Nat Bartch created the antidote against bad baby music

Nat Bartch has been walking the rope that connects jazz and classical music with remarkable ease, back and forth, for a number of years now, to the point that it’s not easy – nor should it be – to put a label on her music. But this past year, she has embarked on a whole different field – lullabies. Her album Forever and No Time At All (released through ABC music) is a one-of-a-kind study in music aiming to soothe, and anyone who has been exposed to it – from babies to people on their final days on earth – can attest that it delivers. Now the pianist – and mental health advocate – is presenting these compositions in a different context – that of the Melbourne Women’s International Jazz Festival – and in a different setting, augmented by the Melbourne Amplified Strings. So don’t expect anyone falling asleep during performance.

What are you going to present at the MWIF on Sunday?

I am going to play an hour-long set of meditative, heartwarming chamber jazz music in a sextet, based on my 2018 album of lullabies, Forever and No Time At All.

How different will this presentation be to the sound of the album?

Forever, and No Time At All is essentially a postclassical piano album – a series of works for solo piano, with celeste and ambient electronic overdubs, produced with my dear friend Luke Howard. I improvise solo about 20 per cent of the time, which is less than the usual jazz record of course! It’s also an album designed to help babies fall asleep: there are no significant changes in volume or speed, the harmony and melodies are simple, there is a lot of repetition…

For the MWIJF, I am returning to my ‘jazz’ roots. Using the same compositions and ostinatos as a foundation, I’ve asked my favourite jazz artists to bring their own vibe to it. Because the music is at its heart quite simple and meditative, everyone on stage listens so much to each other, and improvises so effortlessly. It goes to bigger places. I never expected this project would translate as easily as it has into a jazz context.

How did you decide to do an album of lullabies?

Since I started composing and releasing music a decade ago with my jazz piano trio, I’ve heard feedback from people that my work is soothing, meditative and peaceful… so I decided, when I became a mother, to explore that idea in a more pointed way.

I interviewed some music therapists about how to make music for babies, and then I met in the middle: I used the suggestions as much as I could, while still trying to create a cohesive, interesting record that you’d want to listen to even if you weren’t a parent.

My guiding principle through it all has been: why do we have to stop listening to quality music when we have kids? There is so much bad ‘baby’ music out there – our baby monitor could literally play twinkle twinkle over and over for the eight hours my son is sleeping, if I wanted it to… Forever is meant to be the antidote.

It’s only now, 18 months on, that I’m starting to realise the impact this album has had on people: I get messages from people from all over the country, and all walks of life, that the album actually works… It was just a hypothesis, really… What has been particularly meaningful is that it’s not just parents and babies who enjoy it, although that is the overwhelming majority — it’s also non parents, carers for people with autism and dementia, people with PTSD, postnatal depression… The album has been played in the delivery suite as a baby is born numerous times, and also in the final hours of a person’s life. It is so incredibly moving to know that my music has a place in these extremely personal moments. I cry just thinking about it.

As a mental health advocate, what is the main thing that you would like people to be aware of?

I wonder whether the reason I write soothing music is because I’ve had a lot of suffering in my own life. I’ve been well for many years, but for a decent two-year period I suffered from really significant depression. It was the kind of depression where I lost all interest in making music, or doing anything else. But it came at a time where things were really getting going for me, as a jazz composer and bandleader.

I learnt about the two biggest, and most dangerous myths that exist in our industry:

  1. that the show must go on at all costs – it really doesn’t… if you make good work, opportunities will always return to you eventually; and
  2. that suffering is good/ medication is bad for creativity – it really isn’t, and my best work has come about when I’m happy/well/treated for my disorder.

Why is it important to have a ‘Women’s Jazz Festival’ in Melbourne?

It is never more important! We are in a post #metoo world, where public awareness is greater about a range of issues affecting women in the workplace. And yet… in the jazz and postclassical scenes, nothing has really changed. In 2019 I played at a classical music festival, and almost every person who met me asked if I was a publicist. My ‘Nat Bartsch radio’ algorithm playlist on spotify constitutes almost entirely of white men.

I have been told that being a mother has put me at a disadvantage for securing international career growth (the irony of this is not lost on me). I have sat on an audition panel for 1st year jazz pianists, with one female applicant the whole day.

But most frustratingly, I have been recently told that a women’s jazz festival is no longer necessary, because we are in this new era, where people are ‘woke’ to women’s issues, and women get a go.That is categorically not true! Yet… I still have hope.

What is your greatest aspiration?

To continue to nurture the space between jazz and classical genres, and support people from all walks of life with my music, but do it on a global scale!

Nat Bartch is performing her ‘Lullaby Project’ at the Jazz Lab, on Sunday 8 December, as part of the Melbourne Women’s International Jazz Festival.