April 2014

Arts & Letters

Sally Seltmann’s ‘Hey Daydreamer’

By Anwen Crawford

© Cybele Malinowski

The fourth solo album from the Sydney singer-songwriter

“Cinematic” is an easy adjective to reach for when describing pop music, but it’s much harder to pin down what it signifies. Does it mean a soundscape spacious enough to evoke a majestic aerial shot of a rushing river, a mountain range or a speeding train? Does it point us towards a famous motif – Bernard Herrmann’s stabbing Psycho strings or the twanging surf guitar of the classic James Bond theme – or to somewhere else altogether?

For Sydney-born musician Sally Seltmann, the cinema begins in her singing. Seltmann’s breathy, slightly trembling voice brings Marilyn Monroe immediately to mind, and her phrasing owes something to the drama of those old show tunes. The title track of Seltmann’s new album, Hey Daydreamer, is a waltz punctuated by horns, organ and marimba, and it sounds like the theme song for a protagonist setting out on a feature-length adventure. “Hey, daydreamer,” Seltmann opens, hailing the listener, and possibly herself, before singing of a place “where two worlds meet: imagination and reality”, which is as concise a description of cinema (or pop music) as any.

Hey Daydreamer is Seltmann’s second album under her own name, and her fourth solo recording. During the mid ’90s, she played in Sydney guitar-pop band Lustre 4 and was briefly a member of Spdfgh. In the early 2000s she began recording as New Buffalo, working primarily with samples and keyboards. The first New Buffalo album, The Last Beautiful Day, was released in 2004. The follow-up, Somewhere, Anywhere (2007), was shortlisted for the Australian Music Prize, as was her first album as Sally Seltmann, Heart That’s Pounding (2010), which was produced by film composer François Tétaz. Also in 2010, Seltmann formed the trio Seeker Lover Keeper with fellow singer-songwriters Holly Throsby and Sarah Blasko; their self-titled album debuted at number three on the ARIA chart in 2011.

Though each of her albums has grown more sophisticated and ambitious in arrangement, there is an emotional continuity to Seltmann’s songwriting – vulnerability joined to a hard-won happiness. On the phone from Los Angeles, where she has recently moved, she describes her approach.

“I get the songs in my head as a movie, as a visual thing,” she says. “There are different sections of different songs where I can see the whole picture in my head, of what’s going on, and then I describe that lyrically.”

‘Billy’, the second track on Hey Daydreamer, tells the story of a motorbike rider from the perspective of an anxious yet loving onlooker. “You always follow through with your dangerous pursuits,” Seltmann sings. ‘Billy’, she says, is partly about “how much freedom you give your partner” – the motorcycle as metaphor for risk-taking.

Pop’s pre-eminent motorcycling song is The Shangri-Las’ 1964 classic ‘Leader of the Pack’, which, like Seltmann’s song, ends in a crash, but The Shangri-Las weren’t her reference point. “I was thinking visually about Mad Men,” she says. The character of ad man Don Draper inspired the refrain “I want you to feel like a man”, which was the song’s starting point. “Then I became quite interested in [writing about] men,” says Seltmann, “and how men think and feel in the world. Lyrically that’s the sort of thing I was trying to touch on with this album.”

Seltmann works closely on production with her husband Darren Seltmann, formerly of The Avalanches. The two of them added layers of orchestration (a mixture of digital programming and live instruments) to Hey Daydreamer, after Seltmann had written the songs on piano. New Buffalo live shows often featured Seltmann performing solo on keyboard or guitar; for her April shows here in Australia we can expect something similarly stripped back.

“I’ve just got this cool new keyboard and I’ll have lots of different sounds programmed into that,” she says. “The way Darren likes to work is he doesn’t really think about the live show, he just thinks about trying to make a really, really great album, and that’s the thing that comes first for him. I just follow his lead on that.”

Seltmann names the song ‘Right Back Where I Started From’ as the album’s genesis. “Take me back again to where I lost my way / And gave up everything,” she sings. The song opens and closes with a sparse arrangement of harp and piano, but in between it builds to an emotional and musical climax that recalls Radiohead’s gorgeous ‘All I Need’, from their 2007 album In Rainbows. ‘States and Spaces’, the album’s concluding track, also highlights Seltmann’s piano playing, and it seems right that Hey Daydreamer ends with a call to “a heart that’s wild”. You can almost hear the credits rolling.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

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