An interview with Bertie Blackman

bertie blackman

Bertie Blackman is an Australian artist that constantly pushes boundaries in her music with album after album taking us on a new path of possibilities within one person’s trajectory and one person’s amazing talent.

It has been a decade since her first album Headway (2004) which embodied a female-indie rock sound that was reminiscent of other girls in the Australian music scene like Adalita and Sarah Mcleod.

Since then, Blackman released the harder sounding Black (2006) with the epic track “Fast Bitch” before going on to release (what I strongly believe is) the industry game changer Secrets & Lies (2009). Blackman received strong accolades for this album that used a fusion of her rock guitar riffs with African-style drumming, synth-pop flavours and affirming, powerful lyrics.

Seriously, go listen to “Sky is Falling”, “Thump” and “Heart” and know what I’m talking about. Honestly…can you just do it right now?

Since then, Blackman released Pope Innocent X (P.I.X) (2009) and is currently wrapping up her upcoming album that is due for release later in the year. In the meantime, she’s kept us satisfied with her new single “Run For Your Life” which is reminiscent of her 80s pop synth sound and has the feeling of a John Hughes film (think Molly Ringwald walking up to John McCarthy in Pretty In Pink and slapping him on the face while Ducky watches smugly).

It’s a landscape and a dreamscape rolled into one and I was oh so happy to be given the chance to talk to one of the biggest influences on my own music writing and just, being plain good at life…so here she is, the lady herself; Bertie Blackman – drinking Earl Grey tea, fighting the cold Melbourne weather and talking all things music, art, industry, technology and the way she has evolved into the musical gem that she is today.

run for your life

CAT: “Run For Your Life” is your new single. It’s got an 80s vibe and it’s been described as something reminiscent of a John Hughes film and I definitely feel that…the whole underdog defying the odds in a cliquey high-school setting. What’s your favourite film of his and how did it influence the writing of this track?

BERTIE: It’s more of an influence of the music that I really love but yeah, I’d say my favourite film of his The Breakfast Club.

If the track ended up sounding like something from one of his films I wasn’t physically trying to make it like that. I had been referencing bands like Tears for Fears which is actually around the time of his films. It was kind of, the circle of life really; mega 80s pop. It’s just fun, you know I grew up in the 80s and getting ready for school with my mother jumping on a trampoline and listening to music like that in the mornings.

CAT: It sounds like a very fun way to be going to school.

BERTIE: It is, it is. It’s very colourful and fun for us as kids so you know I just really wanted to write the music that showed what that felt like for me and celebrating music that I really love.

CAT: So this is the fifth album that’s coming out in October?

BERTIE: Yeah, September/October.

CAT: All of your albums are really different to one another especially when you compare a song like “Favourite Jeans” to something like “Thump”. Do you set out to reinvent yourself on every album or does this just happen?

BERTIE: I think it’s a bit of both. I always relish a bit of a challenge to make things work and challenge me musically and personally. You know, you just can’t be repeating the same thing again and you find that by the end of writing and making a record you get into a rhythm of the kind of sound and flavour that you’re doing so it starts to get a little bit easier so by the time I reach that point I kind of think that it’s time to make a change.

You don’t want to start getting apathetic about writing or just doing stuff for the sake of it but also, we live in a world where we are kind of slapped in the face with all of these colours and sounds and new things and new music and videos and films everyday so it’s kind of hard not to be inspired by new things everyday.

CAT: Do you think that it’s important, because there are so many new things around, to reinvent yourself in this way to stay relevant?

BERTIE: Yeah I think so. It’s probably one of the reasons why I’ve been able to keep doing what I’m doing in a way.

Someone did comment tome the other day saying, “How you can stay relevant?” but I hadn’t really thought about it because it’s just something that I’ve always just done.  I haven’t done it intentionally being afraid that I won’t be. I certainly haven’t done it on purpose. It’s just the way that I really love to make art. It should be exhilarating and different and I think that just because of the pace that everything is looked at and new and fresh all the time, if you are kind of just repeating yourself you can possibly just get swamped by everything so its important now more than ever.

CAT: I think you definitely show that. I’ve been listening to your music since I was 17 and every time you bring something out I’m always like “Whoa! That’s so different but it’s awesome”…

BERTIE: Well thank you. I’m glad that through the years I’ve still kept on and kept your interest.

CAT: It’s good because like you were saying before, it’s good to see artists evolve and make new sounds and I suppose that that’s what you are doing.

BERTIE: Yeah I definitely hope that I’m doing that. Thanks.

CAT: So, you’ve got Louis Schoon doing your new track?

BERTIE: Yeah he’s a Dutch man. So yeah, I wrote the song with Louis and it was also mixed with Han Mulder who’s one of the key people I’ve really wanted to work with. Hopefully the next time I get to work with him in person.

These days you just send something over to get mixed, you know you’re not there and you can’t go with it you know what I mean? I want to be there for the whole thing so yeah.

CAT: So are you quite hands on with all the mixing and the production? 

BERTIE: Yeah absolutely. Just sometimes you can’t afford to be there in person but you know, when you’re doing things over email, which a lot of the time you end up doing, it can work. But I’m definitely involved in every way and I think it’s really important to do that because otherwise you lose a piece of your work and your art. I’m too much of a control freak to relinquish that and just not care about it once I’ve written the song.

CAT: No it’s definitely right. It’s a part of you so it’s good that you keep a hold onto the whole thing.

BERTIE: Yeah I think so too.

CAT: What’s you’re process of co-writing? Do you come up with the foundation and then give them that or do you start from scratch with them?

BERTIE: Well with this record I was going in with nothing. So I just walked into a room with the people I was writing with and went “cool”.

Usually we just listen to music and the stuff and where I’d have a phrase or something but it’s good to kind of go in knowing what you want if you’re going in to co-write with people from scratch. It’s good to kind of have a direction. You aren’t just going “Let’s write a song”.

With studios now you have access to all kinds of samples so I think the more kind of specific you are with what you want and where you want to go, the better results you get. You’re kind of driving a flavour but also you’ve got to try really hard to be confident and committed to your ideas and your work because you’re in a room with a stranger. It’s certainly challenging but it was good.

CAT: Would you say that because your albums are all so different to one another that they are almost like concept albums that are a snapshot of a certain time in your life? Like, Pope Innocent X is about your time growing up, so can we expect a personal idea of concept with this new album?

BERTIE: I didn’t think of it at the time. It’s something that I haven’t really explored in the past and I don’t think it’s a thing that I try to arrive on. It’s from more of an internal place. I think that I just really wanted to celebrate all of the music that I really love and make some music that harnessed that and helped that shine through.

CAT: So, you began your career in a time where the internet was slowly changing how we are listening to and discovering music. Have you had to change the way that you release and promote your music these days because of this and has this become a blessing or a pain?

BERTIE: It’s been very challenging because when I first started making music, MySpace had only just come out pretty much. I remember when someone first said to me “You know there’s this thing called MySpace and it’s the way the music is going” and I was like “Yeah, yeah, whatever, bullshit” but eventually I cottoned onto it and then ever since, it’s been all online really.

Before that, I was taping posters to telegraph poles and putting ads in the street press and playing gigs and sending things to Triple J. Triple J hasn’t changed but yeah the industry has changed so much and it feels kind of weird speaking about it because I guess I’ve been doing this for a while now, a decade has changed and it’s a long time…10 years, it’s a long time in any industry now where technology is a bit of a guiding force in it all. It’s really kind of directing all the different ways that we can put music out and express ourselves.

I think it’s important to kind of keep up with what’s going on and use those platforms in an artistic way and I’m still really working on how I can do that. It’s a challenge to me because I’m an analogue girl. I don’t really use those interfaces for anything other than my music. I’m not glued to my phone and computer in that way. I read books and stuff. So yeah, it’s kind of slightly… like for me, a bit hard sometimes but I think once you embrace it, it’s just the way that it is. You can’t fight it; you just have to do it in an interesting way and in your own way.

CAT: I’ve read reports that because of the internet and downloading, independent artists mainly only make their money from touring so do you find that when you tour that you put a lot of effort into making a point of difference whilst maintaining your fan base but inviting in new listeners? Do you think that doing this as an artist these days and, like how you had the drawings projected in your last tour with The Rubens, that it’s important to make your point of difference in touring and is that the only way you can really survive in the industry?

BERTIE: I think that for any artist across the board, being able to make a living is done through touring and publishing. It doesn’t matter who you are, people are still just ripping your records online. It happens to someone like Adele where millions of people are doing it and then someone like me where it’s probably just thousands.

But the days of making from records have kind of changed but it might come back into something else I think. Labels are still surviving somehow so they must be figuring it out.

To me, a band that has a point of difference is in having a strong live performance and always pushing yourself with the way you’re on stage and the way that you can personally communicate all of the things that you are doing visually with the punctuation of things, the colours you use. It’s super important.

CAT: What are the advantages of being an independent artist, specifically in the Australian music industry?

BERTIE: Well I’m not independent anymore so that’s the main thing.

CAT: Whoops sorry.

BERTIE: [Laughs] I’m licensed to Warner.

These days the artist as an artist has to do management work. Signed or not signed you’re still doing the hard yards to sell records and a little bit more when you’re independent. There are a lot of smaller things involved. It’s just a slightly different thing.

I mean, the way that I work, I still manage and so it still feels like I’m an independent artist but you just remember that now you have a larger family attached to you now rather than just a little family which can be warming.

I’ve only just freshly signed with Warner; I’ve only been with them about a month. It’s really new and fresh for me so I’m still getting to know everyone and all that kind of stuff. Yeah, it’s always a new and different experience but whether you’re indie or not, you still use the same construct. You still put your music out; you have press people, online people and all the other people that are there that you need to have whether they are part of a company or whether you have to hire them separately. There’s still the way of putting the music out, it just depends on how much of it that you do yourself.

CAT: Have you finished writing your album at the moment or are you still in the process of recording it now?

BERTIE: Yeah it’s all done. I’m just doing a vocal on one of the last tracks on Sunday and then it’s finished. And then I‘ve started writing for another one already.

CAT: Wow!

BERTIE:  Yeah! I’m going to do a lot of quick succession records for now I think because we turned this record around in about foour months which is really super quick and it’s been a fun and refreshing way for me to make a record.

I’ve made quite a few records in the past and they always take so long because you wait around for people and you write all these songs and you go and take them to a producer and then you go and record them again. It’s quite a time consuming process but it was just really great to do it really quickly and I thought “Cool. I’m just going to keep writing and write another record,” so hopefully there’ll just be an annual Bertie Blackman release for the next few years if I kind of maintain that sort of pace.

CAT: That’s great. Yeah you may as well strike while the iron is hot.

BERTIE: Exactly. I really love writing and I’ve just gotta keep writing.

CAT: I’ve read in a few articles where they call you “Melbourne musician Bertie Blackman” or “Sydney musician Bertie Blackman”…

BERTIE: [Laughs] Yeah they keep saying that…

CAT: Which one are you and do you think that Melbourne is better than Sydney?

BERTIE: [Laughs] Ohhhhhh.

I probably consider myself a Melburnian for now.  I’ve been here for five years now but I don’t like to get either side of the debate. There’s plus and minus to each city. I don’t want to get into the debate about the towns. Once you cross the state lines it’s all trouble so… [laughs]

CAT: I’ve noticed that when I first started listening to you, you had a very female Australian rock kind of sound along the lines of Magic Dirt and stuff like that. Are those artists that you relate to in your songwriting and putting yourself out there as a strong female artist in Australia? Does this influence your writing and performance?

BERTIE: Yeah. I think. I’ve been one of those chicks that, well through my career… it’s hard to talk about because I don’t really focus on it, but being a female in the industry does get focused on. It doesn’t matter whether it defines you or not but certainly there are different kind of challenges to being a female in a male dominated industry, you do kind of try to stick together.

The people that I am inspired by aren’t really gender inspired. Adalita is a really dear friend of mine and that makes it fun and other people like Abbie May. I’m lucky because everyone that I used to look up to are now my friends so it’s a different kind of thing. You find difference as you kind of move through different art that you love and you find new music. There are things that make you really think so, for me, it’s always been artistry and an art-based thing rather than a gender-based thing.

CAT: Well I think that about wraps it up. It’s been really good talking to you and I hope you enjoy your earl grey tea.

BERTIE: Thanks! You too.

THE BREAKDOWN:

Hometown: Sydney, Australia
Sounds like: Ladyhawke, Owl Eyes, Adalita
Say what?: Bertie co-wrote the soundtrack to the film Hey, Hey, It’s Esther Blueburger with legend musician/producer Paul Mac

Paws and Pineapples, Cat

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *