Bertie tunes into her dreams
Bertie tunes into her dreams

Truth is stranger than fiction. And nowhere is that truer than on Sydney singer- songwriter Bertie Blackman's recent album, Pope Innocent X. While the 11-song collection includes surrealist ditties about people with maps for faces, an accordion boat and a town that turns itself into a boy, the tracks inspired by real life are far more evocative.

"Here's a horror story for you," Blackman begins over coffee in a Sydney cafe. "Hide and Seek is about a really full-on robbery which happened in my family home when I was six.

"The telephone cords were ripped out of the wall and Mum was tied up and threatened with being whacked over the head with a crowbar and they stole our stuff.

"(The robber) came into the bedroom and he was wearing my school uniform over his head to cover his face. He looked at me and thank God … he was just a junkie. That's my version of horror, a true story."

Nightmares, real or imaginary, weave their way through Blackman's fourth album, which was produced and co-written with her "perfect accomplice", Francois Tetaz - a film composer who collaborated with Gotye on his hit album, Making Mirrors.

The title is a reference to the great Irish artist Francis Bacon's lurid 1953 painting, Study after Velazquez' Portrait of Pope Innocent X. "There's a horror feeling in it, obviously, and it's like being sucked into a vortex," says Blackman, who heads to Busselton for Southbound next weekend. "It's like a veil."

During the 1960s, the volatile Bacon was a friend of Blackman's father, Australian painter Charles Blackman, who found fame in the 1950s with his Schoolgirl and Alice in Wonderland series. The 84-year-old has been in full-time care after suffering a stroke and heart attack in the mid-90s.

Despite the fact they work in different forms of art, Blackman shares with her father a focus on dreamlike imagery.

"Yes, I guess we both have very colourful imaginations," she says. "I definitely inherited that from him, the storytelling. He's a fantastic storyteller. I have part of that in my blood, that yearning to keep telling stories in that way. I don't ever like to compare myself to him but I'm definitely my father's daughter. As my mother continually says to me 'You're so much like your dad'."

Like Alice in Wonderland, Blackman sometimes disappears down the rabbit hole, only to re-emerge with whimsical tales of, for example, two people with maps for faces who become sick of passers-by stopping them for directions (Maps). Or the murky entity "made of whispers and cobbled stone", who steals dreams, shadows, attic ladders and broken bones to fashion himself a body (Boy).

"It's the classic outsider tale and I've always had a bit of that in me, which is not a bad thing," Blackman says of Boy. "I like being on the edge looking in."

The songstress, who released her debut album Headway in 2004, concocted many of these fantasies while staying with a friend in Chicago for eight months in 2010, after she'd finished touring third album Secrets and Lies.

Blackman immersed herself in music, analysing the mid-80s output of Kate Bush (Hounds of Love) and Peter Gabriel (So), and reading.

"I was reading Patti Smith's (memoir) Just Kids and she grew up in Logan Square (in Chicago), which was exactly where I was staying."

She made a side trip to the desert, specifically Joshua Tree, California, for some added inspiration. "Stupidly, I didn't take any drugs. I really regret that," she says.

And then early last year, Blackman returned to Australia. She heard about St Kilda's Blackman Hotel, which is decorated with reproductions of her father's work, and approached it about a residency.

To her surprise, the hotel's management agreed, and Blackman began a "really, really, really strange" two-month stay, during which she and Tetaz formulated the plan of attack for Pope Innocent X.

"It was a decent amount of time to be substantially tortured by all the paraphernalia," she laughs. "It was intense. I couldn't do it again, but I'm glad that I did it."

Then, between April and February 2012, Blackman and Tetaz rendered these stories in baroque, almost cinematic tones, using tubular bells, accordions, steel drums, vibraphones, scissors and a toy drum kit alongside the more traditional rock'n'roll instruments.

The twist in the tale is that this unusual album is Blackman's major label debut - P.I.X. is marketed and distributed by Universal Music Australia. She insists that the record company did not attempt to curtail any of her most outlandish imaginings or instrumentations.

"I'm a different sort of artist to have on their roster, so sometimes I think they don't quite know what to make of me," she muses. "But I think that's what they like."

Pope Innocent X is out now. Bertie Blackman is performing at the Southbound festival in Busselton, January 4-5. Details: southboundfestival.com.au.

The West Australian

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