People see the story of their own life as infallible – it’s hard not to when you’re the protagonist. So to find out that we misunderstood it completely can be shattering, tectonic. Which is exactly what happened to Odette.
After the 2018 release of her debut album To a Stranger, the now 23-year-old Sydney singer-songwriter – born Georgia Odette Sallybanks – was professionally riding high. A fragmentary mixture of spoken-word poetry and her rich, soulful singing voice, indebted equally to Fiona Apple and Solange, had won a coveted Triple J feature album slot and two Aria nominations. Odette’s fiery tales of lovers’ spats and unbridled emotion had been successful the first time around, and she had a new set of them ready to go: a follow-up album she was going to call Dwell, for her tendency to obsess over her own emotions.
And then last year, with the album finished, Odette was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD). Characterised in part by unstable personal relationships, impulsive behaviour and extreme emotional swings, the diagnosis gave a name to the “intensity” that she had always been told she possessed. It recast her entire life in a new light, as well as her music. Suddenly, the narratives about herself on which she had based her second record became shaky.
It was “frickin weird”, she tells me from her home in Sydney. “And it was also just, like, one of those moments where I was able to analyse myself from almost an unbiased point of view.”
Even over the phone, Odette exudes warmth and a sense of humour, occasionally breaking into song (“It’s a personality disorderrrrrr!” she trills at one point, like some kind of 2000s diva), and often cracking quiet, offhand jokes between long, considered analyses of her own mental health and the mental health care system in Australia. Our conversation is punctuated by her exclamations of “Oh god!” as her alarm – a Nickelback song, “the only thing that will wake me up, because it’s like, ‘I need to turn this off’” – rings at intervals.
“In the past, I would kind of indulge all these narratives that I created in my head. And when I got diagnosed, and I listened back to this body of work, it almost felt like I was looking at things with clarity, rather than [from] that sort of space of a one-sided narrative. It felt weird because I was able to empathise with myself, which is something that I find quite difficult.”
Rather than scrap the album, Odette made a more noble, more interesting, but far more difficult decision: she would reframe it in light of her diagnosis. Suddenly, the record wasn’t just a chronicle of a chaotic young adulthood; it was also about a young woman struggling with a neurological condition she didn’t yet understand.
Odette now sees the album, retitled Herald, as a kind of example-setting artwork – an opportunity for her to hold herself to account for a pattern of behaviours that, after seeking treatment for her BPD, she considers abusive.
“I was in such a toxic headspace when I wrote this record – you can hear in the lyrics, [they’re] just so like, ‘You are bad and I am good.’ And it’s just not true,” Odette says. “I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t setting the wrong example to people who might be experiencing what I’ve been experiencing. I didn’t want people to think that it’s OK to sink into that sort of volatile, toxic headspace. I didn’t want to romanticise it; I don’t want to be an episode of Skins.
“Nobody wants to think that they’ve been abusive in their life – nobody. And that’s why there is so much stigma,” she continues. “It’s so much easier to view people as bad, and view people as sort of black and white, than to actually accept the nuances of what abuse can actually be.”
People with complex mental illness suffer vilification, she says, which she doesn’t think is fair. “Of course there are people out there who intentionally abuse and who are volatile and horrible on purpose, who make the active decision. But there are people who have dissociative and trauma disorders, who will be abusive, who will not have the intention of being abusive. And that’s where the morals sort of, for me, blur. And that’s what I’m trying to figure out.
“It’s probably a personal journey as well, like I have been abusive in the past, I grew up in a quite abusive household and I started perpetuating that abuse. Once you’re given the script, I think – even without wanting to – you fulfil it, because that’s all you know. It’s the only language you’ve been taught.
“[It’s] time that we start creating a more nuanced discussion around what it is to experience and perpetuate abuse – like, why do we do it? How can we stop it? How can we start talking about it in a way which doesn’t damn people and make them feel that they can’t change, or make them feel like they have nowhere to go?”
Herald reflects an internal struggle – and a form of contrition – that its author was only nascently aware of. It hangs like a spectre over the lyrics: “I sit and search for answers but they’re hidden by a fog,” goes a line on the swelling, anthemic Amends; on the dreamlike Foghorn, Odette asks for something to “pierce me awake”; What I Know Is Not Enough bears the weight of prayer, with its central lyric “I hope, oh I hope that I’ll know more than this”. The album rises and crashes over and over, orchestral moments and flashes of loping contemporary piano composition bristling against thrumming electronics.
“Music is such a sacred thing for me, it was horrifying to see that I was creating something that I didn’t necessarily want to be. I wanted to remove myself from it, and honestly, it probably took about a year – and I think it took Covid especially – for me to be able to sort of separate myself from my illness, which is something that is really difficult to do, especially because BPD latches on to your core values. It essentially corrupts you from the inside out,” she says.
Now, Odette has an opportunity to help people going through what she did. “This country is notorious for having a lack of resources for people with complex mental illness, and that’s something that I’m trying to change,” she says; she’s begun working with Sane.org and researchers in the space. “Because if I was [diagnosed] as a kid, my life would have been entirely different, my friends would have been through entirely different experiences, and things would have been much more stable.
“This country is so behind, we need to step up our game.”
• Herald by Odette is out now