For most, 2020 marked a new and unexpected lifetime low.
Even that part of the population previously unscathed by depression suddenly found themselves looking inward, only to find a dark and frightening new reality. But for Sarah Mary Chadwick, it was the best year in recent memory.
‘At the time I was still thinking about my dad and my friend who both died five years ago now,’ notes Chadwick over the phone on a typical Melbourne afternoon. ‘I still had to go to fucking work every day and record albums and tour. But when all that pandemic stuff happened, I was happy because I didn’t have to keep a game face on anymore.’
Prior to the pandemic, Chadwick had been undergoing psychotherapy, attending as many as three times a week, with a psychologist she’s had since she was a teenager. During the pandemic, however, she stopped going altogether. ‘It’s a really good time for me. I’m in a good relationship now. We got married a few months ago; it was really cool. Things are definitely a million times better.’ Chadwick’s positive new outlook marks a dramatic change from the emotional depths that predicated her last three records. While each was recorded under unique circumstances, all three are ultimately bound by the true tales of trials and trauma in Chapman’s life.
‘It’s a bit in retrospect I think, but there is a certain timeframe encapsulated in those three records. I think my songwriting in particular seemed to really hit a stride in a way. On a personal note, that’s why I wanted to put them together as a trilogy. I wanted three quite heavy records about pretty sad times.’
The Queen Who Stole the Sky was recorded live on a 147-year old pipe organ in Melbourne Town Hall, and Please Daddy followed with a backing band and lush arrangements. But despite the devastation conveyed on both of those records, it would be this year’s release of Me & Ennui Are Friends, Baby that tops them all in bottoming out. Stripped down to the sparsest of piano parts and compounded by her intense and uncomfortably autobiographical lyrics, Chapman would go on to revisit her consistent themes of boy troubles and mommy/daddy issues, but this time takes us one step further into the void, describing an even darker time that includes a recent suicide attempt, which came just weeks before the recording.
‘It’s kind of the only way I’ve ever written,’ she says. ‘It’s what works for me. I guess as I get older, I learn more about what I can and can’t do, and it’s quickly becoming a bit more distilled. I’ve always been a depressive person. I’m not very good about death. I mean no one is. But if I had been a little bit more together in the first place, then maybe it wouldn’t have wrecked me like it did. It is a constant in my music. Usually, I can see both sides of things, but when those specific events happened, it erased the part of me that could find it funny.’
To refer to Chadwick’s songs as ‘sad,’ would be a massive understatement. Devoid of metaphor and no obtuse language to hide behind, her blatant and explicit transmissions emanate alongside a lonely piano that provides the barren backdrop to lyrics that bounce, stumble and stretch across verses, often unravelling out of tune with flailing fragility. At her most despondent, Chadwick’s voice is reminiscent of Nico’s dark and distant vocal stylings, but let the song unfurl and you’ll hear Chadwick’s voice is far more dynamic and emotive.
‘People often throw the word catharsis around when they talk about my music,’ she says, ‘but I don’t think that’s right. Catharsis implies you do it and then you feel refreshed and can move on from it. I don’t feel like that. I feel that something I can do is express what I’m feeling in a way where people are able to connect with it. That’s what’s enjoyable to me. That’s worthwhile for people to do. But in terms of vulnerability, usually, I’m pretty fine with it. I try to manage it without it being too gratuitous or too exploitive, but I always wanted it to mean something and be worthwhile in the world. Even playing live, I try to make my banter pretty long and make jokes because I know it’s pretty bleak material.’
And it’s here that Chadwick does the seemingly impossible. Somehow, despite all the brutal honesty and pain captured on her recordings, Sarah Mary Chadwick is able to add just a little bit of humour to take the edge off. Whether it’s the cheeky album title or the lighthearted exchange between Chadwick and the EMT following her suicide attempt, Chadwick’s nuanced delivery is able to bring a smile to the heaviest of lines. Verses like And I didn’t call my mom/’cause I hate that bitch are built up and delivered like uncomfortable punch lines as she catches you by surprise by taking serious songs to an extreme you would never expect.
‘I can’t remember if I did it on purpose, or in retrospect, but I do feel that some of it is funny. A few months before Covid, I was playing those songs live and kept crying on stage. It was just too much. It’s too big for audiences and it’s too big for me. Whether it was unconsciously or not, it is pretty strange for me to sing “And I don’t call my mom, cause I hate that bitch” and have people applauding and laughing. It is very funny to me. I played that song the other night and people laughed, so I stopped in the middle of it and told them “she’s fucking crazy.”‘
So now that Chadwick’s mood has changed, will the songs? ‘As far as songwriting goes, I think it would be disingenuous for me to not write exactly about what is exactly going on. Whether it’s happy or sad, I think that’s the end game really. Now it’s five years later, I want to put as much of a lid on that as I can and move on. Also, it doesn’t really feel the same now as I did then either. I did some recording on the weekend and I really want to make songs that are multidimensional. Songs you can listen to when you’re sad or you’re happy… multifaceted songwriting. With the Ennui record, I think it’s good, it is what I wanted it to be… but it is a fucking dirge. I think that now I’m in a better place and more capable of getting more elements and variations into different kinds of songs.’