Seeker Lover Keeper: ‘Our Own Little Universe’
Sally Seltmann, Sarah Blasko and Holly Throsby talk to DOUG WALLEN about their new “supergroup” Seeker Lover Keeper, breakdowns on New York footpaths and Barry Otto’s breakdance moves.
Seeker Lover Keeper is the super-powered merger of singer-songwriters Sarah Blasko, Sally Seltmann and Holly Throsby. Armed with promising demos and the idea to sing each other’s songs, the trio met up in New York City to rehearse and record their debut album in one short, gruelling stint. Along for the ride were producer Victor Van Vugt, drummer Jim White (The Dirty Three), and bassist/guitarist Shahzad Ismaily. Ahead of the album’s release and the subsequent Aussie tour – featuring White and previous Blasko collaborator Dave Symes on bass – the three instigators reflected on their prosperous outing in three separate interviews conducted by phone.
Did you write these songs with each other’s voices in mind at all?
Seltmann: I wrote ‘Rest Your Head on My Shoulder’ specifically for the three of us to share the lead vocal. And ‘Even Though I’m a Woman’ I wrote thinking that I didn’t want to sing the main vocals. But two of my other songs were hanging around and I thought they’d suit our band.
Blasko: A couple I actually wrote when I was writing my last album. At that stage Sally had passed on ‘Rest Your Head on My Shoulder’ and I could hear her style in that. I thought those two songs [‘On My Own’ and ‘Bridges Burned’] would complement it. Then I wrote ‘Theme I’ specifically for the group. ‘Bring Me Back’ was something I’d written a long time ago but hadn’t done anything with. I played a bit to the girls and they immediately responded to it. So it was a combination of things. Thematically and style-wise, I thought those songs would work well.
Throsby: ‘Light all My Lights’ was something I had a melody for already, but it was just sitting there. Sally and Sarah liked it so I completed the song very much with them in mind. Particularly Sally, actually, for that one. The others were built around the band name in some ways. Because Sally had already thought of the name when we first decided to do this. So I was thinking about that and those elements and Sally and Sarah when I was writing their songs.
Is it strange to have someone else inhabit your songs that way?
Seltmann: I really, really like it, just because I’ve been writing songs and singing my own songs for a while now. I did the vocals for a song Sarah wrote called ‘On My Own’, and she was sort of directing me and telling me how she wanted it to feel. It feels a tiny bit like having a go at acting and trying to get into this character.
Blasko: It’s incredibly different. It’s really interesting to see the different things that people latch on to, the different ways that people do what they do. When you’re a singer-songwriter, you work with other people but you don’t often work with other singer-songwriters. I brought the songs pretty bare; what was most interesting to me was hearing how other people hear them. That also goes for hearing what Jim had to offer on the drums and Shazhad as well.
Throsby: It is in a way, because I’ve never really written for other people before. But I wasn’t really writing for other people as much as I was writing for the three of us. Because we hadn’t really decided who was going to sing what in the writing stage. Sally had written ‘Rest Your Head on My Shoulder’ for three vocalists, but we didn’t know who was going to sing which lines. That all happened after the songs were completed.
Is it pretty set who’s singing what now? Any chance of changing it up on tour?
Throsby: I hadn’t thought of that. I’d assumed that we’re probably going to stick with how it is on the record, but you never know. [Laughs]
How much did you edit each other’s work?
Seltmann: We didn’t really interfere with lyrics. But in the recording process we were constantly throwing around ideas. Someone would come up with a really good harmony, and someone else would say it’s not working at that tempo. That kind of thing. Whoever wrote the song, it was their choice how to write the lyrics and the chords and things they wanted.
You brought in Jim and Shahzad, but the record is still quite sparse.
Seltmann: Definitely, because we got together at Holly’s house over a few days and sat around the piano and played through lots of the songs and recorded some little live demos. I loved that real home-style [approach of] no fancy production and overdubs. It felt like the vocals stood out. And we only had a short amount of time [in the studio], so we didn’t want to be adding layers and layers of overdubs. Which is usually how I work when I record my own music, so it was really nice doing it in this way. It felt really fresh and alive.
Throsby: Those initial demos were just piano and vocals, and we all really like how those sounded. It’s easy to chuck a lot of stuff on records, but we did resist that. And the band really changed some things with Jim and Shazhad. Like, ‘On My Own’ is drums and bass and vocal, whereas initially it was piano and vocals.
Do you think you had enough time in the studio?
Throsby: Well, I think we all kind of freaked when we were in New York and thought we couldn’t get it all done. Then we realised we didn’t really have to, because we didn’t have any deadline except for a self-imposed one. We ended up taking a day or two off in New York at the end and having fun. Then we did some overdubs in Sydney. We booked three days and we ended up only using a day and a half. We were a bit unsure when we were there [in New York]. We couldn’t quite hear the record. After a few months and we listened to it again, we realised we actually just wanted to leave it how it was. We overdubbed a few key parts for ‘Light all My Lights’ and ‘Even Though I’m a Woman’ and left everything else.
Was it hard giving up the control you’re used to as a singer-songwriter?
Throsby: Obviously we all collaborate with people and bounce stuff off those people, but having it be so collaborative in this situation, I really enjoyed sitting back and having all of Sally’s ideas and Sarah’s ideas. All of us let go.
Was New York a sort of neutral space to record in?
Blasko: Kind of, because I had been living in England for the past year or so. And the girls had both done a lot of recording at home and in Australia, so I think they wanted to have an adventure and go somewhere else. The idea was to go to New York, although it’s not really that much further to come to Europe. But I think it was a nice idea to go somewhere none of us were living. We also knew a couple of people to work with there. Jim had expressed interest a while earlier, so we thought it’d be really nice to incorporate him. That’s where he lives.
Throsby: That was really important. We all stayed in an apartment in SoHo, which was heaps of fun. I think it was important to have our own little universe, in order to be as focused as were during that time. Sally and I got to JFK [Airport] five hours apart or something, and Sarah flew in the day before. Because New York is such an enjoyably late-night city and we weren’t particularly tired, we went and got pizza and drank a bottle of wine and talked. It was just nice. We hadn’t seen each other in the same space for a few months.
Seltmann: It made it pretty exciting for us. It’s like we were able to feed off the excitement of the city but also just really bunker down together to keep each other sane as the recording process went on.
Was it difficult sharing an apartment after working in close quarters all day?
Blasko: Not really. We were so tired when we got back there that we all went to sleep pretty much. [Laughs] We worked really long hours. Then we’d unwind a bit and have some wine. It gets intense at certain points, but that’s mainly just to do with finding the right sounds. That’s more where it became difficult. Doing things live, you want to get sounds right as you’re going along. It’s exhausting. It’s like doing a whole lot of performances over and over.
I read that you all ended up crying on the footpath one day. What happened?
Seltmann: That was instigated by me, basically. [Laughs] I had a lot of piano parts to play on the album, and it came from when we were recording ‘Even Though I’m a Woman’. We just had trouble recording that song. We did a few takes where it was just really wild and a lot faster, with Jim going really nuts on the drums. We loved that, but we thought maybe we should slow it down. We tried take after take after take, and I just felt like I was suffering a bit from the exhaustion and we all ended up on the footpath. [Laughs]
Sally, was it hard, too, being away from your husband and children?
Seltmann: Yeah, it was really hard, because they were going to come with me and then didn’t come in the end. That was part of my difficulty in the footpath breakdown. [Laughs]
“Because New York is such an enjoyably late-night city and we weren’t particularly tired, we went and got pizza and drank a bottle of wine and talked.”
‘You Can Rely on Me’ uses drum machine and keyboards, which sets it apart. How did that come about?
Seltmann: Well, Bree [Van Reyk from] Holly’s band programmed that drumbeat. Holly and Bree wrote that song together. We always loved it. We were thinking we’d try to recreate the drumbeat, but we realised the one Bree had already programmed was really great. And then we added extra keyboards.
Throsby: We were thinking of doing it with Jim playing drums. Then we were in New York in rehearsal and everyone just really liked that demo. We realised we were keen to use the actual demo itself, so Bree sent over the files from Australia of her Casio drumbeat. [Laughs] I really love it. Bree did do overdubs in Sydney [too]. She did live drums at the end of ‘Rely on Me’: there’s a weird drum kit thing that comes in. She also overdubbed some toms on ‘Light all My Lights’.
How much say did Jim and Shazad have in their parts?
Throsby: They pretty much wrote their own parts. There was certainly a lot of back and forth in the rehearsal period. We had three days at a different studio. I found them to have a significant amount of ideas and input and an equal amount of curiosity, wanting to do what we wanted and being very open to ideas. On a song like ‘Theme I’, Shazad did lots of different guitar and the bowed banjo, and really gave it that new feel. With ‘On My Own’, that’s a song they worked out that’s really beautiful. I really like the way it turned out.
And what did Victor bring as producer?
Throsby: He was very open. He wasn’t interested in running the show; he was more interested in it being a collaborative effort between all of us. Because Sally has produced a number of her own albums, and Sarah and I have both been really involved in the production side of things, we wanted someone who would engineer the record and collaborate with us.
Using a lot of the same instruments, were you worried about the songs sounding too much alike?
Seltmann: I don’t think [so], because there were three different writers. It’s not as if all the songs were really similar in terms of their structure or lyrically. And I’m quite a fan of albums where all the songs go together but are different enough to not be too boring.
How did all the harmonies on this record come about?
Blakso: We just figured it made sense, because it’s three singers coming together. And to blend our ideas and our voices. Sally has a lot of layered vocals on her recordings, but I don’t tend to do a lot of harmonies on my own records.
Throsby: It’s something I’ve enjoyed more and more. That was one of the things I was really excited about to begin with, doing three-part harmonies. I’m a big country music fan, so I really love records that have a lot of harmonies. I don’t think Sally and Sarah are particularly influenced by country music, but I certainly am. [Laughs] So I hope I brought some of it to the album.
Whose idea was it to do the three videos with male actors?
Seltmann: Well, we had the idea that we wanted to release three songs at once and have one director do all three. But we were a bit stuck on what we would do. Then Sarah had the idea to get a male actor to sing or dance. When she did the music for [Bell Shakespeare’s] Hamlet, Barry Otto would dance backstage while she would practise her songs. She just thought that was so beautiful. We all loved that idea. It’s more interesting than just us being in the clips.
When you tour, will it just be these songs or some of your own or maybe a few covers?
Blasko: I’d like to keep something unexpected for whoever’s coming to the shows, but we’ve definitely got other things planned that we think will be nice, that will complement the songs from the record.
Did you learn lessons from this experience that you can apply to your own work?
Seltmann: Definitely. Different things, like how Sarah seems to really consider things. I just like the way she thinks about things and makes decisions. I can tend to be a little more manic in my decision making. So I learned that I want to be more grounded in how I make decisions when I’m recording. And I’ve always felt weird being a singer-songwriter, and it made me feel more normal because Sarah and Holly do the same thing. We were able to talk about things we’ve done in our lives that were quite similar.
Blasko: I think the main thing is not to over-think things. I really loved recording relatively light. Little things can happen here and there. It’s got a freshness to it and you don’t try to overdo anything or put too much onto anything. That seems to be more and more where my mind and my heart tend, because the beauty is often in the mistakes and the little weird things that make a recording unique.
Throsby: It’s really interesting working with other people. We’re all friends, but I’d never been in a studio with either of them. I found that really insightful. I think in a lot of ways we’re really similar, and our similarities came out maybe even more than I expected. There’s certainly a number of things you take away from every recording experience. It’s all like one giant learning curve, really. But seeing Sally play piano inspired me to get piano lessons on my own. [Laughs] I’m starting next week, which I’m sure she’ll think is funny. She’s an amazing pianist. You should see her go. I’ve written some songs on piano, but I look at a keyboard and I just have no idea what it means. So I’m planning on learning a bit more about that.