Sarah Mary Chadwick Is Trying to Think Less
"There must be so many times that I fully think I have what's happening on lock, and I very much do not at all"
Published Sep 15, 2023"I'm obsessed with doing psychoanalysis," Sarah Mary Chadwick tells me over Zoom from her home in Melbourne, where she's spending the morning chatting with me about her astonishing eighth record, Messages to God.
"I'll be in analysis, and then something will be spoken about and I'll realize that something I've written — that maybe seemed a bit formless or directionless at the time — actually means something to me," she continues.
It's a helpful creative tool; Chadwick's tendency to pick things apart (sometimes to the point of destroying them) is what makes Messages to God such a tender, teeth-smashing listen. Takedowns of boring fuckers in arrested development; bittersweet anthems for day drinkers and lonely scarecrows; enough bruising self-interrogation and familial confrontation for a dozen holiday dinners — Chadwick's songs snap like live wires against pavement, lit up by her bloodthirsty pursuit of real truths and the meaning behind what isn't said.
But as Chadwick tells it, that kind of rigorous analysis — "Am I really that cruel? / I think about the way that I act all the time," she sings on "Angry and Violent" — is a clumsier tool when applied to the real world and the people in it.
"I just did some recording with this guy, Chris Townend, last week," Chadwick says. "And the whole time we were recording I was trying to figure him out, and I couldn't read him at all. And I was like, 'He's not having a good time.'"
In conversation, Chadwick is funny and disarmingly candid in a way that never feels performative or uncomfortable — in music and in life, you get the sense that she has little time for bashfulness or subterfuge. It's when there's another, unknowable brain in the room that the waters get muddy.
"It was just him and I, and I kept [saying to myself], 'Look, what do you want to get out of this? You want to walk away with a record that you love? How are we going to deliver that? You're not going to deliver that by being invested in his bullshit, you're going to get that by investing in what you're doing,'" she says, laughing. "And so, it was lots of walking to the toilet and looking in the mirror and being like, 'Get it together Chadwick!'"
She continues, "But then we were listening back to it at one point, and I looked at [Townend] and he was crying! And I was just like, 'Fuck, I'm so shit at reading people.' I thought he was having a terrible time. That was a real moment of being, like, there must be so many times that I fully think I have what's happening on lock, and I very much do not at all."
Trying to figure people out is something of a necessary pastime for Chadwick — sometimes to the annoyance of her loved ones — and it's a quest that fails as often as it succeeds, a desire for answers that's prone to hitting brick walls.
"Even my husband, Simon — we were talking about Aldous Harding," she says. "And I was like, 'But who likes that, and why?' And I was really trying to figure it out. And after a while he got irritated, like 'Why do you even fucking care? Let it go.' He doesn't invest in that in the same way that I do."
Chadwick says she's attempting to do less of this "background work" — the ceaseless temperature-taking and motive-reading and analyzing of those around her, which she attributes to being raised by an emotionally distant narcissist — in an attempt to free herself from future bathroom-mirror pep talks.
"It definitely doesn't help other people, and I don't even really think it helps me that much in a practical sense," she says. "It's still fun to do in a creative way — but just not in real life."
Chadwick's music can sometimes feel like a series of slaps, a cold-water plunge, a fall down a flight of stairs. Her confrontational, aching songs are stained with the juices of her always-spinning brain; songs that tackle humiliation, heartbreak, rage, desire, suicide, friendship and love with unflinching exactitude. It's music unlike any I've ever heard, if only because it's so staunchly hers; You couldn't mistake a Sarah Mary Chadwick song for anyone else's.
It's that unflinching quality that once made performing her songs publicly a challenge. Not necessarily due to Chadwick herself — "You have to have some level of ego to value performing in front of people, and I always kind of thought that was me demanding to be seen, having been unseen as a child" — but because of the way audiences reacted to her on-stage bloodletting.
"Maybe it's a little bit of a woman thing, that people are more likely to come up and talk to you after a show or divulge personal stuff to you or whatever," she says. "But I feel like that predicament of people thinking they know you was something that, as a 20-year-old, I got some sense of."
When she started performing her solo work some two decades ago, Chadwick says she was struck by the ways people related to her hyper-specific storytelling and the back-and-forth relationship that fans suddenly felt invited into.
"I remember when I first went into therapy, that really did stress me out, because I felt a bit like I owed it to people — because they watched me perform — to hear them out and pay attention," she says. "And obviously I like talking to people, but it's just a bit too much sometimes. And my therapist was like, 'No, that's not the transaction — the transaction is you've said that you'll perform, and they've paid to see you play. You don't owe more beyond that."
The phenomena persisted even as recently as 2021's Me & Ennui Are Friends, Baby, a raw nerve of a record so searingly individual that it seems impossible to genuinely relate to its stories. And yet!
"I tried to put so many details in and keep [those songs] mine. And then people would still come up to me and be like, 'Oh my God, that's exactly what's happening to me with this guy right now,'" she says, laughing and throwing up her hands. "Like, that can't be true! But at that point, I was kind of like, it doesn't matter. It's just nice that people enjoy it. I don't feel like I'm selfish around it anymore."
The songs on Messages to God can be just as discomforting and personal as those on Ennui, though they're brushed with a hopeful patina — if her previous three records found Chadwick being pummeled by the surf, Messages to God sees her pulling herself onto the beach. Bruisers like "Only Bad Memories Last," "Shitty Town" and "Sometimes I Just Wanna Feel Bad" still make up the bulk of the record, but it's the tumbling "Redondo Beach" groove of "Drinkin' on a Tuesday" that feels like the record's defining song.
"I think I've moved past it — or through it, rather — but sometimes I like trying to write a little bit of an anthem, I think," Chadwick says of the track. "I kind of wanted to do a song that was just a pick-me-up for people. I was more interested in the idea of resilience as opposed to doing it right."
The song is a laundry list of saving graces — "Make sure you have a hand to hold that'll pull you to your feet / Have a special book to read that'll soothe you when you're weak / You gotta have a song to sing that'll bring you to your knees with it's beauty," she sings atop hers and Hank Clifton-Williamson's duelling pianos — that functions as a pep talk, one for troubled buddies rather than herself.
Of course, positive reinforcement has just as many pitfalls as self-laceration and shit talk — you don't always get the words right.
"The one line that I'm never quite sure about is, 'Deep down you can do it / But you've got to want to,'" Chadwick says, pausing briefly. "I'm always a bit unsure about that, because it's assuming a lot of people, you know? Like, there are different reasons why people can do different things, and why people can't do different things. And so I feel a bit conscious of that when doing that song, because I don't know if it's entirely true."
Still, the song works on the strength of Chadwick's songwriting and the might of her conviction. "Drinkin' on a Tuesday" is a plucky guide, but it can only accompany you on your way out of the hole — unfortunately, you've still got to do the climbing yourself.
"It's just that really annoying realization, which I had maybe like a year or two ago, when you realize that you can complain all you like, but annoyingly no one is going to do it apart from yourself," she says. "That sucks, you know? When you realize that no one's going to help you. And it's sad and lonely but it's also eye-rolly and true — you just have to do it."