Born in Halifax, Sarah Blackwood has been a most striking vocal and visual presence since 1995 when DUBSTAR hit the UK singles charts with ‘Not So Manic Now’, a cover of an obscure song by Wakefield band BRICK SUPPLY.
Sarah Blackwood studied Spatial Design at Newcastle University and it was while living in the city that she met Chris Wilkie and Steve Hillier, joining DUBSTAR as lead singer. Scoring hits under the auspices of OMD, PET SHOP BOYS, ERASURE and NEW ORDER producer Stephen Hague, kitchen sink dramas like ‘Stars’, ‘No More Talk’ and ‘I Will Be Your Girlfriend’ appealed to both electronic music and indie audiences.
DUBSTAR bridged the gap between Synth Britannia and Britpop, opening for ERASURE while also simultaneously being label mates with BLUR, JESUS JONES and SHAMPOO. But after three albums ‘Disgraceful’ ‘Goodbye’ and ‘Make It Better’ on Food Records, with worsening band relations, management tensions and waning audience interest, DUBSTAR disbanded.
In 2002, Blackwood joined multi-instrumentalist Kate Holmes in female synthpop duo TECHNIQUE after original singer Xan Tyler was unavailable for a European tour opening for DEPECHE MODE in Europe. The support slot was a success and led to the pair forming crucial friendships that would help their relaunch as a brand new project.
Morphing into CLIENT and releasing their self-titled debut album in 2003, they initially shunned using their real names, choosing to be mysteriously referred to as Client A and Client B in a ‘1984’ inspired Orwellian twist. Interest in their mysterious allure coincided with the emergence of acts like LADYTRON, MISS KITTIN, BLACK BOX RECORDER and GOLDFRAPP.
A favourite act of Karl Bartos who they opened for at his London ULU gig in 2003, CLIENT became a popular cult draw in Europe and released a further three albums ‘City’, ‘Heartland’ and ‘Command’ before Blackwood officially departed in late 2010, coinciding with a reunion of DUBSTAR.
But despite a well-received 2013 comeback concert at The Lexington in London, things went quiet until Summer 2018 when Blackwood and Wilkie announced they had recorded a new DUBSTAR album as a duo entitled ‘One’. Released in Autumn 2018, it was well-received and considered by some observers to be one of the best albums of the year.
Although best known as the front woman of DUBSTAR and CLIENT, Sarah Blackwood has always been open to collaboration and has lent her charming voice to a number of recordings helmed by artists from Germany, Greece and Canada as well as the UK. Also adept in the art of reinterpretation, among the artists she has covered are TUBEWAY ARMY, PET SHOP BOYS, ADAM & THE ANTS, VISAGE, NEW ORDER, DEPECHE MODE and THE SMITHS.
By way of a Beginner’s Guide to her work, here are eighteen recordings highlighting the varied musical portfolio of Sarah Blackwood, presented in chronological order with a restriction of one track per album project.
DUBSTAR The Day I See You Again (1995)
Possibly one of the standouts from DUBSTAR’s debut long player ‘Disgraceful’, ‘The Day I See You Again’ featured the immortal line “If the man you’ve grown to be is more Morrison than Morrissey”. Blackwood captured a deeply Northern English cynicism which actually transferred abroad, with the song’s American producer Stephen Hague dusting the tune off for the German songstress Claudia Brücken to cover on her reinterpretations album ‘The Lost Are Found’.
Available on the DUBSTAR album ‘Disgraceful’ via Food / EMI Records
DUBSTAR La Bohème (1997)
One of the B-sides to ‘No More Talk’ and co-written by the late Charles Aznavour, ‘La Bohème’ became the Frenchman’s signature song and an acknowledged chanson classic, telling the tale of a painter recalling his younger years in the Parisian bohemian suburb of Montmartre, hungry yet happy. Applying a wonderful Anglo aesthetic to the translation, Blackwood gave a superb interpretation which more than suited its relocation to West Yorkshire over its icy electronic backdrop.
Available on the DUBSTAR CD single ‘No More Talk’ via Food / EMI Records
DUBSTAR featuring GARY NUMAN Redirected Mail (2000)
Having covered TUBEWAY ARMY’s ‘Everyday I Die’ for the ‘Random’ tribute album, it was now Blackwood’s turn to duet with Gary Numan himself, albeit remotely. “I was in Manchester when we recorded ‘Redirected Mail’” she said, “but Steve and Chris actually went down to Gary’s and sat and had ham and chips with him. They had a right laugh and had a really good time.” As a result of that visit south, Steve Hillier also bought a Roland CP70 electric piano from Numan.
Available on the DUBSTAR CD single ‘The Self Same Thing’ via Food / EMI Records
CLIENT Client (2003)
Having secured a deal with Mute Records via Andy Fletcher’s Toast Hawaii imprint, CLIENT’s stark mission statement of “satisfaction guaranteed” also included a striking look which had a distinct element of Cold War chic. “It started because we didn’t know what to wear on tour with DEPECHE MODE” said Blackwood knowing they would be performing in front of some very partisan Devotees, “if they threw anything at us, we wanted it to be something that was sort of disposable so we thought of the uniforms!”
Available on the CLIENT album ‘Client’ via Toast Hawaii
CLIENT featuring MARTIN GORE Overdrive (2004)
For their second album ‘City’, CLIENT got more ambitious by featuring some guest vocalists which included THE LIBERTINES. But the most notable one was DEPECHE MODE’s Martin Gore in a collaboration that was instigated by Blackwood writing him a letter: “Martin had this newly set-up studio and recorded himself. The thing is, when we mixed the two vocals together, that was a moment! I didn’t know how it was going to work but when you heard it, it was like ‘woo!’…it was a bit spine tingling really!”
Available on the CLIENT album ‘City’ via Toast Hawaii
DIE KRUPPS featuring CLIENT Der Amboss (2005)
Of DIE KRUPPS‘ mighty industrialised cover, Ralf Dörper said to The Electricity Club: “When I first heard ‘The Anvil’ (‘Der Amboss’) by VISAGE, I thought ‘what a perfect song for DIE KRUPPS’ – it just needed more sweat, more steel. And it was not before 2005 when DIE KRUPPS were asked to play a few 25-year anniversary shows that I remembered ‘Der Amboss’… and as I was a big CLIENT fan at that time, I thought it would be a good opportunity to ask Fräulein B for assistance in the vocal department”.
Available on the CLIENT EP ‘Untitled Remixes’ via Out Of Line Records
CLIENT featuring ROBERT GÖRL Der Mussolini (2006)
To beef up their concert sound, CLIENT expanded to a trio to include bassist Emily Mann aka Client E and became a gritty live act which exuded an electronic body presence that powerfully complimented Blackwood’s stoic stage persona as Client B. Occasionally and fittingly, they would be joined on drums by Robert Görl from esteemed Industrial Godfathers DEUTSCH AMERIKANISCHE FREUNDSCHAFT and together they would end the set with their seminal EBM classic ‘Der Mussolini’.
Originally on the self-released CLIENT album ‘Live In Porto’, currently unavilable
CLIENT It’s Not Over – Marsheaux remix (2007)
Of Athens-based female duo MARSHEAUX, Blackwood said: “They sort of copied us but it was the biggest form of flattery because they’re such lovely girls! It’s nice to think I’ve inspired something”. So when the two parties toured Germany together in 2008, it was a most appropriate pairing. On their remix of ‘It’s Not Over’, some Hellenic shine was added to the original’s more dystopian demeanour with additional Eurocentric riffage for a slice of electronic pop perfection.
Available on the compilation album ‘Electronically Yours’ (V/A) via Undo Records
CLIENT B True Faith (2008)
Described as “one of my favourite Northern folk songs” and arranged by Chris Wilkie on acoustic guitar more or less as such, this live solo performance of this NEW ORDER evergreen formed part of a free download series which also included stripped down versions of CLIENT and DUBSTAR songs as well as THE SMITHS ‘Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before’. “I just think a good song will work if you can do it acoustically” Blackwood would later remark.
Originally on the CLIENT B EP ‘Acoustic At The Club Bar & Dining’, currently unavailable
CLIENT Make Me Believe In You (2009)
Having previously tackled new wave pop like ‘White Wedding’ and ‘Xerox’, CLIENT took a diversion and covered Curtis Mayfield’s soultastic and groove laden ‘Make Me Believe In You’. Co-produced by one-time KILLING JOKE bassist Martin Glover aka Youth who added a more rhythmic energy, things were danced up with an icy edge coming from his frenetic guitar work. This approach more than suited their fourth album’s “brazenly bossy” title of ‘Command’.
Available on the CLIENT album ‘Command’ via Out Of Line
DUBSTAR I’m In Love With A German Film Star (2010)
Although at the time Blackwood was still in CLIENT, the newly reformed DUBSTAR were invited to submit a cover of their choice as part of a project for Amnesty International Catalunya. While songs by THE ROLLING STONES and the late Kirsty MacColl were considered, the trio settled on this 1981 cult classic made famous by THE PASSIONS. While there was to be an emotional reunion concert in Spring 2013, the DUBSTAR’s reformation as a trio was not to last…
Originally on the compilation album ‘Peace’ (V/A) via Amnesty International, currently unavailable
WILLIAM ORBIT featuring SARAH BLACKWOOD White Night (2010)
While things had become uncertain within the CLIENT camp, Blackwood took time out to work on a Rico Conning penned track for William Orbit’s album ‘My Oracle Lives Uptown’ which dated back to their TORCH SONG days. Although her version did not appear on the final tracklisting, her take was offered as a free download. More accessible than some of CLIENT’s offerings but more purely electronic than DUBSTAR, this was a priceless pop gem which lyrically expressed her pain during that period.
Originally available as a free download, currently unavailable
SOMAN featuring SARAH BLACKWOOD Blue Monday (2010)
No stranger to cover versions, Blackwood was invited to add her suitably forlorn voice to German producer Kolja Trelle’s version of NEW ORDER’s signature tune. The esteemed musical ears of Stephen Hague always felt that Bernard Sumner and Sarah Blackwood would make a perfect duetting partnership but until that happens, covers are what the public has to make do with for now. Now imagine if she had had sung on ‘Tutti Frutti’ instead of Elly Jackson of LA ROUX?
Available on the SOMAN album ‘Noistyle’ via Trisol Music Group
FOTONOVELA featuring SARAH BLACKWOOD Justice (2013)
The concept of FOTONOVELA’s sophomore offering ‘A Ton Of Love’ was to produce a supreme electronic record featuring vocalists from all stages of classic synthpop. Andy McCluskey was the first on board for the project but the resultant song ‘Helen Of Troy’ turned out so well, it ended up on OMD’s ‘English Electric’! Undeterred, the duo recruited Sarah Blackwood. Halifax’s own Queen of electro took FOTONOVELA onto a cloudier but enjoyable hitchhike through the North West of England with the very personal ‘Justice’.
Available on the FOTONOVELA album ‘A Ton Of Love’ via Undo Records
KOISHII & HUSH featuring SARAH BLACKWOOD Rules & Lies (2015)
Keeping herself busy, Blackwood collaborated with progressive house duo KOISHII & HUSH. “Sarah was one of the vocalists we had always wanted to work with. We managed to get in touch with her and decided to meet in London to discuss the idea.” said Alex Hush, “She was quite keen on the project and after that initial meeting, we sent Sarah a rough backing track which she wrote and recorded vocals for. We then did some tweaks and additional production on ‘Rules & Lies’ and are thrilled with the final version”.
Available on the KOSHII & HUSH single ‘Rules & Lies’ via Grammaton Recordings
VILE ELECTRODES featuring SARAH BLACKWOOD Captivity In Symmetry (2016)
The Electricity Club initially described VILE ELECTRODES as “Client B born and raised in the Home Counties fronting Dindisc-era ORCHESTRAL MANOEUVRES IN THE DARK”, so a duet with Anais Neon was perhaps inevitable. Blackwood added a nonchalant almost-spoken vocal to a variation of the gorgeous ‘Twin Peaks’ flavoured ‘Captive In Symmetry’ as part of a bonus CD ‘Not Everything Is As It Seems’ which came with the initial run of their second album ‘In The Shadows Of Monuments’.
Available on the VILE ELECTRODES special edition album ‘In The Shadows Of Monuments’ via https://vileelectrodes.bigcartel.com/product/in-the-shadows-of-monuments-special-edition-cd-package
RADIO WOLF featuring SARAH BLACKWOOD Rock ‘n’ Roll Forever (2017)
RADIO WOLF is Canadian musician and producer Oliver Blair who remixed ‘It’s Now Over’ and ‘Can You Feel’ under his KINDLE moniker as well as playing guitar on ‘Command’. Now performing with PARALLELS as well as recording in his own right, his debut EP combining electronic music with rock ‘n’ roll featured a stellar cast of female vocalists including his bandmate Holly Dodson, Marika Gauci from his previous combo HOTEL MOTEL, Kelli Ali ex-SNEAKER PIMPS and on the title song, Sarah Blackwood.
Available on the RADIO WOLF EP ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll Forever’ via Oliver Blair
DUBSTAR Locked Inside (2018)
Just when it looked like that was it over for DUBSTAR, Sarah Blackwood and Chris Wilkie snatched victory from the jaws of defeat with ‘One’. While Wilkie took on prime songwriting duties, the classic bittersweet aura remained, albeit within a more organic setting. Produced by Youth, the most electronic number on ‘One’ was the gorgeous ‘Locked Inside’ with elements of KRAFTWERK creeping in and even TEARS FOR FEARS while Blackwood poignantly reflected on how “my hands are tied”.
Available on the DUBSTAR album ‘One’ via Northern Writes
Text by Chi Ming Lai
30th December 2018