Sadie Jemmett’s life could be viewed in different ways: colourful, vibrant and full of adventure, or the wanderings of a lost child looking for home. Both views hold a large degree of truth but, regardless, the extraordinary patchwork of theatre, writing, music and travel, equips her admirably to write moving and beautiful music. Acoustic caught up with Sadie as she prepared to launch her first album, The Blacksmith’s Girl.
You had a very peripatetic and frankly painful-sounding childhood. What did that leave you looking for in the world?
I don’t think I was very aware that I was looking for anything in particular. There was a great lack of form: my childhood was much too free – nobody was looking out for me or anything – so I tended to wander a lot, and went wherever I could with my guitar on my back. I didn’t have a conscious aim to pull it all into music, I just kind of drifted, and I suppose I was looking for love, and was looking for the nurturing that I didn’t get at home. It’s very unconscious; if I’d really have been thinking about nurturing, I wouldn’t have gone for half the guys I went for!
How has that experience informed your career and songwriting?
For a long time I sang and played music because it made me feel better, and helped me make sense of the world. A family I went to live with introduced me to Dylan and Joni Mitchell, people who were a big influence on my career, and that was such an inspiration to write and play. I was doing it because it felt good, rather than as a real career choice, but when I got older I started to feel that I was quite good, and people were responding. While I was wandering, my songwriting came from an unconscious plane. I had a great knack for melodies, and I could come up with good songs in all the bands I played in, but the big change recently has been in the lyrics. Th at’s something which has come through looking back on my life and my childhood and trying to understand it, and the lyrics were very much about making sense of that. I think that when you start examining what happened to you – which I needed to do because I had a child and had grown up without a mother – if you haven’t had a mother who has been there for you, you need to draw on nurturing resources from elsewhere, and they just weren’t there. The things that you’re working with in these situations are completely universal – feelings of loss, feelings of abandonment, of being alone – and if you can say it in the right way, maybe the less complicated the better, people will be able to respond.
You’ve had an extremely varied career … What drove you from one thing to another, and what have you taken from the experience?
I think that because I was desperately looking for home, which sounds desperately clichéd, but I really was – I had had no real home and had terribly bohemian parents, who were actors, and couldn’t really provide a home. My father died when I was very young, and my stepmother sold the family home and banked the money, so I really didn’t have anywhere to go, and I never felt particularly welcome in either of my parents’ homes – when you’re in that situation and you don’t have any money, you tend to move on. Th ere were also a lot of deepseated psychological issues from not having had much nurturing; when you’re a teenager you’re not terribly conscious and you just accept how things have been, and just keep moving in the hope that the next thing you land in will be better. I think people did appreciate my music, though I wasn’t being very career minded, so I ended up in bands and stuff , and people wanted to hear me sing, which kept me moving around. Then I got involved in theatre, and having left school at 16 with no exams, I went back and studied theatre. I’m not quite sure why – perhaps because my parents had been actors and my brother was involved in theatre. I kept getting asked to do music for theatre, and I had my fi rst success when I wrote the music for a play in Paris, and that kind of woke me up.
How has motherhood changed your world view and your writing?
I did this show in Paris, which was my fi rst moment when I thought I ought to take things a bit more seriously, because the reaction to the music had been so good. Th at encouraged me to approach record companies, which went well, and then I got pregnant. I walked into a big record company office which had been very interested before, and they saw I was pregnant and I could see it was a big nono. My relationship ended when my daughter’s father and I had a real moment of clarity. I realised I either needed to go to London and do this thing, try to make a real career from my songwriting or it’ll pass me by, so I did. I guess the answer is that motherhood is gradually aff ecting my writing, but more than that it was a spur to get serious – make my career happen before it passed me by.
You’ve talked about Blue being a very reassuring record, yet Joni talks about that being written at a time when she had no protection, emotionally, at all. What do those songs mean to you?
When I first heard Blue I remember thinking that if someone can be that honest about how they feel, then there is salvation for us. If we can articulate pain like that, then that’s how we save ourselves. Joni and I sound very diff erent, and if we have a similarity it’s in the honesty. What I learnt through therapy was that if you can allow yourself to be honest with yourself about how you feel, you become innocent again.
When you write a song, are you thinking about the impact on other people, or are you just writing for yourself?
Some of the songs, like ‘So I Begin’ and ‘I’m Glad You’re Back’, are deeply personal and come from feelings I was really dealing with, but some of the others are much more mixed, with other people’s experiences coming in as well. I quite like the fact that I’m more and more being able to write from other people’s perspective. I once heard Dylan say that his work started to get interesting when he could write songs from the point of view of others. On some level you’re always trying to reach the truth, whether it’s your truth or someone else’s truth; you’re trying to unify experiences, trying to share yours, and tie them in with other people’s as well. Somebody was asking me recently about lyrics, and I realised that early on I was trying to be cool, and write cool songs, and was a bit selfconscious, but now I’m just trying to write honest songs. If you are really really honest, people will respond to you more.
Could you tell us what guitars you use?
At the moment I’m playing a Martin D-35, which was lent by a friend, and it’s gorgeous. My own Martin was in the hold of an aeroplane and came back looking as though someone had put their foot through it. I got it repaired, and it was very good, but I was in Paris earlier this year, working on a play, running around – I had the guitar round my body on a strap and it got tapped on a wall and split apart again. Currently it’s held together with gaff er tape and it needs repairing; gaffer tape is wonderful stuff but there are some jobs too big for it!
I also play some Appalachian dulcimer, but I’m a very timid dulcimer player; I don’t have a very expensive or good one because I can’t aff ord it, but I’ve also never really had lessons. The first song on the album is played on dulcimer, which came about because my fi rst manager bought me a cheap one as a gift. I had picked it up, learnt to tune it, and immediately written a song on it, so now I’m gigging on it, but I feel like I need lessons to fill the gap.
Sadie’s Album, The Blacksmith’s Girl is out now.
For tour details and more information go to www.sadiejemmett.com.
by Gareth Powell, Acoustic Magazine, March 2012