“I’ve been pretty much on my own since I was 14,” she says, just as the house cat, a big ball of black fluff named Boo, launches herself into her lap. “I left my mum’s house when I was in term one of year 8. It’s complex. As a 36-year-old woman I look at it now differently to the way I looked at it when I was a teenager. I’m not sure if I will choose to have children, because even having one is a huge responsibility, so I have a lot more respect and a lot more compassion towards my mother now.”
By 15, she was on a youth allowance and paying rent. “I was also drinking heavily and smoking a lot a weed.”
At 16 she entered an unhealthy relationship with an older man. It lasted three years “and it was a really, really shitty three years” but she got three things out of it that provided a life raft – Bob Dylan’s Desire, Janis Joplin’s Pearl and Joan Baez’s Greatest Hits.
“Those three records made such an impact on me because they hit me at a time when I was probably most lost in my life,” she says. “I was really vulnerable and they gave me the greatest escape that I could hope for. If that’s not music hitting you in the face, then I don’t know what is.”
The cat jumps off her lap. She smiles. “My story gets better soon, I promise you.”
At 20, Chilcott hitchhiked to Broome and got work on pearling boats in Kuri Bay, 370 kilometres up the coast. Each morning she would wade through mud, carrying heavy water containers on her back because she was a newbie, then she’d do tough 10-hour shifts while living in a donga in a mainly male environment.
The metaphor of going through all this hardship to cultivate something beautiful is not lost on her. She hung in there for three years. Was it a valuable experience?
I’ve always had the ability to take things by the horns and roll with them. But I can only harness that when I am sober.
“I think everything that’s happened in my life has been a valuable experience and has taught me something. That time for me was the escape and the solitude I needed to redefine myself as a person.”
In fact, Solitude became the title of her 2015 debut album. It fulfilled a dream, but the day of its release turned out to be a crisis point in her life.
She had spent the day with her brother, who was in a life-threatening situation in hospital, then raced to the Rosemount Hotel in Perth where a commercial TV crew was waiting to do an interview before the show that night. Her publicist had been bitten by a spider, so was not there to help out, and the interview went on and on for almost an hour and a half. With just 20 minutes before showtime, Chilcott was completely stressed out. She went to a bottle shop, bought a bottle of whiskey and drank steadily. The show was a disaster.
“I was wasted, I was aggressive, I was forgetting my words,” she says. “The show was reviewed and it took me a week to work up the courage to read it. It was a really bad review and it really hurt, but it was true.”
She quit drinking. She started drinking again. And finally, on September 2, 2016, she quit for good. “I like getting shit done and owning it and I’ve always had the ability to take things by the horns and roll with them. And I can only harness that when I’m sober.”
With new album Don’t Talk About It, which was recorded in Dallas with session band the Country Gentlemen, she’s not only harnessing that power but expanding her sound. It’s So Cruel channels ’60s girl groups; Easy Way Out is a loving nod to the recently deceased Tom Petty, a musical idol with whom she shared a birthday.
Central to the record is the prescient I Am A Woman, which was written before the Harvey Weinstein revelations and the subsequent #metoo movement. It’s almost a gospel song backed with organ, as Chilcott sings, “I am a woman, do you know what that means? You lay it all on the line when you lay down with me.”
“You now know enough about my story to know where it comes from,” says Chilcott. “It was driven by my past experiences with the mistreatment of my own body. Plus I was living here in the US when we heard one of the presidential candidates condoning rape behaviour, saying that you can grab women’s pussies and you can do whatever you want to them. I was mad and I was ready to throw something through the f—ing window. But instead I wrote that song to shine a light on women having beauty and strength and vulnerability. I wanted to make a statement about deserving respect.”
To paraphrase Elvis Costello’s Shipbuilding, the girl who was once diving for dear life is now diving for pearls.
“I get to dress up as an Egyptian goddess in my videos and I get to be onstage and have my Perth audience sing my words back to me and I love all that,” she says. “But when you’re allowed to live out your passion, there’s a responsibility to serve the greater community too. It’s almost like a duty.”
Ruby Boots plays Leadbelly in Newtown on May 5. Don’t Talk About It is out now.
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