Her second solo album is being released this week and Sarah Mary Chadwick has her priorities all sorted. “I’m just at my mum’s house in Wellington. I’ve got a face mask on and I’m looking through all my old childhood photo albums”, the 32-year-old singer-songwriter chuckles down the phone line.
It’s been over ten years since Chadwick left her New Zealand birthplace to pursue her music career, initially as the lead-singer of swamp-doom outfit, Batrider, and more recently with her own solo work, which over the past few years has included her debut LP, Eating For Two, and a collection of b-sides and demos entitled Hit and Miss. She’s only been back ‘home’ intermittently since her departure, amidst brief stints in the UK and, mostly, Melbourne, where she now lives. Her current residence, a house she shares with partner and fellow singer-songwriter Stephanie Crase (aka Summer Flake), was where she wrote her latest album 9 Classic Tracks.
“It was all written on a big old organ that I’ve got”, Chadwick explains of the album’s genesis. “I learnt piano for years and years when I was a kid, maybe 12 years, and I lived with a guy in Melbourne when I first moved back [from living in England] and he had this organ. So I started writing songs on that.”
“I think I was a bit over guitaring”, she adds, conceding her own boredom played a key role for the push towards a rejuvenated songwriting approach. A creative shift which has now found it’s way into the final product, with 9 Classic Tracks featuring songs prominently partnering her daydream drawl with more illuminated, keyboard-based backings.
En route to this synth space station her organ-based demos metaphorically travelled through Geoffrey O’Connor, a local artist and producer who’s most recent work is heavily entrenched in the musical equivalent of a futuristic polaroid snapshot — taken in 1982. Yet, O’Connor’s nostalgic influence was purposefully restrained. For the most part he simply traced over Chadwick’s initial keys with a moderately brighter electronic palette. The result is a record where the compositions are the distant second priority, rarely becoming prominent or even partnering equally with Chadwick’s vocals. Synth and drum patterns are provided merely as a canvas, leaving the lyrical content, loaded with tearful vulnerabilities and bared-all bluntness, to become the obvious focus.
“I kinda think in the band I was writing songs like the last 2 solo records I’ve done, but they [had to] morph into something that a band could play”, Chadwick says of the obvious freedom associated with going solo. She quickly adds that she was “never been too much of a team player”, finding minor hindrances with the collaborative process. “Everyone’s putting a lot of work in, so everyones gotta get something out of it”.
It’s a diplomatic distraction that, alongside the multitude of line-up alterations, found Batrider slowly melting into a band unrecognisably removed from the formidable brutality that dominated their early releases — They Said You’re Hideous EP and the full-length follow-up and career highlight Tara. Founding lead guitarist Jules McFarlane left the band to permanently join The Twerps and, reduced to just the core three members, the band sputtered through their final album, Piles Of Lies. Forced into minimalism rather than wholly embracing it as a stylistic shift, Chadwick’s vocals were subsequently brought into greater focus as the band experimented with a delivery variances — most unexpectedly being the optimistic ‘bounce’ of the title track. As a result, presumable without intent, Piles Of Lies effectively served as a practice run for the lead singer’s own inevitable solo career.
Less than a year later Chadwick released Eating For Two, a record that displays a better handle of it’s sparse settings, the emotive explosions of Batrider replaced with equally powerful wallows of loneliness. While stylistically similar throughout — as per Chadwick’s own admissions: “I’m quite limited as a guitarist” — Eating For Two presents an artist completely comfortable in their surrounds, therapeutically traveling through a desolate landscape with only themselves for company.
While 9 Classic Tracks is a continuance of this lonesome disposition, the lighter musical surrounds displaying the bleakness as a comforting component rather than an invitation for pity. In his review of the album, Doug Wallen accurately describes Chadwick’s “dreary charisma” as a primary part of the record’s success. A seemingly contradictory stance only extenuated further by the record’s array of playful components, including her over-emphasised New Zealand accent on particular points and the awkwardness associated with her overall directness. A cheekiness that also transcends beyond the music itself — the album title being an obvious piss-take (“it’s kinda stupid because there’s like 11 tracks”, as she explains) and the NSFW cover art Chadwick drew herself serving as it’s own separate discussion point. On the latter, she’s quick to defend the pornographic suggestions, simply saying: “there’s not that much nudity in it”.
The cover art for ‘9 Classic Tracks’
With such an obvious reliance on balancing honesty, vulnerability and devilish wit, how on earth does it translate live?
“It’s a bit of a head-fuck to be honest”, Chadwick snickers at her own bluntness, before clarifying that it’s still very much a case of trial-and-error with the music side of things. “I’ve got pretty analogue gear and I’ve been playing some beats programmed in to this old keyboard and then some in my phone and some I just play without them. Oh, and I use a delay pedal on the singing a bit when I do it live. Not for loops, just so I can get a bit of layering happening”.
“I feel like it works, it’s just all a bit different”, Chadwick says of her re-interpretative live approach, conceding also that the format doesn’t always translate successfully as the soundtrack to certain scenarios. “I always feel like I kill the party”, she laughs, “[but] to be fair, if I was going out on a Saturday or whatever. At 11 o’clock when I’m on my fourth wine, I don’t necessarily want to listen to [this kind of music]”.
Find out for yourself. Grab a goonbag and head out to see Sarah Mary Chadwick when she’s performing her new album, 9 Classic Tracks, in Sydney and Melbourne over the next few months:
Friday, April 10: Polyester Records In-store, Fitzroy, Melbourne
Thursday, May 28: Golden Age Cinema, Surry Hills, Sydney
Friday, May 29: Repressed Records In-store, Newtown, Sydney
Thursday, June 4: The Gasometer, Melbourne
9 Classic Tracks is out Friday, March 27 via Rice Is Nice. Stream the lead single “I’m Back Where I Was” below: