This weekend, the voice of Sarah Blasko will fill the Sydney Opera House Concert Hall, carried along by the enormous sound of a 40-piece orchestra. She’ll be performing songs from her self-produced 2012 album I Awake, a record dominated by sweeping, stormy strings.
“When you say you’ve done an album with an orchestra, people automatically have an idea in their minds of what that means,” Blasko says. “People think that’s your ‘safe’ album. But I want the orchestra to provideimpact. It needs to seep in and bowl you over unexpectedly.”
For anyone keeping an eye on Blasko’s career choices, it’s pretty obvious that she seeks danger rather than safety. Next month her voice will fill another auditorium, the Sydney Theatre, as part of the latest show from Sydney Dance Company, De Novo. The sound this time, however, will be extremely different. Her vocals, celebrated by music journalists for their cooing delicateness, intimacy and aching vulnerability, will here be twisted, deformed, cut up and layered over themselves into unsettling harmonies.
“We wanted to really mess with the beauty, cut across it,” says Blasko, “and make those incisions obvious and harsh and surprising.” Her voice, at this point in the interview, softens almost to a whisper: “It’s been about how much we could fuck with things.”
It’s tempting to equate Blasko’s tendency to roam – writing in Brighton, recording in Stockholm – with her tireless search for new sounds. Ditching the electronic instruments of her alt-pop beginnings, in recent years she’s released a disc of piano-accompanied cinematic standards, formed one third of sunny folk-supergroup Seeker Love Keeper, and, most recently, immersed herself in the stirring full-blown string arrangements of her collaborator Nick Wales.
Creating the music for a new dance performance, at the invitation of SDC artistic director and choreographer Rafael Bonachela, was an opportunity for further sonic exploration.
It’s not Blasko’s first foray into the performing arts – she supplied the soundtrack for a stage production of Hamlet in 2008 – but this new work, another collaboration with Wales, is light years away from anything she’s conjured up previously, and a particularly dramatic departure from the orchestral romance of her I Awake tour. The Sarah Blasko we know has let herself be taken over by all things shadowy and synthetic. At its most thrilling and abstract, the score is a shadowy forest of hyperkinetic rhythms, distorted electric guitar – she has fallen back in love with the instrument – and electronic noise. Even the singer’s famously silky voice is pitch-shifted and digitally altered, at times dispensed in sharp operatic bursts and, frequently, intentionally creepy.
In further contrast to her latest rigorously rehearsed concerts, a lot of the music was built out of experimentation and happenstance. Early on in the compositional process, Blasko even found herself ‘jamming’ with the company: the dancers interpreting her wordless singing with their bodies and she, in turn, responding to their movements with her voice. Some of the sounds made by the dancers in those sessions, including the percussive thumps of their feet on the studio floor, made their way into the final mix.
When not wailing “weird, random” sounds into the microphone, Blasko felt the pressure to find the right words for the project – words that would inevitably influence Bonachela’s choreography of his dancers. “There’s very few lyrics and I felt like I really needed them to count,” Blasko says.
“One of the main lyrics in it is ‘I’ll love the weight until it’s dead’. It’s about embracing pain, and suffering, and the darker sides of yourself, in order to actually let them go. The idea of killing your burdens with love.” Blasko laughs, acknowledging the strangeness of the idea. But, at its core, the sentiment reflects the philosophy of an artist determined to constantly challenge herself. “There’s a power in embracing what is difficult,” she says.
This interview originally appeared in Time Out Sydney in February 2013.