Woe is Me- A Wintry Night With Julie Ann Bertram
by Lorette C. Luzajic
I feel drunk after one pint tonight, unusual for a woman of Germanic roots who can appreciate a broad spectrum of beer before wobbling. But my life is changing tonight before my very eyes.
Bertram, songstress extraordinaire, is buoyant, effervescent, beguiling. Her
laughter fills the whole pub and her beauty is some kind of spectacular,
otherworldly spell. It can’t be seen in the photos, where a pretty, strong,
lively presence is revealed- but the camera barely hints at the powerful spirit
I’m meeting tonight for the first time. Bertram is like a mythic creature that
time forgot- that she looks younger than her 36 years is an understatement, but
to say it almost demeans the experience pulsating through her veins. Her skin
is as pale and smooth as her new baby daughter
The Only Café
where we meet, and where Bertram has performed many times, is one of my
neighbourhood haunts. It’s a surprise I’ve never run into her here, but everyone
else in the place knows her and stops to say hello. My workday starts to feel
like a cool party. Still, outside of
“I haven’t been willing to play the game,” she says. This project is the apex for her, a real turning point- “my inspirations for this album? My whole life before now.” Woe is Me is the human heart laid bare, and everything in Bertram’s life will be the before or after of this creative endeavour.
Woe is Me may be the oldest English phrase in everyday use, stemming from the trials of Job. The book of Job is about 3200 years old and the first English usage of the phrase would have been in Wycliffe’s Bible translation in 1382. If I am guilty—woe to me! Even if I am innocent, I cannot lift my head, for I am full of shame and drowned in my affliction. - Job 10:15
Bertram’s stunning album spans the gamut of human relationships and the chaos they bring to one another and to the earth. With an ethereal yet commanding voice, Bertram’s folky rock has already been compared to Bjork and to Portishead, and she was quite honoured when someone compared her to Tom Waits. But the melodies and stories are clearly Canadian- I think of Joni Mitchell and Jane Siberry, two of my own idols. Still, Julie Ann Bertram’s on her own, evoking something of the goddess in other weird and spirited women, but weaving a unique history of her own into songwriting.
You can feel echoes of
ancient mythologies here, unsettling yet strangely comforting voices. Bertram cites her idols and inspirations as “gods
and goddesses like Isis, the spirits of
The songs were chosen because of their reflections of relationships between people and the relationship these people have with the earth, our life source. At once a diary of the earth, and of Aphrodite, the audience can’t help being compelled by Bertram’s spell. Who is this woman? You can picture her intensity on stage, and yet imagine she’d be equally comfortable in your living room. Here Bertram inhales the black smoke of human toxicity and then holds it up to the light. Hope through fear features prominently in Bertram’s poignant observations of personal and world crises. “The sound of every car and truck and airplane going by/Makes it all come rushing back to running out of time,” she sings in Time.
Bertram told her painter friend Stardreamer that the album was “a journey, it’s grieving- you’ve got to grieve and you’ve got to get through to the other side.” She wanted to portray that she understands hope and she understands longing. Stardreamer was apprentice to Woodlands master Norval Morrisseau, called the Picasso of the First Nations, and had a painting that expressed these things in Bertram’s heart - a native woman holding roses with birds in her hair, looking out over the waters. The painting was for Earth Day Canada, and it was a perfectly synchronistic revelation that the work would also be Bertram’s cover.
“I’m a complete cheerleader for this planet,” Bertram says. “It’s not over the top- it’s about it being a part of my being to respect the planet. I acknowledge trees, I acknowledge that some things are worth more than money.” Holding the weight of the planet’s woes in one’s arms is no easy task, but Bertram’s meditation just evolved that way out of what it already was.
Certainly her wild child
travels through western
Persistence, insistence, resistance- Bertram tried them all. But she already understood as a young woman that she would keep working no matter what. “I was deaf for two weeks, I was freaking out, and then one day, I looked around and picked up a pen and went back to when I was fourteen and I was writing my heart out. I realized that even if I went deaf, I could still write and be valid…if my vocal chords came out and if no one could bear to watch me perform, I could still write.” The next day, Bertram’s hearing came back. It was another significant moment, another sign- a reminder that every single moment is significant and bears its magic deep inside the ordinary.
Woe is Me is the turning
point where Bertram stops wondering which gift is her direction and knows her
direction has been absolutely perfect the whole time. Giving birth to this
project coincided with the birth of a beautiful daughter named
Leaving the Only Café and
walking home through a snowy
Copyright © Songmuze 2010