Singer-songwriter Sarah Mary Chadwick

“I like quite singular things,” singer-songwriter Sarah Mary Chadwick tells me one afternoon in late January. We are sitting outside at the Tin Pot Cafe in Fitzroy North, an impossibly ’90s all-day cafe and the only place in the area that would serve wine at 2pm on a Tuesday.

Chadwick originally suggested the Parkview Hotel, a pokies pub across the street, only to find its main bar closed. The Tin Pot serves as an adequate replacement – at least until we find we’ve drunk its supply of pinot grigio dry. “I’m a bit of a dickhead [in] that I’ll drink my way through most awkward situations,” Chadwick says offhandedly later. “Which I think is fine.”

“Singular” is the unifying quality of the artists Chadwick loves – Elvis, Liza, Lana Del Rey and the Dunedin musician Alastair Galbraith among them – but it also serves as an explanation for her own distinctive and idiosyncratic oeuvre. She makes harsh, abrupt piano-based songs that are animated with a dry, misanthropic wit, and unified by arrangements that foreground her shuddering vocals and forthright piano-playing. Aside from those two elements, her style can change drastically, with no single aesthetic staying put for longer than one album. Still, you always know a Sarah Mary Chadwick song.

Her three most recent albums – a trilogy beginning with 2019’s The Queen Who Stole the Sky, followed by 2020’s Please Daddy and concluding next week with Me and Ennui Are Friends, Baby – hop from harsh, droning grand organ arrangements to lushly produced full-band folk and country, to stark, melodic upright-piano confessional. She writes lyrics like no one else – frank, psychoanalytic, stream-of-consciousness verses about broken relationships that are often so raw and so devastating that they tread into the realm of camp. On her two most recent records, she refers to her mother with the honorific “Mama”, à la Sally Bowles in Cabaret – if Sally Bowles later summed up her relationship with her mother with a terse “I hate that bitch”.

“To be massively successful has never seemed achievable to me,” Chadwick says. “But being someone who’s very respected among a small group of people has seemed more achievable and seems more appealing.”

Should Chadwick want to, it feels as though she could retire tomorrow, that goal achieved. Over the course of seven solo records and two odds-and-ends compilations, the 38-year-old musician has established herself as someone with few stylistic contemporaries and no serious imitators, a distinctive and well-loved figure respected for her commitment to a specific, knotty craft, who has managed to find an audience outside the tight-knit but insular sphere of Melbourne music.

Chadwick is polarising, and disliked among those who find her style offputting – she has joked in the past about how many people walk out of her shows. Although she has gained renown and international press with her most recent releases, she bucks the unwritten rules of newly “emerging” artists, in that Me and Ennui doesn’t move towards the more palatable or more accessible to court new fans. Instead, it is for those already taken by Chadwick’s blunt-force world: a record of wailing ballads and piano-bar tunes about existential pain, infidelity, inherited trauma – and, on its title track, Chadwick’s 2019 suicide attempt.

It’s unrelenting, bleak and brilliant, all the more so for the fact that, at what could be a pivotal moment in Chadwick’s career, she is choosing to walk further from any semblance of the mainstream towards a vision that is, although sometimes hard to grapple with, specifically hers.

Chadwick was born in Taumarunui, on New Zealand’s North Island, to a Māori father – a farmer – and a white schoolteacher mother. She describes the valley area as “super beautiful” and extremely small, the town reaching its peak population of about six-and-a-half thousand residents around the year she was born. At the behest of her mother, Chadwick participated heavily in extracurricular activities, “playing every sport, in every club”, and taking up piano lessons about the age of six. At 12 she was enrolled in boarding school, only returning to Taumarunui for holidays and occasional visits. “I wasn’t one of those people who had, like, cool parents,” Chadwick tells me of her relationship with music growing up. “I didn’t have much music that I liked myself until I went to school, and then lots of girls there were like, ‘Do you like Nirvana?’ ”

Chadwick was raised Catholic as a result of her mother’s deep faith but never felt a significant connection to the church, always harbouring some level of scepticism. She still appreciates the symbolism and imagery associated with it, but little more; generic markers of faith – God, heaven, hell and so on – still pop up frequently on her records. Certain songs, such as “I’m Not Allowed in Heaven”, a plaintive, yearning ballad from Please Daddy, navigate believing and disbelief at the same time:

I’m not allowed in heaven
Till I burn all the sin from me
I’m not allowed in heaven
I got lied to when I was young
’Cause life’s not about being happy, Sarah
Life’s not about having fun

“I think I managed to come out relatively unscathed by [Catholicism],” says Chadwick, “in that I’ve never felt guilt about my sexuality, and I’ve always dated men and women since I was a teenager. When I was a kid, I just always disagreed with [religion] straight away. I always was a bit like, ‘Really?’ … [Now,] I like Whitman-y ideas about God and things like that, broadly just ideas of the world being big and containing lots of things.”

Chadwick’s faith has mostly been placed in other outlets across her life – in reading when she was a child and wanted to be a writer; in music, as a teenager; and, over the past few years, in psychoanalysis, which she credits with assisting both emotional excavation and songwriting.

“When I first started doing psychoanalysis [about five years ago], I had a pretty amateurish worry that if I figured my shit out, I wouldn’t have anything to write about anymore,” Chadwick says. “It’s been exactly the opposite, in that the more you figure out, the more you can figure out, and the more you can talk about things clearly.”

Psychoanalysis has helped Chadwick better understand her upbringing in Taumarunui and her relationship with her parents, a shift reflected in her music, which has become both more concerned with familial trauma and more distinct in its emotional dissections over the past few years.

“[Family has] always been an issue for me,” she says, “and it’s always been the source of a lot of depression and anxiety and sadness since I was a child. As I’ve gotten older, [I’m] just starting to address things properly.” She says psychoanalysis has also helped with the painful work of reframing and questioning narratives that she first adopted in her childhood. “I always thought that my mum was the city woman who had come down to this awful small town, for example, because Mum always told me that she had no friends and everyone was horrible to her in this town, and that they didn’t like her because she was kind of glamorous.

“That was always the story if anyone asked; that would be how I would explain it. But in retrospect, when I’ve looked at it properly as an adult, I realised that makes no sense,” Chadwick says. “She would not even be friends with my friends’ mums and stuff, and they were all lovely women. When I started unpacking things, I had more to say, because I wasn’t just repeating shit that she told me. It became more significant to talk about.”

Although Chadwick still has friends in Taumarunui, any fondness for the town is stymied by its connection to the discomfort she feels about her family. The town hangs around her music like a spectre, most recently appearing in 2019’s “Confetti”, the colossal opener to The Queen Who Stole the Sky. The record was originally commissioned by the City of Melbourne to be written and performed on the Town Hall’s grand organ: “Every night / Falling through my dreams / They teleport me / Taumarunui / Hit gravel from a height”. Chadwick’s feelings about Taumarunui feel just shy of hang-ups; throughout our conversation, she describes the more rough-hewn elements of her music as “rural”.

After leaving Taumarunui, Chadwick moved to Wellington and formed Batrider, a grungy, hazed-out punk band where she first began to develop her raw, distinctive vocal style. Batrider were a well-liked band, and proved to be an incubator for three distinctive, cult musicians – aside from Chadwick, the band also featured, at points, Steph Crase, who plays as Summer Flake, and Julia McFarlane, a member of the now-defunct but hugely influential indie band Twerps and currently leader of the post-punk band J. McFarlane’s Reality Guest. Hallmarks of Batrider’s sound recur on Sarah Mary Chadwick records, including, in Chadwick’s mind, a quiet disinterest in virtuosity.

“I’ve always been pretty aware of my own limitations – I’m not particularly technically skilled at anything I do, really,” she says, with no trace of facetiousness. “You can tell that Julia, in those Batrider records, always had an interest in being skilled – she was always practising guitar and that kind of thing – and you can just tell straight away that I’ve got no interest in technically being good at things.”

There is, of course, a certain virtuosic quality in what Chadwick does; her emotional process is rigorous, and although her songs are raw, they rarely feel uncontrolled. Even so, Chadwick remains wary of the pitfalls of being “too good”. “I remember [in Batrider] being really protective over naivety – you don’t wanna get too good at things. I feel like that is a concern,” she says. “I don’t want to get to a point where – because I do write so many songs, there definitely could be a tipping point where you get so skilled at putting things together that you lose something, less happy accidents or something.”

There have been times when Chadwick has felt that polish has detracted from the immediacy and intensity of her music, most notably on Please Daddy, which she feels suffers slightly from being more rehearsed than her music usually is. “I really love Please Daddy, and it’s quite realised for me, but I think I did recognise that there was something lost, in terms of the energy or liveliness or openness or something. Or candidness,” she explains. “With [Me and Ennui], we recorded that in one day, and every song is maybe just three takes, tops, and I did all the singing and the piano at the same time, which I don’t normally do. I was more concerned with immediacy and energy as opposed to pitch and performance.”

This conscious paring back of the scope of her work is a distinctive, and admirable, quality. The current music economy privileges grand visions, bloated records, a distinct sameness; time and space are rarely given to small, detailed things done well, which is where Chadwick excels, as showcased in Me and Ennui. “When I was younger I was more focused on being famous, in a way that would enable me to have money and be sustainable,” Chadwick says. “As I’ve gotten older, my focus has been reframed more on doing things that I find satisfying.”

Me and Ennui was completed in 2019, and Chadwick is now demoing a new set of songs to record with her friend and long-time producer Geoffrey O’Connor. Given her tendency towards refinement instead of expansion, it will likely follow the trajectory and aesthetic guidebook that has been set out over the course of her past few records, making her existential self-portraits sharper, more distinctive and more finely drawn – another masterful chronicle of, as she put it on one of her earliest songs, “a heart that’s bursting at its seams”.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on
Jan 30, 2021 as “The melody of pain”.

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