When Sarah McLeod is facing right, she could be mistaken for a sophisticated fashionista. Wavy, inky-coloured tresses fall to her shoulders, framing a delicate face shaded by a pair of Kanye West–inspired sunglasses. The leather biker jacket is gone, replaced with “cool and futuristic” threads from new favourite designer labels Balmain and Balenciaga. Yet when the Adelaide-born singer turns to the left, remnants of her former rock-chick persona remain, her partly shaved head a reminder of the girl who blared to the top of the charts during the late 1990s as the sassy frontwoman of the multi ARIA Award–winning band the Superjesus.
“It’s the perfect hair for me,” says McLeod, 35, taking a break from the arduous process of moving into her newly rented apartment in Sydney’s Paddington. “It really sums me up—half-tomboy, half-feminine. I can’t decide.”
While more polished and noticeably slimmer, McLeod’s new look is not part of some record company marketing strategy to turn her into a commercially viable pop princess. “I just wanted to grow up, clean up my act and take more pride in my presentation,” she says. “Now I’ve put together a package I feel happy with.”
It’s a transformation that extends beyond the surface — McLeod’s appearance is not the only thing that has undergone a makeover since the Superjesus disbanded in 2004. Three years travelling and living in London, Los Angeles and New York have bred a more confident performer who has silenced her trademark gritty guitar sound and is happily embracing dance and pop, reaping the awards as she goes. In the US and UK she has experienced chart success with her dance hit “White Horse,” and her latest single, “Tell Your Story Walking,” features infectious beats and catchy lyrics. Having quit her apartment in Manhattan’s SoHo, she has returned to live in Sydney, conceding, “It feels great to settle here for a while.” The change in the singer is obvious, but the evolution was slow, bogged down by personal insecurity.
“I don’t remember working very hard for the success we had in the Superjesus,” reflects the tattoo fan, who discovered her love of singing and guitar on a school-leavers holiday in Bali at age 18. “We just did it, and somehow all this success followed straight away. So when I put out my first solo album [2005’s Beauty Was a Tiger], I stuck to the safe route. I was too nervous to stray from the formula that had always worked so well.”
Only this time it didn’t, and following several disparaging album reviews, heartbreak in the aftermath of her split with Silverchair’s Chris Joannou and scathing media headlines (she was lambasted for her outfit at the 2005 Jack Daniels Music Awards and charged with drink-driving in 2007), something had to give.
“She wasn’t creatively satisfied, she was drinking, and everything was just going pear-shaped,” recalls her sister and close friend, Leah, 38, her only sibling from now-separated parents Rosemary and Don. Adds the former TV presenter: “The industry can wear you down, but it’s a very hard thing watching someone you adore go through pain.”
On leaving Australia, McLeod wrote music with producers in Los Angeles, taught herself to play the piano while living in London, then hit New York, where “I just clicked, musically then personally,” explains the singer. “I knew I wanted to reinvent, and I just don’t think you can do that in the same place in front of people. But I wasn’t trying or pushing myself in any direction. I was just meeting new people, reading different books and seeing all types of music. It changed me.”
Along with her penchant for a drink, McLeod, now happily single and a Bikram yoga devotee, has shelved the “monkey on my back” — the negative voice in her head responsible for her formerly destructive self-image. In commemoration of the personal turning point, she penned “Tell Your Story Walking,” which “masquerades as a break-up song, but it’s not,” says the Jay-Z fan. “Just when I think I’m on the right track, one part of my brain will go, ‘No, you’re not. Who do you think you are?’ So the song is me trying to eradicate the negativity so that I can be the best I can be.”
The mantra is working, confirms Leah, who is “thrilled” to have her younger sister finally home on Australian soil. “The metamorphosis is like a girl going from a caterpillar to a butterfly,” she says. “It’s like she’s pressed the reset button, and she’s finally found her balance.”