To be honest I’m not really sure about the whole concept of the Big British Sound show. I think the bands that have been chosen to play (Bertie Blackman, Whitley, Jonathan Boulet, Fergus Brown and Deep Sea Arcade) are probably meant to sound British-ish, but aside from the touches of the Beatles in Deep Sea Arcade, the whiff of Bowie in Fergus Brown and the cold winter air that whistles through Bertie Blakman’s Secrets and Lies, I think these are Aussie bands doing Aussie things who will chuck a British cover into their set. Whatever. It’s a good opportunity to see some of the best bands around town play at the Metro together.
I spoke to headliner Bertie Blackman, who is currently based in Chicago working on her new album. “I’m kind of tentatively based over here until the end of July or August,” she says. “I really like it over here so I’m just travelling back and forth to Australia for gigs, once a month or so, but it’s a really good, inspiring space to be in. It’s just out of my comfort zone but I can write well.”
After a wave of success following her album Secrets and Lies, Blackman has found it was easier to do some real writing overseas. “When I’m in Australia my management just always make sure I have a full schedule, so there’s just never time and whenever I’ve had time, which hasn’t been very often, I just freak out a little bit. So that’s why I’m here. Sometimes I just can’t get inspired because I can’t stop thinking about other work stuff.”
Writing is something that comes naturally to Bertie, and she tells me she’s been writing music since she was very young. “I’ve been writing ever since I could,” she says. “It’s something I’ve always done naturally, ever since I was little – I used to always write things in my head or at a piano. I’d just make things up. I’ve always been that way inclined.”
It’s unsurprising really, considering that her father, Charles Blackman is one of the better-known expressionist painters in Australia. Creativity in the blood. “I had a picture of my father’s on my wall when I was young, a picture he had painted, out of his Alice in Wonderland series,” says Bertie about her creative childhood. “It was a picture of Alice and all these things like a hand print that was black on black, and rabbit ears, with a garden inside the ears. It’s kind of scary – other people look at it and say ‘THAT is what you slept next to?!’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah?’ and they say, ‘Well that explains a lot.’”
It probably does. Bertie’s music is like a dark Alice in Wonderland, and probably could have scored Tim Burton’s Alice if the film weren’t so abysmal. “The new record is even going a bit darker,” she says, keen to talk about it – probably because she’s spending all her time working on it. “This is the second interview I’ve had today and I’m finally starting to talk about what I’m doing. Even my management don’t know – I’m not letting anyone hear anything,” she giggles. “It is darker and I’m really excited.”
The landscape of Chicago is helping to inspire her as well, and she’s finding mythical, supernatural moments hidden in the city landscape. “I had a couple of big breakthroughs yesterday,” she says, “And I kind of feel like I’ve started upon something interesting so I’m working away seriously in my studio in Chicago, looking outside – there’s apartment blocks everywhere, but there’s this big square of concrete with a park on the edge and there’s this big old dead tree growing out of the middle of the concrete, in the middle of this empty car park. It’s weird.” Then she corrects herself: “No, it’s awesome, it’s not weird. I imagine what’s inside it, like a little creature war happening underneath the tree, it could be Adam’s tree…”
When she’s not writing, Bertie jets back to the motherland and plays festivals. It’s almost always festivals – and when she plays, she puts on an epic, intense, powerful show. With billowing black clothes (often by her favourite designers, “Kirrily Johnston, Friedrich Gray, really rad expensive things,”), reverb and a strong sense of the epic, Bertie’s shows take the raw, honest recordings from her album and explode them into massive on-stage performances. “I love playing festivals,” she says. “I’ve played a lot of festivals recently. Like, every festival. I am looking forward to playing some of my own shows soon though but I want this record to be special so I’m sort of throwing all my energy into that and getting it finished. Finishing a project is always a weird time because, well, I haven’t had any kids but I think it would probably feel like that, giving birth.”
Hopefully Bertie’s been inspired by some shows in America, where she’s really been quite spoilt. “I went to Coachella over the weekend in the Californian desert,” she gloats happily. “I saw heaps of really amazing things – I saw Thom Yorke play for the first time, who played with Flea [Atoms for Peace] and I really enjoyed seeing Fever Ray and Dead Weather. Florence and the Machine were there – she’s cool and people like her and La Roux have been around for ages and I was really interested in seeing bands I haven’t seen before. And I made out with Har Mar Superstar, which was pretty rad.”
I don’t know how an Australian living in America will translate into a Big British sound, and I don’t really care to ask either. Bertie’s far too focused on her writing and her new album to think about it. She tells me also that she won’t be playing any of her new writing yet. “I’m going to save it up for a special occasion,” she says, as if it’s a rainy day jar. “I think I want to kind of put it on for everyone when it’s ready to go, make it special. It’s good to keep people waiting for at least a month. Soon, soon.”
I’m interested as to whether that’s frustrating, being so distracted and focused on new material but having to play other things. But Bertie reassures me that her shows are all consuming as well, which is obvious from her passionate, intense performances. “Once I start playing music I get kind of lost,” she says.
If she’s ever lost, it’s only because her music takes everyone to another world. It’s very much like Alice in Wonderland; like her father’s painting. Chicago is Bertie’s wonderland at the moment, and when she climbs through some rabbit hole and emerges back here at The Metro, she’ll be putting on a performance as magical as the Cheshire Cat in the dark night.