Individually, they’re three of Australia’s most innovative songwriters. Sally Seltmann specialises in narcotic, dreamy, sweeping pop, aided by layers of cotton-soft vocals, pianos and synths. Holly Throsby is known for summoning melodies that sound beautifully crumpled, worn and decades-old, and matching them with hushed, cutting lyrics that read like a Carver short story. Sarah Blasko writes haunting songs that veer from intimate ballads to orchestral showstoppers, and sings with what’s now one of the most recognisable voices in Australian music.
All three are distinct talents, but there are common threads between their songwriting too: an underlying sense of nostalgia; the golden, sing-along pop tunes; and the complicated lyrics about seeking love, and how difficult it is to hold onto it once you’ve got it. It makes sense that the three of them would be good friends. Get them together in the same room—or even the same phone line—and it doesn’t take long before they recall shared stories and descend into fits of laughter. But get them together in the studio or on stage, and you’ve got an entirely new band: Seeker Lover Keeper.
Holly, Sarah and Sally have been in each other’s orbits for a while. Sarah and Holly met years ago through a mutual friend in Newtown. Holly and Sally actually attended the same high school, but were in different year levels and didn’t know each other until they toured together as musicians. Sally first met Sarah at a joint magazine photo shoot, “where I awkwardly told you that you were really beautiful,” Sally recalls to Sarah, “in the toilets.” All women break down into fits of laughter at that.
They first properly spent time together as a trio at Newtown’s Town Hall Hotel after a concert, instantly clicking and drinking late. Around that time, they floated the idea of touring together as joint headliners, which seemed like a no-brainer: they got along well and could already see how the show would work: they’d get up on stage, sing their own songs then sing each other’s. It would be fun. It was only later, over email, that Sally offered an alternative. “We could do that,” she wrote, “or maybe we should just start a band.”
Already in that initial email was the band name they’d later adopt for themselves: Seeker Lover Keeper. “Oh, I just made it up,” Sally says now when asked about its origins. “I just really love those three words together and how it suggested that one is the Seeker, one is the Lover and one is the Keeper.”
Holly adds the timing felt right for each of them. All of their careers had followed similar trajectories, and all their debut records—Sarah’s “The Overture & the Underscore;” Holly’s “On Night” and Sally’s New Buffalo record “The Last Beautiful Day”—were released in 2004. “We’ve all being doing music for the same amount of time,” Holly says, “so it’s a good point to intersect with other people. It gives a whole different energy to what you’re doing.”
Sarah, Sally and Holly are usually based in different cities, so they had to plan meetings months in advance. They had a day of singing and workshopping at Holly’s place and then lunch another time at Sally’s. Sally already had experience writing songs for other artists—most famously for Feist’s hit ‘1 2 3 4’—but for Sarah and Holly, Seeker Lover Keeper represented the first time either of them had written songs for other people. “I found it a bit scary and intimidating at times,” Sarah says. “At our first get-together, I’d think, ‘Ah no, is this good enough?’ It can be a bit daunting when there’s two people you really respect.”
Some of Sarah’s contributions were originally intended for her third album “As Day Follows Night,” but hadn’t fit alongside other songs on that record. Sarah also wrote one more song—‘Theme I’—just weeks before arriving in New York. Similarly, Sally had one song she hadn’t managed to fit on her “Heart That’s Pounding” album, and wrote some other songs specifically with Sarah and Holly in mind. Meanwhile, Holly was writing songs for three projects at once—her latest album “Team,” her kid’s album “See!” and tracks for Seeker Lover Keeper, all at once.
It was an early demo that Sally wrote that helped cement the project in each of the women’s minds—a song called ‘Rest Your Head On My Shoulder,’ a classic round-the-piano folk song in a similar vein to the McGarrigle sisters, designed to be sung by three women. With the repeated, affirming chorus—‘Rest your head on my shoulder / and I’ll take care of your worries / It was you who promised this to me / it was you who offered me courage’—it also cemented the tone of camaraderie before they went into the studio.
Seeker Lover Keeper was recorded over two hot weeks in New York. Sally, Sarah and Holly all had an affinity for the city, but it also represented a good central meeting point: Sarah flew there from London, while Sally and Holly jetted over from Sydney. They also recruited a few friends to come on board. Jim White (The Dirty Three) played drums. Shahzad Ismaily (Tom Waits, Martha Wainwright, Bonnie Prince Billy) played bass and guitar. Victor Van Vugt—an Australian based in New York, who mixed Sarah’s second record (”What The Sea Wants, The Sea Will Have”)—was recruited as producer alongside Seeker Lover Keeper. Holly, Sarah and Sally all shared piano and other guitar duties.
Two weeks isn’t a long time to record. The band had a couple of days for rehearsal and ten intensive days in the studio. Not only did they have a limited amount of time, but they also decided to predominantly record with live takes. “That was the real feel we were going for,” Sarah says. “It does make it harder and more nerve-wracking to do that,” Holly says, “but it was really rewarding at the end.” Sally, Sarah and Holly had an added impediment though: they couldn’t stop cracking up laughing in front of the mic. “The bloopers reel would probably run about four hours,” Holly says.
There were other dramas too. One particularly difficult day in the studio led to all three women crying together on the footpath outside, and another day led to Sally seeking out “an emergency full body massage”. (Telling these stories leaves all three of them helpless with laughter now.) Also: the piano at the Stratosphere Studio didn’t feel or sound right for the songs they were recording, so they all went out into New York and tried sourcing a new one. Shazad tried sourcing Martha Wainwright’s piano at first. When that failed, they went uptown to a piano hiring place run by a man who could not stop scoffing M&Ms the entire time he talked. That triggered off a giggling fit from Sarah. Holly impersonates the piano guy with a thick Boston accent confronting Sarah: You think that’s fuckin’ funny? You think that’s fuckin’ funny? “And it was,”Sarah recalls, “really funny.”
Holly, Sarah and Sally take turns on lead vocals throughout Seeker Lover Keeper. Some arrangements were decided before heading into the studio; others changed at the last minute. Everyone laughs at Sarah’s paranoia that she’ll be seen as the limelight hog, since she sings five of the lead vocals over 12 tracks. “Can I just say that I wanted other people to sing?” she says. “When I hear the record now, I think, ‘God, people are going to think I’m really hogging.’ I tried to get Holly to sing more songs, but she forced me! I want to get that straight.” Sally jokes “Sarah was definitely peer pressured into it. I was like [nagging voice], ‘No, Sarah! You’ve got the voice ofthe angel. Sing this one as well!’” In the studio, Holly would tease Sarah by singing John Farnham’s ‘You’re the Voice’.
In seriousness though, everyone adds they all felt a deep sense of responsibility to each other’s songs. On ‘Even Though I’m A Woman’—a towering pop track Sally wrote about long distance love—Holly takes leads vocals. “You want to do the song justice,” she says. “I wanted to make sure Sally was happy with how we were singing it, making sure it would sound as good as if she were singing it herself.”
They also learnt new tricks from each other, and saw for the first time how the others approached songwriting and recording. Sometimes they were pleasantly surprised. “That happened quite often for me,” Sally says, “especially in Holly’s song ‘Light All My Lights’. Holly kept referring to how she imagined it always kicking in and going into this double-timey feel, and I just thought, ‘No, I can’t hear it.’ Then we finally got the song to how she was imagining it, and I was like, ‘Oh! Now I totally understand how you were imagining it.’” Sarah says that both Holly and her often watched Sally play, just thinking, Wow. “Sarah and I play by ear,” Holly explains, “and it’s different when you write and play that way. Working with Sally has pretty much made me want to learn music theory.” Sarah agrees. “Me too. When you’re so used to singing your own stuff, you get in your own patterns. Working with them shook me up a bit, in being able to get inside someone else’s world a bit.”
The finished result is Seeker Lover Keeper, a self-titled album that’s reminiscent of all three of the artists’ back catalogues, but also unlike anything any of them have recorded. There aren’t many precedents for these kinds of records, where three solo artists come together to share songwriting and performing duties equally. Holly mentions the Trio records that Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris recorded together, except those were all covers songs. The ones on Seeker Lover Keeper are all originals.
After the record is released, the girls will play some live shows. Beyond that, neither Sarah, Holly nor Sally knows whether Seeker Lover Keeper is a one-off project or not. “We’ve never discussed that, have we?” Holly says to the others. Everyone realises they haven’t. “Maybe, maybe not,” Holly says. “Who knows? We’ve so focused on this one; it hasn’t even come up as a thought.”
Seeker Lover Keeper’s self-titled album will be out via Dew Process/UMA on June 3rd, 2011.