TW: mental health, suicide. If you or anyone you know needs help you can call Lifeline on 13 11 14.
It's not in Sarah Saint James' nature to hold anything back. The Adelaide pop artist has made a name for herself through confessional, introspective lyrics that revisit experiences from her past, including the time she spent in Adelaide when she was younger. When we speak to Sarah, she's moved back to Adelaide, and she'd be the first to admit she "never thought" she'd come back. However, like many, COVID re-shuffled her priorities - and she's now spending more time with her mum. She summarises her current feelings towards Adelaide as "a love-hate relationship with the place because everyone knows everybody".
On the eve of the release of her debut EP, Home Is Where The Hell Is (a nod to the time she spent in Adelaide), she reveals that writing the songs for the EP allowed her to process the events spoken about across the project. It's a project that naturally draws from Sarah's childhood love of pop-punk/emo, pairing the sounds of her youth with her ability to write a huge pop hook. Her ability to write songs that offer an unfiltered look into her life shines across the EP, and the creation of Home Is Where The Hell Is proved to be truly cathartic. "I didn't realise that writing the songs for Home Is Where The Hell Is was therapy for me," Sarah reflects. "I also go to therapy, but I think that deep-diving into the trauma to write the songs was way more effective for me."
During her time back in Adelaide during COVID, she was "semi-invited" back to her school, the scene of a lot of the pain that's captured in the EP, and it was an important step in her journey. "When I went back, I went to all the places where everything happened. And I just felt nothing. It was the first time where I really had a minute to actually realise that I'm over it." A lot of people will relate to Sarah's relationship with home - it's almost impossible to truly reject your past.
Across the five tracks on Home Is Where The Hell Is, Sarah explores her queerness and mental health on mad at god, the pain caused by a childhood bully on Heather, the feeling of being spoken about behind your back on fake ass friends and her relationship with her father (and her diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder) on borderline. As she's discovered, writing about personal experiences can have real-life implications. "When I released Heather, a bunch of people that were in my friendship group, who were all kind of involved deleted me and unfollowed me and everything, which was interesting," Sarah reveals.
Borderline, which touches on her relationship with her absent father, is a smoky, brooding track that explodes into a soaring pop-punk chorus. It's also a song that Sarah predicts might cause some issues closer to home. She's honest about the impact that her music has had on her relationship with her father, explaining, "I did some interviews earlier on in the piece and talked about my relationship with my dad. Now, we don't speak, because he didn't like what I said in the interviews - even though it was true. It's been a very spicy little time in my life. However, in the same breath, it was probably needed. I wasn't going to pretend that everything was fine just to save face for him."
Sarah references the soundtrack for Buffy and My Chemical Romance's The Black Parade when talking about the EP. Closing track Home Is Where The Hell Is pulsates and swells, bursting with the energy of the pop-punk anthems of years gone by. It's a powerful finishing statement, and it's not hard to imagine Sarah directing a crowd singalong while playing this track live. Talking about the track's production, Sarah comments, "I wanted it to sound grand, like an entrance to hell". If Hell's looking for a new Queen, then we can pass on her details.
Having collaborated with Alex Lahey on Heather and Cyrus on fake ass friends, as well as working as a writer for other artists, Sarah's aware of the importance of honesty when creating music with other artists. She explains, "I think there's an unwritten rule amongst songwriters that whatever you say, you can just go to like the absolute core of it. There's nothing worse than when you go into a session, and somebody is like, 'I want to write about this,' but they don't give you the whole story. As a writer, you want to be able to hear everything in that and make a story out of it, and then make a song out of it. So, my thing is that in any session that I go into, I've instantly got all my cards on the table." Sarah points out that you often have to step outside of your comfort zone in order to bring your artistic vision to life, and she's done just that with this EP.
If you believe that a minute can change someone's life, then opener mad at god did just that for Sarah. Posting a demo of the track to TikTok at the start of January 2021, the track allowed her to find an audience for her music in ways she hadn't previously. At the time of writing, mad at god's been streamed over two million times, thanks to the honesty of her songwriting, the emotions present in her vocals, and the stadium-sized production featured in both the demo and the finished track. A scroll through the comments on the original TikTok and you'll find countless stories of people that found their own experiences present within Sarah's lyrics, something that she doesn't take for granted. "With mad at god, that was a song that I was never going to put out. I wrote it and I was like, 'no one will like this. It's too personal, it's too controversial, I'm not gonna release it.' And then that was the one that ended up obviously, getting me into the position that I'm in now."
The original TikTok featured the chorus of the track, where Sarah sings, "I'm mad at God/'Cause I prayed last night/And I woke up the same size/I fell in love/With a girl this time/And my mom says that's not right". The rest of the track sees Sarah candidly singing about being queer and processing her religious upbringing, while also recounting a particularly heavy night in her life. "I'm very open about the fact that I had some very, very bad times. Literally, the bridge in mad at God is all about that night," Sarah highlights. On the bridge, Sarah sings, "I'm mad at God/He won't take my calls/So I'll make my own way home". She's not one to shy away from the realities of growing up.
The success of mad at god also came at the right time for Sarah. If it wasn't for that track, then Home Is Where The Hell Is might not have seen the light of day. "If I'm completely honest, just before mad at god happened. I had decided to move back to Adelaide, but for very different reasons," Sarah reveals. "I was kind of done with music. I felt like I was putting so much effort in, and no one cared, and no one got it. I had so many meetings with labels that would never come to fruition. I wanted to do sessions with people who would never even answer my emails, and then all of a sudden, they all wanted to work with me."
@sarahsaintjames wrote a song about growing up fat n queer in a christian house. this is the demo but lemme know if u like it?! ahh 🖤🥺🏳️🌈 #lgbt #fyp #demo #queer ♬ mad at god - Sarah Saint James
Home Is Where The Hell Is is a project that she's truly proud of, even describing the EP's closing track as one of her favourite songs. She's looking forward to seeing how fans, both old and new, react to it. To Sarah, this project is a significant moment in not only her musical journey, but her life. "I want people to listen to it who have had a really shitty time. I want them to feel like they can be victorious over their hometown as well. I think a lot of people have a shitty time growing up and move away from their hometown, and they come back later on. I hope that people listen to it and feel 'yeah, I can go home, and I'm fine to go home because I'm a bad bitch now'."
A lot's happened in Sarah's life that's captured in the EP, and by the end of Home Is Where The Hell Is, you'll feel like you experienced all the ups and downs alongside her. Time's ability to heal wounds isn't lost on Sarah, and she'd love to share the project with her younger self. "If I could tell 15-year-old me that, that all this would be happening, I'd be like, absolutely no way. Like, I wouldn't believe it. Everything can change in a split second, and you have no idea what's gonna happen.
"Sometimes that happens for the best. I think it's very easy to think that that always happens when it's bad things but sometimes it's really good."