I have been quietly admiring the musical exploits of Sydney based Sarah Belkner ever since I first heard her piano driven ballad Susanne in 2015. Following that I quickly found myself intrigued by her first EP – Humans (2015) – a unique indie pop treat of electronic and acoustic sounds heightened by Belkner’s angelic voice.
The best thing about 33-year-old Belkner is that there is nothing at all pretentious about her. There are no Liam Gallagher tantrums or even a semblance of arrogance. She is happy most it seems when she is creating music or playing in bands as a session keyboard player for other local artists she truly admires. After having played besides the likes of Sarah Blasko, Ngaiire and Melbourne based Olympia, for the past year or so, this year marks the stunning return of Belkner with her debut album But You Are, But It Has (2017), which has captured the fascinated attention of loyal fans and industry insiders.
Originally from New Zealand, Belkner’s musical journey began under the pseudonym Miss Little, but she soon realized that embracing her own name would instead give her a greater feeling of trust in her own abilities, qualities and judgment as an aspiring artist. Belkner, of course, takes a balanced approach to crafting her sound and what she wants to say (lyrically). Both Humans and But You Are, But It Has have been somewhat of a labour of love for Belkner. Over a three-year period, teasing out ideas and songs, which included the EP, give us the impression Belkner is a perfectionist?
That said, she isn’t your typical artist that belts out catchy mainstream pop-rock. Her trademark of weird synth sounds and orchestral arrangements has inevitably seen her compared to Kate Miller-Heidke and Kate Bush. Personally, I hear a little bit of Fiona Apple’s influence. Like Apple, Belkner is haunting and moody, yet still quite original in creating her own sound. That, of course, comes from years of experience and collaborating with the right people. Her biggest fan is arguably her husband Richie Belkner, who co-produced all her music. Interestingly, both Sarah and Richie, use the studio as an instrument, to help refine the sound they are looking for.
In regards to her two releases, Belkner has admitted that But You Are, But It Has is a direct continuation of her Humans (EP). I must confess I don’t prefer one over the other. In short, I have found something that I really like about both, especially how easily Sarah’s words speak to me. That said, the remainder of this article could easily turn into a review of her work, I prefer to largely stay clear of that, but her singles Susanne and Cellophane deserve an honourable mention.
Susanne from Belkner’s Humans EP is quite moving and not a song I expected to find solace in. Inspired in part by a conversation Belkner had with a complete stranger and how that moment brought her closer to believing in hope again is truly inspiring. Equally moving is the accompanying music video with 100-year-old veteran dancer Eileen Kramer. Belkner met Kramer a few years ago, and was completely besotted by her resilience and outlook on life. Their meeting led to Belkner to reappraise her own standpoint on work and life. In an article with the Sydney Morning Herald, Belkner recalled a conversation she had with Kramer that says so much about Belkner as a person. “Working with you over the last few weeks has really broken down for me a lot of those things that we are fed about age, especially in the arts. There’s so much focus put on youth and it’s very irrelevant, as you’re proving. You make beautiful work if you’re a great artist – not if you’re 20 years old.”
“He’s in the past/ Again/ Then you’re in your house/ And you feel afraid/ Cause the man you love/ Looks through you like you’re cellophane…” – Cellophane (Sarah Belkner)
I dare say, much of Belkner’s ’80s inspired pop comes from musicians she truly admires such as, David Bowie and Peter Gabriel. Gabriel, in particular, with his experimental pop and art rock with elements of world music is something that Belkner finds absolutely fascinating. Of course, Belkner isn’t out to imitate Gabriel, she has her own ideas. But with a carefully trained eye on the past, she certainly knows the value of the synthesizer (keyboards). That said, Cellophane is one of the standout track from But You Are, But It Has that I most identify with, as sort of a tribute to, what was great about ’80s electronic pop.
Sarah Belkner is a very smart musician. But how she doesn’t bury herself under layers of emotive lyrics is astonishing? Maybe, one day I will be brave enough to ask her. In fact, I’d even love to know more about her weird Pearl Jam phase. For now I am content listening to the different sounds and layers of her musical brilliance. I hope she continues to challenge herself. She may even decide to do a Peter Gabriel-esque ‘So’ album in the near future? Now that would be something!
For more information on Sarah Belkner, you can visit her site sarahbelkner.com
Photo Credits: The header image of Sarah Belkner is by flickr user Bruce and is used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license. I am not the uploader of You Tube videos embedded here.