Updated: Oct 27
It’s taken me over a year just to write this story, but I felt like it needed to be told. And while I have questioned the timing of releasing a sad song in the midst of such a heavy time, this is the timing in which it has all come together. I am forced to choose where I spend what energy I do have, and there is one little person, along with an even littler one now growing inside me who monopolises it. For this season, I have made peace with that. But this song, now three years on from writing, many iterations and a music video later, needs to be released. This is a story of illness, music and family.
There is one thing that has stayed constant with me my entire life, nagging even, and that is this sense that I am supposed to sing. I am supposed to write and make music. I remember pottering around in our backyard alone at about six years old and wondering to myself if I’d ever be able to sing in the way that I felt I was being called to. At that point I didn’t feel like I had any remarkable talent.
I must have been about eight when my dad drove me to a music store and asked them to help me find an instrument I’d actually be able to play. The reason for this is that; during my birth my shoulders got stuck so badly that they had to break my clavicle to deliver me. All sorts of bits got damaged in the process and left me almost completely paralysed in my right arm, limiting the kind of movement that you need to be able to play pretty much any instrument. Except trumpet apparently, so that’s what I learnt. For a kid who just wanted to make music, it was devastating. But I don’t remember feeling down about it too often, it was just a fact of life.
I dabbled in song writing in high school. Anytime I was with someone who could play guitar or piano I would attach myself to them and make them write songs with me. I can tell you now- the results were fairly embarrassing.
When I was 20, I met the love of my life. Two weeks later we were together and one week after that I came down with Glandular Fever. It would be twelve months before I actually got the diagnosis. Glandular fever became post viral fatigue became gut issues became hormonal issues became chronic pain, and on it goes. I was 21 years old and walking around with a constant blanket of tiredness and pain I didn’t know what to do with. Some days I looked a little gaunt, but for the most part my symptoms were completely invisible. I felt like a 90-year-old in a young woman’s body. Blood tests and scans came back clear; on paper I was the picture of health. Doctors didn’t know what to do with me, other than to write me note after note exempting me from uni obligations and eventually a letter that allowed me to drop out of my second year studying vocals at WAAPA. I’d barely made it through the first five weeks of class.
That boy I met, Jason, took care of me from the start, he always has. In many ways, he’s been my saving grace in all of this. There’s something about sickness that shifts your perspective and your priorities in life. In the normal sense we didn’t really “date” so much as we were thrust into what already felt like married life. We were home all the time, cooking at home because my diet was now so restricted by intolerances. Many nights when I was bed-ridden from full body pain and tiredness, he’d stay and we’d chat for hours until I fell asleep and then he’d drive back up to his home in the hills. Three months in, we decided to get married. At six months we publicly got engaged and three days after our first year together we were married.
Our wedding, and the lead up to it, was such a beautiful time. We were so ready to begin our new life together. But about a week into our honeymoon, I crashed hard. What followed were years of every doctor, every diet and every alternative therapy under the sun. The process of starting over with a new doctor every few months and having to rehash years of a long list of issues took it's emotional toll every time, not to mention the financial cost.
One day I could eat something and the next day the same food would cause massive amounts of pain. I’d chop and change my approach, read about a new protocol that would miraculously make me better and change everything again. These things really did help, but only for a short time and then my symptoms would resurface. It felt like a permanent hangover.
I’m an optimist at heart, an idealist even. At any sign of improvement, I threw myself into different courses, jobs and pathways, only to come crashing down a few months later when my body decided to shut down on me again. I constantly felt like a failure, I couldn’t stick at anything. I know now that is an unfair assessment, but at the time it’s all I could see; I couldn’t “hold it together.”
Trying to be well had become a full-time job, and yet most days of the week I could still hardly get out of bed.
I did eventually find a GP, who I still see to this day. We did the usual barrage of tests, but she looked deeper and for the first time I felt truly seen by a mainstream health professional. She didn’t promise me the world, but she gave me hope, and that was what I needed.
Fast forward two years, I’m now 23. We’d been married one year, I’d been sick for two and we were living in the granny flat out the back of my parents' house while I was unable to work. I had thought that by this point, after years of focusing almost solely on recovery, that I’d be starting to feel some level of normal in my body again. But it was only getting worse.
All the resting, all the silence and time to think made me realise I HAD to start writing songs, I couldn’t keep letting it live in the back of my mind as some unattainable desire. So that’s what I did. I sat down and I wrote my first song.
In retrospect I can see I was just beginning to take the lid off what was a fair amount of pain and trauma. I wrote a song called ‘Away’, which to this day I have never released. I wanted to get “away”, I wanted to be away from the world that I couldn’t give anything to, away from the body that was always holding me back. I was longing to retreat.
When I look back now, I can see all these beautiful moving parts coming together, guiding me towards music. For my 21st birthday, my parents had generously gifted me an iPad. For that first year it mostly collected dust, but then within weeks of writing my first song, a friend showed me GarageBand for iPad. I don’t think I put that thing down for months after that. I couldn’t play an instrument, but I could program chords and start to craft very basic songs. This in itself, for someone who had always felt this pull toward writing music, but was physically restricted from doing so, was a miracle. Something had been unlocked.
Sneaky side note, the piano loop in my first single ‘Sleepless’ is taken directly from me mashing the chords into my iPad.. We never re-recorded it for fear of losing its mojo when played by a proper pianist.
I used Away, the one song I had, to apply for a week-long immersive music industry program in LA. Because apparently, I can’t do things by halves.
I walked away from that week with beautiful friends and collaborators, and the confidence to start making music and putting it out into the world.
If I wanted to release anything, I needed imagery. Getting photos done was the first thing on my list when I returned home. I worked with a stylist friend, and through that one relationship came photographers who also happened to be in the music world, and her husband who ended up producing my first EP and getting my live act off the ground. All of these people brought incredible guidance into my world. This is what I mean when I say that in retrospect, I can see all these moving parts coming together, pushing me forward.
The next two songs I wrote, I released. I wrote ‘Sleepless’ after being stuck in a cycle of not being able to get up in the day and then not being able to sleep at night. ‘Hibernation’ followed; I was processing the fact that I had been forced to retreat from my life. My world had become very small.
I was in a strange dance, feeling energised by music projects and also dealing with intense fatigue and pain. I tried to work and taught vocals from home when I could. I kept going with my myriad of doctors, diets and therapies. I made my first EP, shot three music videos and officially launched as Anna O in the early months of 2014, just after my 24th birthday.
It was a massive buzz, to finally be putting music out into the world. I was proud of our creation, excited to be playing shows and even had days where I felt like a relatively functional human being. I signed with a great Melbourne-based booking agency. Jason and I bought our first home. Around that time I also learned I had a large cyst on my left ovary. I was told to just wait and see what happened; hopefully it would resolve itself.
Just before I turned 25 I released ‘Symphony’ - my most successful release to date, and the following six months were some of my strongest and healthiest in years. It was in that time that we made the decision to pack up, rent our house out and move across the country to Melbourne with my band. I signed with management and shortly afterward my publisher, Gaga Music, who landed Symphony a placement on the Australian TV series Wentworth.
We’d set up a band-house and had been in Melbourne about three months when the fatigue started creeping in again. Then Jason was accepted into one of the top Start-Up Accelerators in the country. In Sydney. And San Francisco. We were staring down the barrel of four months apart.
Now that I look back, I should have gone with him. We don’t do well apart, and he was going into what would be one of the most intense, exciting and stressful times of his life. But, I didn’t. It didn’t make sense to put a hold on what I was doing in Melbourne and leave the band who had moved with us.
We busked on Bourke St, we kept writing and releasing, and we played whatever great support slots came our way. We froze our asses off in our character home rental in Coburg, and somewhere in the midst of all that, we began to make some really beautiful friendships along the way. My management at the time teed me up with a producer to write my next single, which led me down a whole different path altogether. We eventually launched a second act; ST. IVES. I’m super proud of what we’ve made and released together.
While Jason was away, my cyst flared. It had been two years and it hadn’t resolved itself; it was now the size of my fist and causing a lot of pain. I flew home to Perth for surgery and to recover at my parents' house. The surgeon said they may have to remove it all together and that we’d likely have trouble conceiving down the track. He suspected endometriosis and would also be checking for ovarian cancer. Worst-case scenarios are the norm in these appointments, I wish I knew that then. Jason was on the other side of the world pitching to investors.
After a year and a half in Coburg, we moved from our deathly-cold house to a newer house in Newport. Jason returned from SF and moved on to working for a larger start-up company, and I had recovered from my surgery, ovary intact. I got some part time vocal teaching work and some work in a local café. I didn’t know it yet but this was our final year in Melbourne.
Once the band and I finished 'Reckoning EP' and played one my favourite release shows to date, things got fairly quiet. I focused on work and on writing and became inward for a while, still quietly dealing with the usual pain and fatigue. We toyed with, and for a short while did launch a third act called Sinthomes to release some new music that had taken a different direction to Anna O. There are two releases out under that name, (Grow Up and Warfare) but we ended up shutting it down.
Our lease ended and the era of the band house was over. Jason and I were ready to start a family, and his new work was giving him the opportunity to work remotely in Perth. It was all very fast, but it felt right, and in the blink of an eye we were packed up and flying home for good. I was apprehensive, we were leaving behind the band and everything we’d worked for.
The surgeon's words about us having trouble conceiving played on my mind. In a beautiful turn of events our little boy Louis came along faster than we ever could have imagined and turned our world upside down. The sonographer even told me I’d fallen pregnant through my left ovary; don’t you love technology! Thank God they left it in there.
So here I am, 30 years old. Ten years into this journey of learning to manage my health, pregnant with my second boy, and beyond ready to get this song out into the world.
I wrote “Bury Me” three years ago, one month into settling back in Perth. Alongside managing chronic illness, I was now watching people very close to me go through the same chronic, invisible illness, and it was weighing on me. The song came out in a morning, still on my trusty iPad, and for all the variations it has gone through in production, the lyrics have stayed the same:
An ocean bearing down on me
Touched by what I can’t see
And those lips have left their mark on me
Touched by death but left to breathe
Can’t hold it in
These hole-punched lungs I’m drowning in
So bury me
Or release me
Wrap me up in cotton wool
Sing me to sleep, a dreaming fool
And when I wake, sing to me once more
A lullaby to keep me under
A lullaby til I can’t move
So Bury me
Or release me
Trying to put me six feet under
Hoping that I’ll roll right over and take it
Alive, but I’ll fake it
And no, I can’t make this up
Cos I know you
I know how this works
I feel you lurking in my bones
But I can’t let, I won’t let go
No I can’t let
Til you, til you
(Living my life but losing my mind, I’m walking on sinking sand)
(Living my life but losing my mind and I can’t see where this ends)
Or release me