Sarah Levins Takes Flight

Sarah Levins Takes Flight

On North Birds, a slice of singer-songwriter serenity, Sydneysider Sarah Levins gets the band together to chase the music she hears in her head

Image credit: Supplied

Things are looking up for Sarah Levins.

That’s, at least in part, what the singer-songwriter’s debut is all about. North Birds, in title and tone, calls to mind a soaring sense of belonging, capturing Sarah and her tight-knit collaborators in full flight. It’s the perilous lift of that first ascent, the arrival of an artist already formed, lifted on six-string swells and gifted with agile turns and sharp sight. The EP, though at times strikingly solitary, speaks to vulnerability: firstly, with a newfound audience, and secondly, with the artists who came to contribute to her opening statement. In the wake of her debut, we caught up with an ever-busy Sarah to talk inspiration, process, and taking the time to celebrate achievements.

As Sarah tells it, that titular image came on suddenly. “I'd literally been on the beach watching a bunch of birds flying,” she says with a laugh. “I don't know if it was actually north, that was a bit of poetic licence!” A minor moment of inspiration snowballed through the creative process, slowly taking on other significance beyond the soon-to-be title track. “The title is sort of in reference to how we made the EP: there were two of us sitting on our living room floor, writing it from scratch… it’s an 'us against the world' kind of thing,” she says, shouting out her partner — creative and romantic — Jerome Blazé. “After creating it, probably a few months afterwards, I realised the title has a bit of similarity with my childhood,” muses Sarah. “My family and I moved north to the US for quite a few years, and I just thought it was a nice kind of image of the four of us moving north, like a flock of birds.”

The deeply personal nature of the title speaks not only to Sarah’s pen, but the process of sharing music itself. “It's always a strange thing, because I really only started putting out music last year,” she admits, still acclimatising to “putting music out and then having people respond to it when it's been yours for so long.” Any response to that sort of soul-bearing — even the rapturous sort that Sarah’s been receiving — takes a bit of getting used to.

The sparse, sombre guitar of North Birds ushers in the record, with Sarah starting on a proposal: “did you want to try a couple of lives on with me?” The togetherness is more intimate than exhilarating, and Sarah’s existential longing lands with the energy of a bleary, late-night admission. The understated romance of the chorus — “where you are, I want to be” — speaks to belonging, not in a place, but in a relation, not unlike the creative and romantic partnership that underwrites every note. Together, all the more anthemic, wraps this belonging around eternity, pulling wisdom from a cosmic sense of self.

The disparate sounds and shifting scale of the record are steeped in artistic wisdom Sarah credits to American singer-songwriter Weyes Blood. “Every time she makes a new album or a new thing, she feels like she gets closer to the music she has in her head, but she actually will never get to that point,” explains Sarah, glowingly. “I love the idea of the joy of the process, and the actual exciting bit is in the making rather than having to feel like you've arrived or finished.” The creative mission is always ambitious; the ideal is always just beyond reach. “I think that was a massive learning thing for me with this EP: you never really do arrive.”

Sarah Levins

North Birds, then, is both an arrival and a stopover. On the one hand, it marks Sarah’s first foray into releasing music, pulling a distinct identity from the years of unassuming rehearsals and sharpening songwriting. On the other, it’s a first attempt at an unreachable goal: the lofty ideas and far-flung sounds that inspire her. If the music itself is personal and heartfelt, the most contrived element may have been in the release itself, with Sarah’s usual process an endless series of visions and revisions.

I am very much a deadlines person,” she said with a laugh. “I had to actually set myself a deadline to finish all of them, because to be honest, I could keep working on them forever.” The sketches, written by Sarah and refined alongside Jerome, took on a sharper distinction as collaborators stumbled into their roles. “I think having people come in, especially friends who reacted really nicely to the songs and wanted to play on them, was almost like the beginning of the end for me,” recalls Sarah, her liner notes littered with friends and peers. The record is underwritten by Pete Longhurst on drums and Sean Niven on bass, anchoring the band arrangements on which further flourishes build. Butterfly features saxophone from Ned Olive, a Sydney-based musician, and the strings throughout the record come courtesy of James Tarbotton, a multipotentialite who also shot the single art for both Butterfly and Arms Length. “It felt like they sort of really took shape when we added in a sax, strings, the choir... having other people there forced me to sort of close the songs.”

More than just “tie them up with a string,” the contributors on North Birds helped further capture Sarah’s vision through their free-flowing collaborative arrangements. “I think it really is reflective of what my life is like at the moment, and meeting all these people and collaborating with them,” she says. “I like that that ended up being reflected on the EP. I think it probably could have very easily been me and a guitar, or me and a piano, and I think it happened in a very organic way… I was writing it and meeting these people, and exploring kind of a more fleshed-out sound.” With the affirmations of her friends in tow, Sarah’s made a near pass at the music of her mind's eye.

Far from saiting her creativity, it’s only spurred her on. “The minute you put it out, you're like, 'Okay, what's the next thing',” muses Sarah. “I really want to work on an album next year, but I'm trying to really take a second and get to a place where I can kind of pat myself on the back and go, 'good job'.” That piece of mind is hard-earned, with Sarah already mulling over the possibilities of a full-length record. “I feel like my tendency would be to go, 'Okay, come on, let's start a new thing, and buy a new guitar, and get a new sound for the album.' I just feel like it's nice to acknowledge that this thing happened, and not get so caught up in always having to build on what you've done.

You could call the music videos a minor celebration, holding space for the songs even as they push them into visual spaces. The clip for Butterfly, directed by strings player James Tarbotton, pulls a warm sunset aesthetic from an afternoon spent on the beach, and Are You Having Fun, directed by Jacinthe Lau, captures the stir-crazy chaos of a restless spirit. “I really enjoy the visual element, coming up with a visual world and thinking about the colours and things, but with this EP, they mostly came after,” says Sarah of that process. The looping ‘visualiser’ for Together, directed by her brother Xavier, came on the most suddenly. “It actually wasn't planned. My brother and I wanted to hang out and decided to go on a Big Bus and go up Centrepoint Tower, because what else do you do in Sydney,” she asks with a laugh. “I realised that I'd been trying to make a video for a while, and the feeling of that song is very much ‘wind in your hair, driving with the windows down,’ and it just felt like that song.” The karaoke bar shoot, filmed a few days later, didn’t quite make the cut — “that was terrible!

The spontaneous music video shows just how hard it is for Sarah to rest on her laurels. Engrossed in a talented musical community, inspiration is never too far away. “I saw my friend Zion Garcia, I went and watched his headline show at Phoenix Central Park recently, and it was just such an incredible show… such a sense of theatricality, I absolutely loved it,” recounts Sarah glowingly. “It really made me think about the first headline show that I want to do.” Even as she takes stock of her achievements, Sarah’s plotting on that exciting eventuality. “I'm going to put in a headline show probably around February next year, and the plan is to hopefully take it on the road after that… if I'm not obsessed with making a new album!

Sarah Levins' new EP North Birds is out now

North Birds

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