Australian legend Sarah McLeod is back with a brilliant new rock album. "Why not make rock cool again? Chicks with guitars are cool. I don't care what you say."
Sarah McLeod has been around for a very long time. First coming onto the scene as the front woman for the sensational award winning, chart topping and platinum selling band The Superjesus, Sarah along with her instantly classic voice and guitars, has been packing a punch since 1994. After venturing off to do a solo album in 2005, Sarah strangely found herself on the European dance charts with influential and hit maker DJ types phoning and emailing her, begging to use her voice and collaborate with them. But after a few projects, things got a bit crazy and she decided she wanted to be true to herself and her sound. Even if that meant leaving Dutch dance master Tiesto hanging. True story - he's still waiting a reply from our Aussie rock angel. More on that later.
Sarah has a big love for 50s and 60s rock, and while she has always written with that inspiration in mind, the end production is usually more akin to the contemporary sounds of the time. Until now. Her new album Rocky's Diner - out this Friday - is an absolute gold mine of arpeggios, melody, and beautiful lyrics that hark back to that golden era of music. But her big beautiful rock vocal, attitude and grunt make the sound truly hers. It has to be emphasised that Sarah's attention to detail in her songwriting along with the sheer diversity of songs from ballads, to blues, to sultry half time rock, to just full on heavy rock and roll is something to be admired. In other words, please listen to this album and hear a woman at the top of her artistic game.
Recorded in a self-imposed three month window in Brooklyn, New York, Rocky's Diner is an ode to Little Italy, and to the Rocky film franchise. Again, true story. And again, more on that later.
Sarah's optimism, her joy, her love of music and her desire for new challenges result in her incredible sticking power. What's more, for Sarah McLeod, rock isn't dead. And thank God for that.
Sarah McLeod and Music Love's Julie Kerr - along with Sarah's dog Cha-Chi - had the following conversation over coffee in inner city Sydney, talking all about Sarah's fascinating and long life in music, and just how excited she is to unleash these new songs, and some suggestions for our long-awaited Women In Rock Spotify Playlist.
JK: This album is epic
SM: This is a great start to the interview
JK: When I was doing a little study on you, I found out you love 50s and 60s music and I think that this album is definitely a nod to that.
SM: Oh yeah. And in the beginning when I was writing it, I was trying to not do that. I thought I'm gonna write a rock record. And I was like, you know, I'm gonna make it beefy and heavy because my last EP [from 2005] was written like 50s and 60s stuff but I produced it according to that time. It was of the era. But this one, I thought I'm gonna make it heavy... and I got three songs in and I couldn't help myself. I started going back to the waltzes and the arpeggios. This is me.
JK: It's been twelve years since your last album - obviously you've been doing a bunch of stuff since then. But when did you conjure up the idea for Rocky's Diner?
SM: I didn't start until 1 January last year and I finished it on 31 March the same year. I said to everyone I'm gonna do this album in three months. I had no leads or ideas or anything whatsoever, and I went in completely cold and I went, "go." I'm giving myself three months - it was a real little test. I just loved it, and the challenge of that.
JK: The name of the album - when did you come up with that? In Brooklyn?
SM: There are two different ideas that fused together to become Rocky's Diner. Firstly, I had this obsession with Little Italy because I used to live in New York and I used to go to this restaurant called Rocky's but I couldn't find it. But pretty much every restaurant was the same. I like the idea of the host of the restaurant - he's almost flirty with all the ladies. They're all like that, old Italian men. They sit and talk to you and listen to your problems and there's pictures of them all over the wall with famous people and you get the history of the restaurant. And it's kind of - I had this idea of it being like a Little Lonely Hearts Club - people go down there and pour their heart out like [President] Obama to Rocky. I had also seen the entire [film] collection of Rocky on DVD. I'd got given it for Christmas.
JK: The box set?
SM: And I was obsessed with Rocky IV when he goes to Russia to fight Drago at Christmas. He's like "I'll fight you, but I'm gonna do it on your turf. At Christmas." It was like, one up him. And I was going to where it was snowing. It wasn't Russia but it was snowing but I had this little connection to it. And it was just on Christmas and I had this great challenge in front of me and I was like, I'm gonna do this, like Rocky. I'm gonna slay the dragon and come back like Rocky would. So it was a combination of all of those things.
JK: That's so cool
SM: And I had a penny drop moment with Rocky. I had written the first two songs as rock songs, and I was like, I don't know where I'm going with this. I don't have a theme. Then I took a day off and I went to have lunch in Little Italy and I had the full penny drop moment. I was like, oh my god and I had this drive-in movie theatre image in my head, and it was, "Coming soon: Rocky's Diner," and I knew what to do. I had a vision for it straight away. I'm going back to the 60s thing. I don't care.
JK: I'm so glad you did - it's awesome. Do you think it's a bit American sounding?
SM: I don't - someone said that to me the other day. Do you?
JK: Yes. But maybe that's because I know you made it in America. I can hear the guitars and it's called Rocky's Diner. And there's a doo-wop thing and the diner thing. Do you remember that 50s artist Dion?
SM: Yeah! I love Dion - he sang The Wanderer
JK: I kept thinking of him and so maybe that's why I was like, oooh this is American
SM: Well if you are relating me to Dion then I'm your best friend
JK: I love him. You've been making music since 1994 and you've seen a lot in this industry. And it's changed a lot. What do you think of the business in 2017?
SM: It's so different. It's like apples and oranges. I am embracing it. But I do find it incredibly taxing. Now you have to give so much of yourself all the time. Making a video with this, going live with this, constantly having to tell everyone what I'm doing all the time and I'm thinking, really? Do [the fans] care?
JK: Whereas before?
SM: Didn't have to worry about it. You hired a publicist. A couple of interviews
JK: For a limited time
SM: Exactly. Now it's all the time. And it's getting worse. Like Katy Perry did that live video thing. You don't get any personal space from anyone anymore.
JK: You are quintessential rock. But tell me about when you delved into the club scene?
SM: It just happened. I never intended to do it. I never actually sat down and made a plan for it. It happened because this album I put out in 2005 called Beauty was a Tiger, there was a track on there called He Doesn't Love You and my manager at the time, she got a dance remix of it and it just started doing really well.... In Europe it did really well
JK: That would have been exciting
SM: It was weird. I mean I never went there. It was number one in Eastern Europe for sixteen weeks and not once did I go there. It seemed like a life away. It was happening. I could see the stats but I was never involved in any of it. And then after, that DJs started coming to me. "We like your voice. We'd like to collaborate on this, this and this," and I sort of just ran with it. And it got to the stage when I was getting emails from [Dutch DJ] Tiesto saying "I love your voice and I want to collaborate with you" and suddenly I thought, wow I'm getting into this scene too much and I stopped and I just never wrote back to him. (Laughs).
JK: Oh wow
SM: I know, I could have made millions. So that's committing to a direction. (Laughs).
JK: Yet when you think of music now, like what's on the radio and Spotify playlists, it's all electronic
SM: Yeah totally. I'm a fool, but I don't care. I like what I like. And I make music for my own enjoyment - because I like to listen to it myself.
JK: What do you think about rock music in 2017? What's the future of it?
SM: I actually think it's starting to make a bit of a comeback. Chicks like Ali Barter. Young women are coming out now with guitars, and rock and roll is making a comeback through the youth which is exciting. I always thought I was the last bastion, slugging that thing around - here I am again. So it's nice to see it being reinvented again in a different demographic. Maybe I'm being optimistic, but I would like to think that it's starting to become cool again. And why not? Why not make it cool again? Chicks with guitars are cool. I don't care what you say. And guys with guitars are cool. Guitars are cool.
JK: Guitars are cool. When you recorded Rocky's Diner, you have a lot of different guitar sounds on there, right?
SM: Actually, I don't.
JK: Really? (Blushes)
SM: I have two different sounds and one interesting pedal. That's probably what's you're hearing. The weird Queens of the Stone Age sound? That's my Micro Synth pedal, my interesting pedal. And then I've got the Vox [amplifier]. I just use the two amps. So it's always the Marshall [amplifier] with the SG [guitar], Vox [amplifier] with the SG [guitar]. And also the Marshall [amplifier] with the Telecaster [guitar], Vox [amplifier] with the Telecaster [guitar]. Next song. Those two guitars with each amp. And the interesting pedal.
JK: Do you know what else I like? On the track No One Wants To be the First To Say Goodbye, I feel like you can hear the room with the piano. But you're gonna tell me it's a fancy keyboard aren't you?
SM: I hate to say it. It was a fancy keyboard.
JK: Sigh. That's alright. It's like when I found out Elton John doesn't use real brass anymore. It's ok
SM: No one uses real anything anymore
JK: Well the piano sounded epic
JK: And secondly, the lyrics - they're beautiful!
SM: Oh thanks
JK: They are from another era
SM: I think back in the day lyrics were really simple. The message was really simple and people would say it really simply. People can overcomplicate things, I reckon. They try to be a good lyricist - and the simple lyrics are the most difficult to write, strangely enough
JK: Because you don't want to be too common
SM: Yeah like (rifs). "I was walking down the street. Pretty little lady that I thought you should meet."
JK: Love. We have to talk about The Superjesus. Originally called Hell's Kitchen. Why did you change the name?
SM: We thought Hell's Kitchen was too metal. It was a bit too dark. I'm the worst for eleventh hour decisions. And it was the night before the art was about to go out for the Big Day Out poster we were on and I was like, "I don't like the name." And we all got together and had a bit of a pow wow about it and decided to change the name at the last minute to The Superjesus. It was a play on buzz words at the time. Everyone was using "Jesus" and also "Super." It was super this and super this. And I was like, let's add the "The" in front of it so it's like The Beatles and it makes it more commanding, and there we go.
JK: And how was it when you reformed the year before last?
SM: It was just lovely because they are just really good blokes. Especially the bass player Stuart - I just adore him and I hadn't seen him for so long and the moment we all met - it was like ten years later - and we were to go to Adelaide to rehearse and we were staying in this hotel, and everyone was texting, "Meet in the lobby at this time." I walked down to the lobby and they were all sitting there. And we didn't even say anything. We all just looked at each other and smiled and were like, "Oh my god, no one looks any different." Stuart was still wearing the same clothes.
JK: And it was fun doing the album and tour and everything?
SM: Yeah, I just like hanging out with them. Music aside, i like being in their company.
JK: Were you nervous seeing your fans again?
SM: No because I always have this odd belief - and I'm totally aware that it's not true - that the people in the audience are the same people every night. The same people every where I go. (Laughs). It must be something I've conditioned my brain to think, oh it's me and those guys
JK: (Laughs) You're about to tour now. How are you feeling about that tour?
SM: This tour isn't like anything we've done before. We are doing it as a two piece and I'm playing bass and guitar at the same time and I have designed a guitar that means I can play them at the same time
SM: And I've re-written the arrangements so I can pull it all off
JK: Oh my gosh
SM: So it's just me and Mick who is the drummer from the Baby Animals. I've been playing with Mick for years so it's just the two of us
JK: That's cool
SM: It's actually way cool. But it's definitely an ambitious situation because not only are they quite big songs to sing and quite taxing, what I'm doing on the guitars and the pedals - I never use pedals. I've been playing guitars for years and never use pedals. And everyone is like, "Where are your pedals?" And I'm like, "I don't believe in pedals.". And now -
JK: But guitarists are all about their pedal boards.
SM: I have this thing that pedals are like smoke and mirrors - just play the bloody thing. If you learn how to play it properly you won't need to hide behind these stupid pedals. But now I need all these pedals because I'm switching between a guitar sound and a bass sound and two different guitar sounds and it's like I'm dancing because I have to do it to the beat. There are some songs that have one bar of a break and in that bar I've gotta hit four things. So I've gotta make it like, "Click, boom boom boom, sing." I've gotta make it on the beat or I'll mess myself up. And if there aren't enough beats for everything then I change the arrangements, so everything I do is has to all be part of the swing.
JK: Wow. So who did you design that guitar with?
SM: A guy called Matt at Salt Mine guitars in Surry Hills - so I just went and explained it, and drew it
JK: What did he think?
SM: He was like, "This is awesome, I love it."
JK: Has it ever been done before?
SM: I don't know if it's been done like this. But the idea of it - I used to go on tour with a band called Local H in America - and the guy from that band had something that played bass at the same time but I don't know how he did it. But he did it. So I thought I know it's possible and then I thought logically - how would you do it? - and just tried it and it worked. Want another coffee?
SM: So about the tour - I'm a bit nervous. I'm practising all the time. And I'm not someone who does that. It's really weird. And I'm sitting home by myself practising
JK: You are motivated
SM: I am, yeah
JK: Your voice is incredible. You are hitting some big notes.
SM: Can't practise that at home, I'll get evicted
JK: Ha. Have you ever learned to sing?
SM: No, I think it's a state of mind. And also I think anyone can do it if you have the right state of mind and you do it often enough. It's like a muscle. If I haven't sung for a few days I can barely hold a tune
JK: Do you walk around the house singing?
SM: I am always paranoid people can hear me
JK: I'm sure they wouldn't mind. Who are your favourite women in music?
SM: Veruca Salt. I love [lead singer] Louise Post. Our drummer dated Louise for a while and we were all like, "High five man." That's the best hook up that any of us had ever had. And we got to hang out and we went on tour with them. She was my hero. PJ Harvey is another one. I've always been a big fan. I love Björk. She did a whole album with no instruments - just her voice. And I've always wanted to do that. I did an a capella track on my last EP. I was in the barber shop in the demo but the guy who produced it with me - I asked him to do it. He said, "I can't sing," so I taught him how to sing it. And we did it together. Bit by bit. And he was like, "Wow, I can sing."
Sarah McLeod's tour dates
Thu 24 August - Factory Floor, Sydney, NSW - TICKETS
Thursday 5th October - Sol Bar, Sunshine Coast - Tickets
Friday 6th October - The Spotted Cow, Toowoomba - Tickets
Saturday 7th October - Miami Shark Bar, Gold Coast - Tickets
Sunday 8th October - Byron Bay Brewery, Byron Bay - Tickets
Thursday 12th October - 48 Watt St, Newcastle - Tickets
Friday 13th October - Baroque Room, Katoomba - Tickets
Sunday 15th October - Miranda Hotel, Miranda – Tickets
Wednesday 25th October - Pelly Bar, Frankston - Tickets
Thursday 26th October - Sooki Lounge, Belgrave - Tickets
Friday 27th October - Karova Lounge, Ballarat - Tickets
Friday 3rd November - The Waratah Hotel, Hobart - Tickets
Saturday 4th November - Club 54, Launceston - Tickets