Bernadette Novembre: Melbourne’s new voice of soul

“I asked myself, ‘What do I really want out of life?’. You really have to hit rock bottom to make these decisions.”

Bernadette Novembre first sang onstage at age six. Even as a child, she owned the stage, making up for her small stature with an outsized presence. Now, after 22 years in retirement, Novembre is back with the six-track soul EP Rebounding, her first record.

Novembre spent the ‘90s touring Australia and Europe with pop artists like Toto Cutugno, specializing in Italian and French-language covers of Elvis and Connie Francis. But as high school approached, she struggled to balance performing with keeping up on classwork.

“I gave it up at about 13 because touring was getting too much,” says Novembre. “So the music stopped.”

After getting a BA from La Trobe University, Novembre found herself working as an administrative assistant at a Melbourne accounting firm. Though she rarely thought of performing, she remained a keen listener of artists like Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings and Amy Winehouse.

In 2016, Novembre unexpectedly lost her job. Now, she had to decide between returning to life behind a desk and risking everything by going back onstage after a 22-year hiatus.

“I asked myself, ‘What do I really want out of life?’” says Novembre. “You really have to hit rock bottom to make these decisions. It’s been a struggle both emotionally and financially, but it’s well worth it in the end. I believe that having a sense of achievement is one of the most important things in life.”

Novembre was singing with a ten-piece swing ensemble when she started work on Rebounding. She sent a Facebook message to Ryan Ritchie, the brash personality behind some of Melbourne’s trickiest-to-classify musical acts and owner of RHyNO MUSIC studios, who signed on to co-write and produce the record.

Ritchie and November met weekly for ten months to write, compose and bounce ideas off one another. Ritchie had a strong guiding influence from the beginning, says Novembre.

“My idea was to write a swing album,” she says. “I wanted to be like a female version of Michael Bublé. When I met with Ryan, he was down with the idea, but when we started working, he was like, ‘Nah, girl, you’ve got a soul voice. You haven’t got a jazz voice.’”

Novembre’s nostalgia for the musical forms of the mid-20th century – for the soul, surf rock and jazz she first encountered in her mum’s vinyl collection – is clear from Rebounding’s opening licks.

“Ryan really helped bring Rebounding into the modern era,” says Novembre. “If it were up to me, I think I would have left it entirely retro.”

Rebounding isn’t just a nostalgia trip. The EP also draws on Novembre’s checkered dating history – on experiences most women might rather forget, like being cheated on or being dumped by SMS.

“I’ve always loved too much, and it always bites me in the backside,” she says. “To live your day-to-day life, you have to bury those emotions. But when you’re songwriting, you need to dig deep and feel those emotions again. It’s cathartic. It’s good therapy.”

The music video for the EP’s single, ‘Everybody Knows’, shows Novembre sitting opposite her hipster-chic boyfriend, who seems more concerned with his iPhone than with her.

“‘Everybody Knows’ is about about being in love with someone who’s wrong for you,” says Novembre. “Everybody knows they’re wrong for you, but you don’t.”

Writing and composing Rebounding was a trial by fire for Novembre, and at times the enormity of her choice to leave office work for the precarious life of an artist leapt up at her.

“I’ve always doubted myself,” says Novembre. “Even now I doubt myself. Sometimes you have a songwriting session and it’s really difficult to get anything out. You start to think, ‘What have I done? Why am I doing this?’ You have a moment of panic. But, if you’re too sure about yourself, if you think there’s nothing else to learn, you won’t strive beyond your comfort zone. As weird as it sounds, I think doubt can be a positive thing.”

But now that Rebounding is ready for release, Novembre is seeing some reward for the turbulence of the past few years.

“It’s so strange seeing your face on the front of a record,” she says. “It’s so surreal. You’re like, ‘I did this?’ It’s almost like it’s your baby. It’s your soul made tangible.”

The launch party for Rebounding will take place at the Night Cat, with Novembre singing with an eight-piece band.

“It’s going to be a big party,” says Novembre. “Expect a lot of dancing, a really full-on horn section, a bit of an Amy Winehouse vibe. The Night Cat is a fun venue and an amazing supporter of original music across the board. They really add to Melbourne’s eclectic and vibrant music scene.”

By Zachary Snowdon Smith

Bernadette Novembre will launch her EP Rebounding at the Night Cat on Saturday March 10. The record is out Monday February 19 and her single ‘Everybody Knows’ is out now.