Odette: “I’m just a bundle of nerves experiencing things, trying not to be a bad person”

On new album ‘Herald’, the Sydney pop-soul auteur candidly chronicles her coming of age and struggles with mental illness

Odette has always created – and crafted – quirky characters. For the striking video accompanying her sanguine single ‘Amends’, she constructed large bugs and a sea dragon from clay, fabric and cardboard. “I was so annoyed when an insect broke,” she recalls. “But I also liked that it was the feature insect – it kinda feels a little symbolic to me.”

Indeed, Odette’s new album ‘Herald’ – the sequel to 2018’s ‘To A Stranger’, which introduced her confessional piano balladry – is astonishingly candid and cathartic, but ultimately transformative, the surrealist cover portrait by Melbourne artist Eben Ejdne depicting the singer’s face mid-morph. Odette chronicles a mental illness and its fracturing impact on relationships, and ventures out musically, too, shedding jazzy neo-soul for glitchy electronica.

Odette calls NME from her current Sydney base, where she’s “having a good time gardening and hanging out with my dog”. A prodigy, Odette has cultivated mystique, only sporadically appearing on social media. “I like connecting with people, but I do take frequent breaks.” It’s ironic, then, that she should present an album that might invite greater scrutiny. And, in promoting ‘Herald’, Odette’s concern is “messaging”. The 23-year-old chats freely, occasionally asking, “Does that make sense?” (she does).

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Georgia Odette Sallybanks was born in England to a white father and a mother with South African Zulu heritage. Primarily raised by mum in Sydney’s Inner-West, Odette was unsure of her own cultural identity. “I just gave up on all that,” she declares. “I think I’m just existing soup. I’m just a bundle of nerves experiencing things, trying not to be a bad person. Really, that’s all. I don’t really know yet maybe. I don’t think I’ve got a formed identity yet.”

Odette grew up surrounded by creatives. Her parents, both involved in the film industry’s design wing, met on the set of James Cameron’s blockbuster Titanic. Music was a constant. Odette followed her paternal line by playing the piano, composing and performing songs in primary school.

Young Odette resonated with singer-songwriter Missy Higgins, discovering her debut ‘The Sound Of White’. Nowadays she vibes to Kate Bush, Björk and Fiona Apple – pop auteurs who presaged her own singular, epic style; Odette expresses “complex emotions” through a combination of soulful vocals, classical keys and spoken word poetry.

“I like older music and, more so, music that’s a little bit more on the non-genre side,” she explains. “You can’t really put any of these women into a box and I feel very inspired by that – ’cause, without all of them, I wouldn’t be able to do this. I would have been discounted.”

“I genuinely got to a place where I just thought, ‘There’s no coming back from this – I’ve ruined myself, essentially’”

In 2014, the teen began to upload tracks onto triple j’s Unearthed portal – culminating in a deal with EMI Music. Three years on, Odette unveiled her signature number, ‘Watch Me Read You’. She recorded her debut ‘To A Stranger’ alongside Damian Taylor, a Canadian producer who’s liaised extensively with Björk.

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On that record, Odette processed a turbulent adolescence. “I just needed to get some stuff off my plate!” In retrospect, she finds the material self-absorbed. “I still love it, but I can see how young I was in the songs,” Odette says. “I do feel like I’ve grown a lot, but also I can see where certain things came from.”

‘To A Stranger’ was successful, cracking the Australian Top 20, spawning further hit singles such as ‘Collide’ and earning Odette an ARIA nomination. Meanwhile, she established herself on the live circuit. Odette supported Sam Smith at the Sydney Opera House, memorably covering The Cranberries’ ‘Zombie’ in tribute to Dolores O’Riordan. She toured Europe – prompting rapturous demands for an encore during Geneva’s Antigel Festival – and showcased at SXSW.

But, behind the scenes, Odette struggled with those complex emotions – and her confusion pervades ‘Herald’. “All these songs were written in the heat of rage,” she admits.

Last year, after she completed the album, Odette was diagnosed with the oft-misunderstood borderline personality disorder (BPD), characterised by emotional dysregulation, impaired cognitive empathy, and unstable interpersonal dynamics. She was relieved.

“While I was making this album, I had no idea at all that this is what I was dealing with. I was in a really toxic mindset. I was being cruel to people I loved. When people are sick and they don’t have the right help, it can be disastrous. It can be chaotic; it can be damaging, abusive, toxic… I genuinely got to a place where I just thought, ‘There’s no coming back from this – I’ve ruined myself, essentially.’”

Odette gained clarity on her unwellness over the previous five years – and the intensity in her music. ‘Herald’, she says, “is just a duet between my present self and my past self, but it was all happening at the same time that I had no awareness of it happening.”

Odette now recognises her “flaws” and tendency to project. But she also takes accountability for her behaviour, while trying to offer others with BPD the assurance that healing is possible. “Honestly, I don’t have any answers. I just wanted to say that I was there; I experienced this and I’m sorry and I’m trying to change – really that’s what this record is.”

‘Herald’ reveals an arc, launching with the furiously epiphanic title-track. “I do quite like the grandioseness of it,” she says, “purely because grandiose is how it feels usually to have [BPD].” ‘Amends’ is Odette’s plea for forgiveness and compassion, made after realising that she herself has hurt people. ‘Herald’ closes with the liberated ‘Mandible’. “I want to feel hope, I want to feel that yearning for connection, I want to be open and loved and be able to love.”

Artists opening up more about mental wellbeing in their music and the media may feel like a recent development. Yet Odette maintains that Britney Spears – whose life under conservatorship was captured in the recent documentary Framing Britney Spears – was addressing her experiences on record in the 2000s. “People will be like, ‘Oh, she’s just Britney’, but, if you listen to her music, there are some songs that are like… I cry.”

Still, Odette is wary of romanticising mental illness – hence her care with messaging. “I wanted to make sure that [‘Herald’] didn’t end or centre around something that was the beautification of pain or something where the message was, ‘Isn’t it sexy to be sick?’”

Odette interview Herald 2021 Australia Sydney pop soul Hermitude
Credit: Kitty Callaghan

For ‘Herald’, Odette embraced experimentation – and, as with the visuals, the varied sonic textures (including orchestral elements) enhance the storytelling. She sampled insect noises, birdsong and natural ambience as “motif sounds” to contrast with her heightened emotions, describing them as grounding – and “comforting”.

Early in her career, Odette demoed songs with EDM veteran Paul Mac, but felt that studio production was beyond her. “I was too afraid back then,” Odette admits. “I just didn’t think that I had the capacity to learn it.” When Odette reunited with Damian Taylor for ‘Herald’, he challenged her to try using music technology, even as she demurred.

She did, however, jump at the chance to collaborate with Hermitude, on lead single ‘Feverbreak’. “I was like, ‘I’ve loved these guys since I was an early teen!’” The easygoing duo encouraged her to reshape a future bass banger they’d been circulating called ‘Sour Lime’. It was a confidence boost, motivating Odette to acquire new skills and assume control of the recording process with ‘Herald’.

Odette has sold out past national headline dates – and, with COVID restrictions easing, she’ll go out on the road again in May. She’d “ideally” like to incorporate theatre into the ‘Herald’ show. “It could tell my story in a way which isn’t just musical.” And, yes, she’d maybe have more insects. “I grew up around sets as a kid and I love all that – I love building sets and I love painting them and creating clay puppets. I’m really, really into that side of the film industry – that’s where the magic happens.”

Odette’s ‘Herald’ is out now

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