Women We Love: Clare Bowditch
Posted by hannahcolman on September 17, 2008
You might have heard of Clare Bowditch. She sings with a band called The Feeding Set. She took out the Best Female Artist award at the 2006 ARIAs for her moody, melodic album What Was Left. She has just been nominated for the same award (as well as Best Adult Contemporary Album) for The Moon Looked On, which has been lauded by critics and audiences.
In August, Clare completed her sold-out ‘Winter Secrets’ solo tour which saw her traverse the country performing songs from The Moon Looked On, as well as some old favourites, with an intriguing mix of instruments (including a loop pedal and a 1974 CasioTone). Her musical talent was only usurped by the unleashing of her inner comedienne, to the delight of the 10,000 fans that attended the eclectic, participatory shows.
She also features in Red Dog’s recent release The Divided Heart, a collection of interviews with prominent Australian artists, musicians, actors and writers. Written by her friend Rachel Power (the two met at university and lived together in a co-housing community in Melbourne for many years), the book explores the joy and the pain of staying true to the creative self after having a child. Clare’s chapter in The Divided Heart demonstrates her refreshing honesty and curious sense of humour in equal parts.
Married to Marty Brown (member of The Feeding Set and Art of Fighting), mother to Asha and twins Ollie and Archie, Clare took some time out to talk to The Dawn Chorus about music, motherhood and the beast that is marketing.
* * *
CB: I have no idea. I’m basically just going on instinct. I have an idea that there’s something there that needs some attention. It’s just part of having a creative adventure to be honest. I want to release my albums over there and I like the idea of Berlin as a base. I just love the city actually, I think it’s really fascinating. A lot of it’s about playing out a dream that Marty and I had a few years ago, that we would do this.
I’ve heard on the grapevine that you’ve already written a lot of material for the next album…
It’s true, I have, and I don’t stop writing. I don’t have, you know, times of the year when I don’t write. But I haven’t really listened to this very much except incidentally, so I just record on top, and on top and on top, on my iRiver, and then when I get over there I guess I’ll start sorting through stuff. I’ve started playing a couple of the new songs in my set.
In The Moon Looked On, you explored themes of desire and secrets and love and tragedy. Can we expect similarly stirring subject matter in the next record?
Probably. But I couldn’t say for sure. I actually would just like to write something that people can tap their… stomp their legs to. I’m very… I’m quite centred around rhythm at the moment.
You’ll be playing solo when you support Gotye, and you’ve just completed your Winter Secrets Tour, which was essentially described as a one-off solo experiment. What’s the difference in your approach to your solo shows as opposed to playing with The Feeding Set?
They’re actually enormously different, The Feeding Set is really a gang of mates hanging out, making music together. It’s not so much about the… it’s centred in the experience of playing the songs. Whereas the solo show I took on, I drew in theatre elements, I guess I enjoyed costume and storytelling and humour in a different way. But also you don’t have that lovely comfort of knowing the band will always pull you through. So you… there’s more terror in it and you take more risks, I think.
I read that in one of the Winter Secrets shows you forgot some lyrics, but had someone in the front row help you out?
True! She actually got on stage to sing it… it was in Adelaide. I was singing a song called Oranges, in which I routinely sing the second verse first… And I started doing that and literally lost my thread, my way into the song, and there was this girl at the front singing really loudly and I just stopped the song and said “Can you sing?” and she nodded and I said “Up you come!” And she got up on stage, I had a spare mic set up, and she just sang the song from start to finish and I sang back-ups and played guitar for her. So we did it once in Adelaide, and then two weeks later exactly the same thing happened at Ruby’s in Belgrave. Again I had a girl who knew every single word come up and sing with me. So I reckon, you know, that gave me heaps of juice to put on a show with. That kind of guts from strangers.
In The Divided Heart, you mention your frustration when journalists focus on you as a woman and a mother as opposed to a musician. Obviously The Dawn Chorus is written by women, so I hope you don’t mind if I go there for a minute…
I just probably should clarify at this point that the frustration is simply when people want to have superficial conversations about the fact that I have children, as though it’s some kind of trendy accessory that all modern women are doing.
Oh yeah, well, it is in Hollywood isn’t it!?
Yeah, and I guess that for me the point of frustration is really… I am always up for having a real conversation about it. But just can’t handle it when it’s kind of… trivialised. Because really then it has nothing to do with being an artist which is why I do interviews. And it’s just about ‘Can you stand up and show off your flashy things?’
Your flashy babies!
Yeah! Do you know what I mean?
Yes, I suppose when journalists follow the line of ‘Oh my goodness, she’s a mother and a musician?’ it must be maddening.
Yeah, I just find it really exploitative, of the vulnerability of most people who are making the transition into parenthood – which is massive – and we’re all looking for reassurance with it. And I think if we get that superficially by looking at what brand of baby pram everyone’s buying, then we’ve totally… we’re not shepherding our women through the experience very well.
You talk in the book about being pregnant as being “the ultimate creative act,” can you explain that?
Well, it’s the point in one’s life as a woman where you really realise the anatomical function… the incredible miraculous ability that women have to grow life. It says a lot about the creative act itself, which is very often it doesn’t matter what your mind is doing, that creativity, that baby was growing anyway, regardless. And that’s essentially what I think creativity is, it’s a stream that is continuously flowing, and at times when you’re pregnant, you really tap into the incredible subconscious line that we have with our mother, our grandmothers, our great-grandmothers and so on, for god knows how many thousands of years. So I guess you realise that something has come from, apparently nothing… from an act of love. Sometimes it’s an act of love! That’s pretty huge. It’s kind of, something that I think… it ties into my believing that labour, for me, was one of the most incredibly creatively liberating experiences of my life.
[The night before I interviewed Clare, I had been along to Readings in Carlton to watch a discussion between herself and Rachel Power. They talked about The Divided Heart, their friendship, and becoming mothers at similar times.]
I get a really lovely sense of mutual support between you and Rachel. How did living together in a co-housing community help you in the early days after having Asha?
Well it just meant that we really did have a… I guess we had a friendship that was a reminder at all times of what we were doing. You know, the early months and years of the transition into parenthood can be quite isolating, at certain points, but I always had someone that I could talk about things with. And not talk about things with. You know, I didn’t give a shit if the house was messy, or I wasn’t looking like my old self, on that particular morning. She’d come to the house and we’d have a cup of tea. Or at night we’d sit around and have a glass of wine and dinner. It was just… it wasn’t like we didn’t have boundaries, we were very respectful of each others’ family time, and so on. And we both realised that that’s actually the only way a community like ours could work, if people were respectful and on a similar wavelength with each other. It was just central to our anchor… in really uncertain times, which was coming into being a musician, a public musician for the first time in my life, and becoming someone’s partner for life, and becoming a mother at the same time. I was very grateful that she was there.
Getting back to music… A couple of years ago my editor Clem wrote an article about the tendency for the media to refer to ‘women in music’ as though gender is some sort of category or genre. In the article, Neon‘s Britt Spooner says she looks forward to the day when phrases like ‘women in music’ cease to exist. What are the chances of this happening, do you think?
What are the chances? We’re fascinating creatures, us women, aren’t we?! We’re still referred to as… you know… as though we’re a rare species in this rock’n’roll world. I think actually it’s becoming more and more of a redundant term, but I’ve felt that was going to happen with Courtney Love 15 years ago, that that term was going to disappear then but…
It still gets dragged out…
It gets whipped on out! Again and again. I think if, I think it kind of sets up a… a feeling that there’s only room for so many women. Which I think is very untrue. It’s more divisive than it needs to be. But I also think sometimes that’s people’s attempt – misguided attempt – to celebrate the special qualities that women bring.
Your album covers and film clips are pretty tame, even wholesome, compared to a lot of other female artists that we’re bombarded with…
Are they?! Oh like, you mean I don’t flash my tits or lick my top lip and let, like, dribble come down the side of my mouth… (laughs)
I’m wondering how marketing plays out when your music goes out to the world, and how many of the creative decisions you make?
The artwork on my albums… the first album was my friends Rachel and Jesse doing the artwork, and the second two have been collaborations with Kat Macleod, who’s one of my very favourite artists who I tracked down, and she’s a… she describes herself as quite a naïve artist. I think the question that you’re asking and the point I can make is that I was very, very clear from the start of my career that I wasn’t going to trade off the over-sexualisation of myself as a person in order to sell my product. I wanted to make sure that I was beginning a creative life that allowed me to continue having a creative life for a long time, and I think that I need to keep the focus, I guess, on the process of the creativity rather than what the person making the songs looked like or didn’t look like. So for me that was just allowing myself the freedom to do what I wanted to do. And next time when I want to strip for my cover, I will!
So how likely are we to see you pole-dancing in your next film clip?!
Oh you’d be surprised! You would be surprised… (laughs) Yeah I think it’s just about, allowing myself to have a creative life that makes sense to me. Rather than having people constantly asking me about my tits.
Sure! So obviously you were pretty comfortable in your own skin when your management deal happened, how do you think you would cope now, say, as an 18-year-old starting out and being marketed in a sexually aggressive way?
Look, I started making music at 16, I started playing in pubs. I had released two albums by the time I was 23. I was terrified of the business/marketing side of music and I didn’t want to know about it at all, and I didn’t want to even believe that it existed. So I made a very conscious decision early on to… I didn’t want to make it my career and I didn’t want to trade off it. And it was a decision that other band members found quite confusing and it was confusing, because obviously I did want to make music my whole life, but I didn’t want to do it until I had a way of doing it that umm… involved me being anything other than what I was. My older sister Anna was a model for most of my teenage years and I had an insight into that world that made me very cautious about any kind of glamour industry or any marketing machine… so I guess that, yeah, I wouldn’t have handled it well and I wasn’t willing to do it.
You note some of your musical heroes as Joni Mitchell, PJ Harvey and Gillian Welch. Who are you keeping an eye on at the moment?
In terms of female artists, role models, I have an ongoing obsession with Laurie Anderson and Patti Smith. Um, actually I’m listening to an album by Luluc, at the moment. I’m kind of quite interested in them. And, as always, M.I.A is one of my favourite musicians, because she’s such a creative little being… and um, listening to a lot of Joan As Police Woman, her new album.
It’s so funny when before you said… I just don’t think… I’m probably so inside the square, but I don’t know how it is that I come across as wholesome, I think it has something to do with what motherhood has brought out of me. Yeah, I always find that… really, it’s not… I don’t think my songs are necessarily… I think they straddle between… some are about quite normal family situations and others are about really messed up people.
Well I was watching the film clip for You Looked So Good and while the lyrics are pretty suggestive, there’s such a lovely naivety in the film clip. And I guess I’m comparing you to some of the younger female musicians who are almost being exploited in their film clips, writhing around in sweat…
Do you think they wanna do that?! Like I sometimes think… I wonder if… how does that conversation go… they’re sitting there and… are they even consulted?!
You seriously wonder… Or do they just get there and they go “Bend over and I’m gonna spray this oil… Just near your clacker… We waxed that!” And then does someone go, “OK! Turn it on!”
Frightening isn’t it? I mean… why on earth would you willingly let yourself be exploited in that way if you took your music seriously…
But I think that it does get portrayed as powerful, it does get misconstrued, or maybe… interpreted as power.
Well it’s the raunch culture thing. Girls who think they’re sexually liberated because they’re using their bodies…
What do you think about that?
Well I think it’s a big kettle of fish…. There’s so much to talk about. It’s a fine line, when you’re a woman, to feel that you have the freedom to express yourself however you want, sexually or otherwise, without being judged. But at the same time you’ve got to respect your own body and self.
It’s not clear cut is it?
No, not at all.
And this is why we get so confused about it…It was interesting, I was watching Germaine Greer last night on Tony Robinson, the panel discussion show on the ABC. And I was just thinking you know, love her or hate her, whatever you think of her, she’s actually one of the few women who dares to say unpopular things quite often. And she was sitting next to Julie Bishop from the Liberal party, who just came across as… I don’t know, I just couldn’t get a sense of her. And I thought, this is the thing about having these discussions, you know, there’s a lot of people who are completely terrified of saying anything that’s controversial. And it’s a handy thing not to have allegiance to anyone except yourself.