Take the time to listen to, watch, and let Sarah Belkner's emotional, hooky, 80s pop music and films gently unfold. You'll be glad you did
Sarah Belkner is a pop producer, songwriter, singer and performer. Her original music is somewhat of a minimalist take on the 80s, with emotive hooks and thoughtful layers. Yet it's fresh, fresh, fresh. Sarah's music deserves your time. It's good to give the production and the songs the space they are worthy of, perhaps in the same manner one would wander through an art gallery. Her sound and accompanying music films fit together beautifully to create both strong and gentle uplifting, contemplative works.
The New Zealand born, Sydney based artist has just released her debut full length album But You Are, But It Has, after her well regarded 2015 debut EP HUMANS. She produced BYABIH along with her husband, renowned engineer Richard Belkner, at their studio Free Energy Device in Camperdown.
There are many treats including an ensemble comprising of NGAIIRE, Billie McCarthy, Brendan MacLean, and some highly regarded session musicians playing instruments like a synthesised saxophone and synthesised clarinet. The album is an extension of HUMANS, and the music videos for tracks from both records are stunning. Sarah has previously worked in production, as a session keys player for many artists (Sarah Blasko, Chet Faker, Alex Lloyd, OLYMPIA, Jack Colwell and NGAIIRE), as a music teacher and an arranger. All of these experiences have shaped Sarah to be an artist who is creating her own stunning solo works. Enjoy this conversation where Sarah talks about her career path so far, her music video direction, upcoming tour, and how she uses the studio as an instrument.
What does music mean to you?
Nice simple one to kick us off, ha ha! No, it is actually pretty simple. Music means communication and expressing the conscious and the sub-conscious together. It’s the way I learn about life and what I think about things. I see other perspectives from other people’s music, too. It’s process and coping and courage and skill, and is a huge part of my personality. It’s hard to differentiate where music ends and I begin. It’s one and the same now.
How do you feel now that But You Are, But It Has has been released into the world?
Amazing. It’s been really insightful to be able to be in the analysis phase of it now, being able to see it as a whole and really connect the dots of what I was doing and going through and what the album means for me. I’ve learnt so much from it on many more levels than I realised. And now knowing that people are listening to it is just a wonderful feeling for everyone involved. It’s been incredible to realise how music really does provide so much opportunity for connection in your life and it’s been beautiful to start to meet new fans and other artists and people directly because of the work.
Talk us through the process and the inspiration for the accompanying lyric book, which is an incredible idea
Thanks, I’m excited about it too! It was designed by a wonderful Melbourne designer Peter Salmon. I thought I’d have a go at not pressing CDs but I still wanted something people could hold and get lost in visually while listening from a screen, if that’s your thing.
So there’s a vinyl release, which comes with the lyric book, and a CD quality download card, which comes with the book, as well. I’m someone who grew up scouring liner notes in CDs and devouring lyrics, so that’s always the part I love about physical albums, and miss about digital. When you read words you get a real internal sense of what the writer and you think a song is about, and I love that intimate space with an album. I like to know the names of the people behind everything too. Who made it, and where, and how it was made. You can see musical communities that way. With streaming and iTunes, it’s very rare you clearly see the people who actually made the album with the artist or band. Peter really made the words come to life too. It’s beautiful. The words he’s picked up and accentuated in the graphic bring the songs to life even more. Hopefully it will help some people immerse in it further.
You released a very cool EP called Humans in 2015 which was well received, and But You Are, But it Has is a continuation of that EP. But take us back a little - what was your musical career like before this?
Well I moved from New Zealand ten years ago and created a project called Miss Little and I put an EP and an album out [under the moniker], which was a great learning process. I had been teaching singing in schools for a long time, and doing all sorts of various musical things, dabbling in writing for ads, arranging, and then just working lots of odd jobs so it came time to really think about what I love to do and not do musically, and really committing. So from the release of the HUMANS EP, and now working under my own name I have been really focussed on playing, creating and getting my work out, or playing in bands of people who are making works I admire. Apart from that, I've been working in the studio, arranging and producing for other people, and performing on other people’s albums too. I love passing on knowledge, and giving support to others. I’ve begun mentoring a few other singers and songwriters now who are serious about touring and recording their own work too. But all of it is linked to original creativity and making new works.
You produced this album, alongside your husband. For our producer/engineer readers, what is one new production or engineering technique you learned when making this record?
It’s not really new exactly, but I loved watching Richie and Evan sample the drum kit we recorded in the studio back into the MPC [Music Production Controller], and get it to play the beat so it mimicked my old little Casio loop beat I had written. The relationship of humans to machines in the studio is endlessly fascinating. We use hardware for these sort of things rather than the computer, and we are all musicians searching for new sounds. I’m not a soft synth kind of gal, and I’m lucky to work with a talented engineer like Richie who will do things like run the grand piano through a guitar amp so we are more interested in things like that. The studio is an instrument. That’s a good thing to remember.
Tell us about the concept and film direction for your music video for Cellophane?
Brian Fairbairn and Karl Eccleston are the directing duo wizards behind my film clips. [There is] a natural resonance between my music and their visions, which can be similar or contrasting, but always end up expressing all the ideas more clearly. They are from Sydney but live in London now. I was over there opening for Sarah Blasko last year and had this one random weekend off in London and the boys were miraculously free too! We were mainly focusing on the clip for TIME, which is quite stylised , black and white, and conceptual, but we all agreed we’d love to do something for Cellophane as well as we had the gear for the whole weekend. Ha ha, it’s so cool that a lot of art is born out of necessity and economy.
They came up with this very simple one shot idea of me holding another woman and that’s where their gorgeous actress friend EJ Martin comes in. So the night before filming TIME I sat in Brian and Karl's apartment and held EJ and we shot it with Ben and Jacqui wielding the camera on a dolly track maybe three times, and [then we] picked the one that hit us in the guts the most.
More and more I feel like with everything with BYABIH we were weirdly working in the future in many ways. The clip is eerily on point with a lot of emotion that is happening right now, but we filmed it almost ten months ago. I was going to release it last year but it seemed right to put it out with the album and I’m so glad it came out now.
Who are your favourite Australian women in music?
Oh there are so many. The ladies I’ve had the pleasure of playing for in the last year, Sarah Blasko, OLYMPIA & NGAIIRE, three incredible writers, performers and souls. My publicist Nat Files is an incredible women who has made her own company recently and she fosters a lot of up and coming publicists trying to get into the industry too. She has been there with me from the start and I’m so grateful for her ongoing support. My friend Zoe Hauptmann really inspires me, she’s one of the best bass players in Australia, touring with the likes of Neil Finn, Paul Kelly, Missy Higgins, and since she’s had her babies she’s worked really hard at not changing what she does and not giving up touring either. Those babies have been everywhere! And they love it and are better for it, having mum stay true to her passions. She’s a total legend.
Who is your favourite Australian non-musical artist?
At the moment I love Joel Rea’s paintings. They visually sit in a space I love. Real experience and life just on the outskirts of surrealism. His work is so physical, awe inspiring and kinetic, and the skill level is off the charts. It shakes your soul up even when looking at it on a computer. I have never seen it in real life and can only imagine how epic it would feel.
Where is your favourite place in Australia?
Tasmania. The big sky, the air and the space. My husband Richie grew up in Westbury out of Launceston and we are really lucky to go and visit. The East Coast blew my mind, I grew up by the beach in New Zealand and am absolutely ocean obsessed. When I’m on tour, if there’s a beach even vaguely close I sniff it out and make it happen if I can.
Best place to eat, drink or both in Australia?
We live in Camperdown right near Newtown in Sydney and it’s a little oasis for food. Great cheap eats. Pick any Thai on King St for a $7 lunch - you can’t go wrong. There’s a great little Korean place on Parramatta Rd called Open Korea that opened the same week Richie opened the recording studio (Free Energy Device) and so we have been eating there for a while and watching Andy the chef and his wife's kids grow up, ha ha! It’s lovely. Best prawn pancake in town. For a drink, you can’t go wrong with Earl’s Juke joint South King St. Vibey art deco, and great bar men and ladies. And in Melbourne, Trumpy is the best little bar that OLYMPIA introduced me to. It’s in Thornbury and they do an incredible Aviation cocktail.
You are about to tour this album. What venue are you most excited about?
I’m really looking forward to taking the band to Melbourne. We are playing the Welsey Anne in Northcote where I haven’t played before. I love Northcote so I'm looking forward to that.
What band members will you be touring with in the future?
My band? All of my band will be on these album shows (expect for the NZ show) which is amazing, so Evan Mannell on drums, Neal Sutherland on Bass and Matt Keegan on Synthesised Clarinet ( yep it’s a real thing ). When we play with the full band, Richie comes and does sound too, so it’s pretty special and the audience get the whole musical family.