Singer/songwriter Bertie Blackman made headway in the music industry with a debut album aptly titled, well, Headway in 2004. Less a matter of overnight success and more a case of treading the boards around Sydney’s inner-city venues, she deservedly accumulated a dedicated following who’ve seen her mature in sound on four LPs released over only twice that many years.
Insistent on not branding her music with any particular genre, Blackman has in effect attracted audiences who are normally into the various sounds of folk, rock, pop, and even electronica.
Here she chats with Antonino Tati about the diversity on her latest album Pope Innocent X, the themes of memory ‘lost-and-found’ behind the album’s title, and how she started out in music banging percussion with African drummers on Sydney’s Bondi Beach.
You’re up to your fourth album now, which is a major milestone. Four albums in eight years, that’s quite an impressive feat.
Yeah I guess so. I haven’t really thought about it but when you say it like that feels like a good number!
Are they works in progress in between releases or do you set aside a couple of months and it’s all slammed down in that period?
It changes usually. I’m really writing all the time. Sometimes, by the time it gets to actual recording, some songs don’t seem so relevant. So I guess it is a more organic process for me.
The first single, Mercy Killer, off your new album Pope Innocent X, despite its dark title, it’s actually rather ‘poppy’ which is quite new for you.
It is quite new for me. It’s probably the poppiest/rock’n’roll moment on the album. There’s another song called Hide & Seek which is more of an electro track – a bit Kate Bush-y. I really wanted each song to be a lone island, I didn’t want them to be similar. Each song has its distinct story, style and flavour.
I believe you wrote a lot of it in Chicago, US? What inspiration do you get from travel overseas compared to writing at homebase.
It was the first time I did any songwriting overseas. I was there for about seven months. To be in a new city and be outside of my comfort zone was interesting. Funnily enough, I was living in Logan Square in Chicago and I was just reading a book called ‘Just Kids’ by Patti Smith. And that suburb happened to actually be where she grew up, so I got a bit of that storytelling vibe.
I was chatting with Patti Smith last year and I found she’s just so prolific; always writing; always working… she’s, like, releasing a record a year it seems.
Yeah, she’s really amazing.
What other icons do you look up to who, like you, are able to sing, songwrite and play instruments?
Björk is a pretty big one. I’m a big fan of Talking Heads. And Tom Waites. Also Cocteau Twins. Even some Sixties folk music.
You feature various styles of music on your own records. What genre do you like performing most, let’s say on a live level?
The new record is a real mix, and I’m most comfortable in all those sound scapes. I don’t like being stuck in a specific style. So when we start touring this record early next year, the variety would be a really good thing to deliver on stage, along with work from the back catalogue as well.
I read somewhere that you began playing African percussion at the age of 12. Unless you had bongos in the corner of your living room, what 12-year-old outside of Botswana plays African percussion?
[Laughs]. Yeah, I think my mother was pretty flabbergasted. I used to play down at Bondi with drummers at the beach; people a lot older than me. It’s hard to explain why I got into it. But even in primary school – I would have been eight – I was listening to Paul Simon’s Graceland.
You covered Siouxsie & The Banshees’ Peek-a-Boo as a single. That song was first released in 1984 – the year you were born…
Yes, it was released the year I was born!
But the funny thing is before I even knew you’d covered that song, I thought to myself, ‘Gosh Bertie Blackman can sometimes sound uncannily like Siouxsie Sioux’…
Yeah, it’s kind of weird, and in the past couple of years I’ve actually been compared to her more than to anybody else, which is great. I knew a bunch of there songs before but I’ve never really delved right in and listened to them until recently.
Your videos tell quite the story. Do you have a say in all the visuals?
I’m very much involved in all of it; helping find the directors and picking the treatments; working with the directors to make them happen.
The video clip for Mercy Killer seemed quite dark. I think I saw hints of miscarriage in there, with the eggs dropping. Was that meant to be part of the video’s message?
That clip was made in Spain by a Spanish director. I wasn’t actually there so this particular time I let him go nuts with it. There are so many versions of mercy killing that I wanted to leave it up to the director’s interpretation.
And then leave it in the hands of a Spaniard and you’ve got the Dali/surrealism thing happening…
Yep, very bizarre!
Pope Innocent X, the name of your new record, what’s the story behind that?
Naming the record this time around was the last thing I did. I was kind of inspired by a painting by Francis Bacon. I’m an admirer of his work [Blackman’s artistic bent possibly stems from that of her father, famed painter Charles Blackman]. But to explain the ‘innocent’ in the title, the stories on the album are all about – well, there were a few years of my childhood where I have no memory, from the age of 8 to 11 – so these songs help fill in the gaps. I recalled stories of my father in some, too.
Beautiful artwork. Just the fact that you’ve got a hand in your visuals including album art and videos all adds to a great DIY ethos.
Exactly. And thanks, I did the illustrations myself.
Lots of craft there. Hey, do you like the indie tag or is it kind of getting old for you?
I don’t mind it. There could be worse tags. Like fuckwit! When I think of ‘indie’ I do think about pop music but I also think about things that aren’t at once extremely commercial. Things that are a little bit… more organic.
Bertie Blackman’s Pope Innocent X is out through Universal Music.
ART STATION presents an exclusive performance from Bertie Blackman at The Hotel Americano, 518 West 27th Street, New York tonight, January 22nd from 8pm-midnight. If you happen to be in the Big Apple, do check this powerhouse performer out!