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Sarah Blasko and Brendan Cowell’s Sydney Writers’ Festival session, “On Writing, Music & Everything In Between” could have been billed, “The Blasko and Cowell Variety Hour”. The two injected a new life into the traditional Writers’ Festival format by opening the show with TV-theme titles and pretending to be from Sunday Arts and a late night chat show. They added a reading, a song, two costume changes and some switched roles. In short it was a vibrant, energetic and fun romp.

Blasko took to the stage first, explaining their individual format and the reason they had opted for it (“We’re friends so we’re likely to talk over each other”.) This was actually the first time the songstress had ever conducted an interview. Yet she proved to be a natural, in addition to being well-researched and prepared plus very funny just adding things off the cuff. She’d initially tell us that she had met Brendan some 16 years ago at a poetry jam at the Friend In Hand pub in Glebe. There she’d told Cowell he looked familiar (this was most likely due to his appearance in a 4 & 20 pie ad). Cowell actually couldn’t remember this particular meeting, but Blasko was cheeky and persistent in her attempts to get him to remember.

This first encounter was an interesting one, because through this performance (and entertaining some 100-200 people) Cowell got the confidence to write his very first play. From there, he would go on to write, act and direct in numerous shows with perhaps his most famous one being Hamlet in a Bell Shakespeare production. One of Cowell’s funniest anecdotes was about his trying out and failing to get into NIDA three times but, “Now I get all these offers from NIDA to teach acting master classes!”

It all worked out well, though, because Cowell went to Bathurst University where he had his own radio show, leaned to juggle and indulged in his love of motor sports. Another funny thing he described was his hobbies after being single for four years. He said he got used to a life where he could, “Swim, write, have some beers and maybe eat corn chips for an hour in the nude”. He hadn’t realised his new girlfriend might find this latter part strange.

The two friends are actually collaborating together because Ruben Guthrie (a play written by Cowell and containing a scene that was performed by him this afternoon) is being made into a film and Blasko will be working on the soundtrack. While Cowell’s interview was funny, it was Blasko’s that was the most intriguing. When she was interviewed we learned that she is a shy, humble introvert who is sometimes plagued by self-doubt, but who loves making and performing music. She is a woman of many facets and contradictions. She described writing her initial albums as not knowing what she was doing and while she still sometimes feels the same way, she does have a greater sense of confidence.

Blasko actually started singing before she began writing. Like Cowell, she grew up in the Sutherland Shire but she came from a religious family and would sing at Church. Her father was very passionate about his record collection and the young Blasko originally disliked classical music but was floored by the soundtrack to The Elephant Man and a Paul McCartney solo record from the 1980s. It was a strange mix but it would lead to her own versatile style with Cowell describing her debut record as “paranoid”, the sophomore as “personal” and the final two as “positive” and “playful”.

The evening concluded with Blasko admitting that she’s in a happy place and that she’s writing lots of upbeat and positive tunes for her next record. She says she is still chasing that elusive, “great” pop song that everyone relates to. But despite this admission, she did a very convincing job with her performance on the piano of “An Arrow” from her latest album, I Awake.

Brendan Cowell and Sarah Blasko proved a formidable and funny pair at the Sydney Writers’ Festival. Their session was hilarious and struck a good balance between being light and insightful plus playful and personal. It covered lots of bases and it did so in a charismatic, theatrical, clever and engaging manner.

Originally published on 26 May 2014 at the following website:

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