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Clare Bowditch is big hearted
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Clare Bowditch is big hearted
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Clare Bowditch is big hearted
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"I’m normal. I’m fucking normal. I can’t be anything else. I don’t want to be. It’s too much energy."
1 October 2013

Clare Bowditch is big hearted

Interview by Berry Liberman
Photography by David Abraham Michael

Berry Liberman on Clare Bowditch

Years ago, Clare Bowditch and I did the same course at university. Back then, she was already beautiful and talented, showing the promise and determination that would lead to her successful music and television career in Australia. Interestingly, at exactly the moment when most “stars” would be grinding the fame pathway, I hear about Clare through a close friend and serious businesswoman, who tells me she has just attended Big Hearted Business, a workshop designed to get creative people thinking about business and business people thinking more creatively.

For my friend, it was life changing. The brilliant mind behind it is Clare Bowditch.

It’s a brave step for someone already cast as a performer, in a world where we often pigeonhole everything into discreet boxes. For Clare, Big Hearted Business is the realisation of a decade long dream. Afraid of what the world would think, she avoided doing it for a long time but soon understood the power of being a role model for those who might not fit the mould, may have a wild idea and just might have the courage to make it happen.

In 2008, having won the Best Female Artist ARIA, Clare took her young family overseas for three months of reflection. A strange feeling of unease accompanied this time as Clare realised that success and all of its trappings were empty unless she was helping other people achieve their dreams too. The seed of an idea was born: How could she use all of the gifts she had to nourish and support a community of people with talent and great ideas?

I’ve never had a long conversation with Clare, just a passing “hello”; an acknowledgement of being in the trenches together. When I ask for an interview, Clare agrees: “Sure, as long as I can interview you too.” I find out that this is typical of Clare, who is as much interested in your story as she is in communicating her own. On the day of our interview the Dumbo Feather crew are buzzing at the thought of meeting her, but when Clare arrives, everyone gets a hug and a smile so genuine it’s disarming. You expect someone distant, cool and stylish. What you get is someone real, genuine and full of feeling.

Sometimes in life, we meet a rare spirit, the real deal. Someone who has been places, done things, climbed great mountains and asked important questions. For me, that someone is Clare Bowditch. From the moment we sit down I feel a rare and joyous connection with a kindred spirit; someone who lives a life of challenges and triumphs while valuing connection with others and herself above all things. Oh, and she can sing, man can she sing.

This story originally ran in issue #37 of Dumbo Feather

Berry Liberman: You’ve had such an interesting career to date and now you’re branching out into new territory. How did you go from making music to business mentoring?

Clare Bowditch:
 In 2008 I’d been making a serious go of music. By then I was in my early thirties—I’d been sincerely into it since the birth of my child Asha—She was six, I had two 18-month-olds.

I knew that I was not born to be a traditionally, commercially successful artist. My songs didn’t fit into that field, and there was no way I was going to change myself in order to fit in.

But I did think that I would have a small international career. I always loved travelling and adventure.

My father had been ill with Alzheimer’s for five years and had passed away that year. I think part of our celebration of him—but also dealing with the grief in a way was to go overseas. We’d been attached to Australia for many years. I hadn’t wanted to travel far away from him. So my husband, Marty, and I decided to take ourselves to Berlin on what we termed a “creative random adventure”. We moved there for three months, and we did that a number of years in a row. It was a space of reflection and peace in a way. It’s never as simple as you imagine being a foreigner in a country where you don’t speak the language with children. But things happen. We met some amazing people and I had a chance to question this trajectory I’d been on musically for a few years. I’d won the ARIA a couple of years before.

You’re so famous!

Yeah, that’s me.


You know, that is a pinnacle that’s built up in every Australian musician’s mind: This is what it’s all heading towards. Although I never really believed that, some part of me wanted to think that there was a point where I would say, ‘Ah, I’ve been enough. I’ve done well.’ Of course, it’s not like that.

So we’re in Berlin. I’m touring with my friend Wally De Backer—otherwise known as Gotye—and I have a realisation of what it would actually take as a mother of three to try and establish myself in a series of new territories. It wasn’t the life that I wanted. I started questioning: How can I contribute to the world in a way that I feel is more significant than having a successful career in music? I think art is incredibly important, but I’d seen how the machinations worked.

I was feeling very cynical about it all, but I started writing a comedy about a character called Lady, who was a “friendtor”: a friend and celebrity- mentor! Then I realised that actually, I was tying back into the thing that had given me the most pleasure right throughout my life—supporting people in their dreams.

I realised, It’s all fascinating, having an international career and a family, but not really unless you’re helping other people do the same. I started asking: What is happiness, truly? Where is it? Why have I cared so much my whole life about other people’s opinion of me? How has that paralysed me? What would it mean to let go of the affection of Triple J? You know, in an Australian context, you think that’s where a career is made or broken.

What does that mean, to let go of that affection?

It means realising it never existed.

This story originally ran in issue #37 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #37 of Dumbo Feather

The thoughts that other people have about you and your meaning are irrelevant. The question is: “What means something to you? Why are you here? What have you got to contribute?”

So where do you place music in all of that?

For me, music is part of my contribution. I’ll always play. Music is meaning-making. It’s something I started when I was very young. My sister passed away when I was five and she was seven. She’d had a long illness, and my whole life has been about piecing together how to live a life well. Music has been part of that adventure for me. It was always about reminding myself of the importance of making a significant contribution to a small amount of people, rather than a watered-down success — which is millions of albums sold worldwide. It very rarely happens that those things coincide. In Australia we’ve had this excellent example of a true artist, a true contributor, who’s also had this global success, which is Wally—Gotye. That makes me really happy.

What do you mean by a “true artist who’s had global success?”

He’s not a “fictition”.

So he’s not a success for success’ sake?

That’s right. He has been sincerely dedicated to his craft. He’s put the hours in. He’s put the time in. He has done something original and stunning. I don’t believe it was ever about other people giving him a tick. He’s clearly ambitious, but he’s ambitious for quality. He’s not hungry for…

…the adoring fans.

For me, the point of choice was: I want to be there for my children growing up. I don’t want to be away from them. I don’t want to put in those five years of touring and miss out on real life. So with that, I came home. My career is now very much an Australian career. That’s extremely satisfying. And it gives me room to do other things like Big Hearted Business.

You started your career late for a musician, at 26.

I started the serious part of my career late. Yep. It’s funny, it had always been there, but I’d never wanted to do it as my profession.

I’d been recording albums, playing gigs and so on. But I think even at uni I probably wouldn’t have mentioned I was a musician. I thought I was going to be a writer, I thought I was going to do something else. I was terrified of destroying this precious little thing that meant so much to me—which was music.

So what changed?

I think I got courageous. I realised that I wasn’t seeing the kind of women making the kind of music that I liked in a bigger sphere. I looked around and thought, Who is doing this thing that I want to do?

Also, I was lucky because I had this partnership with Marty, who had a bigger vision for me and what my music could contribute to the world, than I did. He started recording my songs and I realised, I could be more courageous. I was scared that the industry was rotten and it would destroy me. I didn’t know there were good people in there. The tides were changing. Technology gave me independence. I didn’t come to signing record contracts until many years down the track when I’d already established who I was, what I stood for—if they were working with me, they knew the deal. I got a grant from Arts Victoria which allowed us to take three months off. I got pregnant. That was actually the defining turnaround for me: Shit. We’re fortunate enough to be having a baby, but what does my life stand for? Have I given it a go?

I really needed the encouragement to keep going. I needed a reminder that what I was doing as an artist, that the things I was trying to talk about—grief, loss, lust, living, hope, joy—were stories the world wanted to hear.

I started questioning: How can I contribute to the world in a way that I feel is more significant than having a successful career in music? I think art is incredibly important, but I’d seen how the machinations worked.
Clare Bowditch
For me the music is just the music. Big Hearted Business, writing, so on, it’s all a vehicle for me to do the thing that I think I do best in the world, which is helping people create a bigger story for themselves.

What is Big Hearted Business about?

BHB launched at the end of March this year. It basically came out of the realisation that there was an enormous gap for people like me in being able to build careers that had meaning. I don’t mean “poor starving artist”. I mean there was no one talking about the fact that you can be a really successful artist without being a multi-billionaire. You can be successful while making a bigger contribution to the world, whatever that might be. This is the time to do it. And, you don’t need to go through traditional channels. There are new business models and role models for us to learn from. It used to frustrate me no end that I’d see these ridiculously talented people who had no idea how to make what they did profitable. Their definition of success was impossible.

Yeah. We’re sold particular visions of success. I think you do have to find role models.

Totally. I’ve always needed people to remind me, “this is possible”. I spend my whole life searching for people who remind me of that, so that I can remind other people of that. That’s my greatest joy.

You’re an Australian musical superstar. For a lot of people, you did reach that pinnacle of music, of success. So it’s fascinating that when you reach that point you think, Is that all there is? Now, you’ve now found a vehicle and people are plugging in to what you’re doing. That’s incredible. Has that been a surprise?

I started to get the hunger for it when I developed the Winter Secrets Tour a few years ago, where we’d get people in the audience up on the stage. I remember being in the audience at other people’s concerts and knowing there was something in me that could give, wishing that someone would call me up, like some miraculous Bruce Springsteen film clip.

What did you ask people to do when you called them on stage?

They came up on stage and just sang, share their little gift with the world. I never felt comfortable being “the artist up there looking down on the crowd”. I was touring solo and just through sheer need, I’d say to the audience, “I’m going to quickly teach you this backup part.” Within five minutes, we’re singing a song together, people are connecting. Although I’ve been thrilled with the reaction to Big Hearted Business, I’m not surprised that people want to connect with each other on this level.

We all have this very particular and unique contribution to make. We’re not encouraged to think that way.

I like to encourage people to think that way because I know it to be true. I’ve spent my life looking for the evidence and finding it. People tell me every day, “I can’t sing,” and I say, “Really? You can’t sing? Okay, come to Winter Secrets and we’ll see.” Here’s the truth: You might not be Pavarotti, you might not be Sarah Blasko, but if you suspect you’ve got a song in you, then get in a group of people together and see what happens.

Terrifying for a lot of people.

Terrifying if you think about it, but what if you don’t? [Laughs] then you get to feel it.

Going back to what you were talking about before, who have been some role models for you?

People like Laurie Anderson and Patti Smith… I found one role model really young, at 19, in Jeff Buckley whose concerts I went to, and I met briefly. Writers like Stephanie Dowrick who speak about authenticity, intimacy, kindness; simple ideas well articulated in ways that are intelligent and not “woo-woo”. Later, I befriended and interviewed Stephanie for the Winter Happiness Summit. Another role model was of course, my mother, who lived a life of dedication to the simple concept of love in a profound way. She still does. She is one of the most loving women you’ve ever met.

Was it just you and your sister?

No, I was the youngest of five. Rowena was diagnosed with an extremely rare disease when she was five. For a long time it went a bit undiagnosed; no one knew what was wrong. It’s called Devic’s Disease, it’s like childhood multiple sclerosis. She moved into the children’s hospital when she was five and stayed there until she was seven. My parents created stability by the way they loved us, and the way they brought us together as a family, but I never had that time in childhood where nothing went wrong. I always had the sense that we live in a broken world, what do we want to leave behind? The idea of making the most of life has always been with me. Along with that there has been this incredible deep grief, that is always clarifying. It gets straight to the heart of things.

I think my creativity was my companion from a very young age. I didn’t realise that my grief was also my companion from a very young age. I held onto it unconsciously because it was my connection to a wholeness in a family, which, from then on, couldn’t exist in the same way. I had a couple of points in my life where this became very clear. It’s just like the water you swim in.

When I became a mother, I had moments in my life where I would have to update the grief system. You experience grief as a child but you carry on. Part of my carrying on, for a long time in my life, was to have problems with food. I was looking for comfort and security. I was on my first diet at eight. I had constant weight problems throughout my life, and I had no idea—and nobody in my family had any idea—that this was a symptom of me feeling unsafe in the world. It sounds simple, but that’s why I always say “diets are never about the diet” and anorexia is rarely about the food. I’ve done a PhD on these ideas, which I think a lot of women live in silence, which is shit. I couldn’t lose the weight. I failed on this diet again. What is wrong with me? There’s something wrong with me. Really it’s often got more to do with, I haven’t found the right way of supporting myself yet. I haven’t found a way to feel safe in the world yet. When I was 21 I started to make the connection between my eating and my grief.

A big turning point for me was at the age of 26 when Marty and I had Asha. I had a full understanding of what the experience of losing a child would be, and what it must have been like for my parents. That was an incredibly profound year. I wrote an album called Autumn Bone. I had insomnia. I started seeing a grief counsellor. I read everything I could on grief. I felt strangely terrified of my daughter dying at any time… I didn’t know what to call it at first. I realised, of course, this was part of me coming to terms with life, on life’s terms. You can’t change the past. So again it came to the question of, What stories are we here to tell? Which ones can we tell with truth? Which ones are too painful to tell?

As if I wanted to write an album about grief. That was the last thing in the world I wanted to talk about publicly. I didn’t want to drag my whole life up or bring up pain for family members.

But these songs came and I tried to tell the story as best I could, in a way that was honest but didn’t kill us, didn’t sink us.

That’s the gift of being an artist. You can use feelings in the work. You don’t have to keep them vaults underground. Instead you can use them as a way of healing and instructing. I didn’t expect us to really talk about it, but you are a woman in the public eye. Image is a big thing. How do you deal with your own inner demons about image, food, and your body in the public space?

I was so incredibly shy that for the first few years of my music career I wouldn’t have my face on posters. If it was a photo, it was a profile shot. But I just made a very clear decision at 27; if I was going to go for this, I wasn’t going to try and be anyone that I wasn’t. I was not going to make it a fucking nightmare for myself to keep up. I was going to be myself, because that is what I wanted to see in other women. That doesn’t mean that I don’t put on the fake bloody eyelashes and have my hair tizzed for the awards ceremonies— everyone wants to feel like a princess on that night.

And it’s fun. It can be fun.

It’s fun. But for me, I resented the fact that in order to have a musical career, I had to… present. But I got over it because I thought, These are the deals of the encounter. I can do myself and other women service by being as myself as I can be. This doesn’t mean that I’m not ruined with insecurity. The first time I had to go into the Offspring wardrobe…

Oh yeah! You’re on telly!

Yeah [laughs]. It’s a small role, really! But the first time I had to go into the wardrobe room, the first time I had to dress for a film clip or so on—terrified. But then you just go, Get over it. This is who I am, this is what I am. I’m normal. I’m fucking normal. I can’t be anything else. I don’t want to be. It’s too much energy. So how can I make it pretty straightforward for myself? I’m not here to win a beauty pageant. When I get invited to do a photo shoot for a glamorous magazine, I like to bring my own clothes, or the stylist has to make a little bit more effort for a normal person. One of the things that held me back, was I just didn’t see women who were tall with red hair and big hips in the public space. The women who were successful in music when I got cracking were Kylie Minogue, Delta Goodrem. They’ve got their thing that they do and they’re great at that thing but I knew it wasn’t what I did.

We can torture ourselves with, I’m not enough, I’m never enough, I don’t have this together, I don’t have that together. What if we’re fucking perfect? What if we’re completely exactly where we’re meant to be and the only challenge is to have the inner courage to be ourselves? To be real?

What is “being enough” to you?

It’s a question I ask myself a lot. I’ve almost let it go, because as far as my ego’s concerned, I will never be enough. In being honest about that part of my monkey brain that constantly tells me I’m not enough, I’ve been able to write an album, Modern Day Addiction.

It was my playful Berlin album, which was written as a bit of a Trojan Horse of the questions and values I was struggling with at the time. It’s quite pacey sounding in some bits. There’s a song called “Running” which asks, ‘Why are we running around the park? Why are we doing that?’ But, it’s set at the tempo that makes you want to run.

I do admire people who run around the park.

Me as well. I get a lot of letters from people saying, “I’ve felt a little bit guilty running around the park to your song.” Anyway, it’s a playful album.

So how do I deal with the question of being enough? I just remind myself that my worth is not based on what I do in the world.

My worth is based on the fact that I was born and I’m here. It’s already established. I don’t need to spend my life proving that I’m significant. We are all significant. What fuel does that insecurity give me to serve in the world? That’s what gives me peace. If I’m just concentrating on my little old self, I’m fucked.

What have you failed?

Every day I fail repeatedly. Repeatedly. I have such big dreams and ideas and I never live up to them. I have decided that I don’t care. I will still dream and I will look back at the arc of my life and some things will have come to fruition, some will not, and it will be as it’s meant to be. But I feel it’s absolutely imperative to fail. It’s so important to fail. Unless you try, you can’t fail. One of the reasons it took me so long to take Big Hearted Business seriously—it had been sitting there as a cocoon of an idea for a decade—I was terrified of letting go of the security that I had in my career as a musician. It was hard for me to make myself vulnerable in a creative landscape where I’d always heard the message that if you were a serious artist, you weren’t happy. You know, we love our PJ Harveys, Nick Caves…

Tortured and fabulous?

Tortured and fab, tortured and productive. I thought, There’s a part of me that will always be tortured, because I’m a human being. But what if I’m not constantly playing to that bit? Am I still a legitimate artist if I’m talking about happiness and possibility and contribution? My conclusion is we’ll see. I won’t look for approval in that realm.

So what would you say to Clare 10 years ago?

I’d say, “Don’t change a thing. Do exactly what you did. Keep asking the questions you asked. Keep meeting the people you met. You’ll find good people everywhere. Learn from them.”

It takes the time it takes to grow, doesn’t it? But if you’re not asking questions of yourself, that’s not great. What do you think?

I think that’s exactly right. The urgency that I had with my questions became amplified in the experience of becoming a parent. Before that I could accuse myself of being a narcissist for asking those questions.

Then I realised that we’re all links in the chain. We are all part of a legacy. We are all passing something down to the people who are born after us. I’m one of the most fortunate human beings in the world, just by the fact that I was born in these times of possibility, where technology allows people like me and you to have these conversations and share them with other people who want to have them as well.

How do you make space for your family and your creative life?

Our band is our family, is our contribution to the world, is our pleasure, our joy. I had to stop trying to make it neat and accept it is messy. It is chaotic. This is the act of creation. This is what we’re part of. I have very good friends. I have sisters that I can talk to about this. I feel ridiculously lucky to have Marty in my team. He’s my manager, my producer, my best friend. We’re completely different, but the adventure’s possible because we’re aligned. We’re in it together. Balance is a fucking crock of shit. I think there is a dynamic equilibrium. I heard someone say that once. That’s right. Men are a part of that family dynamic equilibrium in a new way in this generation.

You were talking before about kindness. What’s kindness to you?

I was brought up in a very religious family. It had lots of beauty but also made me incredibly uncomfortable because there are a number of massive blind spots in religion. One of the reasons that Buddhist concepts have taken off is because they are based on compassion and kindness; to self and to others. All those years of harsh dieting, self-hatred, self-confusion… I found being kind made it easier to be in the world. It’s a value that I share with Marty. When we got married, we carved “be kind to one another” into our rings.

It’s all about the contracts you make with one another, isn’t it? If you set yourselves up at the start with really good contracts and stick to them…

Yep. Then you’ve got half a chance.

Berry Liberman

Berry Liberman, Dumbo Feather’s publisher and editor-in-chief, drives our passion and purpose. While she’s not immersed in the heady scent of old fashioned flowers, she’s also the Creative Director of Small Giants and a mum to the three cutest kids in the world.

Photography by David Abraham Michael

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