Sarah Mary Chadwick and the case for melancholia
The editors of Swampland and Difficult Fun jointly consider the musician’s determined embrace of the melancholic.
Words Kimberley Thomson and Tiarney Miekus | Photos: Alan Weedon | July 2018
[Kimberley Thomson] Sometimes people walk out of Sarah Mary Chadwick’s shows because they deem them too depressing. There is something in Chadwick’s sparse piano playing and the languor of her voice that makes her songs sound sad even when maybe she isn’t, at least, not entirely. In her lyrics, Chadwick encounters the big, yawning tragedies of loss and grief alongside the ongoing emotional discomfort of everyday life.
Sugar Still Melts in the Rain is the fourth solo album from the musician—originally from New Zealand, now cemented in Melbourne. Before releasing under her own name, she fronted Batrider, a dark and squally guitar-driven project formed in Wellington in the early 2000s. Chadwick swung out on her own musically in 2012 with the release of Eating for Two and has released music under her own name consistently since then. Her solo compositions centre piano and her voice, which maintains its New Zealand diction and has a worn-in quality, sometimes sounding as if it is scraping the insides of her throat as she sings.
Throughout Sugar Still Melts, Chadwick has introduced bass (Geoffrey O’Connor) and drums (Tim Deane-Freeman), which buoy her vocals and keys more fully than when she relied on a keyboard drum track. Longtime collaborator O’Connor co-produced the album with Chadwick and also engineered, alongside Evelyn Morris.
[Tiarney Miekus] “This performance is dedicated to anyone who wanted more than what life had to offer them,” says Chadwick, sitting behind the grand organ at the Melbourne Town Hall, preparing to play her first song for the commissioned work The Queen Who Stole the Sky. Because of lines like this, descriptors referencing sadness and melodrama are sieved upon Chadwick—the word melancholic often takes centre stage. It’s (mostly) meant to be complimentary, yet the remark is thrown around without the justice of gravity: how the mood that colours Chadwick’s world gets broadcast as if it’s a fleeting state. But when I think of melancholia, I tend to think less about sadness and more about a lack of enjoyment and how, in current times, we’re practically forced to ‘enjoy’ at every moment (and if we can’t enjoy, we turn joy into a kind of labour by working hard until we’re ready to start enjoying again). Perhaps the question of melancholia is really another question: why can’t I enjoy properly? And, in Chadwick’s case, should ‘proper enjoyment’ even be the motivating desire?
[KT] Chadwick has said she is interested in expressing complex things in a simple way. Often, she seems to be contemplating the perils of human existence, which, to be fair, is a pretty difficult thing to attempt to explain. This results in lines that strike right to the core of you, because of their straightforwardness: “Every day brings brand new blood / But at least it’s still red when I bleed”, she sings on ‘Lost Overwhelmed and Unsafe’. On ‘Waiting on a Season’: “Everyone’s in trouble but no-one has the tendency to speak.” The songs run head on into bleakness, which admittedly might be a turn off were you to encounter them accidentally at the pub. Yet, they’re undercut with something else too.
Chadwick addresses various kinds of sadness: the salty freshness of grief or heartbreak, smaller, more ordinary disappointments, the slow drama of ageing. There’s also the more indistinct existential sadness that underpins human life, which the album’s title seems to be spelling out: we can have the good stuff, but not forever, not without conditions. A wry, tragicomic philosophy stretches throughout Chadwick’s work. Her last album was titled similarly: Roses Always Die.
[TM] Under melancholia there is a sense that one has lost the world: it’s as if meaning and life have become uncoupled. Chadwick seems to revel in this uncoupling, as much as she also tries to reconnect: “Don’t begrudge me my one moment, I’m just trying to feel life flowing over me.” In an interview for Undertheradar, Chadwick talked about the links between Lacanian psychoanalysis and her music, and while melancholia wasn’t mentioned, Sigmund Freud’s ‘Mourning and Melancholia’ isn’t a far leap.
The essay starts with the idea of loss, an idea infused in Chadwick’s songs: loss of safety, loss of time, loss of the feeling of life, loss of another and loss of self. The ‘proper’ way to deal with, and understand, loss is to mourn. Yet the melancholic finds mourning the lost object too painful. It means truly admitting something has been lost. To keep the lost object alive, the melancholic takes the lost object’s place: the object doesn’t die, you die to preserve the object. At its most elemental, it speaks to how loss of something, or someone, feels like you’ve really lost yourself. Through Chadwick’s music there’s a sense that alongside trying to understand what can be lost in life, she wants to know what has been lost within her. Chadwick is a woman searching through melancholia: “And I stood there trying to feel pain and I didn’t so I ran away.”
Yet loss is never straightforward: what if we don’t know what’s been lost? What if we’ve lost something that never existed in the first place? This is another difference between mourning and melancholia: in mourning, one knows what one has lost, in melancholia, what is lost can remain unknown. Later, Lacan would go on to say that melancholia is a “moral failing” in the “duty to be well-spoken”. A failure, in other words, to find the language for what brings about melancholia. To understand this experience, then, is to name the unnameable—it’s what Chadwick repeatedly does throughout every song.
[KT] At the Tote Hotel on a Friday in June, Chadwick sits hunched over a keyboard. With her long, lacquer-black hair and tall, folded-over frame, she cuts a modest but striking image alone on stage. The room isn’t packed, but its patrons are listening to the singer intently. A week earlier, Chadwick had been sitting in front of the monstrous pipe organ in the Melbourne Town Hall. Facing the organ front on, she seemed about to embrace it; the large audience a warm, invisible presence behind her.
Outside on this evening, the city felt strange. The death of 22-year-old Eurydice Dixon a few days before—her body found on an inner-suburban soccer pitch—was the kind of event that alters the air of a place. The city seemed consumed by public grief and Chadwick’s songs more heavy and swollen than ever.
On the tram home, I thought of the CCTV image released of the man accused of killing Dixon, who had by now handed himself into police.
[TM] In the final moments of Lars Von Trier’s film Melancholia, a planet, sharing its name with the film’s title, collides with the earth, destroying both entities. Throughout the movie Kirsten Dunst plays the role of Justine, a melancholic woman for whom every sense of possibility has disappeared. As the story progresses, she moves from strained and withdrawn to unerringly calm and, finally, utterly destroyed. The place of melancholy, meanwhile, moves from being a subjective psychology to the shared destruction of the world. Yet as much as it talks about the cosmos and planetary extinction, it remains almost claustrophobically transfixed on Justine and her sister Claire: as much as Chadwick’s songs are widespread in their emotions and laments, they also remain transfixed with a similar (cathartic) suffocation. The strange calmness of Justine, the flatness of someone who has already dealt with the worst of the worst (ie. the end of the world), seems to linger in Chadwick’s songs.
The popular reading of Melancholia is that the planet’s collision with earth is a metaphor for the experience of melancholia: an internal psychological state is transposed onto a cosmic landscape. Yet there’s an interpretation by Steven Shaviro that I like better:
“The planet Melancholia is not a projection of Justine’s personal melancholy. If anything, we should say the reverse: that Justine’s personal state of misery is itself a kind of interiorization — a registration on the intimate, subjective level — of the cosmic, deflationary truth of planetary extinction.”
In other words, to think of the planet melancholia as being a metaphor for Justine’s melancholia is to read the film backwards: it is the certainty of planetary extinction that comes first, which Justine then interiorises. The truth of the world as feared by the melancholic (that it is indifferent, objective, or, as Justine says, “evil”), is made real. It is anti-metaphorical, and I think this sense exists in Sugar Still Melts in the Rain: the title and the lyrics could be metaphors for Chadwick’s state of mind, but it could also be the world, as plainly as Chadwick internalises it.
[KT] The other thing that people may mention to you about Sarah Mary Chadwick is her album artwork, which she draws herself. Squiggly figures twist into a gaudy tumble of eroticism—bent over, flesh exposed, cast in lurid yellows and greens and pinks. Chadwick copies the figures from pornography that she watches on her laptop. The imagery seems jarring when first compared with her quite gentle-sounding songs, but it actually acts as a fitting companion to her lyrics, which reject rationality to make way for confusion. Taken together, Chadwick’s songs and artwork seem to hold a magnifying glass to the strangeness of our emotions, our suffering, our existence. Her work contends that maybe emotional—miserable—responses are the only kind that make sense in a universe that is deeply irrational. One in which friends die or leave you, in which sexuality is distorted and unreal, in which random men kill random women.
[TM] An idea pervading psychoanalysis is that we pursue patterns that don’t make us happy. As a lived experience it can be painful, but there’s something about this, particularly when rendered in artistic form, that easily gestures towards the tragic-comic. The tragic part of Chadwick is well-documented, but the funny part—that quality of many women that’s often left unacknowledged—is generally unattended: the moments of irony on love and death, or when Chadwick’s anxieties, laments and unfulfilled desires reach to the lowest of low, to the point where exhaustion becomes so much that it turns to self-mockery.
Yet there’s a common idea with melancholia that if you just lift the veil, if you find what’s making you unhappy, you’ll be able to identify the patterns, address it, and start feeling better again. Chadwick gives the refreshingly honest acknowledgement that we may know one thing, but we’ll also pursue feelings, affections and actions that defy all knowledge.
When she sings “I’m living for the pain”, it creates a temporary space to think about the self-repressing, non-feeling, latently-perverse sides of ourselves—sides that, to be a functional human being in a society, we keep hidden. With lines like these, I often wonder if Chadwick is embracing melancholy to the point where she can actually rival it.
[KT] The week after Eurydice Dixon was killed, I joined the stream of people walking down Royal Parade to attend the mass vigil in the place where she had been found. Thousands came with makeshift candle torches, glowing orange-red in the dark, to stand there in silence, side by side. It was a rare public outburst of emotion in an Anglicised culture that is ordinarily suspicious of such displays and suspicious of melancholy in general.
There was a strange, unnameable pull to show up at the vigil in the park. As with Chadwick’s performances, those of us gathered there had been granted something hard to come by: permission to be publicly sad. (Collective sadness flies in the face of the individualised, broken-self narrative of depression that we are accustomed to.) As a result, the evening felt terrible, but warm.
Tragic events—a sudden death—can spur a rush of sadness that jolts you with an awareness of the fact that you are still living, that it is still “red when you bleed”, but this is often a temporary realisation. It has now been a month since the vigil for Dixon, and the intensity of feeling—at least at the collective level—seems to have evaporated as other things have taken our attention. It is societally suitable for mourning to be contained—packaged into a vigil, a funeral. Chadwick’s song-world doesn’t allow for this state to fade: the discomfort is laid bare, with no end.
In the album’s title track, Chadwick hits a quivery note in the chorus. “Raise your glass to… my health” she directs in one instance; in another, she declares “I flew here on a cloud of pain / But I would do it all again.” With glass held aloft, she seems to be daring the question: What is the point of trying to feel better, to be reasonable? When on ‘Wind Wool’ she sings “I’ll die, you died, we die,” she counters with the reminder: “There’ll only be one you and one you and one you.” To stare straight into pain is severely difficult, but human.
[TM] Over 30 years ago French artist Sophie Calle spent 92 days travelling through Japan. The anticipated apex of her trip was to happen in another place, a New Delhi hotel room, where she would be reunited with her French lover. She waited, and he eventually called—he wasn’t coming, the affair was over. “Nothing unusual,” said Calle, “but for me then the unhappiest moment of my whole life.”
When she returned home Calle would exchange the account of her doomed love affair with others, but only if the person answered one question: When did you suffer the most? “I decided to do this systematically until I had managed to relativize my pain by comparing it with other people’s, or had worn out my own story by sheer repetition,” Calle later wrote. While the exorcism was successful, it would be another 15 years before she exhibited Exquisite Pain, a two-part show displaying visual symbols of her 92-day trip, each building to the catastrophe, alongside the memories of others’ worst suffering—suicides, car accidents, abandonment.
This need for obsessive repetition of grief reminds me of Chadwick: how pain is repeatedly and exhaustedly symbolised, how it’s acknowledged by others, how it’s shared. In many reviews of Chadwick's music, the supposedly redeeming feature of her songs is their hopefulness—as if Chadwick is only offering something meaningful in the moments where she's overcoming melancholia. Yet I wonder if it’s more nuanced than this: Chadwick creates her way out of melancholic memories, while also indulging melancholy at the same moment. Like Calle, she finds the language and symbols to both confront—and embrace—loss, desire and death.
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