Sarah Belkner may not remember this as acutely as I do, but we actually met about a year ago. It was at a Jack Colwell gig, someone she has produced for, and she was standing up the back of the show watching on intently. At the time I had been immersed in her EP Humans, and like a true ‘fan girl’ I awkwardly introduced myself and explained how much I loved her work. What immediately struck me about Belkner is that while I had caught her off guard, her genuine kindness, receptiveness, and appreciation for my enthusiasm was sincere and heartfelt.
Fast forward a year or so, and Belkner has just released her incredible debut album But You Are, But It Has. Her building – and arguably underrated – profile as a composer and producer is anything but overlooked in this beautifully arranged dreamy pop-infused number. With rich vocals and classic remnants, you could be forgiven for assuming traces of influence from the likes of Kate Bush, even Bowie, but Belkner’s work is very much her own; timeless, heartfelt, thoughtful, and guaranteed to have you bopping along affirmatively as one section seamlessly shifts into the next.
But You Are, But It Has is not just Belkner’s reflective contemplation and labour of love, it becomes yours as well as the lyrics wash over you, gently summoning you to think about where you might have expected your life to be, gracefully and unassumingly surrendering you to where it instead ended up.
Belkner has toured with Sarah Blasko, Olympia, Ngaiire and Lanie Lane, and most recently, she nabbed Double J album of the week. Not long after, But You Are, But It Has soaked up four stars from Rolling Stone who dubbed the record as “enchanting”, giving the thumbs up to Belkner’s ability to cultivate “the value of space, something she employs with expertise”.
Ahead of her upcoming shows across Sydney and Melbourne, I caught up with Sarah to chat about the album, her creative process, the notion of time, and what it was like collaborating with artist and choreographer Eileen Kramer who is now 102 years old.
Congratulations on your album But You Are, But It Has. How does it feel to have it out there?
Thanks! It feels really satisfying. It’s cool to know people are listening and I’ve been getting some really lovely comments and messages. I have wanted to make an album like this for a long time so to see it all finished and out there is wonderful. It feels like its content really makes sense in the current climate too so that’s been really interesting.
The track Time is a personal favourite of mine. Can you tell us a little bit about what’s behind it?
Well I guess we put a lot of importance in the idea of ‘Time’ don’t we? The way we structure our whole existence with ageing and working; everything can end up revolving around the old clock (that humans invented I always like to point out to myself haha). We can end up very bound to it and fighting against it. Not getting things done when we wanted to, not being in a certain work or financial or career position by an age we imagined it, not having a partner or a child or whatever it is by a certain time. Because when we are panicked and racing around and getting lulled into the false economy of being ‘busy’ we can end up pretty stuck and missing the things that are happening that are bloody fantastic. So this is a song that’s looking at the reality of time and how maybe seeing it a bit more for what it is helps us actually utilise our lives better. I don’t think we should put so much importance on time because it will kind of let you down in the end if you do. In other words, letting go of that resistance and getting more fluid! And I don’t mean being late to everything, just moving more fluidly and getting less hung up on things and expectations we might just be putting on ourselves that don’t actually exist.
You’re an arranger, a producer, a composer and a vocalist. From the outside, it seems like you work quite collaborative, what does your creative process look like?
Well, when I write my own work it’s just me by myself. I love that personal space and it’s very important to me but I’m always open to new ways of creating. And then I collaborate by bringing it to my band (Evan Mannell, Neal Sutherland, Matt Keegan & Richard Belkner (engineer/co-producer) who throw amazing ideas around and we work together from that point. And then I love being in the band mate seat for other artists too, bringing ideas to the table or playing parts that already exist live. And then producing is helping someone really find their vision and ideas and communicate that in the studio, so I enjoy all different ways of collaborating. I love being around good ideas being formed, it’s magical and insanely more practical than what people may think.
The video for Cellophane is utterly exquisite in all its simplicity and expression. Where was the concept derived from?
I was in London on tour opening and playing with Sarah Blasko and magically I had this one weekend off and Brian and Karl (directors) and crew were also free. We were making the video for Time and decided to do one for Cellophane as well as we had the gear for the whole weekend and the guys loved that song. So they came up with the one shot idea, which I loved and we hadn’t done a one shot video before. They called their gorgeous actress friend Ej Martin who I got to hold in the clip, and we did it in 3 takes and chose the one we liked the best.
We didn’t consciously mean it to be so relevant, which is the magic of creating and how it lines up sometimes – the simple image of one woman holding another. We are all really proud of that image and what it stands for. The idea was to be super simple and emotional to back up the song. I like that the visual can lead you down many paths too in what might be actually happening. I love the idea that viewers and listeners can choose their own narrative kind of thing, or whatever it resonates with in their life.
I recall you worked with the beautiful Eileen Kramer on your video Susanne from your EP. How did that come about and what was it like working with her?
It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life and a very influential one. Eileen has the most potent energy and endless love for expression and life. She really bleached out concerns and personal hang ups I had or was confused about with ageing and creativity. She is the embodiment of graceful persistence and I am forever grateful for her for showing me that and hope to pass that onto other people too.
I saw an interview with her and then couldn’t stop watching whatever I could find of her. Then my friend Anette managed to track a contact down for her and Rachael Brown (director) and I went and met her and it all happened. The way she moved to the song straight off the bat, I will never forget, we were all in tears watching her, and then on set too. It was very beautiful and my grandmother passed away just after I met her and before filming it, so it was incredibly poignant and I feel my grandma had a hand in the collaboration happening, she would have loved Eileen.
The Women’s March Sydney that brought 8,000 together in January featured your track Cellophane on their mix-tape. In fact, it was played through a portable boombox while we were marching through the CBD. What did you make of that?
Wow! That’s incredible, I love it! That means I got to be there a little bit, haha! I sadly couldn’t be there as I was rehearsing but seeing all the images from around the world of everyone coming together was so powerful. We can create our own hope, can’t we? I guess that’s what I learnt.
You’ve been chipping away at your music for a while, it’s so beautiful to watch it grow and unfold through your own personal narrative. What advice what you give your 20-year-old self if you could?
Thank you that really means a lot to me. I guess I would just say learn to not worry so much and pedestal other people or what you think they have achieved or expect from you. Say no to things you want to say no to. Get on with the creating you know you love and can contribute to. It’s ok if things don’t go to plan and really they often don’t, so just make and create and love.
What are you immersing yourself in when you’re not making music? In other words, what’s a week-in-the-life-of look like for you?
A week in my life is pretty varied but mostly making music or administrating it with all the different aspects of what I do. I’ve been doing a lot of travelling/touring with other people which I love and it’s nice to be home for a minute, conceptualising new work and getting ready to play shows for the album. The whole band is coming, as well as Richie (my husband) on sound, so it will be really special.
Grab tickets here to Sarah’s upcoming Sydney (Fri 31st March, Oxford Art Factory), and Melbourne (Thu 6th April, Wesley Anne, Northcote) shows.