Sarah Mary Chadwick: “I always thought taking responsibility for things was just feeling bad about them”

The New Zealand musician closes a trilogy and exorcises a “massive clusterfuck of a year” on new album ‘Me & Ennui Are Friends, Baby’

Content warning: This story contains serious discussions about mental health, including accounts of attempted suicide. The views expressed are exclusively those of the interview subject and are not to be confused with professional advice. You can find resources at the bottom of this story should you need to seek help.

In August 2019, New Zealand musician Sarah Mary Chadwick decided to take her own life. She declines to go into the specifics with NME, bar one conversation from the ambulance ride:

Paramedic: “What do you do for a job?”
Chadwick: “I’m a chef. What do you do?”
Paramedic: “I’m a paramedic.”

The bleak comic moment arrives on her new album’s title track, ‘Me & Ennui Are Friends, Baby’, after Chadwick explains she didn’t call her mum for help because “I hate that bitch”, and that she didn’t call her dad either because “the phone don’t reach where he is”. In 30 seconds, she gallops through attempted suicide, maternal resentment, sorrow for her late father and a punchline.

“I’ve always liked things that aren’t just one tone,” says the 38-year-old in between sips of white wine and puffs of cigarettes. “I feel like life’s just like that – there’s always funny things.”

She’s not making light of the situation, though. 2019, she says, was a “fucking massive clusterfuck of a year”. Trauma stemming from the death of her father and a close friend collided with the end of a long-term relationship, which was replaced by another that was fuelled by reckless behaviour. It has taken time to process her emotions from the night.

“Afterwards, I was unsure as to how serious I was about it,” she says of her decision to take her own life. “Was it just a fit of anger moment? Did I expect to elicit a response from other people? But definitely, more so than other times, it felt like I just didn’t really care anymore.

“[It] was quite embarrassing, to be honest … you do feel like it kind of reframes how people treat you.”

Chadwick’s emotional gymnastics can be disorienting, but her humour allows the listener to engage with, rather than shy away from, the intensity of her experiences. She’s been in and out of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and psychoanalysis, with varying success, since taking herself to a psychologist for the first time at age 17. Chadwick says it’s only through her natural tenacity and energy – and years of therapy – that she’s been able to hone the skills needed to care for her mental health. It’s an ongoing process, a toolkit she’s constantly adding to.

Chadwick stresses that her thoughts on mental health shouldn’t be taken as advice of any kind, but she does explain one recent personal lesson. “I always thought taking responsibility for things was just feeling bad about them,” she says. “I was like, ‘What’s me feeling terrible about this gonna do?’ Zero. Why don’t you just not be morbid about it and just change your behaviour, take it seriously, fuckin’ address what you’re doing. And it was better… it’s a fuckin’ rudimentary realisation for most people, but it took me a million years.”

“[Suicide’s] not your 21st or something. It’s not your wedding day, or the day you graduate fuckin’ uni. It’s not an occurrence; it’s a culmination of things”

We’re speaking at her small house in Northcote, Melbourne, which, viewed from the street, is an almost comically spartan arrangement of right angles, bricks and grass shrivelling in the sun. It looks like the idea of a house stripped back to its most essential elements, and feels analogous to ‘Me & Ennui’, which was recorded in a single day with no more than three takes per song and built around nothing more than Chadwick’s voice (breathing and swallowing sounds included) and a Yamaha upright piano.

The sparseness of the record emphasises the lurching, almost ungainly pace of Chadwick’s delivery, which she says is part of an intentional effort to push her lyrics beyond the confines of individual stanzas. Listening to the songs can sometimes feel like you’re surfing her brain waves, cresting the peaks of epiphanies, before wiping out in a tide of roiling, emotional whitewater.

“I wanted to do a really immediate record,” she says. “For this one I was interested in just energy and performance.”

The record’s minimalism (it’s too funny to be called austere) came from Chadwick’s desire to subvert expectations and to free up her sonic options after two albums that were in turns massive and lush: 2019’s ‘The Queen Who Stole The Sky’, which was recorded on the gargantuan Melbourne Town Hall Grand Organ, and 2020’s richly arranged ‘Please Daddy’. All three records were recorded close together and explore similar themes. Chadwick now thinks they’ve formed a loose trilogy, with ‘Me & Ennui’ closing the book on that chapter of her life.

“On a personal level I’ve really exhausted and moved through a lot of the ideas and confusion I was detailing over those three records. It was a very difficult time, and I’m happy to move away from it,” she says. “Capping it for myself mentally seems kind of important and something I wanted to mark.”

Chadwick’s two expired relationships, in particular, show up at several points on the album. The first and longer of the two is reflected in the record’s tender moments, like on ‘Let’s Go Home’, when Chadwick’s voice cracks as she acknowledges her own shortcomings as a partner (“I’m the kind of person, you can’t take me anywhere”). Its shorter follow-up, on the other hand, cops the harsher commentary.

Chadwick insists she’s still on good terms with both people, but is unconcerned about her unforgiving lyrics causing offence. After listening to the song ‘Every Loser Needs a Mother’ (“Look hey, you’re a project, it’s true / A real fixer-upper / Fuck it, she deserves you”), it’s safe to assume that a thick skin is necessary when you’re in the orbit of Chadwick’s wit. She says the song’s subject responded with a simple text: “Huge tune.”

“If you make life a bit pleasant then it’s not such a fucking massive bore of an existence”

While ‘Me & Ennui’ contains stories of failed relationships, grief and attempted suicide, Chadwick avoids romanticising tragedy. She takes particular umbrage at hearing suicide spoken about as an unprecedented, defining event in a person’s life, rather than the culmination of difficult circumstances and sustained mental health struggles.

“It’s not your 21st or something. It’s not your wedding day, or the day you graduate fuckin’ uni. It’s not an occurrence; it’s a culmination of things. Some people don’t have the tools, or ability, or the desire to push through,” she says.

Chadwick sees suicide as the extreme end of a sliding scale of self-destructive behaviour that includes teenagers hyperventilating to pass out, driving too fast and substance abuse – all methods people toy with to escape what ails them. “The impetus to get out is pretty fucking strong in everyone.”

Sarah Mary Chadwick new album Me And Ennui Are Friends Baby 2021 interview
Credit: Darren Sylvester

She says fixating on the suicidal moment as the thing that needs to be fixed misses the point, and describes Australia’s mental health services as “deplorable”. While free suicide support lines (like the one found at the bottom of this story) may help people in the moment, to Chadwick they feel like empty gestures arriving too late in the game.

“I just think that it’s probably more useful to focus on making life cool than it is to focus on making people not commit suicide,” she says, in a classic Chadwickian turn of phrase. “Any of my friends that read this will laugh because I get into this a bit when I’ve had a few, like ‘tell us about Make Life Cool [Sarah]’!”

She adds, “If life was cool, people wouldn’t fucking play the pokies. People play pokies because they want warmth, some cake, the illusion of socialising, bright lights, something to fucking do.

“That’s why I think that providing enjoyment to people [is important] and I do enjoy that aspect of doing music and art and making jokes. If you make [life] a bit pleasant then it’s not such a fucking massive bore of an existence.”

‘Me & Ennui Are Friends, Baby’ is out now on Rice Is Nice. Sarah Mary Chadwick begins a weekly residency at Melbourne bar Avalon from February 12.