about the Bulgarian orchestra five years ago in a newspaper article. The memory of that connected with the idea of an orchestral album. She had felt for some time that her songs, stretching back to her 2004 debut album The Overture & the Underscore, might lend themselves to an orchestral setting. "It was also a crazy dream I'd had for a while," she says. "It's something I've been leading up to in my work. I got taken away by that idea because I've got this Bulgarian heritage on my dad's side. I thought I'd love to go to Bulgaria. My grandfather spends a lot of time there."
The trigger, however, came last year when Blasko wrote a song on the ukulele for the first time. "I was writing the song on the album called Bury This," she explains. "With each record I seem to start writing with an instrument I can't really play [last time it was piano]. This time it was a beautiful ukulele that a friend of mine had lent me. I've always loved the fragile sound of that.
"People think of ukes as being strummed and being a tacky kind of thing, but this one sounds like a harp or something. That fragile sound got me thinking about 'wouldn't it be great to record an album of contrasts'. I felt it would be amazing to have the simplicity of a voice and this instrument and then this really grand instrumentation around it."
Blasko is a woman of contrasts. She is softly spoken, a little shy and inward-looking, more comfortable perhaps in performing and recording than in having to explain how and why she does it. She can be charming, however, peppering her occasionally earnest observations with giggles, as if self-conscious about taking herself too seriously.
What's clear from talking to her and from listening to I Awake, musically and lyrically, is that this is a more assertive, more assured Blasko than before; a singer more comfortable with who she is as an artist and as a person.
Rarely could one describe Blasko's songs as cheery. The Overture & the Underscore and its successor, What the Sea Wants, the Sea Will Have, married folkie introspection to an undercurrent of Portishead-lite trip hop. As Day Follows Night was about heartbreak and loss, the mood lightened only by a radical switch from the acoustic guitar-based songs of her early career to the sparseness of piano and percussive accompaniment, a transformation that allowed her voice to soar and her stage presence to take on an almost Bjork-like theatricality.
There's similar drama in I Awake, made grander by the addition of strings, woodwinds and brass to most of the songs.
"I learned so much from doing the last record," she says, "more than I've learned on any record before. So I did feel it was important to carry something on from that album, something I felt was integral to my sound now. Space is a really important thing to me, but this time I wanted to push that further and take it off the cliff a little bit. It was about not holding back. That was constantly on my mind - not shrinking. Giving everything."
TEN years have passed since Blasko, after a few years as singer in Sydney band Acquiesce, launched her solo career. The EP Prelusive led to a recording contract with Brisbane-based independent label Dew Process, which released The Overture & the Underscore to positive reviews in October 2004. She won her first ARIA - best pop release - for that album. Her first two albums were co-written with her partner at the time, Robert Cranny. The end of their relationship influenced her lyrics on As Day Follows Night, but it also inspired the new direction in Blasko's music.
That album, recorded in Stockholm with producer Bjorn Yttling, from the band Peter, Bjorn and John, gave songs such as Down on Love, All I Want and Night and Day an ethereal, jazz-tinged edge.
So successful was the transformation that Blasko wanted to use that work as the foundation for the new record, which is why she headed back to Atlantis Studios in the Swedish city early this year.
There are striking differences between the two records, however. The first is that the later addition of strings, woodwinds and brass to the bulk of the material on I Awake lends it a filmic grandeur only hinted at previously. The other significant change is that for the first time in her career Blasko stepped up to produce the new album herself.
"Initially when I went there I was going to work with Bjorn," she explains. "We tried to make it work but we were both busy at the same time and it didn't happen. For a while I was a bit taken aback because I wanted to keep that relationship going, but then eventually I had to admit to myself that deep down I wanted to produce it myself."
Flying solo in the control room was a leap of faith in her abilities, even if, as she points out, "lots of people produce their own albums and it's not such a big deal. On the other hand, I wasn't accustomed to holding the vision for the record by myself. There has always been someone else to hold on to that."
The task was made easier by employing many of the same Swedish musicians who played on As Day Follows Night, as well as her Australian bass player David Symes. "It wasn't like I was starting from scratch and working with a whole bunch of people I had never worked with before," she says. "That was a strengthening factor."
The songs on I Awake - An Arrow, Bury This, Here - reflect Blasko's more buoyant outlook on life but, like many a singer-songwriter opus, they were written mostly in isolation. Aside from her Australian tour and album last year with Seeker Lover Keeper, the side project with her friends and fellow singer songwriters Holly Throsby and Sally Seltmann, Blasko spent most of last year in Brighton in the south of England.
She walked on the beach. She went home and sat at the piano. She wrote.
"Most of the songs were written in my house near the ocean, sitting at the piano," she says. "I spent such a long time on my own last year living in that house. I knew about five people in Brighton. It was a wonderful time, but also a really difficult time." She calls it her interior period.
Her ukulele moment creating Bury This produced the first song for the record. "Whenever I think of that song I pitch myself on that pebbled beach in Brighton," she says.
Other songs followed sporadically. All the while a loose theme was developing. "I feel generally that the album is about self-awakening, empowerment," she says. "I suppose it's just about coming to terms with your strengths. It's about internal strength.
"The last song is about death and the first one is about awakening. It's about the full spectrum of life."
There's a vague literary influence on the work also. Blasko was reading American author Paul Auster during her Brighton downtime; what she calls her "Austerfest". Some of his writing has a presence between the lines of some of her new songs. "One book talks about his relationship with his father, another about struggling as a writer. His books are very reflective, concerned with what it is to be a human. They were definitely firmly in my mind while I was writing these songs."
It's fair to say much of Blasko's output concerns itself with the human condition. The old cliche about suffering for one's art also plays a part in her creative process. Does she find it helpful to be unhappy when she's writing?
"I think I'm always a little bit unhappy when I write," she admits. "I find writing really hard. It's a hard process. I wasn't completely miserable," she adds with a laugh.
"I don't think you have to be unhappy to write music, but it's probably best if you're not in the most comfortable state of being. That's how it has been in the past for me, whether it's heartbroken or whatever.
"This time it was just more uncomfortable. I was at a period where I was quite isolated and very nostalgic, far from home. When you are far from home and you don't have a lot of contact with the people who help you to feel like yourself, you start to think about those people and those places. They take on a heightened reality. I think I was in that kind of state, where I was thinking a lot about my life over in Sydney.
"The ultimate plan wasn't to end up in a seaside town living on my own, but for one reason or another I ended up there for a while. It was a nice change and Brighton's beautiful - lots of nice walks."
Hiring a symphony orchestra in a foreign country isn't straightforward, particularly not when you don't speak the language and have no experience of working with such a large gaggle of musicians.
"That's what I discovered," Blasko says. "It was really hard to organise."
Having crossed those hurdles, she had to enlist an arranger. Blasko chose Sydney composer and musician Nick Wales, most recognised for his work in the group CODA, but also a member of Blasko's band in recent years. "I wanted someone who would come at it from a different angle. He's a friend of mine and I figured if we could survive travelling around India together we could survive doing this. We spent about a month hanging out with each other working on the arrangements."
To be cost-effective, the pair had to have everything in place before going into the Sofia studio for two days of intense recording. They were given further assistance by another colleague, recording engineer Bob Scott, who happened to be in Europe on holiday when the recording took place. Their diligence paid off.
"Nothing prepares you for standing in the room and the real sound of the full orchestra," Blasko says. "To hear the album come to life like that was fantastic."
One of Wales's other gigs is as a composer for Sydney Dance Company. In that light Blasko and Wales are providing new music in a collaboration with SDC artistic director Rafael Bonachela on one of the company's productions for next year, details of which will be announced next week.
Also, to do justice to her new material and to reinvent some of her older songs, Blasko is touring Australia early next year using state orchestras for each show. She laughs nervously at the prospect. "I want to present it as you hear it on the new record," she says.
These are further indications that Blasko, who wrote the score for Bell Shakespeare's production of Hamlet in 2008, is eager to explore territory outside of the singer-songwriter domain - but only if her heart is in it.
"I'm really interested in doing things with other art forms and I found that really refreshing when I did Hamlet," she says. "That inspires me, to see where other people come from. But I'm not interested in doing anything other than what I'm really passionate about. Maybe in the past you find yourself doing things you felt you shouldn't."
The Blasko of 2012, however, isn't going to let that happen.
"Now I know what I love about what I do," she says. "I feel stronger. I feel really passionate about producing my own records now and I feel clearer. It takes a while to find your voice."
And while she relishes being back in Sydney, she'll be pursuing her career in Europe with the new album. She has made an impression already in Germany, France, The Netherlands and Britain.
The overriding impression Blasko gives on the eve of her latest release is of a more self-assured individual. She has changed and matured from the fragile singer songwriter of 10 years ago.
"I definitely have," she says. "I feel a lot calmer about everything around this album than I have about any record before.
"I felt quite confident with the last record and I feel really proud of this one. When you've followed your heart and your gut, that internal thing is really important."