March 1, 2023
Arts & Culture

French connection

She comes from a long line of performers but Adelaide singer Louise Blackwell has forged her own creative path, inspired by a love affair with France.

Louise performing in A Night in Paris (photograph Cat McKenzie).

In 2020, Adelaide singer and Francophile Louise Blackwell began researching a new cabaret show she would call Love on the Left Bank. Louise wanted to tell the story of French actress and singer Juliette Gréco, one of the most influential artists to emerge after the Second World War.

The show depicts Juliette’s incredible talent and remarkable life, including her romance with jazz icon Miles Davis, an interracial tryst that was deeply controversial and impossible in the US at the time, yet possible in Paris.

Louise, who speaks fluent French, received a grant from Arts SA to create Love on the Left Bank, enabling her the time to research all facets of Juliette’s life. She worked with director Simon Phillips on the research and early draft, then with director Catherine Fitzgerald on the final script and staging, and finally with musical director Mark Simeon Ferguson.

Louise even translated entire French biographies of Juliette into English so her non-French speaking collaborators could grasp the essence of the famous singer.

By the time Louise stepped on stage to perform the show at the 2022 Adelaide Cabaret Festival, she truly inhabited the soul of the French chanteuse, giving a mesmerising portrayal to a sold-out crowd, receiving a standing ovation.

Today, as Louise talks about her own life, parallels begin to emerge between herself and the woman she portrayed on stage. Like Juliette, Louise has always lived life on her own terms, a non-conformist in many ways, with a driving passion to perform and create works with integrity and authenticity.

“I wanted to create a show that came from a deeply felt space within me, it’s a big part of me,” the 56-year-old says.  “I connected with Juliette on so many levels, including my deep love for France. There was also something about freedom and Juliette Gréco, one of her defining themes is a sense of freedom.”

To gain some insight into Louise’s own search for artistic freedom, it’s important to understand where she has come from. Performance is deeply embedded in the Blackwell DNA. Louise is the youngest of five siblings all of whom have carved out careers in the arts.

Louise Blackwell inhabits the Nexus stage during the 2017 Adelaide Fringe Festival. Photograph: Cat McKenzie – Occhio Photography.

Their mother, Imelda Bourke, was an acclaimed jazz singer in Adelaide the 1950s and ’60s, performing at iconic venues such as the Palais and the Tivoli. Imelda also appeared on live radio shows such as Moods and Melodies and The Sunny Side Show, as well as doing regular television spots.

Louise’s father Daryl also had the musical gene, playing swing piano in bands such as the Swing Kings.

As was expected in the 1950s, motherhood prevented Imelda from pursuing a bigger career, but she continued to perform on and off for the next 30 years.

“Mum became a housewife, but her career could have been so much more. She had a huge talent,” Louise says. “It was a bit of tragedy really but it’s one of those things.

“But there was always music in the house. Mum and Dad were big entertainers at home and they would play duets on the piano at parties, she would play just by ear. Music was a huge feature in our home.”

The four older Blackwell children, Paul, Lisa, Madeleine and Mark, were born close in age, then there was a seven-year gap before Louise arrived.

Paul and Madeleine were both accepted into the NIDA acting course in Sydney and, as a teenager, Louise would spend her school holidays staying with them, absorbed in their grown-up theatrical worlds.

“You know how impressionable you are at that age. I thought actors were the ants’ pants,” she says. “Paul had never acted in his life. He and his mate Alistair Bonnin lived and worked in London in the 1970s, working as roadies for big shows like Pink Floyd, Frank Sinatra and Manhattan Transfer. But he was a natural, a gifted mimic and very talented.”

Paul would go on to become one of Australia’s most acclaimed stage and film actors, starring in productions such as When the Rain Stops Falling, The Aspirations of Daise Morrow and films such as Red Dog and the 2019 remake of Storm Boy, alongside Oscar-winner Geoffrey Rush.

Louise’s parents Daryl and Imelda Blackwell. Imelda was an acclaimed jazz singer in Adelaide for many years.

Sadly, in July 2019 and just 64 years of age, Paul passed away from multiple myeloma. He was posthumously awarded a Robert Helpmann award for best actor for his performance in The Faith Healer.

“Paul was one of the most beautiful guys, so gentle and kind,” Louise says. “Being 12 years older than me, there was never any rivalry, he told me he was very proud of me and, God, was I proud of him; we all were.

“There was a big outpouring of grief for our darling Paul. We had a memorial for him in the Burnside Ballroom and it was packed to the rafters with 800 people.”

Madeleine, too, went on to become an actor and respected filmmaker, while Louise’s sister Lisa went down a musical path as a musician and piano teacher in Melbourne, as did brother Mark, who is a drummer and works as a sound recordist in film and television.

“We’re not exactly what you’d call a sporting family,” Louise says with a laugh. “I can remember Lisa playing beautiful classical pieces on the piano when we were growing up. She was the serious musician of the family and would practise for hours.”

It was a comfortable middle-class life for the Blackwell family who grew up in Wattle Park. Father Daryl built up the family business, FW Blackwell Funerals, which he inherited from his father Frank.

Louise’s early school years were spent at Loreto College, where she was cast as the Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist.

“I liked to sing and play act at school with my friend Emily Lumbers. We would do presentations like Young Talent Time. I was Johnny Young and Emily was Farrah Fawcett, just flown in from LA,” Louise laughs.

Louise, with co star Stephen Rae, in one of her first professional productions “Small Poppies” which played at the 1986 Adelaide Festival (photograph by William Yang).

“We also did Grease and I was John Travolta. I played a lot of blokes. We did Copacabana by Barry Manilow with our friends Sarah Gun, Kerry Wade and Lou Cornwall, who were the bikinied chorus dancers.”

A move to Pembroke in senior school nurtured Louise’s love of singing where she joined the choir, while her acting talents were shaped as a member of the Unley Youth Theatre.

After graduating from Pembroke, Louise successfully auditioned for the Magpie Theatre which was then under the direction of actor Geoffrey Rush – whom years later her brother would act alongside.

“I was so excited when I got in. It was a full-time paid professional acting job. I’m not sure I’ve had anything like it since, it all went downhill from there,” Louise laughs.

At age 19, Louise decided to move to Sydney and signed with talent agent Lee Leslie Management, who also represented Paul and Madeleine.

“But in some ways, I wish I’d stayed in Adelaide and got more solid instruction,” she says.

“Perhaps I could have done more methodical piano lessons and tried for the Elder Conservatorium. I haven’t had a lot of formal music education, but some good periods of instruction nonetheless.”

Louise began to make her way in Sydney with roles in theatre productions and TV spots such as E Street and The Harp in the South and Dad and Dave: On Our Selection.

Daryl and Imelda with their eldest children Paul and Lisa.

She also embraced the fun of living in Sydney, partying with her boyfriend at the time, actor Miles Buchanan, and other hip young actors of the day.

“But after a while I think I was looking for a bit of earth,” she says. “They were pretty wild times, but I didn’t feel as though I was learning much as a young actor going for roles.”

Louise ended up moving from Sydney to Melbourne where she commenced an arts degree and joined sister Lisa in a seven-piece band that was forming out of the avant-garde poetry nights at the Perseverance Hotel in Fitzroy.

The band, Friends and Relations, also consisted of sisters Mairead, Deidre and Shelagh Hannan, with Marian Crawford and Mary Jo Kelly, the sister of singer Paul Kelly.

They sang beautiful vocal arrangements of Irish and Greek songs, quickly gaining a reputation as one of the best vocal bands of the time.

“A highlight for me was supporting the Guinness Irish Festival of Music at Dallas Brooks Hall,” Louise says. “After years of having been a young actor in Sydney where it’s about selling yourself to a degree, I remember I just had this epiphany through the Irish music scene.

“This shared Irish culture completely flipped my whole sense of what it’s all about. There was this warmth to it all and spirituality, it completely changed my thinking.”

Over the years, Louise continued to collaborate with her sister Lisa, recording an album of her songs called Sea Is Turning.

However, as is often the way with large families, Louise has also had a desire to forge her own artistic path, striving for a sense of self away from her large creative clan.

Louise graduating from her arts degree, with her father Daryl.

“Having influential older brothers and sisters was good in that it opened me to a whole world of culture, it was very inspiring, but I think in some ways it also hampered my own response to things,” she says. “I was given strong opinions about things before I could form my own initial responses.”

In the late 1990s, then aged 30, and after a difficult breakup with her then-boyfriend, tenor saxophonist Mark Simmonds (who recently passed away), Louise began to look for new horizons. A scholarship to study French literature and cinema studies at Lumière university in Lyon provided the perfect way forward.

“It was my chance to break free a bit and I just loved experiencing the world there on my own for a while. France was my saviour in many ways,” says Louise, again mirroring sentiments perhaps also felt by Juliette Gréco.

Louise, who had studied French at school, spent a year in Lyon before moving to Paris and enrolling in a Bachelor of Arts in cinema studies at Paris 8 University. She taught English and worked as a waitress to pay her way.

“I just loved living in Paris,” she says. “I worked at a restaurant called Woolloomooloo, which was owned by South Australians Vincent Lange and Genevieve O’Loughlin. We all looked out for each other and I made great friends with the chef James Brew.

“After work James and I would go down to this bar called La Paillotte. It was like Gilligan’s Island with these little bamboo huts, and the owners Jacques and Olivier would play records all night and we’d drink this punch and catch the 5am Metro home. It was an absolute musical experience that place.”

During her time in Paris, Louise also made great friends with a woman named Mariadèle Campion, who helped the young Australian learn about real French culture. Louise also shared a flat with Mariadèle’s brother, arts journalist Alexis Campion, and she refers to the Campion family as her “famile de coeur”, her heart family.

While in Paris, Louise also began developing her singing, taking lessons with renowned jazz singers Sara Lazarus and Michele Hendricks.

Louise inhabits the character of Juliette Gréco.

“I was learning about chord structures and how a chart works and singing, improvising, that sort of stuff, it was amazing,” she says.

Meanwhile, she continued to foster her love of Irish music, singing in Irish pubs in Paris, mainly at The Quiet Man in the 3rd arrondissement. It was there one particular night that an Irishman approached Louise after the gig.

“He said, ‘I haven’t a clue about the music industry, but I think you’re grand, and I’d like to give you some money’,” Louise says.

“I remember I went home and called Mum and Dad and they of course thought it was a bit fishy, but he was just a lovely young Irish businessman riding on the high times of the tiger economy who wanted to help,” Louise says.

Louise used the money to fund her first jazz gig in Paris, held in a small marionette theatre in the 20th arrondissement called L’Ogresse.

“I had to find musicians to play with me, and I made a little poster and everything, it was very exciting,” she says. “A great young jazz pianist had just returned to Paris from the States, Vincent Bourgeyx, it was the beginning of a lovely, long collaboration.”

With Vincent on piano, drummer Karl Jannuska and bassists Gildas Boclé and Chris Jennings, Louise recorded three CDs in Paris – The Blue Lou Quartet (2001) Sea is Turning (2007) and Paris Hop (2014).

“I just loved this period in my life, I was learning about cinema, theatre, writing, and music of course. I loved just being there and learning songs and getting right into the jazz,” Louise says.

“I felt like I’d found my place in Paris.”

With members of The French Set, from left Josh Baldwin, Mark Simeon Ferguson, John Aue and Julian Ferraretto.

However, after 10 years, visa issues brought everything to a halt and Louise was forced to return to Australia.

“I was almost 40 when I left, it was devastating,” she says. “I felt like I had been building a house there with my music, and I had all the foundations done. Then I had to just leave it all behind.”

Louise returned to Australia in 2007 and, after a couple of years in Melbourne, eventually settled back in Adelaide.

She began performing at jazz gigs with the Bruce Hancock Trio where she gradually introduced some French songs into the repertoire. Organically, a French show began to develop and Louise then formed a band called Louise Blackwell and the French Set.

She teamed up with highly respected local musicians including Mark Simeon Ferguson on piano, Julian Ferraretto on violin, John Aué on double bass and Josh Baldwin on drums.

The band and versions of it has played at many Adelaide Fringe Festivals with shows such as A Night in Paris and To Paris with Love, as well as all the major French-themed events.

“There are wonderful people in Adelaide and I have discovered the most incredible music scene,” Louise says. “It’s not macho like it can be in the jazz scene sometimes. There are lots of decent, gentle people and so much talent.”

Being back home in Adelaide also allowed Louise to spend time with her parents, precious time given Daryl passed away from cancer in 2020.

Louise’s sister Madeleine with their mother Imelda on the red carpet for the 2020 Adelaide Film Festival. Madeleine’s film Damage screened at the festival and Imelda had a starring role in the project.

Imelda, too, was diagnosed with the terminal illness in 2020 but the 90-year-old performer had one more starring role to complete before her final curtain call.

Louise’s sister Madeleine wrote, directed and produced a movie called Damage, casting Imelda as one of the main characters. It opened at the 2020 Adelaide Film Festival and Imelda, already unwell, walked the red carpet, accompanied by Madeleine, Louise and other family members. Just one month later, Imelda passed away.

“It’s just so lovely that she got the recognition she always deserved,” Louise says. “She was a completely natural actor and just such a talent. I really miss her.”

These days, Louise lives happily in Adelaide’s eastern suburbs with her cat Paris, continuing to create and collaborate. She will restage Love on the Left Bank at the 2023 Adelaide Fringe Festival, playing the Woodville Sessions at the Woodville Town Hall, the Arts Theatre in the city and the Domain Theatre at Marion.

“It’s quite a big show with six musicians, a director and a stage manager to pay, as well as all the publicity. I am very grateful to the Fringe Donors Circle as I received an artist grant that will help to cover some of the costs,” she says.

“I have had the added thrill of adding to the band the great Cuban trumpeter Lazaro Numa, and consummate sax, clarinet and flute player Tom Pulford, who has the finest French accent!”

Louise, photographed at home, says she found her sense of self in Paris. However, since returning to Adelaide, the singer has continued to perform and has discovered “the most incredible music scene” here.

As she reflects on her life and work over the years, it is clear that Louise’s time in France ignited an artistic fire that continues to burn fiercely to this day. She hasn’t ruled out a return to the city of love someday.

“It was the most important period of my life, my development, sense of self and the development of my creativity,” she says. “I also developed great friendships that I still maintain.

“When I look back over my life, I have been pretty erratic but I did some great things and have had some strong artistic moments. I’m grateful for that.”

You can almost hear Juliette Gréco saying the same thing.



This article first appeared in the December 2022 issue of SALIFE magazine.

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