Clare Bowditch: North Fitzroy's 'own kind of girl'
Updated: May 27, 2021
The performer speaks to The Rotunda about art and the neighbourhood.
Interviewed by Charlie Gill
Do new songs come to you in unexpected moments or do you have to be focused on the task to have a new song form itself?
When I was a young woman studying in Canada, I was told this story by a First Nations chap from Vancouver about songs, and how they’re never really ours to own, they come to us from the land, from the trees, from ‘place'. I loved that idea: that songs already exist, and my work as a songwriter is really just to present and listen for them when they pop up.
I’m sure Berlin as a city shaped the songs you wrote on Modern Day Addiction. Do the characteristics of the inner north impact the songs you write here?
Going to Berlin was a grand creative adventure but what it really gave me (besides an album of songs) was a chance to crystallize and formulate what it was that I was most missing about home... My longing to come home was so strong. This is a pretty precious creative spot; there are lots of songs in the trees in this area. Berlin is an exciting city but there’s just too much good stuff going on here in the inner north.
How long have you lived here?
I first moved here to Fitzroy after I left high school, I lived on Victoria Pde and then Argyle street, then I was in Thornbury for nine years, I was in Coburg for five years and we’ve now been in North Fitzroy for nine years.
“This is a pretty precious creative spot; there are lots of songs in the trees in this area.”
Can you think of something that makes the area especially different to other suburbs?
We’re very close to the city, we have a bohemian history, and we have a socially diverse and interesting history. The beauty and richness of Fitzroy really comes from that history, and from the stalwarts – people who have been here for decades.
A lot of important Melbourne stories have been born and told in these streets. When I was growing up, this was a place where students, artists and big working-class families could afford to live. A lot of people who added so much to the cultural life of Fitzroy – the ones who made it a place that other people wanted to flock to – can no longer afford to live here. That bit pisses me off.
What three words would you use to describe the area?
In year 11, my best friend lived in a warehouse just off Brunswick Street, so I got to spend a lot of time here. To me this was an area full of music, of ‘underbelly’, a big stirring pot, and these things made it colourful and poetic (that’s four words – sorry). It’s still colourful and poetic, still a rather beautiful and interesting place to live, but it’s a divided place to live, too.
With increased rules and regulations and not enough investment in social housing, there is now a tension here between old and new, in a way. It can feel like the heart or the history of this place is being eroded through gentrification and the rising cost of rent.
When I was a young woman, you could afford to rent a shop here and give an idea a crack. That’s not as possible these days, and it’s a real pity. A lot of people have made a lot of money by capitalising off the back of that feeling of culture, colour and aliveness by developing and selling big.
Do you think that the tyranny of distance from the rest of the English speaking world is a help or a hindrance to Australian artists?
We end up defining ourselves in opposition to the rest of the world, just because of geography, so from a creative point of view I think it's really quite useful to be part of Australia.
But from a ‘make your living as an artist’ perspective, things are tricky – our audiences are incredibly small, and our geography incredibly vast. When you're in America or Europe you've got access to a lot of people who appreciate your art in a way that allows you to make a living, thanks to larger audiences.
In this sense, being part of a small island nation whose government doesn't seem to understand the importance and possibility of the arts continues to be a source of some despair and frustration.
“People who added so much to the cultural life of Fitzroy can no longer afford to live here. That pisses me off.”
Your book Your Own Kind of Girl came out to rave reviews in 2019. What’s more difficult, writing an album or writing a book? Writing a book, which I promised myself I’d write when I was 22 and I didn’t have the courage to start until I was 40. It was about the most difficult time in my life, and trying to forge my identity as an artist and as an adult.
But when you tell an honest story in the world, the joy of it is that other people tell their honest stories to you. That has given me a very deep sense of belonging and purpose as an artist.
Are you working on new music or a new book at the moment?
I lost my mum last year, and part of processing my grief has been to walk my neighbourhood and just live as a much quieter person, taking in the Merri Creek, looking around at the other people who are doing the same thing.
I feel like ideas are percolating, but I’ve also had an album ready to release for about a year and a half. We’ve been waiting for Covid to give us a chance to tour it. I’m supposed to be writing a book, which felt impossible to produce in the year that’s been, with three kids at home and many other things to make sense of. I’m always working on things, but I’m always worried that I’ll never get there. I seem to have a gift for worrying.
Three artists that you currently love listening to?
I'm really enjoying Stella Donnelly, Alice Skye and Gordi. And Archie Roach, always (so many of his songs are set in our neighbourhood). Another person I’m really enjoying is Gretta Ray; loving her last single.
What’s one song you wish you wrote?
Gosh, there are many. But I think that one of the songs I would love to have written is Avant Gardener by Courtney Barnett. It’s lots of things, all at once.
Where do you get your coffee?
I don't know the name of the place, it's that little hole in the wall on Richardson Street. If you look hard you’ll find it.