Interview: Sarah McLeod talks new album, Rocky’s Diner

Sarah McLeod rapidly rose to prominence during the late nineties as one of Australia’s favourite rock frontwomen with Adelaide-based outfit, The Superjesus. In 2005, she embarked on a solo career with debut album Beauty was a Tiger, which peaked in the Top 40 of the ARIA Albums Chart. Since then, McLeod has worked on projects in both the U.S and the U.K, collaborated with Jeff Martin (The Tea Party), and even dabbled in the dance genre, with club hits including Hurricane and White Horse. 2013 saw The Superjesus touring again following their reunion and the band were also inducted into the South Australian Music Hall of Fame this year. Today marks the release of McLeod’s brilliant new solo work, Rocky’s Diner. Also featuring drummer Mick Skelton (Baby Animals, Thirsty Merc) the album showcases McLeod’s sublime vocals and well-honed songwriting chops. We recently caught up with the engaging singer to talk about Rocky’s Diner, some of her influences, and her upcoming tour schedule.


SR: Rocky’s Diner was written during a 3-month period of isolation in New York. What was that time like and why New York?

SM: I really wanted to get away from any outside influences, other people’s opinions, or any of the things that crop up from day to day, like business things I had to take care of, any social engagements, any guilt of saying no to social engagements. I just wanted to basically detach myself from anything so I had absolutely nothing else to do but sit there and focus on writing the record.

SR: I’ve read that Billy Joel’s Scenes from an Italian Restaurant was an influence, as well as the Rocky movies. So there’s an American feel to it. Did you go there with that concept in mind, or did that come to you while you were over there?

SM: I didn’t really think of it as an American feel. It was more the mood of it, really. The mood of Rocky the movie was this me against the world thing: Rocky’s challenge when he went to Russia at Christmas to fight Drago in the snow. It was the mood of me against the elements and having this giant challenge ahead of me that I had to fulfil that seemed like a really big thing at the time. To go from having not one song to promising your label, ‘Give me three months and I’m going to return with a whole album’ when you haven’t done a record in 12 years is a nerve-racking thing. So I built it up as this giant challenge and I wanted to make it legit. So I decided to just get out of town and go somewhere remote—not that New York is remote, because I also know people in New York—but I just didn’t call anyone. I just kept to myself and did my work. I wanted to be somewhere that felt like anything’s possible. And I find that when I’m in places like New York, there’s that magic in the air that makes you feel like anything’s possible. You create songs differently. You write lyrics that are bolder. I find that if I’m sitting in Adelaide or Sydney, I’ll go to write something and I’ll go, ‘No, don’t write that. You’re going to look like a wanker.’ But if you’re in New York, you go, (adopts American accent), ‘I’m totally writing that! It’s cool!’ It’s not like I’m going anywhere or seeing anything. I’m just there and I’m sucking in the possibility of the place.

SR: You’ve known Mick for some time now. When did you first meet and what made you decide on a two piece for this project?

SM: I met Mick in 2005. It’s a funny story, actually. I had a different drummer in the band and it was the night before we were supposed to do some special gig. I was having troubles with the drummer and I was rehearsing with the rest of the band. And they were packing up and everyone was about to go. I went, ‘Guys, don’t go. Sorry, I’ve got another drummer coming in for a quick audition. I know we’ve got this big thing on tomorrow, but can everyone just stay around for another ten minutes?’ And the other guys were like, ‘What? What are you doing?’ The drummer had gone by this stage. I was like, ‘Just bear with me—it won’t take long.’ The other guys said, ‘Who are you auditioning?’ and I said, ‘His name’s Mick Skelton.’ They went, ‘Mick Skelton?! Mick Skelton is a motherfucker!’ I said, ‘Unreal! You know him? Great.’ And he walked in and set up his kit in seconds. We played the set and we all went, ‘Whoa! Okay, there’s the band.’ That was 2005. He came in guns a-blazing and I’ve pretty much been with him, on and off, ever since. We’ve tried many different incarnations of playing together.

After the band disbanded, we played together acoustic for years just because it was a cheap and easy way to keep playing. So our grooves got quite connected and we were quite tight the way we followed each other’s groove. We were putting together the concept of how to play Rocky’s Diner live, and originally I was going to do it as a full band. Then I thought, ‘Hang on a minute. If I can do this with Mick and work out how to play the bass at the same time, we can do it as a duo.’ And I designed this guitar where I could play the bass at the same time. One out goes to a bass rig and one goes to a guitar rig. Then we tried it at rehearsal and it worked and I was like, ‘Un-REAL. We’re back.’ It’s so much easier playing with just two people, too, on so many levels. It makes it tighter. Every time I hit the string, the bass is being hit at the same time as the guitar, so it’s super-tight. Being in a band with a lot of people is difficult anyway in terms of people’s schedules and band politics. So the less amount of people you put in the band the better. This works perfectly for us. It’s a lean, mean machine.

SR: I’ve been watching the Giants Live Studio Sessions clips on YouTube and your chemistry is very apparent. Was it fun shooting that session and do you enjoy making videos?

SM: Actually, I hate it to be honest. I don’t like being filmed. I would’ve enjoyed that a lot more if the cameras weren’t there. We’d only just learnt six songs to do for that live video. We did it right after Christmas, so it was a while ago. We’re ready to go on tour now, but that was quite premature and we had to bust arse pretty quick to get those six songs ready. So, I was a bit nervous because it was a little bit premature. I was like, ‘What do you mean we’ve got to play six songs in front of people and it’s going to be on the internet forever? I’m not ready.’ So we rehearsed day and night for about two weeks. So when we were actually playing it and everyone was standing there filming—there were people everywhere watching—we were like, ‘Oh God.’ I particularly was shitting myself. I hate being filmed.

SR: Really? That surprises me.

SM: Ah, I’m like a duck. Outside, I’m all confident, but inside my little legs are going ‘quack quack quack.’

SR: It’s a fantastic album. What sort of feedback have you had so far?

SM: Oh, so far I’ve had really nice, positive, genuine feedback. Everyone really seems to connect with everything they’ve heard and I’m super happy with it. I stand by every song and I stand by every lyric. I’m the most comfortable with this record than I’ve been with anything I’ve ever made. It’s weird for me because I’ve made three records since Beauty Was a Tiger in 2005…..and then three records where I got to the gate and went, ‘Nup.’ I’ve spent so much money on albums and then gone, ‘Nup, I don’t like it. I can’t do it. I’d rather put out nothing.’ And I’d just put out nothing because I’d get the fear at the last minute. And this one—nah, I love it. It’s about to come out next week and I still love it. I could cry—I’m so thrilled that I haven’t panicked and backed out at the last minute.

SR: How does it feel as you wait for the release? After such a hiatus, are you at all apprehensive about reviews and that sort of stuff?

SM: No, I really only get nervous when someone records me with a camera. I always get nervous singing on TV, not that we do it anymore because there are no stations that will let you play live. But in the old days, I’d go on something like Hey Hey It’s Saturday and would just be shitting myself. I used to have to take Valium before I’d go on TV because I’d get so nervous. Even to go on The Morning Show or something. I can’t control my heartbeat—it would just go out of control and it would make me sing funny. So I’d have to take beta blockers and Valium and stuff just to calm down and do it. But everything else I’m totally cool with. And playing in front of people at a gig is absolutely no problem. I’ll walk out in front of as many people as you like and go, ‘Check this shit out. I’m going for it.’ But as soon as there’s a camera, I panic.

SR: Is it because when you’re in a live environment you’re all part of the experience?

SM: I don’t know. I think it’s probably because they can rewind it. (Laughs) I could never go on the X Factor or The Voice or any of those things because I’d just crumble. I’m obsessed with watching those shows because I’m always fascinated by how people do it. If I was the coach, I’d be saying to my students (whispers) ‘Just take some Valium. You’ll be fine.’

SR: Which is your favourite aspect of the process—creating the work, or when it’s done and you’re out delivering it to your audience?

SM: They’re two completely different levels of satisfaction. It’s like reading a book or watching a movie. The creative process is really difficult and I really beat myself up about it and it’s really scary. But then, when you actually write something, the level of fulfilment you get from that completely overshadows all of the shit you went through to get the idea. There’s nothing in the world that can top that moment when you have a penny drop and you go, ‘Oh, I know what to do!’ There’s nothing in the world that can make me feel as good as that moment. Sometimes I think a bomb could go off behind me and I wouldn’t even turn around because I’m so rapt because I got the tag to that song and thought of that chorus and my life is complete. And doing the live show is a different kind of satisfaction. It’s still satisfying to go, ‘Yeah, great gig’, but once you’ve got your set up and running it’s sort of the same set every night and just different levels of whether you thought the gig was good or not. It’s still really satisfying, but it’s not nothing to something like when you’re actually creating the music in the first place.

SR: Can you tell us a bit about what you’ve got lined up for your upcoming shows?

SM: Yeah, we’ve put a really cool set together. I’m really excited about it. Again, I’m ever so slightly nervous because I haven’t performed in this fashion ever and it’s the maiden voyage of running this bass and guitar combination rig together. But at rehearsals it sounds unreal and it seems to work. Let’s hope it works live. I’m playing the bass and guitar at the same time but the way I play it is that I flick between sounds; I flick between bass and guitar for certain parts. I’ve arranged it all to highlight each instrument in different parts. There’s just so much to remember. There’s just no way I could play this set if I was drunk. Normally, I could go onstage blind and go, ‘Yeah, no worries!’ But I can’t even drink. I’ve got so much to remember. My footwork on the pedals is like I’m dancing, and I’ve never even had guitar pedals. My whole life I’ve never had one guitar pedal. I’ve gone from nothing to full space station. (Laughs)

SR: And was that hybrid guitar something you’d seen elsewhere, or did you just put it together?

SM: I saw something like it once. Many years ago, The Superjesus toured with this band Local H in America. It was about 15 years ago. And I don’t know how he set it up, but I remember the guy had a pickup in his guitar that was coming through the bass as well. One night he asked me to get up and play an AC/DC song with him. He gave me that guitar and said, ‘Now, you gotta make sure that you touch this string here, ‘cause that’s the bass’ and I was like, ‘Whoa! What?!’ I don’t know how he had it set up. I didn’t actually bother to look at what he was doing or how his pedals were or how he got the sound. I just got the rough idea from what he did and kind of put something together, from memory and common sense.

SR: Do you do anything to prepare before a tour?

SM: I just practise a lot and I have to get strong. I have to go to the gym and get strong because the way I play guitar, especially for this, is really taxing and my arms really hurt. I rehearse about 12 hours a day, so my arms absolutely kill and my back get sore. I pretty much laze around for years on end eating whatever I want and drinking, and then I go, ‘It’s time to become a machine!’ and then I just hammer the gym, become a machine, go out on tour, and then go back to being fat and lazy again. It’s great fun.

SR: When you were first starting out, which female performers inspired you?

SM: PJ Harvey was always my go-to woman. I just thought she was classy and strong. Her music sort of had that rock and roll thing, but she wasn’t a Joan Jett. She wasn’t the quintessential rock chick, yet she held herself well. She was feminine and she had this unique voice and wrote her own songs and produced her own records. And she always sounded really intelligent.

SR: How have you evolved as a performer over the years?

SM: (Laughs) God, where do I start? I evolve every day. I learn something every ten minutes. It baffles me that I’m still learning so much at my age. I will know more tomorrow than I do as I talk to you right now. Every day is different and I’m surprised at every corner. It never stops. I’m a totally different performer to what I was back then. Completely.

SR: What advice would you give your younger self if you could time travel?

SM: I think mainly to be really aware that when I’m writing a song, there’s only a limited amount of words that each song can have, unless you’re writing a rap song that has zillions of verses. Generally, for a pop song, it’s quite expensive real estate to get a line in a song, because there are not that many lines. You’ve got to make sure that every line that you say is contributing to the story of the song and helping the listener understand and connect with what you’re trying to say. A lot of times, I’d write things that would make sense to me, but they wouldn’t make sense to anyone else; but, I thought it sounded cool because it’d rhyme. I feel that what I’ve learnt over the years is that you want someone to read it and understand it. I actually think my mum had a lot to do with that because she’d read my lyrics and go, ‘Got no idea what you’re talking about, darling. What’s this?’ Even still, when I sent her Wild Hearts, which is going to be the next single… I sent her that in New York. I had a line: ‘She had a friend who sends her snow cones from her travels, and she shakes them all up in a row and flies from London to Seattle’. I was thinking about those little snow domes, but I was spelling it wrong. This woman never gets out but someone sends her these things and she looks at them and shakes them, and even though she’s never travelled or been to these places or had an exciting life, she feels that she’s connected to them because she sits there and looks at these snow domes. I was trying to explain this story to Mum and she was like, ‘What’s with the snow cones? Why is ice-cream involved and why is she flying from London to Seattle?’ I’m like, ‘Oh right, I’ve spelt it wrong’ and I had to rejig it. Then I sent it back to her and said, ‘Do you understand it?’ and she said, ‘I understand it and I love it.’ I went, ‘Great, okay.’ I just want people to understand what I’m saying, but I never really thought of that before. So that’s what I’d tell my younger self.

SR: Which are your favourite tracks on the album and why?

SM: My top two would probably be Bad Valentine, because I love a good, dirty waltz, and I love the concept behind it and I love playing the guitar solo, and Northern Lights, because I just think that’s a fun little ditty about getting high.

SR: Do you get out to see much live music and who are some of your favourite artists?

SM: I do when I can, yeah. At the moment I’m really into Thelma Plum. I only just discovered her the other day and I just thought she had the most beautiful voice. And what’s the other one I like? (Sings ‘Adore You’). Who’s that girl who sings that song Adore? [Amy Shark]. My main jam that I’m obsessed with at the moment… I went and saw Royal Blood the other day. Everyone was saying to me, ‘Oh, you’re doing the 2 piece thing? You’ve got to go and see Royal Blood.’ But the guy does it playing bass—he flicks it to guitar. I went and saw them and went, ‘Oh my god!’ It’s everything that I loved about Shihad but better. I’ve always been a really big Shihad fan. So I’ve been listening to loads of Royal Blood while I’ve been pumping iron in the gym getting ready for the tour.

SR: You’ve collaborated with a number of different people, including Angry Anderson and Jeff Martin. Who have been some of your favourite collaborators and who would you like to work with in future?

SM: My favourite of all my collaborators so far would probably be Chris Cheney. I think he’s such a talented musician and he’s so lovely to work with. He’s so humble. He and I did a duet on Private School Kid on my last record. I was, ‘Okay, you’re going to sing this…’ and he was like, ‘What? Sing?! No, no, no. I don’t want to sing. I’m just here to play guitar. I don’t want to sing.’ I said, ‘What? I thought you were singing with me.’ He said, ‘No, no, I’m not a very good singer’ and I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me! You’re one of the greatest vocalists I know!’ And he was all humble, thinking he was no good. He goes, ‘I’ll sing if you want, as long as you think it sounds good.’ I said, ‘Of course it fuckin’ sounds good, you idiot! Jesus!’ (Laughs). So, I loved working with him. He’s a really, really cool guy. I’d like to work with Tex Perkins. I’ve always been a big fan of Tex Perkins and Tim Rogers. I’d like to do something with Tex and Tim one of these days, if I ever get the opportunity. That would be an absolute honour because I really respect those guys.

SR: That’d be a great combination, too.

SM: Yeah. Dirty. (Laughs). Blues wise, I mean.

SR: I hear there’s another Superjesus album in the pipeline. You’ve also said that you’re having more fun playing with the band now than you did back in the day. Why’s that?

SM: Oh, because the band has a really good energy now. We used to have a lot of dramas and there was a lot of inter-band politics. We used to fight a lot. It was actually quite painful to be in that band for many years. It was depressing and quite dark. And now it’s not at all. Now it’s really fun and all of the dramas that we used to have and all of the pressures that we used to have are totally gone. And everyone’s in very different places in their lives and we’re all just there to make music and have a good time and have a laugh. It’s lovely.

SR: What’s the rest of the year looking like for you, once you’ve finished this tour?

SM: So, there’s the Giants tour and then there’s a month off and then it kicks into the album tour, which goes right through to the end of the year. We just haven’t announced all the dates yet. Then there are a few Superjesus shows. Then we’re going to keep touring the 2 piece thing and then there’s a whole bunch of Superjesus shit planned for next year.

SR: (Laughs) Oh, okay.

SM: When I say ‘shit’ I mean legitimate entertainment opportunities. (Laughs)

SR: Do you have a message you’d like to send out to your fans?

SM: Yeah, I love this album and I stand by it. Trust me. Give it a try and go and have a listen because I think you’ll like it. (Laughs) I won’t let you down. I always had this thing about songwriters. If you trust a songwriter and they bring out a new album, you get really excited going to listen to it. You go, ‘Oh God, this is going to be great!’ And there’s nothing worse than being let down by a songwriter that you trust. It’s happened to me so many times. Like, the last Lady Ga Ga album, I could’ve cried. I pulled over, I put the CD on, and I was like, ‘Oh my God. Let’s go!’ And then I was like, ‘Oh. I hate it.’ It was the worst feeling ever.

SR: Speaking of pop singers, I was surprised to see Lana Del Rey crop up in that mash up you did on YouTube. 

SM: Oh, do you know how that came about? I was sent into a radio station to play the new single from the last EP I did. I was like, ‘Okay, I’ll play the single.’ They were like, ‘Yes, you can play the single, but we’re only going to let you play the single if you also play something from the Top 40. I was like, ‘Ugh, but I hate everything in the Top 40, so what am I going to do?’ So they sent me a list of the Top 40 and I went through it and went, ‘Well, okay, I like this Lana Del Rey song’, but I only liked it up to a certain point. She went into this other part and I didn’t like that part. And then I liked this Lorde song, but I didn’t like some of the Lorde song. So I took the good bits that I liked from Lana Del Rey and the good bits that I liked from Lorde and I made it one song. And then I sang it for them. I said, ‘I’ll sing this. I like this.’

SR: You sounded amazing.

SM: Oh, I like jamming songs in with each other. In my live show, I do a lot of morphing other songs within the song and then I go back to the song. I do it all the time.

SR: Excellent. Well, I look forward to catching your show when you’re up my way.

SM: Cool, you should do it. I do this one thing where I do a Mahalia Jackson gospel song and take it into Summertime by George Gershwin, and then it goes into Leadbelly. It’s cool. I like to switch it up. (Laughs)


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