Bertie Blackman talks to Jane Rocca about art that matters.

From the heart

16:51:PM 31/10/2012
Jane Rocca

As the daughter of celebrated Australian painter Charles Blackman, 30-year-old Bertie Blackman certainly knows how to stand her ground when it comes to art. She won an ARIA award for her third album Secrets And Lies in 2009, is a dedicated illustrator and has just released her fourth studio album, Pope Innocent X.

If X marks the spot, then Blackman has hit the jackpot. Her new record is fantastical and childlike in wonder, but superbly paints a picture of a woman who has come into her own.

Pope Innocent X gets its name from a 1953 painting by Francis Bacon titled Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X. The renowned Irish-born artist lived in the same building as Blackman’s father Charles in London in the 1950s.

While Charles never spoke of the experience with his daughter, she knew there was a connection that went back some 60 years. Bacon’s painting is an interpretation of an original religious work by Spanish artist Diego Velázquez. Just as Bacon’s art questioned authority and conjured notions of horror and fantasy, so too does Blackman’s latest musical exploration.

“I grew an appreciation for Francis Bacon’s work through my dad. He is one of his favourite painters. He is someone I have come to appreciate on my own as well, having explored many of his works. I find him constantly intriguing,” says Blackman.

“It’s quite a horrifying image,” she says. “I instantly connected with the Pope, who is being caught in the veil. It’s about being drawn into another world. For me, the story is about parts of my childhood. It’s about lost worlds and my imagination. When you’re a kid, horror is not what you think it is now. When you’re a child it has an innocent violence to it. The album is my spin on what the image did to me, how it made me feel, and just like Bacon, I put it out there.”

Bacon’s Study after Velazquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X has been hailed a masterpiece. He became obsessed with the original 1650 painting between 1951 and 1965 and painted 45 variations of the subject.

Eight years ago, Bertie Blackman emerged with an indie folk single Favourite Jeans taken from an independently released debut titled Headway.

She was new on the scene and gained a solid following, thanks to shows she played regularly at various inner-Sydney venues.

By the time she made her second album Black in 2006, it didn’t take long for her to become a Triple J favourite. It was more grunge than folk and confidently saw the singer take on a new musical direction. Then came the award-winning Secrets and Lies three years later – an album that embraced a new way yet again, this time dark synths, keyboards and off-kilter tracks – streams of dreamy pop born from the waters that blessed the sounds of Bjork and Radiohead.

“I really like the idea of being able to pack my belongings in two suitcases, walk out and not care about what I leave behind.”

Pope Innocent X sees her explore the dark side once again – think Siouxsie and the Banshees’ dark electro synth meets the kookiness of Kate Bush.

Blackman decided to write her new album over a 12-month period. She went to Chicago and rented an apartment because it was cheaper to do that overseas than it was in Melbourne, and spent a further 2½ months at The Blackman Hotel in St Kilda Road – a hotel named after her father.

In hindsight, it was a weird experience for an artist trying to find her own creative voice – especially seeing her dad’s works everywhere she looked.

“When I got back to Australia after being in the States I thought it was good to get an artist’s residency at my father’s hotel,” says Blackman of her bright idea.

“But it was quite confronting once I got in there. It was weird being surrounded by his work in such a commercialised sense. You know, waking up and there’s Alice staring at you through the bathroom glass and seeing his paintings down every hall. It was very much about me facing my past. It was definitely an interesting space to write in and it was a far more emotional experience than I expected it to be. It really did help shape the record, to be honest.”

Facing the demons is one way of describing what happened next. Blackman recalls a robbery that took place at their family home when she was aged seven. She remembers the intruder tearing the phone from the wall and using the cord to tie up her mother (Genevieve de Couvreur). The intruder continued to rampage through the house and take what he wanted. The song Hide And Seek is a true account of what she saw with her own eyes that evening.

“I remember that feeling of fright as a child but also curiosity about what was unfolding,” says Blackman, who grew up in Sydney before moving to Melbourne a few years ago.

“I was completely petrified of what was happening,” she says of witnessing the robbery. “But when I started to write that song for this album, I wanted to turn the chorus into a kid’s game and use the verse to tell the story from the point of view of the intruder. All the songs on this album are based on true stories. I don’t feel the record is self-absorbed as a result. It’s the truest I have been to myself this far in my career.”

Blackman’s mother – also an artist – was 19 when she married Charles Blackman, who at the time was 49. The pair stayed together from 1978 and 1985. They have two children together – Bertie, who was born in 1982, and a son, Felix, now an architect, who came along two years later. Her mother has since remarried and works as an artist in Tasmania.

It was Blackman’s mother who heard her daughter sing in the family garage in her teens and encouraged her to pursue singing.

“My mum commented that I had a beautiful voice. I never thought about it like that. I liked to sing on my own, but I was very shy and it never came up as a possibility of something to pursue,” says Blackman.

That led to her picking up her younger brother’s guitar and writing songs. It was a natural step and seemed an obvious one given that her father was self-taught too.

“From dad’s point of view, it was important for me to be a visual artist rather than a musician,” says Blackman. “He still lectures me through his dementia, saying I should be at the conservatorium. I’m like dad, I don’t need to do that, I am doing quite well on my own. He is self-taught, so I don’t know where that thinking is coming from. But my mum has always been supportive. I haven’t known my father as a parental figure through any of my music career. My mum has been the primary driver and inspiration and my rock.”

Shadow Chasers is about her relationship with her father. The song opens with the lyrics: “I always thought you were a friend or at least you would pretend.” Blackman says she’s cut close to the bone and simply tells it like it is.

“It also feels really right to say that at this point in my life,” she says. “I love that there is deep meaning in the songs and I hope when people listen to them they can find their own parallels. I guess now that I am older I am looking back on those formative years and finally able to comment about my experiences of what it was like as a kid for me.”

Charles Blackman suffers from Korsakoff’s syndrome – a memory malfunction associated with years of heavy drinking. He no longer drinks and lives in his rented family home. Blackman still visits her dad, but says she’s closer to her mother.

The album’s first single Mercy Killer, with all its textured pop hooks, has a cheeky message to share. It’s a confession by Blackman, who admits she deleted a text from someone else’s phone and never told them. It’s about snooping where you shouldn’t, reading what isn’t meant for you and changing the plot along the way.

“We have all done stuff like that but I hope it’s something people can relate to in a similar way,” she says of the album that was produced by composer François Tétaz (Gotye, Architecture in Helsinki, Sally Seltmann), who first teamed with Bertie on Secrets and Lies.

For the first time in her career, Blackman has decided to illustrate the images that come with the CD booklet. “I am bringing my visual art into the album, and I am comfortable with that,” says Blackman, who has only ever exhibited her illustrations for a charity event at Mossgreen Gallery in South Yarra in 2009. “The

album feels textural and tactile and you can feel and see where the stories are coming from with the inclusion of the drawings.”

To look at Blackman, you can see facial expressions that are identical to her father’s. That cherubic face, sparkling eyes and an artistic swagger that comes naturally. In fact, when you log on to her website, the mischievous artist encourages you to join cult “BB” – a cheeky take on her desire to put you under her spell. That voodoo spell comes through on the album cover art that features her photographed up close. It’s tribal in spirit – a decadent mix of 1920s Spanish horror meets Manga as per Blackman’s request. “I love that image,” she says. “It’s very surreal and real.”

Blackman describes herself as someone who lives a solitary life. When she first moved to Melbourne she stuck close to relatives in Glen Iris. She had a shot at living in St Kilda but it reminded her too much of the Cross and now calls Richmond home. She’s quite happy with few possessions, adores her cat Ulfi and bird Katie, keeps her musical instruments close and treasures paintings her father gave her. “Mum would always say I didn’t really care for things as a kid. When she would ask me to tidy up my room, I would throw things in the bin,” she says.

“I really like the idea of being able to pack my belongings in two suitcases, walk out and not care about what I leave behind.”

Blackman knew that pursuing a music career was never going to be easy, but she didn’t exactly grow up thinking otherwise. Pope Innocent X is all about taking risks, following her heart and delivering a unique musical record.

“You know, my mum is a painter and so is my dad. From them both I learnt the lesson early to always stay true to who you are and make the best art you possibly can,” she says.

“I never had any icing on the cake or sugary perspective of what it was like to be an artist. They told me it would be a challenge to work for yourself. Watching my parent’s work through their artistic financial ups and downs showed me doing this was never going to be an easy way to live your life. It’s not the most glamorous, but that’s not why I chose this path.”

Pope Innocent X is out through Universal Music

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