A Heart That’s Pounding: An Interview with Sally Seltmann

Sally Seltmann
Heart That's Pounding
Arts and Crafts

One of my favourite records so far this year is Sally Seltmann’s Heart That’s Pounding. It is a simple, beautiful pop album, full of singable melodies and lush production. A joyful record, Heart That’s Pounding rides waves of blissful harmonies and uplifting lyrics. Put it on of a Monday morning and you may just have a happier week.

I met with Seltmann prior to her showcase gig at Toronto’s North by Northeast festival. She had a lineup of interviews to do, and two major features on her had already been printed that morning in local media. For an Australian artist whose name likely means little to most music listeners, this attention might seem a bit misplaced. But, Seltmann is the woman who wrote one of the biggest hits of the past ten years – Feist’s “1234”. She has also recently eschewed her old handle “New Buffalo”, the name under which she recorded two well-received (if not terribly well-selling) records, which may contribute to her continued low profile. But, this may be about to change.

Seltmann is a striking woman, blonde and tall and decidedly unpretentious in appearance. Though she is clearly ill at ease with the interview process – she is nervous and even a bit clumsy, nearly spilling her drink at one point – her large and emotive green eyes rarely look away while she speaks to you. As with the central paradox of her work – a timid, restrained woman who stands on a stage and confesses her emotions – she appeared to be at once fully present and yet wishing she was elsewhere. Seltmann is impressively natural, and has that rare ability to draw you in while never pulling you at all. Like her music, Seltmann is honest, warm, and quietly complex.

You chose for the first time to drop the New Buffalo stage name you’ve been using for years, and to record and tour under your own name.

I was recording the album and, it was [my label] Arts and Crafts who said: “What would you think about being Sally Seltmann for this album?” And, I had thought about it. […] I had recently written music for a film, and they credited it to New Buffalo, and I thought: I just want to be Sally Seltmann now.

I had expected Arts and Crafts to be against it! At least from a marketing perspective. You were getting so much attention as New Buffalo after Feist’s version of “1234” blew up.

Yeah, well, you know New Buffalo is like a little town in Michigan? I think they thought, oh it’s a bit confusing. But I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t want to.

So, using your own name for the first time was your own choice: was this a more personal record than the New Buffalo ones?

Well, of course for me all of my albums feel really personal. But it feels really different from my two New Buffalo albums, mainly I think because I didn’t record it at home and I worked with a producer. The way we went about recording it was really different. It was way more uplifting.

The first verse of your song “The Truth” sounds a lot like the awkwardness that happens between artists and interviewers from time to time – I’m not trying to be what you want me to be/Yes I’m lying ‘cause I’m shy and I do not want you to see/ My thoughts because they’re tangled in a web…. Is this shyness something you have to overcome to do something like this? How public do you feel you’d like to be?

It was unintentional. And then listening back to the album as we were going along it was like, oh – these shyness references are everywhere! Actually, I am way less shy than I used to be. But I’ve always been quite shy and not very confident. More introverted.

And yet you are a public performer.

But, being confessional is a very natural way of going about writing. Even though I have been a lot shyer in the past than I am now, I still feel comfortable with singing what I’m feeling. I’d prefer to challenge people than to sing about nothing.

This record is, at almost every turn, interested in happiness. Unlike sadness and depression, happiness is notoriously difficult to write about. The danger is, I suppose, that this sentiment will appear cloying, or at worst, gloating. How do you approach “happiness” as a subject?

I usually just go about my day to day life and then write a song, very much from how I am feeling. And it was a very amazing time in my life when I was putting it all together. And it was also a reaction to my last album which felt really dark and down, to me. And I just thought ‘I don’t want to make an album that is all me singing about feeling sorry for myself.’ I wanted to make an album where I’d do a show and people would walk away feeling uplifted.

And yet as sunshiney as this record is on the surface, there is some creeping darkness underneath. This subtle depth is, for me, what makes it so engaging. For example, the “Dark Blue Angel” you’ve overcome on the last track is still there, isn’t it? It’s just outside, nearby, and you are determined to keep it out. The battle isn’t over for good, is it?

I listened to that back one day and I was like: We ended the album with the line “Goodbye dark blue angel/ I will never let you in.” And then, I joked that the next album might start “ohhhhhhh, noooooo, I let you in…” I think it would be really dumb if I put out a record of just happy songs. I am attracted to the darker things in life, but at the same time I didn’t want the album to be all about that kind of thing. It’s a balance.

You recently became a mother, which tends to make for major shifts in people’s lives, their perspective on the world, and on themselves. How did it influence this record?

Actually, I found out I was pregnant after I’d written nearly every song. Then I wrote “Harmony to my Heartbeat” about the baby in my tummy at the time. But, actually, I didn’t want to tell everyone; I didn’t want anyone who didn’t have a baby to not be able to relate to the songs, or something. I always try to write songs where, you know, totally different types of people could find something in there to relate to. So I make an effort to not sing just about how great it is to have a baby.

In terms of getting people to relate to your songs, on “Set Me Free” you speak quite candidly about something that many people probably struggle to reconcile–the need for security and companionship in a relationship can clash with one’s need for individuality and freedom. Out on the road with your family in tow [Sally’s husband is her touring drummer] is there a new poignancy to this sentiment for you?

Not really! It’s weird, I think since having a child I’ve become much better at not constantly thinking about myself, needing time to myself. But then I think I have moments where… there’s a funny thing. In one of my old songs, “Emotional Champ”, the chorus is: “no sleep tonight, only sweet reminders” – and that was meant to be like about love and when I sing it now it’s about another kind of sleep deprivation….

From the title track to “Harmony to my Heartbeat” to my favourite lyric on the record (“I wear my heart on my sleeve/ I used to lose it on the breeze”), this record is overflowing with references to the “heart”.

Yeah, I know.

You shake your head? At first blush, this is a common metaphor; but, given its centrality to your record, I wondered whether it might be worth asking: What is “the heart” for you? What do you mean when you talk about it?

Ohhhh. For me it’s just like love and it’s like…I think I’m the kind of person who just makes all her decisions with my heart; you know I’m the old cliché, I follow my heart not my head. Someone was telling me that Bruce Springsteen uses the words River and Born all the time. I think the word Heart, for me, is quite feminine. It’s an organ in your body, and it’s a shape, and it’s love and it implies so much.

Well, you probably get asked about this song too much, but I am told (by Wikipedia no less) that “1234” was originally called “Sally’s Song”. True?

Actually, when I gave it to Feist it had no name. But when she started playing it live she was calling it “Sally’s Song” on her setlists, and I think someone got hold of a setlist. And then she wrote me and asked what to call it, and I said call it what you like, and she said what about “1234” and I was like, OK, that sounds good.

Sounds like you don’t feel much ownership over it. Do you ever play it live?

I have never played it. Not even at our family Christmas party when my father in law asked me to play it. It’s no longer “Sally’s Song”, it’s “Feist’s Song”!