Sandy Hsu: On Introspection Inception, (not) Being Pretentious and Writing Really Really Great Songs.

By Laura Kebby

I came across an EP simply titled ‘Suburbia’ one day, during my preparation for the up and coming interviews for Sad Grrrls Club. I had one of those kind of moments where people start staring at you whilst you have your headphones on, because you’ve got one of those wry smiles on your face as the words bounce backwards and forwards through your mind. So incredibly impressed I was, by the depth and complexity of what I was hearing, I just didn’t really stop listening. I’m even listening right now as I write this article. Who was this girl, Sandy Hsu, and how did she manage to capture the world around her so effortlessly whilst maintaining a wonderfully casual fling with sarcasm and precariously dipping each syllable in stylish nonchalance.  The best part about my job (if you could call it that) is the fact that I get to meet with a variety of really wonderful artists. I know I say this a lot but I never truly know what to expect, because every single artist is different. Their creative processes are different; their music is different and the way they approach their craft is different. Earlier this week I met Sandy Hsu, an 18-year-old singer-songwriter, artist and all-round sarcastically hilarious human in Fitzroy to chat about her inclusion in the Melbourne leg of the Sad Grrrls Fest line up.

“I haven’t stopped listening to Suburbia since I was lucky enough to discover your music. The way you comment on the world around you, it’s like… this wonderful display of introspection inception”, I say to Sandy as she sits down behind a rickety table in the ‘Friends of the Earth Café’.  “Oh no now I’m blushing”, Sandy replied through sips of tea and head shakes. “It’s so strange and humbling to hear you say that, because I just feel like I pressed record on my iPhone and just sat down and sang… It was just such a last minute thing for my VCE art project”. Suburbia the EP it turns out, was actually part of a much larger art installation piece, created by Sandy for her year 12 art project. “It was really about exploring youth culture, and growing up in the suburbs, I was just trying to find another way to explore my theme using a different medium. I was constantly searching for depth to broaden my theme, it all kind of made sense being a musician to record something. So two weeks before it was due (that’s just 14 DAYS for those playing at home) I wrote and recorded these songs”. I was so shocked at this revelation because lyrically, the songs are so incredibly complex, well thought out and intimately intricate tales of life in suburbia, so much so that even after my first listen I just assumed that the EP was a crowning end to a marathon-esque creative journey.

Wondering where the depth of talent had surfaced from, I quizzed Sandy curiously on her own personal musical journey and where this whole process began. “I guess I started singing when I was about 5, with the Australian Girls’ Choir – which is obviously very classically focused, but I started writing when I was around 10 or so. But… I guess I taught myself guitar at around age 12 and that’s when I really started both writing and playing music and thought to myself ‘yeah I think I really want to do this’” … In terms of influences, a really great selection of Australian female singer songwriters made the cut. “I grew up listening to a lot of Australian music, particularly female singer songwriters for example Kate Miller-Heidke, Missy Higgins, Sarah Blasko and Lisa Mitchell types, but then I kind of branched out and started broadening my taste, still singer songwriters because for me music has always been about the writing. I’ve always been attracted to musicians who were female and just really articulate songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Bjork. And of course I went through that weird punk rock phase (which is a really cool place to be), but despite any sort of genre changes I make to music, the crux of my creative work will always be about my lyrics.” The longevity of passion for music as an art form is so clearly evident and our chat continued she single handedly reminded me why I really love spending time with musicians.

Although the singer songwriter confessed that performing live is relatively new territory. “I really haven’t been gigging for that long, maybe like a year and a half now?” Sandy comments through sips of tea. “Things kind of happened really really quickly, but the music community as a whole in Melbourne have been incredibly welcoming and wonderful, a really friendly environment”. This might have something to do with the fact that Sandy just turned 18 last November. “I used to play a lot of all-ages gigs, and gigs during the day, I just wasn’t aware of all that ‘night time activity’ scene until I turned 18 and then this whole other world kind of opened up to me. Ever since then I’ve been both going to and playing as many shows as possible.”

For people who haven’t been to a Sandy Hsu show before, i.e. me, I asked what to expect from a typical performance. “Basically a lot of me forgetting my own lyrics, and trying to cover it up with shitty Dad jokes… But see I get a lot of strangers coming up to me after my show, I get a lot of comments like “wow that was really brutally honest… how old are you, you know… but typically my show is a kind of reality check. I don’t have a filter, like at all. Sometimes it’s bad but I don’t know how to perform or write any other way”. This was something I personally really loved about listening to Sandy’s music, in that there really was no filter. Particularly with the track ‘I guess I am pretentious’. “This song was really about how I perceive people, but then how others perceive me and then how I perceive their perception of me. Super meta existential crisis… because really, certain types of people perceive me in a certain way. I listen to the Smiths and I read Sylvia Plath. But that’s not really me at all, it’s just a part that makes up the character I am”. I sat there flawed with my brain going a million miles an hour with all thoughts pointing to a person who it seemed, was finally making a true and unashamedly honest commentary about the world around them with phrases disguised by a sweet sultry acoustic guitar and quintessentially pretty vocals. Such an ingeniously set trap for the common intellect that translates differently to each member of the audience. Further commenting on this concept “it’s just me, and the way I write, I don’t know how to write or create any other way… constantly skin peeled”.

In terms of her involvement and inclusion on the Sad Grrrls Fest Melbourne line up, it seemed that it really stemmed from a weird kind of bout of 6 degrees of separation. “A friend of mine told me about an article in Frankie Magazine about SGC and I kept thinking I should check it out but I kept forgetting, you know how these things go. It wasn’t until Rachel contacted a friend of mine, the editor of Tigress magazine, that everything kind of fell into place. It’s like I finally realised hey, I really really (really) need to check this out, and how legit is it?!”. How exactly legit and wonderful Sad Grrrls Club is, is a testament to RMC’s tireless organization and ambition – but more on this topic a bit later. Obviously the Sad Grrrls line up is an incredible display of non-male fronted and talented bands/artists and when asked about who she is most looking forward to playing with Sandy replied, “A lot of those artists (on the bill) I honestly think are just really cool… I mean I get to be on the line up with them which is incredible and I’m just glad to be included”.

Running with the ‘Sad Grrrls’ theme, I tend to wonder, and always ask artists ‘what makes a good sad song?’. “The thing about sadness is that there are so many different types. All of those ‘sad songs’ kind of sit on a spectrum and are all categorized so differently.  To me, a good sad song really captures that emotion really effectively and is portrayed articulately through music. Although maybe a good sad song is just one that makes you cry”. After posing such a tough question, I was caught off guard when Sandy asked me “If sad music makes you feel happy, isn’t that happy music?”. Again with the introspection inception. 

Towards the end of the interview, I thankfully took the time to simply banter with Sandy about life and managed to snag some incredibly excellent quote grabs. My personal favourite, when commenting about the ever changing Melbourne weather, “Just wear black. And lots of layers… Classic minimalism convenience”.

Good news for both original and new Sandy Hsu fans, a new EP is scheduled for release towards the end of the year, and I personally cannot wait. In the meantime you can find her tunes here (https://sandyhsu.bandcamp.com) and keep track of all the cool things she’s doing here (https://www.facebook.com/SandyHsuOfficial/?fref=ts) And of course, you can catch Sandy playing an acoustic set during the Melbourne leg of Sad Grrrls Fest at the Reverence Hotel on the 1st of October.