Interview with SARAH BELKNER

Written by Jackie Smith

For some time now, Sarah Belkner has been captivating audiences with the erethal uniqueness.

After captivating audiences with her critically acclaimed EP, Humans, her debut album But You Are, But It Has is officially ready to be unleashed. In this interview, Belkner talks to Jackie Smith about the natural progression between EP and album, the Pozible campaign behind its release and what she’s learnt from fellow musicians.
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Sarah Belkner

Sarah Belkner (c) Rachel Long

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Congratulations on the upcoming release of your debut album BUT YOU ARE, BUT IT HAS. What was the inspiration behind the record as a whole?

Thank-you! Well, I knew I wanted to make something that occupied its very own sound world and space and felt clear and cohesive. And somehow minimal and fantastical at the same time.
 I was being really influenced personally by feeling stuck and not knowing quite what to do. I created space in my life and started to chip away and learnt how accepting some things you might not want to enables that little spark you need to get your life rolling again. Really seeing things for what they are.

So I was commenting and reacting to these feelings and using these songs to discover what I thought about things. I also wanted to distill down the language and keep it oddly simple.

After writing I wanted to work on finding grooves directly with the band as the first step and there were two quite clear restrictions I set too – no chordal ‘strumming’ all the parts had to have a purpose and be fairly singable, even down to the beats.  And the other parameter to keep the lyrics quite literal feeling even when fabricating ideas.

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Is that something that normally informs your song writing?

Using songwriting to understand what I think and where I’m at – definitely. It’s always been a teasing out of emotional yarn for me, and I seem to explore the in between areas of life with it.

Maybe one day I’ll write a classic straight forward ‘I love you’ song. But I know people often just don’t experience life that way. I’ve only really just been able to identify that’s what I’m doing it for too. I can’t believe how much I’ve learnt personally from making this album.

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You received high praise for your EP, Humans, which you released in 2015. How much of an indication is that for what fans can expect from the album?

[But You Are, But It Has] is a direct continuation of the Humans EP but the next evolution. It has some more complex moments and is more confident. The germination period of all these songs started around the same time and then we realised we could do an EP and an album instead of an album and B-sides.

They were polishing up really well even from early demoing with Evan, Matt & Neal (my band) and Richie B (engineer, co-producer) so it felt natural to release all of it somehow. We finished the EP and then got onto finishing the album. So it is from the same cloth and sonic world as the EP but just a notch more experienced on many levels.

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Did you feel any pressure to live up to the critical acclaim you received for Humans when writing this new record?

No, I’m comfortable just finishing the next ideas that are there. If anything the fact the Humans EP brought a little more awareness to what I’m doing just gave me energy to stick to my guns and keep distilling ideas to the best of my ability. I write because it’s part of my personality and I think it’s really important to make work to give a fresh viewpoint or show empathy to people’s thinking not what they think of you.

Of course people reacting to it gives you some beautiful pep that’s really welcome, but the irony in wanting people to hear your work is you have to be able to write regardless of popularity otherwise you won’t be saying anything worth listening to. Personal failure on all sorts of levels is such a real part of making anything and that’s really where the commitment lies. Just being able to keep on making regardless of what happens.

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You’ve released a couple of singles from the album so far. What’s the reaction been like so far?

It’s been really positive. I feel I’m on this lovely tortoise track where with each thing a few more people come to the pond, these little ripples outward that hit a little further. It’s amazing to meet new people through it and just feels very natural and I like that.

Each round of live shows too, the band and I keep uncovering how to communicate these ideas even better and seeing people come openly into that world you create is really special.

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You produced and recorded the album BUT YOU ARE, BUT IT HAS with your husband, Richard Belkner. Can you talk me through the recording process?

Sure. There were quite a few stages but might be interesting to someone so hang in there!

It was made over a period of three years which included the EP. I think it’s interesting to note we weren’t working on it this whole time. I weirdly (and now understand why) never listened to it in between sessions until we were mixing. It helped to keep ears fresh. And there were big gaps of life between sessions. The album needed patience.

I gathered my swag of songs together and we did piano vocal demos and then spent a wonderful weekend in the studio with Evan, Neal and Matt and a couple cases of beer exploring ideas and got it down to 21 demos. This was so great, not making an album at this point just literally playing together. Most of the grooves and identity of the songs you hear now came from this weekend.

There were even rhythm tracks we kept from this like Humans and Chance – so off the cuff you couldn’t repeat. We knew we had an album on our hands at this point.

We gave the demos to our friend Darren Seltmann (Avalanches) and he said ‘You have already made the album!’ (Laughs) I thought not but that was flattering.

Darren then became really instrumental and influential in helping me work ideas and gave me heaps of confidence we had something exciting happening. He was going to be involved in the whole album but had recently moved to L.A and we had hoped to do it remotely but the sessions were so performance orientated from the start it became clear it would be hard to work remotely.

So we continued, choosing the best 14 from 21 and laying down Bass, drums and one keys part to 24 track tape live. This included Neal on the synth bass and any electronic drums or loops you hear, usually Evan whipping up something on the MPC and playing the MPC live with the kit. Or Richie and Evan re-sampling the recorded drums back into the MPC. I love the idea of meshing electronics, acoustic instruments and live playing in a way you can’t quite tell what’s happening. We didn’t use a computer for any programming or synths etc.

Skip ahead and we moved to the RADAR system (Fellow geeks can Google) and laid down keys, Matt’s beautiful parts (clarinet, sax etc, often the effects made live through his pedal system too. He’s exceptional)

We separated 5 tracks that became the EP and 9 that would become the album. The EP vocals were produced by the amazing Mr. Paul McKercher who I learnt so much from. Then Evan played a bit of Tubular bells and percussion, a sesh with Jack Ladder on ‘Ego Blues’, Michael Lynch mastered it and the EP was finished so I put it out!

A bit of time and we then re did all the vocals on the album tracks and worked on Keys and Matt’s parts. Elana Stone, NGAIIRE and Billie McCarthy came in one night and smashed some epic BV’s. An important character on the record I had in my head form the beginning, I call them the ‘Commentators’ or the ‘Banshee’ chorus. And my dear friend Brendan Maclean crooned on a few too.

Towards the end Jonathan Wilson brought his epic Swarmatron in ( again, Google it you won’t be sorry), if you listen to Violence Of Summer it’s all the incredible sounds that are like electronic nature. You’ll remember it form the True Detective first season soundtrack if you were into that.

Then Richie mixed Time as a single, then Cellophane. A little more time passed and he mixed the rest of the album and again the excellent Michael Lynch mastered it.

Ta-dah! I tried really hard to make that short [laughs].
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Sarah Belkner

SARAH BELKNER – But You Are, But It Has

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I read that you had a Pozible campaign to fund this album – it’s a route many musicians are taking now. What made you decide to take the plunge?

Well of course the financial end. I knew the sort of album I wanted to make and didn’t want to over compromise and even though we own the studio if we are in there we have to keep the lights on.

And to pay my band and other musicians and all the costs that come with creating an album and what also became an EP as well, I needed assistance or a sugar daddy or mamma! A Pozible seemed more practical. Having a beautiful throng of little sugary people. No it’s not really like that [laughs].

Crowd funding uncovers who your true core of fans are, and you can get to really know them and build from there. I would never have imagined it would be something I would do, but it actually made me feel much more connected to what I was doing at a time when I was actually quite confused and disconnected. It was a very important starting point for the album and my career on many levels.

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Who are your idols, both personally and professionally?

I’m a huge Peter Gabriel fan, for his albums and also his humanitarian work and whole ethos. I love PJ Harvey, Elbow, Connor Oberst & Radiohead amongst many others. A lot of classical composers, Steve Reich, Bach, Arvo Part and producers I’m inspired by Daniel Lanois, Blake Mills and arrangers John Metcalfe and Jon Brion. Murakami is probably my all time favourite author.

Personally I have been hugely influenced by Eileen Kramer who is a wonderful Australian dancer/choreographer, is 102 years old and going more than strong. We met when she was 100 and she danced with me in the video for Susanne that my dear friend Rachael Brown Directed off the Humans EP. Her attitude to life, ageing and creating came at an important time in my life right when my Grandma passed away who was 97. She sparked a huge turning point in how I think about my work and life.

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How and when were you inspired to make music your career path?

As long as I can remember I have always made and been in the deep end with music. Even when I was very small I would make up things on the piano when i couldn’t even play it and always loved writing poems and words. It’s always been a space I love to be in and am happy to be challenged by. It’s a death do us part type scenario.

I did a lot of music through school and studied composition at uni. The only other thing I ever thought I wanted to do was be a marine biologist but I’m really not very good at science so that was never going to happen!

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If you could collaborate with anyone in the industry (living or dead), who would it be and why?

Probably Peter Gabriel. Just to soak up any little bit of his magic I could. He is really the epitome of what a true whole hearted artist and humanitarian is in my eyes.

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You toured with Olympia and Sarah Blasko quite recently. What was that experience like?

Oh I’ve learnt so much. Both are incredible writers and performers and when you play other people’s songs it goes into you a bit whether you want it to or not. (Be careful sometimes!) So I’ve been grateful to be playing and getting inside their shoes. Blasko has been incredibly supportive in my work too and that coming from someone who you’ve admired well before you met them is really surreal.

I got to open for her in Europe and UK last year which was wonderful. And then just in the touring and business side of things too, it’s been so educational. They both put albums out last year and quite differently and at completely different stages in their careers so it’s kind of like watching people go down the water slide before you.

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What do you enjoy most about touring and performing live in general?

The loss of time and place and troubles. You go into this crazy focus that is just a big trip to be in. Everything gets very clear and it’s just you and your band and the people in front of you. It’s a great and exceptionally unique perspective to communicate from.

I love moving around too in planes and cars etc. It gets my creative mind open and looking around, it’s a good time to capture initial ideas.

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What’s the epitome of success for you?

Making work throughout your life that you learn from and being able to do less things you are not super interested in. Being known for your writing and performing that being the centre of what you do.

The challenge has weirdly been continuously re-focusing, being brave and doing what really makes me tick which is writing and performing my own music, and working on helping other peoples original thoughts come alive.

Working out and sticking to what is truly important to you as a musician is where success lies because you need to be clear about what you really want to do and then you just have to facilitate that. No-one is making you or stopping you form doing anything. I think it’s more simple than we think sometimes. Things can get pretty weird when you are off track and have ended up with a variety of strange skills and the pressure of rent and other things to pay.

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What advice would you give to aspiring musicians?

Don’t think too far ahead or that you need certain people to be able to do what you want. Really figure out why you do it, what it brings to your life and go from there. Remember you are already doing it (Richie always says this and it’s true) don’t wait to do it when you are ‘successful’.

Do the work and let the work do the work too.

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What music are you listening to at the moment?

The Veils new record I love, co-produced by El-P from Run The Jewels. I’ve spent a lot of time with albums of artists I have been playing live with too so Olympia’s Self Talk, Sarah Blasko’s Eternal Return and NGAIIRE’s Blastoma and Alex Lloyd’s greats. All fantastic.

I’ve been going through this weird Pearl Jam phase too. Like everything, B-sides and live bootlegs, I have been touring a lot in other peoples bands and it just became this weird thing that I could listen to anytime and good to do exercise and fall asleep to, mutli-purpose! I watched the Cameron Crowe 20 documentary and it just kind of spurred from there [laughs], oh dear. It’s shifted a bit to R.E.M now too.

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What have you got planned for the rest of this year?

Playing and promoting the album are the focus. I’ll be doing a solo album launch in Auckland, NZ in Feb and then we have album shows in Sydney and Melbourne end of March/April with the whole band family. I’ll then be heading back to UK/Europe and just hope to play a lot and get the album out to people as much as possible. I’ve started working more seriously on the next chapter of songs too so hope to get the ball rolling on the next album as soon as possible.

 

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Connect with Sarah Belkner:
Official WebsiteFacebookTwitterYouTubeSpotify

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Checkout more of Jackie’s work HERE

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AMNPLIFY – DB

February 2nd, 2017

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