Woe Is Me
My Night With Julie Ann Bertram - by Lorette C. Luzajic I feel drunk after one pint, 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. Julie Ann 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 here 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 Linden, but this mother and maiden is looking forward with ferocity to the years of crone that lie ahead. "And I feel so old," she sings on I Feel So, "and I feel so young...I don't know why I feel so good and I feel so sad/there is nothing more than what we have." 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 before, 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 Canada's community music circles, no one's heard of Julie Ann Bertram. That has to change. "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 likened 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 Easter Island, Socrates..." And Woe is Me feels like a tonglen meditation, the difficult Buddhist exercise of bearing the suffering of ourselves and others in order to open the tight fears of the heart. 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 Canada, busking and hitchhiking, helped cement the connection Bertram makes between forests and people. Wild red curls match the wilderness in Bertram's eyes, a will to live and thrive through any obstacle. Her intensity paired with a breezy, infectious spirit drew people to her sound. The poet, songwriter, vocalist, and guitarist attracted people to all kinds of venues. She has won a number of awards, including two first-place medals for guitar composition from the Royal Conservatory of Music (Peel Music Festival), and the Sylvia Tyson Songwriting Scholarship (CMPA). Her work kept growing and during the time she released her first EP JAB she was the top finalist in two competitions, the John Lennon Songwriting Competition and Lilith Fair's Talent Search. After touring Denmark, inspired, Bertram released Ecstatic Songs, an unusually beautiful project of music accompanying the poetry of 13th century mystic poet, Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi. Recognition for Julie's innovations and hard work kept coming in, as top finalist Q107 Radio talent search and the title of Best Acoustic Female Artist at the Toronto Independent Music Awards. 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 went 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 it's 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 Linden, and something has changed forever in Bertram's understanding of her own immortality. "You can do whatever, I am not afraid to die," she sings. Leaving the Only Café and walking home through a snowy Toronto, I can taste the pollution of the air from the snow in my mouth. But I feel changed somehow about how I face my own dark perceptions of the inevitabilities. Hope, acceptance, the will to act, the desire to feel compassion to myself and to everyone else- I almost let myself drop here in the middle of the city to make snow angels, and I hope the spell will linger into the rest of my life...