“I’ve never done this for instant gratification. I’ve done this because I love music.”
Sometimes an artist is defined less by what she does than what she chooses not to do.
If there’s a career philosophy in this period of multi-platform media and all-publicity-is-good-publicity cross-promotion, it’s that an artist – especially a new one – needs to be everywhere all the time. The big break could come from anywhere. After all, what if the thing you turn down turns out to be the thing that would have transformed you into a star?
So what does one make of 21 year old Sinead Burgess, who had an entire album ready for release when she decided that it wasn’t representative enough? What sort of young artist gets selected for a high-profile television show, and then turns it down in favour of sweaty gigs and road hours?
An artist with an unusually sophisticated sense of who she is, that’s what.
Maybe that resilience comes from a childhood spent on the Queensland coast, far from the big city lights.
“I grew up in Beachmere, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-town town on the outskirts of Caboolture,” she explains. “It’s a really sleepy little town, not a lot of people there – I went to a 300 population primary school, then to a 1500 population high school – and that was a huge change for me. I thought that was so big, and now I’m in Sydney!”
Her parents recognised her musical talents early. “I had a little musical telephone that I liked to play on. I started making songs and my parents went ‘oh, OK, that’s interesting, we should buy her a little keyboard’. So eventually that little keyboard moved up to a big one, and that eventually moved up to the old upright piano. I was just glued to it from a very young age, always singing, always writing songs.”
She’s not kidding about the songwriting either. “My first documented song was when I was five. It went ‘Mum loves dad, ooh-ooh-ooh / Dad loves mum too-ooh-ooh / You like my song, don’t you?’” she laughs. “I wrote it in a little book in crayon and I have it framed beside my piano. It’s a good thing for me to look at, just to go ‘OK, the five-year-old you loved writing songs, don’t ever forget that.’”
Music was always around the young Sinead. “As a kid I was really lucky. I had my parent’s influence heavily ingrained, because they always had the radio on, or their albums – Beatles to Clapton to Hendrix to ELO to the Hollies. Elton John was a big one.”
But there were even bigger influences to come…
“Celine Dion,” she laughs. “When I was about eight I would stand in the loungeroom with a remote control microphone and belt out ‘My Heart Will Go On’. And an eight year old doesn’t really have the chops to do that. But I tried really hard! And then I went through a Spice Girls phase; I was Posh Spice, because she was the only one with brown hair – but I used to sing all of Sporty’s parts, because she was the lead singer. I have some incriminating videos of that. I think I’ll burn them next I get up home.”
However, the next phase of her musical life was about as far from zigga-zig-ha as possible – and was to have enormous consequences for the precocious thirteen year old. “There was a music festival in Caboolture and my mum said ‘hey, you love to sing, and here’s a chance to play with a band – I’ll put you in for the talent quest, if you like; if not, all good’. It was a chance to perform so I decided to go into it.”
The effect was electric. “I remember all of a sudden feeling that band, the sound just hits you in the back. Up until that point I’d be playing by myself, and I actually missed the entry to the song because I was so overwhelmed by the wall of sound behind me. And from there on I was addicted.”
It didn’t take long for her to expand her musical horizons further. “I was fifteen and I saw my brothers guitar sitting in a corner – it was one of those birthday presents where he played it three times and then got bored – and I remember thinking ‘I would LOVE to be able to play that’. And when I picked it up, I literally couldn’t put it down. It just felt so right.”
Sinead became a fixture on the fertile Queensland country circuit, despite being too young to legally hang around most of the places she was playing. ABC music signed her as a country artist, but it didn’t take long for Sinead’s ambitions to outgrow the constraints of the genre.
“I did my first trip to Nashville when I was just freshly 18 and it was ‘OK, we’re going to write for a country record’. So I wrote a whole bunch of songs with people who’d written songs I was playing in my sets at the time – amazing, legitimate songwriters – and I came back with all these songs that were great, but they just weren’t resonating with me.
“I remember playing them to my mum on the piano and saying ‘this isn’t me, this is really scaring me: I’m going to make this record, my first introduction to the world, andit’s not me.’ So we decided I was going to go to the label and say ‘I want to make a rock-pop record, how do you feel about that?’ And luckily they were receptive and they said ‘alright, we’ll put you with some writers and see how you go.’”
That’s pretty ballsy for an unknown 18 year old artist, but her convictions paid off when she was paired up with UK pop wunderkind Stuart Crichton – who has worked with the likes of Kylie, Pet Shop Boys, Bond and The Sugababes. If Burgess was daunted, she made the pressure work for her.
“I knew he had some really big pop and dance hits in the UK. I remember walking in and thinking ‘OK, if I want to make the record I want to make, this session has to work’. So we sat down and started talking and jamming on chords, and all of a sudden I was excited again. There was that feeling I had when I was a kid when I first picked up a guitar, when I was writing those songs, going ‘yes! This is making me excited!’ It just reiterated the fact that this is what I need to be doing.”
Her sessions with Crichton lead to a joint venture with Universal and produced her debut single, ‘Goodnight America’, along with the conviction that she’d found her own voice. Which explains why she turned down a career-launching berth on a certain massive televised talent show, despite the fact that she was eking out a living packing boxes at a warehouse at the time.
“There are always hard decisions,” she shrugs. “And it’s always hard to go with your gut, because generally your gut’s telling you not to do something that could be awesome. But I’d already done so much of the developing and songwriting and shitkicker late-shift gigs and terrible hotels. I’ve given myself that time to develop so that when I say something, I want to be able to really mean it.”
And now we have Sinead Burgess, poised to be an overnight success after almost a decade of blood, sweat and hard work.
“My strongest feeling through all that was to give myself that time to develop so that when I say something, I want to really mean it and want to have lived it,” she concludes, “And I think that’s the good thing about this single too: I went away and lived in the States for a while and fell in love and fell out of love, found my heart and got it broken, and that whole experience it all added to what I have to say as an artist.
“Rather than try to sing other people’s songs and try to mean it, I can sing my own.”