Hardly a month goes by without yet another local artist – be they a musician, painter, writer – is upping sticks and moving to New York. Or London. Or Berlin. Or even Los Angeles. But Chicago?
A few eyebrows were raised when word spread through the local music scene that Bertie Blackman had set up camp in the Windy City. What was she doing there? Catching Bulls games and eating chicken vesuvio?
“One of my best friends lives over there,” Blackman explains. “She was like, ‘Come and stay. I’ve got a spare room. Come and use that to record.’ And that’s what I did.”
Blackman is taking time out from touring with The Rubens to chat about ‘Pope Innocent X’ – or ‘P.I.X.’, as she likes to call it – an album that’s taken over three years to emerge. Blackman’s manager was expecting the writing process to take three months, but life – and a little bit of Chicago – ended up getting in the way.
“Chicago’s not something I would naturally choose, either, but I guess it became an affordable decision to go and do that. Because there was a space for me and it was something I could do for a long period of time rather than just two weeks. I got to do it for seven months.
“Chicago is a pretty good mix of LA and New York. It’s a really amazing city and I had this really good moment: I was living in Logan Square and I’d just started reading ‘Just Kids’ by Patti Smith. And she was actually born there, in Logan Square. It was the first place she lived. And I just started reading this book and I started to write the album – it was just one of those personal moments, one of those really interesting moments in life.”
Blackman tends to dwell on the personal. Every artistic decision or choice of collaborator swings around whether it will bring her closer to her own craft. It’s an attitude that provided some friction when thinking about how to follow-up her breakthrough, ARIA-winning 2009 LP, ‘Secrets And Lies’.
“I could have gone further into the world of pop in that way,” she says. “And I really had to take a step back, because it gets to a point where you play so many shows that it’s a blur and it’s not personal anymore and not about the art. It becomes so separate in the world of pop in that extreme way – I just felt myself to be too far away from the art itself and I realised that I didn’t want to spend my life touring and touring and touring until I was old before my time and not getting to experience other things in my life.
“I wanted to draw as well and I want to write music for film and I want to create pieces of theatre with how we tour this record. It’s just thinking about all those things aesthetically that are intrinsically me. I had a few moments of not quite feeling myself over the last few years: ‘Is this me? I don’t know.’ I just really feel like this is me. It’s a hard question to answer, but everyone’s journey to find that is different and takes a different amount of time.”
It was with the personal in mind that she re-engaged with production and writing partner Francois Tetaz, who has since run into industry fame on the back of his work on Gotye’s ‘Making Mirrors’ and Kimbra’s ‘Vows’.
“His motto with everything is that it takes as long as it takes, and you make something the best you can make it. That’s what we did and I feel really proud of it in that way.
“I chatted to a bunch of different people and I was just trying to work out which producer I wanted to work with. Franc has a real spark about him, and we really connect in a creative way. He likes things that are not the normal and he just lives for taking risks and he loves being different. These stories are from my childhood and lost worlds, and it was a really good fit when I started talking to him. We were only going to collaborate on a few tracks, and then it ended up becoming the whole album.”
And of course, throughout the course of 2011, during the writing, preproduction and recording processes, Blackman got an inside look into Tetaz’s sudden shift into the limelight.
“We were working away and then he showed me the video for ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s a pretty good song’, and then it took over the world and he became a number one producer and he just became an arsehole,” she quips. “But for example, for the ARIAs last year: I was with Franc in the studio and he was like, ‘I need a suit. I’m bidding on this Armani suit online. $80: is that too much?’ ‘No, it’s not too much. You should get it. Get the suit.’ He reminds me of Willy Wonka sometimes. He’s a bit of a mad scientist of chocolate music,” Blackman laughs.
Now comes the task for Blackman of introducing this music to her live show. She wants to try new things, and so the tour with The Rubens has been a good way of ironing out her shtick sans the pressure of a headline performance.
“Yeah, they’ve been going really, really well. It’s been a long time since I’ve done a support gig, so I didn’t quite know what to expect and the new album is probably the first non-band orientated record that I’ve put together. Because it’s been a little while since I played, I felt a little more comfortable letting someone else take the heat and I can play heaps of shows and not worry about whether the room is full. Because eventually it makes your life a little bit shit for a while, and I don’t want to do that – it’s not about that. Personally and honestly, I thought there were going to be more hiccups. They’ve been going really well.”
The shows with The Rubens finally wrapped last week, but now comes another series of dates in early December in support of Gotye’s homecoming shows, and then what Blackman describes as “a million things to do” before her own tour kicks off in the early weeks of 2013.
“It’s funny: in Australia everything shuts down during festival time. But in the new year we’ll start doing some theatre shows.”
‘Pope Innocent X’ Is Out Now. Bertie Blackman Supports Gotye At Brisbane Riverstage December 11.