Interview: Sally Seltmann
Words by Lauren Ziegler - Published on April 1, 2014
The incredibly talented Sydney-born singer-songwriter Sally Seltmann is back in the country to tour her phenomenal new album Hey Daydreamer. (You may know her as New Buffalo, or from Seeker Lover keeper, her ‘indie supergroup’ collab with Sarah Blasko and Holly Throsby, or for co-writing Feist’s ridiculously huge Grammy-nominated hit 1234).
We had a chat with Sally about writing her new album, mixing dark themes with happy music, and what she’s been doing since the big move to LA.
Hey Sally, thanks for doing the interview. Are you in Sydney or LA at the moment?
I just got into Sydney today, but I’m not too tired actually.
First off, I love Hey Daydreamer – the composition and the instruments and layers, I love how every time I listen to it I hear something new I didn’t pick up on last time. What was the recording process like?
It was mainly recorded in Sydney in our attic studio, and then I produced it with my husband Darren (Seltmann, former member of The Avalanches). I wrote the songs and we talked about the sort of album we wanted to make. I recorded piano, some bass and a bit of vocals, and then started doing a bit of programming with different instruments. Then Darren came on board and we did proper sessions with saxophones, trombones, harpists and all that, and then he did loads and loads of the drum programming. It took a long, long time.
So you played piano bass and vocals – did you record anything else?
Yeah, I played a bit of synth and programmed in some of the orchestral parts. Some of the woodwind parts are programmed in from sample sounds and some are real players. We kind of decided to do a real mix, a bit of electronic and a bit of real.
How many of the instruments will we see live on stage?
I’m just gonna do a stripped back version live, but I’ll be playing keyboard – I’ve got this really cool new keyboard and I’ve loaded in heaps of the different sounds like harpsichord, synth, organ, trombone, horns… and I’ve got this amazing drummer, Bree van Reyk who does harmonies and plays other instruments as well, and then saxophone and flute.
I found that there was quite a divide between the music and lyrics – the music is really spritely and bright, but the lyrics have some wistfulness, and even, well I don’t know if dark is the right word, but some fear and uncertainty. I found such a differentiation there – what made you decide to make the music sound quite different to the lyrics?
I think we sort of wanted the whole album to have a carnival, magical feel to it. And the songs and lyrics were just the sort that I was writing at the time, that’s what was coming out of me. But I think it makes it a bit more interesting if it sounds like there’s a hidden meaning in the lyrics, and to still make music that can sort of make you feel good.
What’s your writing process like – do you tend towards writing a melody or lyrics first?
It’s usually a bit different. For Seed of Doubt, I just sat down at the piano and started playing and singing at the same time, and wrote that song quite quickly. I wanted it to be a song about doubt. I was doubting whether I wanted to keep making albums, but I turned it into a relationship song, thought people might like it more. But with Hey Daydreamer, I wrote as I was programming in sounds like flute, sax and horn sounds into Pro Tools. I was inspired to write Holly Drive when I saw this little man walking down the street, so I got some of the lyric ideas and the idea to write a song about this little man, and the song came from there.
So the stories in your songs all come from totally different places
Yeah, well there’s a bit of a theme for me which I’m not sure if anyone else picks up on, because I moved from Melbourne back to Sydney where I grew up, and I was right back where I’d started from. The song was about returning home, and Hey Daydreamer was about the longing to be home. I just wanted to have some songs that were a little sadder and with a bit more doubt, which is weird because if I’d be writing an album now, I wouldn’t be writing about that now.
So like you said, Hey Daydreamer is about wanting to be home – does that evoke something different now that you’ve moved to LA?
Yeah, well when I came to the end of recorded that song, I felt like it’s maybe a song about wanting to return to your childhood, but you never can. I often write songs about longing to be somewhere or some place you aren’t. It does feel weird now that I’ve moved to LA, but I also wanted to write a song that lots of people could relate to. I think there’s something there that everyone can connect to, it’s a nice feeling when you have your home and you love it.
How have you found the move [to LA] so far?
Yeah good, I’m really enjoying it over there. I’m starting to settle in. It’s funny coming back to Sydney, it’s so humid.
Is there anything that you love there which you didn’t have here?
Yeah, there’s so much going on there in terms of the entertainment industry, so many creative people, writers, songwriters, actors and directors, so it’s been nice to be more immersed in that world in terms of being inspired. I’ve been doing lots of co-writing with lots of artists over there.
Was that the reason you moved there?
Yeah partially, I’ve previously really avoided that. But we have quite a few friends over there, my husband really loves it and my daughter has settled into school there now, it just feels really right for our family there right now.
Who have you been writing with there?
I’ve got a side project called Alphabet Botanicals which I’m always working on. Lo-Fang’s album Blue Film has just come out, I wrote a song with him on there with called Confusing Happiness, and yeah just trying out writing with lots of different people that I wouldn’t naturally team up with It’s been a new, fun thing to explore.
I’ve read that you also write poetry, have you got any plans to publish or perform any?
Yeah, I got really into poetry, it’s something I do like doing every now and then. I don’t think I have enough to publish anything now, but I would really like to. I’m actually distantly related to Judith Wright the Australian poet, and I never got to meet her, but it’s really inspiring, knowing that I kind of have the same blood.
And I also read you’ve been getting into literature?
Yeah, I’ve really started reading over the last few years, I’m reading a book called The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan, she’s Scottish. Before that I read The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, it’s big and epic, and quite dark.
Do you think that reading stories like that affects your music?
I guess, when you write, whatever you’re surrounded by, or reading, or watching, or talking about influences you in some way. But I just think reading is good for me. When I was young I was always really restless, I feel like I can read for a while and then I just get this urge to sit at the piano and write, but it helps me to relax a bit.
Do you have any particular musical influences?
Yeah, for this album I was listening to an Australian composer called Sven Libaek, he’s got a couple albums with some really amazing woodwind and orchestral pieces. His music is in the soundtrack to The Life Aquatic. But I feel like I can be too busy with writing my own stuff to be listening to lots of other music.
Do you have any favourite artists you grew up listening to?
Yeah, I love Nina Simone and I used to listen to a lot of early Bjork, Pavement. More recently I love Grizzly Bear, The War On Drugs, Kurt Vile … but I also like Kanye, Beyoncé, stuff like that, kind of crossing genres.
If you could collaborate with anybody at all, who would you choose?
Ooh, let me think. Probably Wes Anderson. I heard him interviewed on the radio recently, apparently he’s a real collaborator when he works on each film.
If you could play anywhere in the world where would you play?
Oh hmm, that’s a nice question I’ve never been asked before. I don’t know, probably outside somewhere, maybe at the beach with just a guitar and bare feet. Maybe somewhere in California, when the sun is setting. They have amazing sunsets over there. The sky is huge, it feels like there’s this massive open sky.
So what have you got planned for the rest of the year?
I’m gonna write some more songs with random people, and will be playing in New York soon, and a show in LA, just keep working away on music. I have a few ideas of some things I’d like to do, but I just need to choose which ones to do.
SALLY SELTMANN TOUR DATES
Thurs April 3 – Lizottes, Kincumber
Friday April 4 – The Vanguard, Sydney
Saturday April 5 – The Clarendon Hotel, Katoomba
Thursday April 10 – Black Bear Lodge, Brisbane
Friday April 11 – Caravan Music Club, Oakleigh, Melbourne
Sunday April 13 – Kelvin Club, Melbourne