Sarah Mary Chadwick’s artistic output has been an ideal combination of quality and quantity. The New Zealander cranks out paintings and drawings at an impressive clip, hurrying the ideas onto the canvas before she can overthink them. The same goes for her music. Whether for her former band Batrider or her solo work, she whips together dozens of songs for each album, winnowing them down and chucking the less exciting material until she has something solid and cohesive to record and release.
She didn’t have such luxuries when she received a commission to write a suite of songs using only the 147-year-old pipe organ installed in Melbourne Town Hall in her current hometown of Melbourne, Australia. With only three months to complete the project, she didn’t allow herself to play around with the nearly infinite sonic combinations at her hands and feet with this massive instrument. She had to focus in and make every note and moment count.
What that yielded was The Queen Who Stole The Sky, a stunning collection, recorded live, that finds Chadwick leaning into the natural creak of her voice and the dynamic wails she can reach as a counterbalance to the stentorian sounds of the pipe organ. The tone of these 11 songs was naturally affected by the tone of the instrument as she dug deep into feelings of desperation she wrestled with following the deaths of her father and a close ex-boyfriend and, as she puts it in the press notes for this album, “the fact that I’m always waiting for life and it never arrives – it only ever leaves.”
Paste caught up with Chadwick over a Skype call to talk about working with this mighty instrument and what she needed to do to make it her own.
Paste: How did you have to adjust your vocal performance to reckon with the sound of the organ?
Sarah Mary Chadwick: With a guitar or a real piano, it responds to you. If you want it to be loud, you play it loudly. If you want it to be quiet, you play it quietly. If you want to play something quiet on an organ, you have to build a sound that was quiet so that your singing wasn’t drowned out by it. So the dynamic is built into the arrangement. Working around that, I made sure that my singing was audible and that I gave myself as much space as I could, so that I wasn’t dwarfed by it. To be honest, I’m generally pretty confident about new projects but then when I first saw it, I didn’t know exactly how this was going to turn out. I was a little bit intimidated. But it worked out for me, I think.
And there are so many different sounds you can out of an instrument like that.
It feels almost infinite, really. You have any number of combinations. It’s been refurbished twice so it’s partially digitized so that you can save your settings. Once I built a song around a sound on each keyboard, then I could save those songs so if I wanted to rehearse something, I wasn’t have to build the sounds every time. That was really helpful.
Since this was a commissioned piece, did the city of Melbourne have to approve the songs in some manner or did they leave you alone?
I think if they weren’t happy with what I was doing, they would be very comfortable saying, “No, do something different.” Because I’ve heard people use that instrument in different capacities. I think that kind of instrument is what a lot of synthesizers are kind of based on, in terms of how you built sounds. So, I’ve heard people use it in a more synth-y capacity. But I disagree with that, so I tried to avoid getting into a situation where I was having to redo things. When I work, I try to keep whoever I’m working with up to date as I go to save myself time. I didn’t want to get into a position where it was two weeks before the recording and have them go, “Oh, we don’t like any of this.” I would have been fucked. So I made an effort to touch base as I was going to make sure they knew what to expect.
Do you think the sound of the music you wrote would have been different if this were an organ inside a church building rather than in a town hall?
No, I don’t think so. I was brought up quite Catholic. Obviously, not practicing anymore. So, the milieu of it is not unfamiliar to me at all. Anyone who went through a religious upbringing, you hear an organ or smell frankincense, it’s evocative. So I think maybe the organ itself was enough to put me in a bit of a mood. I kind of tend to fuck with pseudo-religious material usually. I wear a cross and I cover The Byrds’ “Christian Life” quite regularly. I like doing that kind of stuff just because I find pseudo-religion quite interesting. In terms of the instrument demanding that, I probably would have brought that anyway.
Do you think what you wrote, especially lyrically, was in some way affected by just the sound of the instrument itself?
The lyrics and songwriting are something that I would consider to be quite skilled at. I can put a song together and I can write lyrics. The challenge for me, as a musician, is that I’m limited. I’m not a really fancy pianist or guitarist. But I do like arranging music for a lot of different instruments. I like to play to my strengths. So, to answer your question, only insofar as the time frame being quite short so they had to be quite immediate. But I tend to be that way anyway, so the answer is probably just no. I think what I was playing was very much informed by the instrument. I probably wouldn’t have been so dynamic. I always like melodrama but I’m not sure I would have been able to achieve this on any other instrument.
Was it part of the commission that this was going to be recorded as a live album?
It was definitely part of it. The project was to write a suite of music specifically for the instrument. I wrote 13 or 14 songs, and they ended up using 11. Generally, that’s how I work. Usually I give myself a lot of leeway so I can ditch a lot. I always have more than I need. With the timeframe I was working in, I didn’t have that kind of cushion of burner songs. But the budget for the project included the performance and recording and a video clip. It was a little bit more than I had anticipated, to be honest. Because it was the Council, they had the money to spend. Generally, independent labels doing stuff like that don’t have that money to throw around. So it was nice to have that for a change.
Is that fairly typical for Australia, to have town councils spending money on the arts like this?
I personally have never gotten anything like this. I’ve know lots of people that have. It’s very competitive. Whenever there’s an election, arts funding is always threatened to get cut. But in Melbourne because they consider themselves to be a cultural hub, they make more of an effort to seem supportive of their artistic community. For this project, because it’s such a crazy instrument…historically, it’s just kids that get taken there on a school trip or elderly people who experience it in a kind of church capacity. I think the Council was looking for ways that more people could enjoy it.
What can you tell me about your painting on the cover of the album? Was that something you did specifically for the album or just one you had sitting around that you thought fit the tone of the music?
The idea for the title track is from a children’s book that’s about a really demanding queen who had this really diminutive husband that she kept wanting more and more and more from. She had everything but what she really wanted was a dress made out of the sky. So, the king obliges her and rips down the sky and she gets this beautiful dress. But the outcome of story is that the world is ruined because there’s no sky for anyone to exist under. You could do a really interesting psychoanalytic reading of a story like that, about people getting ruined by desire. Like hysterical desire, which is never really realized.