Indigo Sparke Breaks Down Every Song on Her New Album ‘Hysteria’
Indigo Sparke’s 2021 debut, Echo, was a minimalist yet evocative collection of folk songs that resonated for its intimacy as much as its intensity, each vibration captured deftly by the simmering production from Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenker. The Australian singer-songwriter’s poetic songwriting already seemed to edge toward a vast infinity, but on her sophomore full-length, Hysteria, Sparke has broadened horizons, fleshing out and expanding her sound with help from the National’s Aaron Dessner, who brought a similar warmth and fullness to Taylor Swift’s latest records. Far from abandoning the elemental, cosmic pull of her earlier work, Sparke stretches her muscles, tapping into a raw fury that allows her to untangle a complex web of emotions that feel at once deeply personal and ancient. The result is a sweeping 14-track effort that reclaims familial and patriarchal histories while reflecting on the nature of love, following waves of feeling and crashing, rather unexpectedly, into a kind of spiritual transcendence. Hysteria is an album that extends beyond the self, that reaches for the ocean but always finds its way back to shore, holding enough fuel to keep a fire through the night and fall back into dreams.
We caught up with Indigo Sparke to talk about the story behind every song on Hysteria, which is out today. Read the track-by-track interview and listen to the album below.
In the bio, it’s mentioned that your mother pointed out how often you use the word “blue” on the record, which is funny because “Blue is the name my mother gave me” is literally our introduction to this journey and yourself as a character. Was that motif already obvious to you?
I didn’t maybe realize that I had it all the way through in different bits. I can’t even remember off the top of my head now, but it is woven through three or four songs, I think. And that was totally unintentional, although I think I kept using it as a reference point for myself. And I love that you said the character of me, that is so cool. I really love that because I definitely felt that more in this in some ways than I did in the last record. But I also felt like I was really fully inhabiting myself more than I ever had in this period of my life, in the time that I was writing the songs and recording. In some ways, it was like a reclamation of myself so that I could free myself from past history and stories and trauma that I’d felt bound by, and I think my name was one of those things that I had felt bound by in some way. Because I felt like I had a been through such a journey with my mental health and sensitivity in the world, and to have the frequency of people calling me Blue or Indigo my whole life, was like: This is the shade of my soul in some capacity. On a frequency and energetic level, vibrationally, this is what I’m getting called all the time. And I felt like there was a heaviness in that.
I never, until this year, ever in my whole entire life – I never wore the colour blue. I really didn’t like it, I had massive resistance to it. I mean, I’d wear blue denim or whatever, but never blue clothing. And I don’t know what happened, but I think reclaiming that part of my name and my history and everything associated with blue or indigo became this really beautiful, joyful thing. And now I’m wearing blue all the time. I’m loving blue, everything blue at the moment. [laughs] I know it’s quite esoteric, but I think I’ve just been healing, and this is a part of my strange and nonlinear healing journey.
To me, the phrase that sums up the song is “the sound of standing up to you.” Even though it’s the longest song on the album, the decision to keep it stripped back feels like a way of centering your own voice and that confidence.
Yeah, absolutely, I feel that. We tried it different ways, but it needed to be sparse, it needed to be almost skeletal, because it was the backbone of so much of the story and the history – this is like my version of The Odyssey in some way. And I think that sometimes, history and trauma and love needs to be totally exposed in a really vulnerable and real way for it to be not only accessible and felt, but for it to be witnessed so it can be transmuted into something else. That’s kind of why it was so stripped back. It just didn’t require anything else. And I felt like it really needed to start the record. Aaron and I had conversations about that and sequencing, but eventually I was like, “No, this needs to be the start.”
Maybe it’s the way you sing “watch my soul unravel,” but for me, this is where the world of the album starts to open up and the light is coming in.
Yeah, I definitely feel that. I really wanted for the record to be this journey, and I think that song is where I reemerge from the underground or the underworld or something, coming out. Even though there’s a lot of similar themes in the lyrics of history and trauma and love, it’s paired with these major chords, which gives it this really strange – it’s always felt like my Neil Young song in some way. You get that pang and that hit of nostalgia and expansive existential beauty and melancholy and just life, and it feels good, it feels open and you feel the light, and somehow you also simultaneously feel the ache of what it is to live and love and long for things.
There’s this deep warmth and lightness in the song musically, but lyrically, there’s a darkness to it, too. I’m curious if, musically, leaning more on the hopeful side of it was an intentional decision.
It wasn’t cerebrally intentional. But I think on a feeling level, I’ve been wanting to find more lightness and space inside of myself. And I guess on some level, I was aware in my mind that a lot of my songs have a tendency to stay in this melancholic, dark, sad place. But I didn’t ever sit down with this song and think, I’m going to try and write this with a sense of hope, or lighthearted, major chords – this song just came out in one go really easily.
But I wrote it, actually, when I was at my dad’s house, he lives in this really small town five hours outside of Sydney in New South Wales in Australia. And it’s beautiful; it’s kind of upstate, there’s lots of rivers and a lot of nature. My dad was always playing Neil Young, always singing Neil Young, so I think that the spirit of my dad and Neil Young kind of seeped into me because I wrote this song there with him. It’s funny how you absorb your environment in a certain way.
3. Pressure in My Chest
You finished writing the songs for the album after moving to New York in the spring of 2021, right?
Yeah, so I had done my first recording session with Aaron in summer, and then went back in the fall for the next session. And then someone in the circle got COVID, so we all isolated and that session didn’t happen. And when we came out of isolation, he was like, “Just go home and keep writing.” Even though we already had more than enough songs – we had too many songs, actually. But I went back to New Mexico, I was living in Taos at the time, and I just kept writing and writing and writing. And ‘Pressure in My Chest’ was one of the songs that I wrote living in New Mexico in Taos. So when I went back for the next session, which was middle of winter. And it was really funny because writing the song, it was another one of those ones that just kind of sprouted out of nowhere and came through. I was recording it on a voice memo and I was like, “Aaron’s gonna love this song, this is going to be Aaron’s favourite song.” I just had a feeling, I don’t know what it was. And then I went and I played it for him. I had a bunch of new songs, which most of them ended up making it onto the album. But that’s where that song came from. And in the end, he was like, “I love this song so much.”
It reminded me of something you said in our conversation last year – you said that finding music felt like you had found your breath. So I see this as your love letter to music, in a way.
Oh, that’s beautiful, I love that. That’s so nice. I guess it is in some way, actually. Originally, it was called ‘Little Red Heart’. I mean, the lyrics are really self-explanatory. “I’ve made it to the wasteland/ Of my forgotten screams,” I was out in this massive desert land. I found my breath and refound myself in total isolation without any attachment to anything. And all I had was music, you know. This last year and a half has been the year of me fully stepping into myself in my music, and it’s felt amazing. It’s felt really, really amazing.
4. God Is a Woman’s Name
This is the first song that really expands musically, and it makes sense because it depicts something else that we had talked about, which is this moment of connection with something greater.
It’s an interesting one, because I wrote this song initially about a woman – I thought I was writing it about a woman that I had been in a relationship with. And there was a period of time when I was living in Minneapolis, and there was a lot of emotional chaos unfurling in the space between us. It was actually quite magnificent and beautiful – how things unravel themselves in love is so stunning in some ways, and terrifying in other ways.
But I remember standing out on the street in Minneapolis, and it was the dead of winter, and I had this moment where I felt like, in the extreme grief that I was in that particular moment, something cracked open inside of me. And it was like I felt totally enlightened into some transcendental space. It was so bizarre. It was like everything went into slow motion. I just remember looking at the snow, and it was huge – the snowflakes were so massive, and it was falling in slow motion. And I remember just looking around, like, Wow, I am literally in the river of life right now. Everything made sense in some way, despite all the dysfunction and difficult feelings. It was like I merged with life and life merged with me, and reason and purpose was there and not there. I know – [laughs] it was a really wild experience. And I wrote a poem, actually. I didn’t write this song, and then later this song came from the piece of writing that I had written, and it was quite a long chunk of a poem.
Anyway, I wrote this song at the time. It was inspired by the woman that I was with and deeply, deeply in love with, but then I came to realize, this is actually about me – and all of us, in some way. We are the physical embodiment of prayer, that’s what we are. It’s so unique and so special, and it just happened that at that in that point, I was like, “God is a woman’s name.” Because this person that I was in love with was a woman and identify as a woman. In some way, I was like, this is cool, breaking the construct of, what is God? What is it to pray? What is it to be alive? What is it to feel all of these things – it’s really hard to put such a big concept or philosophical rumination of spirituality and religion into something really, again, esoteric and existential. It’s hard to put it into words, but definitely, the feeling is expansive.
5. Why Do You Lie
I love the instrumentation on this song. It’s kind of tangled up but lovely and gorgeous at the same time.
I really like your perception of things, it’s really beautiful and nuanced. It is tangled up, this song is tangled up. It’s tangled up emotionally, too. I love this song. It’s one of my favourite songs to play live. And it’s really inked in my heart, this song. I wrote it slightly differently, with a different strumming pattern, and then Aaron started thinking of finger-picking it and I was like, “Wow.” And then he just kept layering guitars on and I was like, “This is perfect for the emotional narrative of this song.” I think this one, again, is about love and mental health. Actually, not so much my mental health in this song, but another person’s mental health, and how as humans we do tangle and we weave together in these really complicated ways. I don’t know quite how to put it into words either, this song, but it feels kind of like falling rain or something.
Aaron Dessner’s piano comes to the forefront for the first time in a really beautiful way on this song. And in lining up with the emotional narrative, it sounds like you’re kind of guiding it, or it’s guiding you.
He had been really like, “I’m not gonna play piano on this album because it’s such a staple of mine.” But then I played this song and he started playing it and we were just like, “Oh, damn, this is beautiful.” It was really different. Again, I feel like probably the emotional content leading first. It was the first time in a long time that I had started to feel love again with someone and for someone and I’d just kind of given up. It was all very fleeting and beautiful and felt kind of nostalgic. We were listening to a lot of Jeff Buckley, and that was infused in this song. But it kind of followed itself into something new and morphed with Aaron’s production on it. I wasn’t sure at first. I was kind of like, it’s just too emotional ballad or something. And Aaron’s like, “No, it’s one of my favourites, it’s stunning.” And then I listened to it a few more times after taking a little bit of space from it, and I was like, “Oh, I love this song, this is so beautiful the way it turned out.”
There’s this moment where you sing “I’m alone but not lonely,” which is a pretty universal sentiment, but I feel like you’re making it yours by saying “Holding a flame that’s blue.”
It definitely felt more like a universal thing, especially in the times that we were in, you know, like we were all alone but in this thing together. And I love that there are certain ritualistic things that we can do separately, but that unite us together. Like, lighting a candle is such a simple, beautiful thing that you can do and can immediately have some connection. I love that I could be here and you could be there and it’s like, “Okay, at nine o’clock we’re gonna light a candle together separately.” And then there’s an immediate kind of psychic and emotional connection of just acknowledging each other’s presence in the world, and you can do that at any time. That was kind of why I made those – I went on a bit of a rampage recently where I started making candles for merch.
7. Infinity Honey
This song is quite dense and sharp – those guitars in the background are almost spiky – and it keeps growing. How does the arrangement fit into the idea of infinity that you’re diving into lyrically and vocally?
This song felt so circular to me, in its lyrical world and its production, everything. It was totally born out of a re-cycle of relationship that I’d had years prior that I had entered into again, which was really, really bizarre. There’s so many layers to this song, and a bit of mythology in it too. I was thinking a lot about the Oracle of Delphi in Greek mythology, and I was thinking a lot about consciousness and how children come through with this innocence, without the layers of fear and judgement and history that we accumulate as we get older. And I went down this whole daydream, imagining this story of a woman falling pregnant with a child that was born of the seed of a cypress and held all the wisdom of the knowledge in the universe and was this oracle. And then I was thinking about myself falling pregnant and having a child and feeling simultaneously many things: the grief of not having done that chapter of my life yet, and then the excitement of potentially getting to do that chapter of my life, and then this idea that I had already done it in some kind of alternate timeline. Which had me thinking about infinity – this infinity cycle, or how we’re often retracing our own steps in some way through random timelines, through eternity, learning and growing. And then musically, the melodies have this spiraling down and up in some way. And it is kind of dense and intense. It’s definitely got this drive and intensity to it.
8. Golden Ribbons
I want to focus on three verbs that you circle around, and I think the first and last ones are maybe the most important words on the album: “holding,” “folding,” “melting,” and “falling.” What trajectory does that represent for you?
I think that’s been my life, really: a constant cycle of navigating those themes inside of myself. And not finding the balance at times in those things – being in one of them more so than the other, you know, has nearly killed me. Like, holding, holding, holding, holding – it’s so intense in my body. And then falling, falling, falling: falling in love, falling through, falling, so many different iterations and metaphors in that. Melting… Yeah, I don’t even really need to fully go into that. I can leave that open for interpretation, everyone has their own understanding of that. I love this song, it might be one of my favourites on the album. Not that I should have favourites, but I just love this song so much.
What do you love about it?
I love the time that it represented. Probably I have an attachment to what it’s about and that time, very much reminds me of a specific time living in New York City for the first time. I love that it doesn’t change. Again, it’s kind of spherical, and in its form it just goes along. But it’s dynamic, even in its verse-verse-verse-verse-type thing. And I love the production of it. It kind of feels a bit more grungy and edgy, and I think it really captures this particular essence of me that I felt hadn’t been fully captured in my music yet, that wasn’t just ethereal and beautiful and poetic and lyrical. It has this gravity and grit and edge and raw, kind of unfiltered thing.
This is a lonely, yearning song, and it made me wonder how you go about capturing the feeling of waiting in a song.
It is about waiting, it is very much a longing song. It was one of the earlier ones that I had written in COVID, and has deep yearning and grief. I think the changing time signature, slowing down definitely helped create a sense of space or a break. It starts off in that faster finger-picking thing in some way, and then everything slows down. But it wasn’t intentional at all. I didn’t sit down and think, I’m going to try and create this sense of waiting or space, although that is in there for sure. I think sticking with the repetitive chords, which I do in a lot of my songs anyway, but specifically with this, it’s back and forth on those two chords the whole way through, so that helps give a sense of a repetitive waiting.
In terms of what we were talking about holding, falling, melting, folding – if those were types of songs, this is definitely a holding song.
Definitely. I really love how you pulled those words out. It’s almost like, yeah, every song could go into the category or theme of one of those things. That’s exactly what this album is, a series of holding, falling, waiting, melting.
10. Sad Is Love
There’s a similar sentiment here with lines like “Waiting for the wave to come and take it all away,” but it’s leaning more towards poetic and cosmic language as opposed to physical or human.
Yeah, for sure. It’s definitely a bit more of a meta song, writing about a similar timeframe to ‘God Is a Woman’s Name’. It nearly didn’t make it on the album, and then and then we revisited it and we’re like, “This has to be in there.”
What made you decide to include it?
I think Aaron and I just kept listening to it and we were like, “This is so good.” There’s some other songs that didn’t make the album, which will come out on a B-sides soon. I guess it also ended up coming down to sequencing, trying to navigate which songs flowed together more as a world or as a family for the record. It was really hard, but it just ended up being one of the ones that we were like, “This has got to stay on there.”
11. Set Your Fire on Me
Maybe a melting song?
Yeah, or falling maybe, a little bit of falling. I feel like my rage came through in this song more so than any of the others, my sense of strength, like wielding a sword.
I think this is a good point to talk about the theme of fire and burning on the album. I’m curious if that represents rage for you.
I think so, because I was definitely having the experience of feeling rage in my body as something that was so intense in my solar plexus that felt like fire. It felt like I was being burned alive from the inside, and I was like, “How the fuck do I process this emotion?” And it felt so ancient, so old. It felt like it was just getting triggered in present-day situations, but it wasn’t actually to do with those situations. It was something that was so old inside of me. And I even began to wonder if a lot of it was not just ancestral trauma or age, but what it is to be a woman in the world living in a very patriarchal society that’s built on a lot of constructs that’s very limiting for women. I talk a little bit about that, “your father’s name,” “the church’s game.” What is it to feel that level of oppression? I guess the idea of being a witch and you get burned alive at the stake – if you’re in touch with some kind of untainted, feminine consciousness or something, then you’re demonized.
A lot of this was about what it was like to feel eyes on us, me and my partner at the time, who was a woman – what it was like to be two women together. I even remember we had a trip to Italy, south of Italy, and it’s really old school there, like Catholic vibes. Walking around with her and us holding hands and feeling the gaze of men looking at two women was so incredibly uncomfortable. As it’s like, wow, we’re still living in the olden days, where being a woman in the world, whether you’re with another woman or not, you can feel totally suffocated. And I think that’s where that rage came from. So it wasn’t necessarily a personal rage, although it came out in a personal narrative.
12. Hold On
I wanted to ask you about the vocals on this song, because I feel like a lot of its power rests on your voice. What are your memories of recording or mapping it out?
It was definitely hard to sing this one. [laughs] Just goes straight into it and so high and pretty full-on. I had a form for this song, Aaron and I wrote the bridge. It was another one that was nearly ditched but I felt really attached to it. I was holding on, I guess. [laughs] Another holding song. But yeah, I don’t totally remember more than that, apart from that it was really intense to sing.
13. Time Gets Eaten
Another intense vocal performance.
One of the most memorable lines to me is “Love is a lie,” because I feel like that’s a theme that the album has been revolving around, from ‘Why Do You Lie’ to ‘Infinity Honey’. Why do you think we find it so enticing and almost romantic, that aspect of love?
I think we get obsessed with figuring things out. We get obsessed with figuring ourselves out through other people. We’re trying to understand ourselves, and it can be easy to do that through being in an intimate relationship with someone else. You know, if you can figure them out, you can somehow understand yourself more in some capacity. But I think also in that way, as we’re trying to unravel and uncover things in relationships and in love, we’re also simultaneously sometimes putting so much armour on to protect ourselves. And you find yourself sometimes in these bizarre situations tangled in lies or versions of yourself that you’re presenting to someone else to stay safe, but that’s not who you actually are. And so, you find yourself “in love,” but it’s all just a lie. You’re further away from yourself and you’re further from that person. It’s not love at all, you’re so far from love. But that’s why I was alternating that line in ‘Time Gets Eaten’, “Love is still alive/ Love is a lie.” They both exist, and it’s like, which do you occupy? And how do you navigate it? How do you feel the difference, reconcile it?
There’s a dreamlike atmosphere throughout the entire album, and ‘Burn’ seems to return to the autobiographical focus of ‘Blue’. Those songs bookend the album, and the rest is kind of like a fever dream.
Fever dream, that’s a really good way of putting it. It did in my mind feel like the perfect bookend to the album. Also, like you said, really autobiographical. Even just the last lines, “Please don’t wake me up/ Just tell me it’s okay to dream.” I remember putting it at the end thinking it’s kind of funny because I’ve just gone through this huge wave of expressing this whole range of emotion, this very vast weather pattern, and then at the end I’m just like, “I don’t want to talk about it, I don’t want to talk about it, I don’t want to talk about it.” I wrote this song actually in Minneapolis as well, this is another Minneapolis song. It’s been written for a while, actually. I played this song on my Tiny Desk, it was the last song, and at that point, it didn’t even have a name.
Those lines – “Please don’t wake me up/ Just tell me it’s okay to dream” – I kind of imagined it from the point of view of that 17-year-old girl, but at the same time, it sounds like something you’re holding on to as an adult.
Definitely, from the viewpoint of me, the 17-year-old girl who was – I mean, the song is so much about abuse, sexual abuse, emotional abuse. And I think oftentimes, we bury things, or we process things so far deep down in our subconscious, and a safe place to do that is in sleep, in dream. I definitely still hold on to that because my dream space is so [laughs] – it’s so layered and full and I process so much there. A lot of my creative ideas come in waking dreams, just to have that sacred space that’s uninterrupted. I think you can dismantle a lot and also create a lot in those spaces. It’s like, protecting that, and protecting the 17-year-old version of myself inside of myself that’s still alive and still needs to be protected, so she can dream and process in that space. And now, being older, I’m like, “No, I’ve got you. This space is just your space. You’re safe in here.”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Indigo Sparke’s Hysteria is out now via Sacred Bones.