Sally Seltmann is one of my favourite book club ladies, and someone I feel so lucky to have met while living in LA. More to the point, she's also an incredibly talented musician who you've definitely heard from before - either under the mantle New Buffalo, as part of Aussie group Seeker Lover Keeper or as the writer behind songs like Feist's 1,2,3,4. Oh, and she's just set up her own record label at the same time as releasing a new album, Hey Daydreamer. No big deal. She sat down with me to talk music, motherhood and why driving on LA freeways can be good for creativity.
When did you know that you wanted to be a musician?
When I was about 18 I started writing songs and thinking that I wanted to maybe play in a band. But I never thought that I’d be able to do it for a living. At the time, I was studying art and photography at College of Fine Arts and didn’t think I’d ever make a living out of being an artist either. I'd learned piano as a kid, and loved it. We had recitals every six months and we had to write our own pieces as well as play classical pieces. I liked it, but I thought my parents were just forcing me to do it. And then I realized I actually really did like it.
So you started playing in a band. How did it turn into a profession?
I moved to Melbourne and knew I wanted to do a solo project. But meanwhile I was waitressing, and cleaning offices, and doing graphic design. I would never admit that I really wanted to try to make something out of music. I was really scared that that would jinx it. But then I started playing shows. I was inspired by my husband’s band, The Avalanches, and I started to get really competitive. I just thought, okay, if they're seeing success, then I’d like to try a little harder. And some of my friends also started doing really well. But it took quite a long time before I started actually earning an income from it.
I have no idea how you’d even go about writing a song. What is that process like for you?
Well, it all depends. Maybe because I’ve been doing it since I was young, I naturally just get thoughts arising in my head, and melodies, and lyrics. I guess it's like how if you’re writing a book you think of a character, because I often think I’d like to do that as well. Often I’ll be in the car and I’ll get a whole chorus in my head, so I just put my phone on record, and then I’ll bring that home, and then I’ll rework it on the piano, and then I’ll write a verse to it, or throw it away, or just keep it. And then two years later I’m, “Oh yeah, I remember that.”
Are your songs autobiographical?
I always say that they’re not. But then as time goes by and you look back, you think, this was something that I was going through. But other times, now I’m getting older, and I’ve done whole albums, and I’ve written so many songs… I mean, I can’t just only write about what I’m going through, because that wouldn’t be interesting.
When you're doing writing sessions for other people, do you enter their world?
Yeah. I'll say, “What’s going with you?” and they tell me.
It sounds like a therapy session.
Yeah, it’s totally like a therapy session, which is good, because I would love to be a therapist. I love it. I enjoy that, dealing with emotions and human behavior, and thinking about why we make the choices that we make in life.
Is there a particular place where you feel at your most creative?
It definitely changes. But when I’ve been having time alone, I come up with more ideas.
If you’re feeling like, okay, today’s the day that I need to come up with ideas, do you go to a certain place or do you make sure you have that alone time? Do you have a ritual?
Not really. I just go about my day to day life. Because if I were to just go down into my studio and just sit at the piano, well, that can be a little hard sometimes. Sometimes I just read. I went down to a bookstore the other day, and just walked through books and looked around. Sometimes, just looking through books, and watching movies, and things like that helps with inspiration.
Is it the music that generally comes first and then the lyrics, or does it change?
It changes. Sometimes I will think of a line that could possibly be a song title and a concept of what a whole song could be based on, and then I’ll be like, “Oh yay, that’s cool,” and then I’ll start writing little melodies and stuff around that.
What does a typical working day look like for you?
I usually drop my daughter at school, and then I go for a run and then it’s always very different. It’s not all creative. On a usual day there are some e-mails to do, and then I finish up singing on something I wrote with someone else. And then I’ll play around a bit, maybe come up with a few more songs. It’s the same as writing I guess.
What are the writing sessions like?
I love the writing sessions where you need to come up with ideas really quickly, but you kind of feel like it’s brain overload.
That sounds like a lot of pressure.
Kind of. You meet people you’ve never met before, and so you don’t know if you’re going to really connect with them. You get a bit nervous with that side of things. And then if I’m doing a show then my work days will be a lot of rehearsing, going through songs and stuff like that.
Tell me what it was like moving from Australia to LA. You said that when you first moved you were writing a lot. Do you feel inspired when you travel?
I feel really, really inspired when I travel. I’ve worked in America a lot the last 10 years or so, but yeah, it was all new feeling getting on the plane and taking off to live here.
I felt like I was five, like that feeling is like, “Wow, this is something that I’ve never done.” And I think it’s really good to always do things like that even as you’re getting older. It sort of made me realize, I was like, “Wow, I’m so glad we did this,” even though the first few weeks I’d be terrified driving on the freeways and whatever. But I just thought, this is so good. It’s like doing stuff that keeps you alive. You need to do sort of risky things that kind of scare you. tT always look back over the last six months or so of your life, and be able to go, “Wow, I did that, and I did that. I can do it.” It’s really comforting. I think you forget to do that.
Has there ever been a time when you’ve been thinking like, there’s nothing coming?
Sometimes I’ve had that feeling a little. Last year I was saying I did so many co-writing sessions for a few of them I arrived and I said, “What the hell am I going to write?” But then that’s the great thing about collaborating. They’ll say one thing that’s totally different to what you ever would have said or thought, and that will spark all these other ideas in you, which is the beauty of when you work with someone else too, that you combine. So that happens sometimes, but then it’s just a reminder too that I need to do more downtime when I’m writing
Is there a time of day when you feel you’re at your most creative?
I’m a little bit of a morning person. Most ideas come to me in the day, in the morning, although ideas do come in the night too.
Tell me what it’s like being married to another musician; I know you collaborate. Is it all music all the time with you guys?
Quite a lot. We do work together sometimes. I still have the need to be quite independent as well, so we do some things totally not together, too.
What would I do if you knew you wouldn’t fail?
Write a novel and write a theme song for a TV series. I’d maybe love to maybe direct a film, or maybe be in a film, maybe act in a film.
Well, you’ve come to the right place. Do you feel like coming to LA has changed your creative ambitions in any way?
Yeah. It sort of has, but I think ultimately though I’m trying to just stay true to what I love. What I love about LA is that it’s that ideas count and ideas are worth so much.
What's the best advice you've ever been given?
Just the other day I was feeling very confused about what to do as the next step, this year. Do I start my piano album? My friend just came up to me and said, “Honor the artist within you,” and that resonated because I have a lot of self-doubt, and it made me think, “Oh, yeah. I’m born to create and to put work out there, and I need to honor that and work on that.”
Do you feel like being a mum has changed how you think about your work?
I still feel as inspired to do what I do. It just means I don’t have as much time during the day I can't be in the studio for nine hours a day. I loved doing that, and occasionally I’d like to do that again. And then I also have to make choices a little more based on whatever the impact on the family. I feel like I have my work time in the day, and then when it’s time for me to see her in a way it’s good for me because it gets me out of my head. When you're just so in your own world, that can sometimes be unproductive. Then I go back to the wider world of having her, and being her mum. But I feel like I’m as productive.
What is your number one piece of advice for someone wanting to get into a creative career?
Find the thing that makes you kind of unique compared to other people in your field, embrace that, and work hard. And know that there’ll be some things that work out and some things that don’t, and don’t let that get you down, just keep at it.
Thanks so much, Sally!
Photos by Cybele Malinowski