by Nellie Gayle
The body is present in all stages on BLACKBIRD’s EPs and her debut album, 'We Slept At Last', which arrived in February of this year. It’s decaying, it’s drowning, it’s drifting in and out of consciousness. The corporeal form is Helen Blackburn’s canvas for a variety of emotions and experiences. Every feeling is expressed through pupils, waterlogged bodies, and even impulses towards cannibalism.
Blackburn wields the guitar more as a weapon than as a floaty folk tool, and accompanies medieval melodies with hair-raising lyrics. Instead of simply ignoring the stereotypes placed upon women singer-songwriters, she openly defies them by delving into the murky waters of death, destruction, and violence with unsettling poetry.
‘We Slept At Last’ is a collection of poems about love and fear - and particularly, the intersection between the two. With amazing collaborators and cohorts like Alt-J, The Japanese House, and Sivu, Blackbird is well positioned to make a serious impact on British indie music in the years to come.
“I want to employ visceral imagery that people will understand immediately.”
COUP DE MAIN: Congrats on your recent U.S. tour with Laura Marling! What was your favourite part of the tour?
HELEN BLACKBURN: Thank you. That’s difficult, it was a great few weeks just travelling around with friends so there's not a lot you can fault, tours like that are a thing of rare beauty. The all-in rendition of Steely Dan’s 'Dirty Work' we cooked up to close the show was a lot of fun. Peter [Darling] brought the brass to the party. I'd be happy to commit to Marling, Darling & the Common Starling as a full time thing.
CDM: You’ve talked a lot about genre and the perception of women in music. Genre can be a really limiting factor for women and you’ve said that there is sometimes an impulse to peg your work as ‘twee folk music’ when there are actually a lot of dark and complex themes going on. Why do you think there’s an impulse to put you and a lot of other women in that box?
HELEN: I think it's just seeing a woman with an acoustic guitar that flips that switch, but it’s a lazy conclusion to jump to. I hate the idea of being bound by preconceptions of how things should sound. I guess it's a fear of the unknown in a way, beause we always try to describe things by likening them to something else that's more familiar. Just something about how human brains work, our filing system where things need to go into neat categories in order for us to make sense of the world. It's perplexing to me though, I'll take folk, there are definitely a lot of folk influences, but there's not much that's twee about my music.
CDM: Most of your recent shows have been a strictly solo affair and the songs hold up well in that format, but when you play with a full band it's something entirely different. I hear much more Nirvana than I do manic pixie dream girl. Are they an influence of yours? Is that a direction you want to explore more in the future?
HELEN: I'm pioneering the depressive harpy nightmare girl genre. Do you really hear Nirvana or is that just because I wear a lot of flannel? No, that's a real compliment, I'm glad you think so. Thank you. 'Nevermind' was the first album I bought. Well, I say first.. the first credible album. The first one I'm willing to talk about. Unlike Kurt Cobain, however, I have the stage presence of a baked potato.
CDM: That seems like harsh self-criticism. I've seen you shimmy on ocassion. There's often some subtle hip and shoulder movement.
HELEN: (laughs) Yeah, yeah. Sometimes I just get swept up by the wave. What can you do. Rock and roll. First five rows, you will get wet. I do miss playing with a full band, actually. I've done a lot of really stripped back shows this year, but it's nice to flesh it out. I've missed the company on tour too. Three is the magic number. It's a good amount of people for a band, a good amount for having dinner with. No one on one awkwardness but still intimate enough for decent conversation.
CDM: You meditate a lot on the human body in your songs, and also in your videos. You feature stuff like cannibalism and death and darker themes, such as the ‘Drown’ video. Why do you think you’re drawn to talk about that?
HELEN: I want to employ visceral imagery that people will understand immediately. I feel emotion very much in my body, so I tend to describe things in physical terms. I know that can be read as gory, but those aspects of the body are such universal things. We’re all made of blood and bones, all our thoughts and experiences and feelings stuffed into this very mortal, fragile thing, which is frightening sometimes. That’s a theme that connects us all. The fear of it, our vulnerability. And we take physical harm so much more seriously than the intangible things. If you’re bleeding from a head wound, someone’s going to take you to hospital. Heartache can feel like a harpoon through the chest but the metal you’re impaled on is invisible. So that's the long answer. The short one is "hyperbole."
CDM: Songs like ‘Ophelia’ and ‘Claude’s Girl’ are inspired by great works of Western art, and ‘Before I Sleep’ references a line of Robert Frost poetry. Were these things you grew up reading? How did you end up drawing inspiration from them?
HELEN: I've always lived in my own imagination a bit, so anything that could add fuel to the fire of it... I consumed a lot of the human experience secondhand, such is the lot of a shy child in a small village, but these things open up whole other galaxies. A good poem or song or painting can be transcendent. When I was writing the last record, which feels like a long time ago now, I didn't realise as I writing, but I was reading Ovid's Metamorphoses throughout a lot of that process - it's a big old book! It's all about changing and transformation, and those themes are all over the record. There are references to Robert Frost in there, there are references to Shakespeare. I've always loved reading.
CDM: What kind of stories did your parents read you growing up? Was any of it classical literature?
HELEN: My dad was a classics scholar once upon a time, so that stuff was around, but he also read me a lot of youth fiction books about rescued puppies and pony clubs and whatever without complaint. The freedom to go to the library and pick out whatever I liked is one that I'm really grateful to have been given. I don't think anyone can enjoy something that's been forced on them. My mum made up bedtime stories tailored to our requests, all these worlds she could just conjure up out of the ether, and it’s really surreal to me now to think about much she was able to tweak my imagination. My brother who’s quite a bit older than me has always passed things on too. Books were always a big thing in our household.
CDM: Do you share your work with your parents before you take it to a producer? At what stage do you get family and friends involved?
HELEN: I’m a really horrible perfectionist, which isn't great, because making a record is such a collaborative thing no matter how bullheaded you are. I always want to come to the table with something that’s completely fleshed out and polished, but saying that is such a disservice to Charlie [Andrews, producer] who had so many amazing ideas for ‘We Slept At Last.’ Um, I don’t think I’d take it to my parents. I don’t recommend anyone write music, or do anything creative for that matter, while thinking about what their parents would make of it. That's a great way to start self-censoring.
CDM: One of my favourite songs ever is ‘Retina Television’, which features on 'That Iron Taste' EP. It has such cool percussive elements and melody, but the meaning is kind of enigmatic. What was the inspiration for it?
HELEN: That was a weird love song I wrote that when I was about 18. It’s just talking about the other person and the fears we shared - the dark, spiders. Also their pupils were always really dilated, so that got on there as well. It’s just a love song.
CDM: The background noise is so interesting. What instruments did you use for it?
HELEN: No instruments whatsoever. We did it a capella, so all the percussion sounds are me hitting my chest, my stomach, jumping up and down, my fingernails, that sort of thing.
CDM: You decided to do all new songs for ‘We Slept At Last’ instead of including songs from your EPs. Do you feel like the inspiration for this album is connected to the EPs and songs like ‘Bath Is Black’?
HELEN: I had fun playing around with things a lot on the EPs, but I wanted the album to be a little sparser, to have some breathing room. I guess you’re always building on and evolving what you’ve got though. I try to experiment with different things production-wise but I’m probably thematically pretty consistent.
CDM: Do you have any plans for another tour out of the UK?
HELEN: Not in the immediate future. I’ve been writing for a new album and I’ll probably be working on that for a while. But you never know, things pop up.
CDM: And lastly, a quick-fire round... If your album 'We Slept At Last' was a type of candy, what type of candy would it be?
HELEN: There’s this raw chocolate I like that’s really bitter and gritty and has sour cherries in it. It has a kind of earthy taste to it. I haven’t made that sound very appealing, have I? It’s nice. Maybe not everyone’s cup of tea, but neither am I.
CDM: If 'We Slept At Last' was a colour, what colour would it be?
HELEN: White, like a big sea of cotton bedclothes ready to swallow me up. Getting very literal here.
CDM: If 'We Slept At Last’ was an animal, which animal would it be?
HELEN: A blobfish.
BLACKBIRD’s debut album ‘We Slept At Last’ is out now - click HERE to purchase it via iTunes.
Her headline show at London's Union Chapel on 6th November is now sold out.