Actress Sally Stockwell is a familiar face from TV shows Agent Anna, Nothing Trivial, Outrageous Fortune and Shortland Street. She recently released her debut album, Weightless.
1. The sudden, accidental death of your brother Ben inspired you to write the song Weightless. What do the lyrics mean?
I wrote them after reading Ben's autopsy result, which I didn't even want to have to read. It was so final. The weight of the organs seemed like such a cruel blow to have to consider. Heart: 345g. Lungs: 770g. The idea that all that's left is a body doesn't seem fair or logical or right. I also talk about releasing Ben: "You can go scattering into the sun, you can go atoming with the stars." For me Ben is still in sunrises and in a falcon that visits my house. I now have a tattoo of that falcon on my back. I've always loved tattoos and wondered if there would be something symbolic enough to place on my body permanently. I also turned 40 and thought now is a good enough time.
2. Was Ben your musical mentor?
Yes. We grew up in a musical household in Christchurch. My brother Matt and I thought Ben had the most talent. He was the strongest, most creative and bold of us. He was also the oldest, so he led the way. He was about to produce my album when he died, so that just stopped. My husband and I got married eight weeks after Ben died. It was a really tumultuous time. It wasn't until 10 months later that I was ready to pick up music again. Writing new songs helped me to process the grief.
3. Can you recall a defining childhood moment?
I spent a year in Paraguay on an AFS exchange when I was 17. Being part of a minority is an insightful experience to have in life. I didn't speak any Spanish so it was a solitary time. I learned that it's okay to be vulnerable. To learn a new language you have to allow yourself to feel foolish and to trust people. Learning how to communicate without verbal language was also important. There are so many ways to reach out and connect to people. That's probably why I enjoy the arts.
4. How did you become a voice teacher?
I went to Paris to study voice with Enrique Pardo at Pan Theatre. They have a holistic approach to the voice as an instrument for sound. The philosophy is that we have the capacity within our voices to express our soul in every shade, from the depths of human despair through to pure, beautiful light. I've also done technical training so I teach a broad range of vocal skills. Some people come to me because they want to work on their public speaking. Others have always wanted to sing but are ashamed of their voices.
5. Are lots of us too shy to sing?
Many people have had a negative experience, I think. That's sad, because singing is a birthright. It feels great and should be easy. In cultures where they do it all the time, it becomes less self-conscious. I think we're missing that. I do improvisation with Vitamin S, a group of musicians, poets and actors who get together and perform. Sometimes it reaches beyond music into just sound, which can sound a bit wacko but it's a great platform to experiment.
6. Did you have to give up acting in order to be a musician?
At some stage I realised I couldn't do both easily, but I still do. My last official TV role was in Agent Anna. They wrote my pregnancy into the second series. I find it really hard to say no to things. Actors are hardwired to take every job that comes along. Even now I'm still auditioning. Voiceover work is actually what allowed me to find time to write music. I landed a great job being the voice of Farmers for four years so was able to quit retail and focus on music.
7. Are you self-taught?
Yes, I had piano lessons until I was 10 and really wish that I'd carried on. I dabbled in music through my 20s and 30s, played in bands around town. But I felt a real deficit of musical knowledge. I was writing by ear and not understanding the chords I was writing. I'd already invested in drama school so I got my jazz school friends to explain the basics and cobbled together my musical training that way.
8. Do you think you'd be a better composer if you'd been formally trained?
It's an interesting point of discussion. Do you come from instinct first and then train, or the other way round? Because music is instinctive - it wasn't until recent centuries that we developed this sophisticated script for it. I'd love to disappear down that rabbit hole, but I've done it my own way and it works because writing a song is a mystery and there's no right way to do it.
9. Do you write alone?
Mainly. Writing this album, I'd get together with a couple of girlfriends to share our songs and help each other develop them. It's a great way to navigate the sea of writing because you don't know if what you've written is good or shit or boring. Also, you really have to put yourself out there to tell your story. I know people who don't get as far as they'd like because they're afraid. So it's great to have comrades who help you to follow your bliss.
10. Were you pregnant while recording the album?
My pregnancy and my album went hand in hand. I actually finished a week before Florence was born. There are many ways to record an album - bang it out quickly and trust your instincts or rework and refine it endlessly. What makes the work of the artist interesting is how their personality is funnelled through their process. I'm a bit of a perfectionist, I'll admit that. Ultimately you've got to let go of stuff. Songs can come quickly or they're like pulling teeth. You can doubt the ones that come fast, thinking, 'That was too easy. Is it good enough?' You need someone you trust to say, "That's great, leave it."
11. In what ways has being a mother changed you?
I have to carefully balance my time now, with motherhood being my priority. Before my daughter was born I was the centre of my life, now I orbit around my daughter. I don't have time to worry about stuff, so I get on with things faster and my focus is sharper. I have so much more appreciation for parents, particularly mothers - any mothers, anywhere.
12. How do you feel about ageing?
Our Western culture promotes a deep fear of it. It's unsustainable, unkind and unhealthy for young girls to grow up with. Hollywood has a male gaze and with that comes this expectation for women to change their body to look forever young which too often we choose to follow. I don't think we have enough female writers writing female stories. Pick up any play and you'll see the ratio of men to women is probably three to one. I love those who celebrate ageing and remind us about the authenticity, wisdom and humour it brings.
Weightless is available on iTunes and from sallystockwell.com