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Life's Big Questions: Clare Bowditch

Summary

Scott's guest on Sunday night is singer songwriter Clare Bowditch. Clare has won an Aria Award for
Best Female Artist and is widely regarded as the darling of the independent music scene. But along
with her triumphs there have been tragedies: in her childhood the death of a sister, and more
recently her father with Parkinson's. Through it all Clare has managed to turn out three children,
four albums, and has toured with leading international performers. Clare talks to Scott about her
religious upbringing, her beliefs and how these have inspired her creativity and life.

Story producer: Deborah Boerne

Story researcher: Wendy Boynton

Story

Scott Stephens

Hello and welcome, I'm Scott Stephens.

With me is the prolific singer songwriter Clare Bowditch. She has won the Aria Award for Best
Female Artist and is regarded as the darling of the independent music scene. But along with her
triumphs there's been tragedy. In her childhood the death of a sister, and more recently her father
with Parkinson's. Through it all Clare has managed to turn out three children, four solo albums,
and has toured with such diverse performers as Powderfinger and Leonard Cohen.

So Clare, welcome.

Clare Bowditch

Hi, thanks for having me.

Scott Stephens

Your mum was Catholic. As I understand was the rest of your family. What role did religion play
within your family home?

Clare Bowditch

Religion played such a big role in our family home that I didn't even realise we were religious. I
thought everyone had the same kind of religion as we did.

Some of my earliest memories are making up songs and singing and playing with words. But a lot of
them, one particularly, occurs when I was in church. I was on my mother's hip and I didn't know how
to talk, but I remember trying to mimic the words of the priest and then trying to mimic the words
of the song. And it's really one of the ways I learnt to speak.

Scott Stephens

You've talked about going along to church with your mother. That was a whole family affair?

Clare Bowditch

Yeah mother, father, all of us, yep, big gang.

Scott Stephens

And as a child what was your conception of god? How did god function in your life and in the life
of your family?

Clare Bowditch

I think my parents really based their faith on simple courtesies and ideas of beauty really. So,
the sunset, the blade of grass, the lovely meal. You know they kept their faith at a level that
really we could understand as children.

Scott Stephens

How did that affect you? How did it shape the way that you lived and the way you saw the
world? From the sounds of it there was almost a kind of, it's almost as though god permeated the
world and it was all part of one grand experience for you.

Clare Bowditch

Yeah I didn't really question my relationship with god. It was just a kind of ongoing discussion
that you had throughout your day. And that was what my parents really taught me. So that
conversation that you have with yourself as a child, that's all part of the experience of what my
family understood to be god. And yeah I had no real doubt. I was taught the norms of the Catholic
idea of god.

But I don't ever remember anyone telling me about a man in the sky or this, that and the other. It
was the understanding of father and child. And so there was a father concept of god.

Scott Stephens

Do you still believe in god?

Clare Bowditch

I do. I'm one of those radical people in my generation who actually still use the term god. And for
me god really represents a kind of unnameable, it's a mystery, it's a creative electricity. It's a
really useful description for many of the feelings and thoughts. It's a framework within which to
discuss meaning really.

Scott Stephens

This god that you believe in, what is he or she or it like?

Clare Bowditch

God is a mystery, is mystery, is the source of longing and question and compassion and this impulse
in us to want to do good; to want to be kind to our fellow human; to protect; to nurture.

So I don't have a definitive image. It could be anything.

Scott Stephens

Do you still go to church?

Clare Bowditch

I very rarely go to church now.

Scott Stephens

On what sort of occasions?

Clare Bowditch

I go to church - I couldn't even say I go on days of holy obligation necessarily. I enjoy going
with my family on Christmas and on Easter and so on.

Scott Stephens

So why don't you go more regularly?

Clare Bowditch

It's been difficult to find a priest who I can relate to, to be honest. So that's one of the
problems I've had. Church is a concentrated place where people can talk to god. But I really find
that conversation can occur anywhere.

Scott Stephens

You find church too restrictive?

Clare Bowditch

No I just find the spark sometimes difficult to find within the experience of a mass. I respect
that again it's not about the priest having to be entertaining us, or charismatic and so on. But
very often I love just ducking into a church with a book that means something to me or thinking or
contemplating. A lot of my relationship with a creative other, as I sometimes call god, is very
personal. But yeah, I guess I'm maybe a crap Catholic would be the correct title.

Scott Stephens

Do you think your Catholicism and if you like the moral compass that you might have gotten from
your family. Did that shape the way that you see the world?

Clare Bowditch

It's definitely my mother and father's curiosity about god and willingness to discuss and at least
have the courage to attempt to question and find meaning has absolutely inspired me, it's in my
blood. Yeah, of course it's shaped me.

Scott Stephens

In that sense. Given the fact that you have already described yourself as a crap Catholic.

Clare Bowditch

I don't know if there's a home for people like me in the Catholic Church any more to be honest. But
if you're a questioning Catholic, the question today that you ask is, can the church open its heart
to difference?

Scott Stephens

What are those issues that you feel kind of open up as almost chasms between you and other
Catholics?

Clare Bowditch

It's an interesting thing actually. I was thinking on the plane on the way here of a quote that the
Dalai Lama wrote or spoke at one point where he said that people shouldn't leave their religion in
order to find god or a sense of spirituality or Buddha. Meaning basically, that this wisdom lies in
every one of the religions and in every one of, some of the most interesting and curious and
thinking and intelligent and heartfelt open hearted of people I know are atheists, are agnostics.
No church has a monopoly on what it means to be good. But I think the conversation has to be
broader. We can't be in a world that divides people on points of sexuality or gender or so on.
Those things are really disruptive for people who want to believe in god and then feel that they
don't have a home for their faith because their religion doesn't allow that kind of difference.

Scott Stephens

Imagine that you could change three things within the Catholic Church that would make it feel like
home. What would they be?

Clare Bowditch

I think the issues that are most urgently in need of being addressed and that I see people hurting
over are really the question of sexuality, same sex marriage and the legitimacy of love between
humans who happen to be the same sex. And also the question of the role of women in the church. And
of course there's that heartbreaking one which is the question of, well the question of how do we
encourage what seems like such a closed institution to open up and tell the truth and be
transparent.

Scott Stephens

Can you imagine any circumstances that would actually bring you back to the church?

Clare Bowditch

I'm open to the church. They just have to - yeah I don't see myself as outside or inside the
church. So at the moment I'm in a fairly ambiguous position really. I think there are great people
to be found inside the church and outside the church, the Catholic Church. But that's the religion
that I was brought up in so that's the framework within which I was taught to understand the world
and question the world.

Scott Stephens

Let's talk about life. What do you think is the purpose of life?

Clare Bowditch

The purpose of life is different for everyone. The purpose of my life is probably to learn how to
love better and to learn how to improve on past performances, just in terms of my relationships
with other people.

I think my sense of meaning is really shaped by an enormous amount of hope and optimism and a
belief that we are so much more than we are allowed to be really in this world. I think we live in
an incredible and broken and glorious world. And really the purpose of my life is finding a way to
be myself in that space, and to ignite that spark in other people in a way.

Scott Stephens

Can you describe a specific experience where the feeling of not just being part of the world's
solution but also being part of the brokenness has really come home to you.

Clare Bowditch

I think all of these things are just really played out in minuteness. But yeah every day I'm
challenged to be kind when I can't be bothered. Or to be honest when I'd prefer not to be. And
that's where it's at. I don't know that anyone gets to perfection in this lifetime anyway. And I
have no idea about the next, is the truth of it.

Scott Stephens

Many of your songs are in fact pieces of social criticism targeting things like consumerism and
status anxiety, our modern addictions.

Clare Bowditch

All the things I'm guilty of, yes.

Scott Stephens

So how do you see the world? Is it good? Is it bad, is it beautiful, is it ugly?

Clare Bowditch

Yeah look it is all of those things and more. So I think what the world is for me is a series that
presents a series of choices. So what do we choose? What do we believe? What do we focus on? What
do we spend time on and what do we get caught in? And it is always looking to the question of a
higher ideal and what that is and where it's hiding.

Scott Stephens

So music is your attempt to almost save the world or to steer it away from a kind of shallowness or
a vacuity that it's become addicted to?

Clare Bowditch

Wouldn't it be amazing if you could save the world. But no I didn't go in writing this album
attempting to save the world. All I can really ever do is attempt to save myself, my own way of
thinking. And in some ways that reflects and people find solace in that. That's wonderful.

Scott Stephens

We're going to move on to some of those aspects of your life, some of the experiences that you've
had that have really defined who you are, that shaped the way, the sort of person that you've
become. Let's begin by talking about death.

Two of your most intimate experiences of death were protracted. There was your sister's death and
then there is your father's death after a long fight with Parkinson's. How did those experiences
affect your thoughts, your beliefs about death and the meaning of death?

Clare Bowditch

I think probably the reason I write songs is because words are so incredibly useless in describing
many of the experiences that we have as humans. But with my father, my father was ill with dementia
and Parkinson's for five years. And he was a very intelligent chap and he maintained his decency
throughout his illness. My dad's way of loving us, which was fixing our cars and giving us great
advice and writing us letters had to change obviously. So really it became a lot simpler. It was
about sitting in his presence and feeling his warmth and helping him have a sip of water and those
little ways that you show love.

Scott Stephens

Your sister Rowena was very sick for many years and died when you were five. Can you describe some
of the memories that you have from that time?

Clare Bowditch

When I think of Rowena I just think of my darling sister who was so cheeky and courageous and
extraordinary and annoyed at me. You know this little annoying little 3 or 4 year old who would
come into hospital and make noise.

Yeah it was really the love for her and the way that shaped our family that has given me the
perspective on life that I have. And I feel I do live my life in honour of her in a way.

Scott Stephens

Can you tell me what actually happened with your sister? She was hospitalised for an extended
period of time.

Clare Bowditch

Yes, Rowie had a very rare disease that not many people have. In fact a friend of mine who is a
paediatrician told me a few years ago that he still wouldn't have been able to diagnose it. So it
essentially was like a form of childhood MS and she lived in the Children's Hospital in Melbourne
for two years.

Scott Stephens

And what sort of wound did that leave on you?

Clare Bowditch

It's a wound of love. It is a cracking open of your heart to this extraordinary adventure that is
life. And it's that being your normal. And that's probably one of the things that I've really had
to work to try and make some sense of as an adult.

It's something I tried to write about and understand more on an album, a few albums ago. And just
to try and make sense as an adult. Because as a child the perspective was, I never doubted I would
see her again, I never doubted I would be around her again. And to some extent I still feel her
presence everywhere all the time, in my sisters, in my brother, in my mother and in myself.

Scott Stephens

Let's move on to a happier topic shall we. Singers know a lot about soul. And you sing with a lot
of soul. What is the soul? Or what is soul?

Clare Bowditch

I don't know, but I know it when I feel it. And I remember sitting in an audience of a Jeff Buckley
concert when I was a teenager and feeling it. And I remember being in the presence of Leonard Cohen
and his incredible show and feeling it there.

Scott Stephens

Can you describe that feeling?

Clare Bowditch

I'm trying to. No I can't, I wish I could. It's a feeling of being known and knowing and being
alive and the possibility and being connected and being part of something and being your deepedy
self I think. Again you know it when you feel it. The feeling of being madly in love and bruised at
the same time. It's never just glass, it's a cloudy perspex.

Scott Stephens

We've talked about experiences of soul. Some people would even call intensive spiritual, almost
transcendent experiences. Do you have to go through those dark nights, do you have to suffer in
order to be a great artist?

Clare Bowditch

Well I think all humans suffer. And if you're an artist you in a way dedicate your life to
examining what it is to be human. So in a way it is important. If you want to create deep art you
have to plumb those depths in some regard.

I always thought that my sensitivity was a bit of a burden because it was a bit troublesome really.
And I felt a little bit too much and I was a little bit too, I felt a bit too transparent in the
world. But I've come to realise that that is a gift, sensitivity is a gift.

I don't think it's necessary for everyone to go off the rails to write a song. Art can be very
joyful. But it just gives it depth and a realness to that pursuit.

Scott Stephens

So it's not just the suffering, it's being able to turn around and receive that experience as a
gift?

Clare Bowditch

It is, absolutely. And also to find within yourself, an ounce of yourself that believes in life
still and that spark of life.

Scott Stephens

Can you describe an event or an act of courage that you've witnessed?

Clare Bowditch

I think events of courage can take really unusual forms. For example there is a woman who, an older
woman, who lost her husband a few years ago. She's a woman who lives in my community in Melbourne.
She comes to the local coffee shop every day. Sits down in a corner, reads her magazines and orders
a cappuccino and a short black for her late husband who's not there. As an act of memory and
beauty, and also an act of courage. Because in a world like ours, the first thing anyone is going
to say is, that woman's bananas. She's ordering a coffee for someone who isn't there. But the
beauty of that act. Every time she orders a coffee for herself she is acknowledging her connection
to this man that she spent her life with. And that's her way of grieving. That strikes me as an
extraordinarily courageous act of grieving.

Scott Stephens

You sang once that you cried because I am the cause, I am not the comfort. What suffering have you
caused?

Clare Bowditch

Oh, I've broken a few boys hearts over the years. But I believe that even if we, when we break up
with people, when we hurt people, when we act extraordinarily carelessly, and god I've done all of
these things and millions more in my life. The redemption comes in acknowledging them, in
attempting at least to not snip and not sever. In bothering to have the conversation to lead people
through, to be open to being wrong.

Scott Stephens

One of the great gifts that one human can give to another is forgiveness. Have you been forgiven?

Clare Bowditch

Have I been forgiven? I wonder? I hope so. I think there are so many little tiny anonymous ways
that we forget to be kind to people sometimes and I'm sure I've got a few of them stacked up. But,
overall I feel that I'm a work in progress.

Scott Stephens

It's been a substantial part of Catholic teaching that forgiveness isn't simply something that
happens within one's heart. But forgiveness is actually a gift that one gives to another. Have you
given a gift of forgiveness to somebody else?

Clare Bowditch

I have, of course. I think obviously forgiveness is just a part of what we need to give to each
other as humans. And I don't think you really, if we sat around kind of waiting for the person who
hurt you to say sorry, forgiveness would be terribly easy. I don't think it's a simple. I don't
think it is an easy concept. But it is kind of fairly simple. I think if we don't forgive, we are
harbouring a spot of bitterness in our heart, a seed of bitterness that we allow to grow.

Scott Stephens

Another line from one of your songs. You sing I'm a lucky person because I remember what it feels
like to be loved, and still know how to love. So Clare what do you love?

Clare Bowditch

What do I love? Do you know what, I love most things. I actually am a lover not a fighter. I know
this about myself. What do I love? I love life. I love my children. I love good food. I love great
thoughts. I love agitators. I love humorists. I love satirists. I love poetry. I love language. I
love religions. I love whales. I love dolphins. I am a person who you could stick me in a room and
I would probably find something to love. Because things, many things are inherently worthy of love.
But I still get stuck in hateful thoughts repeatedly throughout most days and that's the trick
isn't it? That's how I know I'm really human.

Scott Stephens

So what do you hate?

Clare Bowditch

Well I hate small mindedness. I hate pettiness. I hate bitchiness. I hate lack of understanding. I
hate people who, I don't hate people, I hate it when people refuse to consider other points of
view. I hate poverty. I hate snobbery. There are certain colours that I hate. I hate liver, chopped
liver. I don't like it at all. There's plenty to hate.

Scott Stephens

Suppose there's a god, and there is a heaven. What do you think god will say to you when you get
there?

Clare Bowditch

Clare, welcome! I don't know. I don't even know that my mind is capable of imagining. All I can
ever imagine is anything on human terms. I imagine that if there is an other, a heaven, it will be
something that I can barely even imagine. It will be yeah, a knowing, a being known.

Scott Stephens

What do you think you will say to god?

Clare Bowditch

If I saw god I would hope that if god is mystery then the mystery would be revealed. It would be
that simple. I don't know that there is a particular line that god could crack out that would
suffice. I think it would be something a little bit bigger than that.

Scott Stephens

Clare Bowditch, thank you.

Clare Bowditch

Thank you for having me Scott. Thanks for those questions.