Above: Blackbird photographed by Eric Guillemain
It's ten in the morning at Hackney's trendy Towpath cafe, and Blackbird has landed. It's a stunningly apt pseudonym for London based songwriter Helen Blackburn, whose brooding indie-folk sensibilities toe the line between between the ethereal and the macabre. In person she's funny and frank, dressed today in well worn denim and an oversized men's shirt that seem at odds with her trademark haunting vocals. But despite the unglamorous appearance, it's a markedly upper crust accent that emerges as she introduces herself and asks politely whether I mind if she smokes.
"Musicians aren't usually up this early, you know," Blackburn muses, fishing for a cigarette.
"This is alright though, I can pretend I've been out all night. I'm sure I look it."
Articulate and quietly confident, it's easy to forget that the Devon native is only 24 years old. Her dedicated work ethic has seen her tour relentlessly over the last two years, recording three EPs in that same amount of time, and now the highly anticipated debut album We Slept At Last, released earlier this year.
Today, we're pleased to premiere the video for Animal Fear. Fresh off the back of a European tour, Blackbird sat down with me to talk about love, lycanthropy and helping herself to Laura Marling's teabags.
ILANA KAPLAN: I'm so excited that we're going to be premiering the video for "Animal Fear." Am I losing my mind or is Laura Marling on bass in the background?
HELEN BLACKBURN: Yeah, that's Laura. I supported her on an Australian tour a while ago and we got on so well that she's stuck with me permanently now. She lives a short walk away from and I invite myself over probably more often than is polite and drink all her tea, because I'm one of those people who compulsively put the kettle on like it's a form of punctuation. I should really drop her off a box of PG Tips. But yeah, it was great to get her involved. I'm glad she let me murder and eat her in a video. She's a good sport.
KAPLAN: It starts off like a grainy 90s live clip and then gradually morphs into a B-Grade horror film. What gave you the idea to transform into a werewolf over the course of the video?
BLACKBURN: It was silly, it was a lot of fun. Find me anyone who doesn't like a good excuse to play with fake blood and attach hair to their face until they look like Chewbacca. I cop flack sometimes for being a bit weird and serious, so I don't know. You need to be able to poke fun of yourself so it doesn't all get too heavy. It's a very literal rendering though, I mean it really is a song about turning into a werewolf. So in that sense we probably weren't very creative about it.
KAPLAN: It's literally about turning into a werewolf?
BLACKBURN: It's about being afraid of yourself and what you're capable of. Whether that's because it's a full moon and your claws are coming in, or just a fear of your own demons, your capacity to be savage.
KAPLAN: Are you someone who has a lot of full moon moments, then?
BLACKBURN: I think everyone has times where they've said or done something in hot blood that feels completely extrinsic to them. More than anything, when I was writing it I was thinking about how terrible it would be to look into the eyes of someone you love and realise they were frightened of you. But I don't know. Maybe that's more revelatory than I intended and not just something my brain spat out after watching too many episodes of Being Human.
KAPLAN: So what's the story behind your stage name, Blackbird?
BLACKBURN: That's kind of self evident, right? It's much more compelling on a poster than Helen Blackburn, who sounds like a middle aged real estate agent. But it's a songbird, so something that's of nature but also associated with things that are a bit darker, more melancholic. I think it fits well with the sort of music I make, which is quite delicate and melodic but not too sunshiney.
KAPLAN: That delicacy definitely lends itself to intimate performances. I saw you at the East Village Arts Club in Liverpool last year and despite its being a reasonably sized venue, it felt like being serenaded by a friend in their living room. Do you prefer performing live or are you more at home in the studio?
BLACKBURN: Oh, did you? Thank you, that's a lovely compliment. Those are my favourite shows, when it's nice and cosy. I feel like we should have passed a spliff around. Maybe I should've done a Wonderwall cover. I guess playing to an audience means you're subject to a very immediate reaction, for better or worse. A lot of the time when I'm up there it’s just me and a guitar, so that can feel like a pretty vulnerable position. It's like falling in love, I think. You have to suck it up and risk looking the fool, just stand there stripped with your heart in your hands, if you'll excuse the unbelievably corny metaphor. But the reward for that risk is that it's a wonderful thing to be able to connect with an audience. It feels a lot less self indulgent too, because you're participating in something communal, not just noodling away in a room on your own. Though that being said, I did really enjoy getting to properly craft songs for the album. Just making everything rich and lush and enfolding it in layers the way you can't so much in a live setting. Noodling away in a room on my own, being happily self indulgent. Both have their merits.
KAPLAN: What do you think has most shaped who you are now and the kind of music you make?
BLACKBURN: Moving to London definitely played a big part. Where I'm from versus where I am. My dad's a tree surgeon- no, don't laugh, that's a real job, that's what he does- I grew up in Dartmoor near the National Park, so I think in some ways I'll always be the wild little forest creature, but London is my home. That's the standard dream though, make your pilgrimage to the capital, find your niche, experience all of the things the wider world has to offer. I've been here for four years now and there are still a thousand things I've yet to explore. It's a different kind of wilderness.
KAPLAN: What one thing would you be most disappointed if you never got to experience it?
BLACKBURN: Love. Sorry, that sounds so stupid, I don't mean that in a cheap paperback novel kind of way, I didn't arrive here coyly waving a hanky. I fall in love with all sorts of little things every day. I'm in love with the city itself. I fall in love with strangers on the tube, that's probably a bit weird, but I'm used to taking in detail and there's so much of it in a big city.
KAPLAN: What is the weirdest thing you find attractive in a person?
BLACKBURN: In a person? Freckles in constellations that I can connect and name. Stretch marks laid out like empty river beds. Scars. Landmarks. As for the less tangible stuff, I think I'm probably drawn to people who are complex and flawed and interesting. That's actually the same thing really, isn't it? The evidence of a life properly lived in. Scars and landmarks. I think it's good to have a story to tell.
BLACKBIRD'S DEBUT ALBUM WE SLEPT AT LAST IS OUT NOW.