Hailing from the Central Coast of New South Wales – which is now a productive creative hub for country music artists – Sarah Humphreys has released her third album, New Moon, which is a glorious collection of songs, experiences and moods. Recently I spoke to Sarah, who was delightful, honest and inspiring.
I really love this line that was in one of the press releases saying, “I just get this niggle in my heart, and then the songs come out of me,” and to me that sounded like you trust your creative process, so I wondering did you always trust it?
I did, yes, it’s always been a very natural thing for me. I’ve been writing songs since I was about eight, so I’ve spent a lot of time developing that little inner voice, I guess – or just that thing that comes from somewhere else and you’re not quite sure where it is, that creates things out of thin air, so I’ve always been very connected with that part of myself since I was a little girl.
A lot of people can talk themselves out of trusting that though, so even for it to come through when you were young, it could have felt like it was weird or just you wouldn’t necessarily know what to do with it. Did you come from an environment where you might have learnt to trust that?
Yeah. That’s a really good question. I have a very beautiful, soft, loving mum who would just do anything for me or my brothers, and if she could see that we were happy, then that was all that she needed, and we were able to follow what we wanted to do. Me, being the youngest, probably even more so than my big brothers, and I just feel like I was never afraid of being the weird one, I wasn’t afraid to do that, I liked not fitting in, I was quite comfortable with that, so if I was off writing my little songs and wearing my funny little clothes, then I was really comfortable and happy doing that.
It sounds like you might have been one of those children that adults say of, “Oh she’s been here before.”
I have had people say, “Oh, she’s an old soul”, and I’m like, I don’t know, I thought I would have had a bit more of an idea about other stuff [laughs] but when it comes to writing, I guess maybe I’ve been here before.
It sounds like you had a strong sense of self, and obviously that was helped by your family, it also through just being comfortable, being different, because when you’re a kid in primary school and high school, there are so many forces that especially for a young creative child would want to pull you away from that.
Well, I just dove right in and anything that was weird or strange, I was into, and I liked wearing strange clothes and I was definitely an outcast by choice. I liked that about myself.
So what sort of music did you grow up listening to?
When I was really, really little, I listened to a lot of country and western music with my dad, so some Hank Williams, Willie Nelson, he loved a bit of Boxcar Willie [laughs]. And we used to listened to that driving around in his big brown Ford Falcon, and that’s a very fond memory that I have. I didn’t spend a heap of time with my dad, I spent more time with my mum, but when I was with my dad, I remember those moments, and they were really lovely. And then as I got a bit older and listened to Mum’s records, I really got really heavily into The Beatles and ELO, Electric Light Orchestra, and that real poppy sound, so those two things combined is kind of what I loved to listen to.
And I can hear those influences in your music. It’s really hard to write a catchy song and it’s really hard to make songs immediate for the audience, but yours are really catchy and memorable in that pop way.
Well, it is true, it is hard to do them, but you’ve also got that depth of lyricism that comes from the country side, and especially that older country which is a little darker. So that’s the end of my question [laughs]. I can hear your lineage basically.
That’s good, and it’s a very – it’s a good one [laughs].
So just back to the songs on the album, when they poured out of you, how long did it take?
Between about six to nine months I wrote this album, and it happened very naturally, I didn’t try and write songs for an album, I just kind of gathered them, I would say, I gathered them over that period of time, and I was just playing them at Bill Chambers’s songwriters night, and we all just got talking and thought it might be time to make a record, so we did.
[Laughs] I like how you say that, “Like, oh, yeah, I was just talking to Bill Chambers and he’s …”
He pretty much is just like that [laughs]. It happens just like that, yeah.
This is on the Central Coast [of New South Wales] you’re talking about.
That’s fertile ground for country music in particular, so have you found that you’ve made a lot of connections, apart from the Chambers family, that have been good?
Definitely. I don’t know what’s going on around this area, but there’s just so many talented people around this place. There probably are everywhere, but there seems to be a lot of music I love around this part of the world. It’s a lovely place to live and our songwriters’ night that we go to is just full of amazing singers and songwriters and musicians, and we just love it, so we’re very lucky.
Now, of course, the mention of Bill Chambers leads naturally to a mention of Kasey, who’s the producer of your album, and you’ve known Kasey for a while, but of course that’s not necessarily an automatic qualification for a producer and especially as she hasn’t done a lot of producing, so I was wondering how you came to choose her?
I wanted someone who would look after my songs and who would look after me not just in a musical sense, I wanted someone who believed in what I did, and loved what I did and wasn’t just standing around going, “Yeah, yeah. We love it,” and just getting paid a heap of money to do it, and Kasey is a good friend and she really does love what I do, and I just thought there’s no one better that could make this record, and that was true, we had just the best time making it. I felt really comfortable and she has a beautiful ear, you know, she’s got so much experience and she talks herself down and she always does about everything, but she’s just got an amazing ear to hear what songs need and what they don’t need, which is really important too.
I don’t have any notes about where it was recorded, but I would imagine you didn’t have to go too far from home?
No. We went to Foggy Mountain Studios, which is Nash’s [Chambers] place. It was a bit of drive to the studio, but still Central Coast region, not too far.
And who else is playing with you?
So I’ve Liz Frencham on double bass, she’s a beautiful singer-songwriter and musician who plays a lot in the folk circuit, and I’ve seen her so many times and wanted her to play on my record, I just love her, she’s from Victoria. And I got Sid Green on drums, he’s from the South Coast – another really beautiful friend that was free and able to come play on the record. It all just worked out so perfectly. And I had Bill Chambers playing guitar, and I had Chris Morris, my partner, playing guitar as well, and I had Michael Muchow playing guitar and he played mandolin as well, and I had Harry Hookey do some singing and some writing and some harmonica playing, so, yeah.
Well, you had real Foggy Mountain Jam going on.
We did, yeah, we did [laughs], and we were all in there at the same time playing the track through together, but I was playing and singing with the whole band and we’d get a take that we were all happy with and then sign off on it.
Well, that explains to me a least why it sounds like you’re often singing with a smile because you must have been really happy to be surrounded by them all.
I was. I was so happy and if you get us together like we played a show a few weeks ago, we’re all together at a folk festival and I just smiled for the full 45 minute set, because just being around friends that are also musicians that you really respect and admire is just the most amazing feeling, it’s so amazing.
Some of these people came from other parts, so did you need a lot of rehearsal time or it was just like, “Okay, well, let’s go, let’s try it.”
No. We had no rehearsing. They had a copy of the demos and basically we’d just write out a pretty basic chart before we tracked the song, and then we’d all just go in our separate little bits of the room and learn it together basically, and by about five, six, seven takes, the song would be done.
And also I think that gives a lot of energy to the experience and to the recordings as well, having that newness about the collective.
Yeah. And just looking over and seeing your friends just loving on one of your songs, it just lifted me up.
Now the album is called New Moon, and new moon implies a beginning, but this is your third album, so I wondering if it represents some sort of beginning?
Definitely. It’s about things in my – even in, how do I say it? It’s about things ending and beginning and then ending and beginning again, you know, it’s this constant cycle of the moon that is so grounding and comforting to witness, it happens every month and we’re renewed every month and we die every month – and it’s a beautiful way to view life instead of everything must be good all the time, it’s more about cycles, it’s more about seeing the tide going in and the tide coming out, it’s more about the process of life instead of everything having to be great all the time. And when I went through a bit of a dark patch last year, it felt like it was going to be dark forever, but it’s just important to remind yourself there’s always a new moon coming, you know, and even when things are good, it’s important to remind yourself it’s not going to last forever, enjoy it while it’s here, so it’s just important that that sense of impermanence I think as well.
I think it takes actually a bit of courage and discipline to be able to remind yourself of that both in good times and bad, it takes courage to actually acknowledge the fact that you’re going to have to let go of good times, just as it take courage to be in bad times and tell yourself they’re not going to last forever, so do you feel that that’s been a part of your life, having courage?
Yes. And it’s a tough one, I think it’s tough on everyone to accept and understand that kind of stuff, but I’m trying to understand it and I think I’m getting there more and more as the more years that go on.
And as someone who’s obviously very in touch with your creative practice and your creative flow, the cycles of the moon as well can represent the ebb and flow of creativity, so do you tend to find that in your work?
Definitely. I have times where I’m writing a lot, I have times where I’m not really writing much at all. I have times where I’m feeling really energetic and ready to go out and show everyone my songs, and I have times where I think it’d be really nice just to spend some time at home and potter around and hang out with my son. So I think it’s about that balance too, and I think we’re all trying – everyone’s – that’s the key word of the moment.
I think everyone’s trying to get balance, but I think it’s a pretty good thing too to try and obtain anyway, even if you trying, you’re doing better than if you weren’t trying. So if you can try and have some sort of balance in your life where you’re not working too hard, but you’re not working too little that you’re forgetting who you are creatively, so it’s about striking that little balance there.
And the lead single of this album is “Take Your Time”, and the lyrics of that seem to express perhaps some of the realities and frustrations of having a career in music. I was wondering if you felt those have been worth it, those realities and frustrations?
No. Sometimes I don’t. I don’t think they’ve been worth it [laughs]. I think that there have been times and that’s why I’ve packed up and gone, “I am out of here for a while, I’m done,” because this isn’t worth it, I’m missing things, you know. You can get so consumed in what you’re doing in the music industry, I think, and also sometimes in your own creativity, and especially the self-managed artists, there’s always so many things to do and so many emails to write and so many people to call back, that at the end of the day you just think, “Why on earth am I doing this”, and then a song comes through you or you play a beautiful show with beautiful friends and you go, “Oh, that’s right, I know why I’m doing this.” But there have been many moments where I have thought this is definitely not worth it, yeah.
But it also sounds like from a very young age, you had a real consciousness that your creative work is in the service of something bigger than yourself?
Well, yeah, and that’s what keeps me going and also the fact that if I never played another show in my life or never made another album, the songs would still come, you know, and I’d still want to play those songs, so it would never be a thing that, I will always be playing music, I will always be writing, it’s as natural to me as breathing, so I feel like what I have to give helps people, I feel like sometimes the way that I say things in my lyrics, or a melody, can really touch people in a way that they are surprised by it sometimes when they come to one on my shows, so that’s a really, really, special feeling, and it’s happened enough times that I know that that’s what I was put here to do.
And what an amazing thing to have that realisation.
Yeah. Amazing. And I’m very grateful for it, and I love that that’s what I’ve been chosen to do and my job is to look after myself and honour myself with what I do and not just go around playing every single show I’m ever offered, and I really need to take my time because I want to do it for the rest of my life and I don’t want to burn out, and I know that some people just get really, really over it and I’ve been there, but I’ve taken some time off and always come back going, “I love this” – it’s like a long lost friend, it’s never going like too far away.
I just realised we talked about when your song writing started, but I didn’t ask you when your singing started, so at what age did you find your voice?
Well, that was when I was probably as soon as I was talking I was always singing, I was singing in the bath, singing in the car, singing everywhere, annoying my big brothers, so probably when I was about three it started, and I didn’t have any lessons but I was always picking out songs to sing and singing them by ear and singing harmonies, so it just was definitely naturally what I was good at.
On this album your voice sounds confident and strong and even commanding in places. It feels like your voice is coming from a deep place. Some people sing in their heads, some people sing in their chest but yours sounds like it’s coming from lower.
Thank you. I think I’m getting a bit older now and maybe it’s maturing in some ways I’m not sure, I just – I open my mouth and it comes out however it wants to come out [laughs] so I just go, “Okay. If that’s what you want to do, that’s good.”
New Moon by Sarah Humphreys is out now.