Listening to Indigo Sparke’s music can feel like watching a star flicker in the dark country sky: from afar it can seem small and insubstantial, but once you consider the amount of energy that ripples through it, the moment can suddenly feel overwhelming in its intensity. Amid the soft glow of finger-picked guitar and delicate touches of piano, the Sydney-based singer-songwriter often uses that kind of cosmic language to relate her own experience on her debut album, Echo: “I have pulled apart the cosmos/ Trying to find you inside,” she sings on ‘Carnival’; on ‘Wolf’, she implores, “Come upstairs, let me show you all the parts you haven’t seen/ There’s a hell, there’s a heaven, there’s a universe exploding,” before comparing her lover to the moon. Recorded between Los Angeles, Italy, and New York, the follow-up to 2016’s Nightbloom EP was co-produced by Adrianne Lenker, with whom she was briefly involved in 2019, and frequent Big Thief collaborator Andrew Sarlo; the result is a mesmerizing record that’s charged with emotional intimacy without ever losing its poetic, intangible qualities. “Everything is dying,” she tenderly intones against the ghostly echo of an instrumental, “Everything is simple.” These are the final words on the album, but while it’s easy to focus on the stripped-back nature of Sparke’s music, it’s the everything she seems perpetually more entranced by.
We caught up with Indigo Sparke for the latest edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about her earliest musical memories, working with Adrianne Lenker, and the restlessness to belong to something greater.
This might be a bit of a weird question to start things off, but are you somewhere where you can see the sky?
Not right now, but I was just under the sky. I actually just went and had a farewell dinner with all my friends. We went to a pizza evening and we were sitting in the park, and the sky was like – it had been raining all morning, so it was very translucent and blue.
That sounds really beautiful. I love that you said that, because I was just going to ask if you could describe the sky for me.
Yeah, it was kind of very, very pale blue. But then it had these washes of pink through it. You know, like sometimes after it’s been raining a lot the sky gets so crystal clear. It’s really pretty.
It’s actually related to something I wanted to touch on later on, but I was hoping we could go back in time a little bit first, because I know you grew up in a musical family. Do you mind sharing some early memories of feeling connected to music?
I think some of the music that calmed me at the earliest stage was Erik Satie. I can’t quite get a clear visual about when the first time that was played for me or what was going on, but there’s an emotional memory in my body, so I can still put that on and it still calms my nervous system in a way where it takes me back to like feeling like a five year old.
I was talking about this actually yesterday with two of my friends, we were talking about some of the first concerts that our parents took us to. And my mom took me to see Rufus Wainwright when I was really young. And he was there with like, fishnet stockings and high heels and I said to my mom, “I’m so in love with him. I just want to marry him when I get older.” And my mom was like, “That’s beautiful, darling, but he’s into men.” [laughs]
It’s funny, I get that feeling a lot with Erik Satie too, actually. I think heard his music in a TV show recently and it just took me back to discovering him at an early age and having an emotional connection to it. How would you describe yourself at that age?
I was a very intense child. I had a lot of feelings – I think I felt the world so intensely, and I still do, but back then I didn’t have the tools that I have now to regulate my emotions, so I was either in so much extreme joy and I was ecstatic, or I was just so devastated if, like, my piece of toast broke half or something. [laughs] I was having a very visceral experience of life. And I think I was quite a restless child. I remember always having a lot of energy and not knowing what to do with it, and my mom tried – I was playing soccer and I was like, skating and doing a lot of sports to try and use this energy at the time. Music was difficult for me; I don’t think I had the patience for it. I remember having to do piano lessons, and I remember getting really good. But I remember just chucking the biggest tantrums every time before I had to go to my piano class. I think just having to sit still was really challenging for me. And I was at a Steiner school, so it was very involved; we were making bread and building woodworks and so that was quite a good thing for me. I was a little bit of a wildling child, honestly.
You mentioned that music wasn’t really an outlet at first, and I know you also worked as an actress before you decided to pursue music. I’m wondering what inspired that change or drew you in that direction, and also whether acting has influenced your approach music in any way.
I think, for me, being able to use a character as a doorway and as permission to access the deep internal psyche of another character is really exciting, when they were meaty characters – characters that had a lot of layers and had a lot of secrets. It was a really nice excuse to be able to go into that world and especially in theater, because it’s so much more instant – it’s more like playing live music, because you have the alchemy of the audience and yourself and that changes every night. But I think just having a safe space and a container that was theater or was the acting class allows you to reflect and access all these different parts of yourself that you could then bring to that character adaptation.
However, it became really challenging for me when I graduated from acting school and I got an agent and I started auditioning for things. And you’re constantly just in this process of putting your self-worth in the hands of another person to determine whether you’re right or wrong or you can be the vessel for that character portrayal. Which kind of starts to wear on you in some ways, because a lot of the time it doesn’t actually have anything to do with your capacity or your capability to portray that character and the depth that’s needed; it’s a lot to do with how you look or how tall you are, all these other external physical factors. Or you get typecast as, you know, the girl next door or these characters that to me at the time felt quite boring. But I think that’s changing now in film and television and theater, because there’s this beautiful women’s movement and feminist movement where there’s so much more being told through the female gaze. So there’s been really substantial women characters because, I mean, women are so substantial, there’s so much to them and they’re so multi-layered that now there’s these roles being written that you can really sink your teeth into. But I find more joy in watching other women play those roles than the idea of me playing one of those characters.
And I think, leading on from that, I guess at some point I found music – my dad gave me a guitar and I started playing, I was just teaching myself to play guitar. And I think the beautiful thing about that was that it helped me bring it from an external place back into a very internal, private place. No one was watching me, no one was telling me, “You can’t do that,” or, “No, you should do it like this,” or, “You got the role!” It was me being able to free-flow my experience into this space with this instrument. And that felt so much more satisfying and it really felt like I had found my breath. Up until that point I had been surface breathing, and then I’m like, “Oh, okay, this is what it feels like to breathe something that you love or be in the world with purpose.”
Do you feel that it’s less like inhabiting a character, in the sense that you’re more honest with yourself when you’re accessing these different parts of yourself?
There’s like two parts to it for me, I feel. There’s the part where I’m in a really private space where I’m writing music and I feel like I’m not doing that for anybody else. I’m just expressing something that’s naturally flowing or like I’m witnessing something. It feels very uninfected in that space. But what happens when you’re transmuting that – once you’ve made recordings or you’re playing a live show, then you have to transmute it in some way. It alchemizes differently once somebody else becomes involved in that or an audience steps in or you’re recording the songs.
For this new album, you co-produced it with Adrianne Lenker and there were other people involved as well. How would you describe that collaborative process? Did it affect the songs in any way?
I think it was just a continuation of our love, actually; the experience of our love, our friendship, our partnership at the time, our love in that space. It was just a continuation of that, so the whole process felt very natural and easy. And I think when you know someone so well, you don’t have to do so much talking, you don’t have to explain things so much – you can just kind of intuitively feel where the flow of energy is moving in symbiosis together.
So it didn’t really feel like someone was stepping into the process in that way.
I think because her and I felt so unified in that period of time – we were more like a unit, we felt more like we were of the same animal. So it felt different when we were working with [Andrew] Sarlo or Phil [Weinrobe] or Shahzad [Ismaily], that was more of a different experience because I didn’t know them so well. They weren’t as familiar with the music as she was.
To change the subject a bit, I was wondering if you could talk about your travels across America, how that informed the songs and what you feel like you learned from that experience as a whole.
I think I learned a lot about how much space I need as a human being who feels intensely. [laughs] Because I felt like all my feelings had a place to exist. There was so much space in those deserts; I felt okay, I felt at peace. And it was like there was enough space and room and time and nature to be able to reflect on so many aspects of myself and so many stones of thought that I was turning over in my mind, and constantly am, and I think we all are. Living in a city or being in a place full of concrete that’s fast-paced and you don’t hear the wind whipping through the valley, like, it’s very difficult to find space to hear your own thoughts and feel yourself in a deep way. And I think that’s the beauty that landscape gifted me. Something about being on the road just gives so much room for reflection; my favorite thing to do is driving along endless stretching highways, looking out the window and listening to ambient music and or not listening to music. There’s something about that, again, it’s like something alchemizes.
And I think it relates to something that you’ve said about the album, which is that it’s an “ode to death and decay. And the restlessness I feel to belong to something greater.” Again, there’s that word, “restless.” But I’m interested in how these two things are connected in your mind.
I think, in my personal experience of life, I’ve had moments of feeling very connected to something greater. Call it what you will, call it God, call it the universe or cosmic energy or whatever. There have been moments where I’ve felt deeply in tune with that. And there have been moments where I’ve been so disconnected from that, where I felt really cold and harsh in the way I’m interacting with the world, or times where I’ve been in really destructive places. And I think that they do inform each other in some way, because I think once you have a deep understanding of impermanence and death and decay, and that understanding really settles in your body in a physical way, you have two avenues: You can go into a dark and destructive, shadowy place, or you can choose something that’s light-filled and have faith and believe in something greater and believe that there is a purpose to being here in life. And I’ve oscillated between those two places. It’s like coming to a crossroads, you know, you’re in a juncture point. And I kind of came to these deep understandings, and I had over a period of many, many years, through so many different life experiences – death was a very real part of existence, decay is very real, it’s everywhere, it’s happening all the time. And then it’s like, what do you choose to do with that? Do you choose love? Do you choose expansion? Do you choose to soften? Or do you choose fear and to harden and to go down a path where you become small and not trust? And it’s painful, that path. Both are painful, actually; to expand is painful and to shrink is painful, but you find more love when you expand through the change and the pain.
And I think something about being in those landscapes – it’s very hard not to believe in some kind of greater mystical cosmic energy. There’s such wide skies and wide landscapes where it’s just – my chest was blown open, I didn’t even really get a choice. You kind of blend and merge with the landscape.
Something that struck me about the album was the parallels between people and human interactions and then the universe and space and the sky. And it made me wonder if you often find yourself thinking about not just landscapes and nature in those cosmic terms, but also people and human interactions. Why do you think you’re drawn to that kind of imagery when it comes to evoking those relationships? Is it just the intensity of it?
I think that deep, intense human intimacy and interaction is actually a portal for experiencing what you experience in nature. I feel like sometimes the only comparison to use to express the extreme greatness of the feeling that you can have in an intimate relationship is by comparing it to something that really does exist in such an extreme state. Because words just don’t seem to hold all the meaning that they need to sometimes when I’m trying to express things; I often find that language is such a barrier. There’s like a language barrier and then there’s this flesh barrier and sometimes I’m like – I wish I could just take all of this away and strip it all back and show you the landscape of my inner world, like, just show it, you know?
Yeah, that’s definitely something that resonated with me about these songs, just how raw and intimate and authentic they are. And one in particular that I wanted to talk about was ‘Carnival’, because I just love the poetry and the language in that. Could talk about how that song came together and what it means to you?
I actually just cannot remember the birthplace of that song, where it came from inside of me. That’s one of the songs that I feel most deeply about as well, actually. And oftentimes when I’m feeling very close to something or someone, I tend to have a bit of dissociation, where it’s difficult for me to recall the finer details of the moment. I just feel it so deeply when I listen to that song. I feel like I managed to get my heart out in a particular way that when I listen to it, I’m like, “You were really vulnerable and authentic with that expression.” Just this deep fucking desperation to not, in some ways, ever want to grow up or lose the intimacy or closeness that you have with a parent or caregiver. And this terror of stepping out into the world as an adult and having to move through all this pain and heartbreak and everything that we move through as human beings. We’re so fragile in the human condition and what we have to experience. There are moments where I look at myself and I look at everyone I know and it’s just these little children, and I’m like, “I just want to take care of you all,” including the little one inside of myself. I just wanna be like, “Come here, honey,” like, “It’s okay, you’re gonna be okay, I know it’s so scary out there, isn’t it? It’s so scary.” And I think it just hit on that tenderness for me, there was something about it where I was really acknowledging this little girl inside of me who was just like, I’m so scared and I just want love and I just want to be okay in the world and I want to find that intimacy with a partner and I – you know, when you’re holding on in naivety, where you’re just like, you don’t want anyone to disappear, the people that you love.
Yeah. Wow. There’s something – it’s interesting that we started off talking about early childhood memories, because this feels like coming full circle, in a way. It’s like there’s this childlike essence in all of us that remains the same, no matter how old we get. So, with that said, I only have one last question, which is whether you’ve thought about where you might want to go next and explore more of in your music.
I’m really excited to start working on another record. I’ve been writing during the last year and I’m feeling really excited to explore music in a way that has a bit more of my rage and my rawness and my grit in it; emotions that as human beings we look at as more distasteful or ugly. I’m starting to understand and learn more that human emotions are all valid and normal to have and the more that we can look at them and embrace them, the more beautifully they transmute. It tends to be it’s just how we express them; sometimes those emotions are so intense, they can be expressed in such a violent and disgusting way. So I think I’m really interested in how they transmute into music in a way that’s beautiful but still has the realness of that experience in it. Because a lot of my music in the past has kind of felt like it’s been reflecting more ethereal or feminine sides of myself, but all of these different worlds exist.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Indigo Sparke’s Echo is out now via Sacred Bones.