Meow Meow’s Pandemonium will see Meow Meow perform with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra at Adelaide Cabaret Festival this weekend. As always, there will be some French language songs, among others. We chat about Meow Meow’s Pandemonium, cabaret, touring, French chanson, French film and working with Michel Legrand, and much more.
You’re bringing your show Meow Meow’s Pandemonium to the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, accompanied by the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. It’s been described as orchestrated pandemonium and a night of music and mayhem. What can audiences expect?
Well, exactly that! It’s not my show backed by the symphony; it’s very much a symphony show. It’s really glorious music, beautiful orchestrations, and arrangements. But, it’s a really meaty play musically for the musicians. I’ve done it with London Philharmonic and Sydney Symphony, Melbourne Symphony, Seattle Symphony. It’s really my favourite way to perform. I feel naked without an orchestra now!
But it has a lot of comedy in it because I can’t help myself but it is a symphony concert. And so, I’ve got classics of the canon, I’ve got Kurt Weill in there and Brecht and Jacques Brel, but also quite a lot of songs that are original that I’ve written with Iain Grandage, the beautiful Australian composer, and Meg Washington, and Thomas Lauderdale from Pink Martini. And quite a few of those are, in fact, indeed, in French!
I thought they may have been. I know Pink Martini have done a French album.
Well, they do a lot in French. I think that they are platinum in France or in Europe. You can’t go to any café without hearing them. I think it’s just such a joy of music. Pink Martini has a glorious orchestra, a beautiful collaboration. We have a few pieces that I’ve written with Thomas and Pink Martini and the Oregon Symphony recording that’s on the album that I did with them called Hotel Amour.
And on that also is a very special recording of Sans toi, which is a song that Michel Legrand wrote. And I performed it a lot on the West End in the Les Parapluies de Cherbourg, and the recording on the album is actually Michel playing.
Yes, I saw a video of him on the piano and you performing the song.
Yeah, that’s right. The recording on the album is different. Michel is playing. He, of course, passed just recently so it’s very precious to have that. We added horns into the recording. So, it has even more gravitas and agony. Agony, it’s worth a listen to the actual concert. But for that video I felt we had to make good when we were doing the West End Show.
And that was kind of amazing because it was filmed by – I don’t know if you know Agnes Varda’s film, Cleo de 5 à 7 –
Yeah, I remember watching that back at uni, actually.
Amazing. There’s a scene in it with a sort of deconstruction of a cabaret singer, Cleo and I had offered that song when we were doing The Umbrellas on the West End, and they wrote a character for me that was to transfer it from being the perfect film to a stage show that was like a narrator, La Maitresse. We were looking at songs that would be inserted for the Maitresse and that’s one of my favourite songs ever. Agnes Varda wrote the text and Michel Grand wrote the music and what’s amazing is in the film, he’s playing the piano as the young songwriter.
Wow. I had no idea.
They’re sort of having a rehearsal and she’s blonde hair all piled on top of her head, and also sort of stroking a white kitten and in a diaphanous sort of gown. It’s just amazing. But she’s contemplating. She thinks she has cancer for 2 hours. So that’s 2 hours of mortality, I guess. That that whole film is really about the deconstruction of her very constructed identity. So that song is very beautiful. And Michel is playing the piano in it.
What was surreal was when we filmed him and I performing the song for The Umbrellas, he was always followed by documentary maker. I said to him, “it’s so strange to be singing the song that I love so much and filming it because it’s kind of recreating a scene from that film that I love”. The documentary film maker said, “Well, I actually played the song writer, the lyricist in that film”.
It was kind of just for me, the surrealness of life that you’re in London, you’re singing this song you love, the person filming you, recreating the scene from the film, is the one who played the lyricist. It was just so brilliant.
And I was actually going to ask you about La Maitresse the character as well. So you’ve brought that in quite nicely.
Thank you. I think, you know, the Jacques Demy films, and those musicals Les Parapluies and Les Demoiselles de Rochefort are so gorgeous. It’s a strange land of homage to Hollywood musicals. And so, when something like La La Land came up, which feels to me like a complete homage to Jacques Demy and Michel Legrand, it’s again these surreal layers on layers; it’s very interesting. It was pretty wonderful working with Michel and he was so integral to French music.
How did that come about?
Well, he had a show on the West End, apparently. And I think Emma Rice, the director of Knee High Theatre, she had a super successful show, an adaptation of Brief Encounter, on the West End. And the story is that Michel saw all of these great lines outside Brief Encounter opposite his show, which was also playing on the West End. So he got a ticket to go in and see this show and he absolutely fell in love with her as a director. So, he asked her if she would do a stage adaptation of his film. She had seen me perform in London and she asked me if I would come in and play this role that would sort of weave Knee High Theatre style with classic French film. And that’s something that’s right up my alley.
But it’s a very tricky thing because I was the only one singing in French. The score is French jazz and French scatting, so it’s quite interesting when it’s translated to an English version. That’s why I thought it was really important to be, in a way, the French soul of it. But one of the best days of my life, I think, was sitting in rehearsal when we were choosing these songs with Michel just sitting at the piano saying, “Oh, and of course there’s this. I’ve never used this.” And just singing these songs to me and the director and the music director. I mean, it was truly just pouring out of his fingers. And this is well into his 80s.
What was interesting was that the producers, for the first part of that rehearsal, they put him at the front in special chairs. Here he is, the great composer. Of course, he moved his chair and just dragged it right by the piano and straight into the rehearsal and was just fascinated and activated and so was Sheldon Harnick, the Tony Pulitzer winner. He had done the English translation in the seventies. He also was elderly and amazing and right in there. And really, I think just there’s something about all of these people – creativity doesn’t stop and their curiosity doesn’t stop. That was pretty magical to walk into and feel that.
I think sitting there with Michel who would say “Oh, of course, there’s this” and “there’s that” was magical. That song is very potent for me because it’s always been my favourite film. The song is all about without you, I’m nothing. And I’m an empty house. And I’ll be lowered into the grave, lonely and covered in wrinkles. And it’s very, very tense and agonising and it’s pretty magical. I think when Thomas heard the recording, he said “We have to put this on the album.” And then we thought about it for a long time and we put these horns into sort of trombone clusters and it just it’s exquisite. I did so many shows on the West End I can’t not feel the layers and layers of performance as well every time I sing it. It was a special experience.
And of course, I’ve gone into all of Jacques Demy’s earlier films, including Lola, which we originally were using a piece from that as well. There’s this sort of great reference to Lola within a sort of a flashback in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and in a way La Maitresse was sort of the spirit of Lola coming through as a storyteller.
There’s a risk with those things, I think, that are perfect anyway. As a film, it is perfect. And that’s why I was glad that Emma was adding elements. It’s not interesting, I think, to take something that’s perfect. I don’t want to do a version of Piaf or Barbara or these singers that I absolutely love. I really love Barbara. I sort of think they’re perfect versions already. So, I never try to emulate them. I’m just trying to take the essence of what speaks. But I have a very eclectic French. I’ve written quite a few songs in French, but also on that album with Thomas and Mon Homme Marié and originals.
You did the songwriting in French! How much French do you speak then?
At least ten words! Non, I have performed in Paris quite a lot. I performed all over France. Well, it works obviously. You can have a listen to Mon Homme Marié and see what you think.
No, I do speak it and read it. I grew up listening to Françoise Hardy, with those breathy French 60s’ vocals and Serge Gainsbourg so I’ve got this odd mix of, you know, strident heartbreak Piaf, and also Damia, who was earlier than Piaf, who was famous for her beautiful white arms and she was actually perhaps the originator of the little black dress – she put herself against the curtain so that it was just these wonderful, long white arms. Damia is pretty influential and she appears in some films and you can just see by the stage energy that is so fascinating. On one hand, I really have been very influenced by those the passion of the Damia, Piaf and then I love the sort of the cool distress of Juliette Gréco.
I’ve nearly seen Juliette twice. And she had a heart attack. This is a great regret because I’ve seen her a lot on film obviously, but this was a tragedy of age. It’s very sad. So, there’s that sort of side that I love, love, love. Françoise Hardy is one of my favourites and Dalida,
For those who have never had the experience of seeing you perform and are considering coming along to Meow Meow’s Pandemonium, how would you describe yourself, Meow Meow, and an experience of one of your shows?
It’s live! It celebrates the beauty and the visceralness of being alive. So, there’s an energy, I hope, and a frisson in the air of that joy and panic, no doubt, for an audience. I only do material that I absolutely love, so it’s passionate. It’s got heartbreak and also, you know, ridiculous comedy because that’s the reality of life, isn’t it? There’s an element of the absurd and the comic, and the fact that those things can coexist with the tragic.
In terms of music, it’s eclectic and it’s always layered. So, there’s never just one thing happening. It’s a subversion and celebration.
On your website. It describes you as “post postmodern diva who has hypnotised, inspired and terrified audiences.” What would you say the differences are between hypnotism, inspiration and terror?
Obviously that’s tongue in cheek. But, you know, some people are horrified by the anarchic quality of my performance. I would say it’s well crafted. There’s improvisation within there and there’s a flexibility, which is what I love about cabaret form, is that it lets you sculpt things and respond. You’re not stuck to a narrative. Even within a huge orchestral show like Pandemonium, it’s so textured. That’s what’s so exciting. It’s just it’s amazing musically, I have to say. It’s just magical. But I still have room there for the material to breathe and to change. Working with beautiful conductors is so important and working with really amazing musicians is so important because they have also to be awake and alive!
It’s interesting because people will respond differently. I think that’s why I’ve said hypnotise and terrify. And inspired, of course you know, it gives people the will to live, one hopes. I think that the quality of amazing music is when you’re just a part of this big machine of magic that is a combination of writing, text, performance, orchestra and audience. That magic confluence is what I hope is inspirational. Being a genre hopping person, these things are all possible. I live in a very heightened way offstage and on stage, and that, I hope, is sort of just stretching conceptions, a little bit of normalcy and expectation and in the gaps, we have spaces to dream. I think that’s all very true.
What is life like for you when you’re not on stage?
Foetal position. Pretty much can’t do anything without an audience, I’m afraid!
The pandemic has been really, really difficult. Prior to being, you know, trapped in a box, it is a lot of travelling. Going from a concert hall seriously to a tent to tiny little clubs. I don’t know, the last time I played a tiny little club, actually, but you’re doing that sort of ridiculous life of concert halls and then, you know, playing with Pink Martini at the Hollywood Bowl that was incredible.
And then you’re doing something for university students, which is very important. You’re in their college with their sort of waterproof mattresses that are a little bit sticky. Just looking at the lines of your fishnets just drying in the very sparse and sanitized bathroom. I think in another world, I’d be a photographer. I do document a lot of this., It is hilarious and between great glamour and complete exhaustion.
At a point touring with Pink Martini just before the pandemic, when we were really playing music festivals to 20,000 people in France, and then we’d go to sleep on the tour bus and in the morning I’d’ ask “Hey Siri, where am I?” And it would be “you are in Budapest”. It’s fantastic. It’s real. You really are on the tour bus, and then you’re somewhere else and sometimes it’s the most brilliant thing.
Storm Large is beautiful and sings with Pink Martini sometimes, and is also her own superstar and has also played the Cabaret Festival. She and I were touring with Pink Martini just before the pandemic. And there was this amazing night, the last night of the tour and we were up in the north of France and there was a huge storm and we were playing in a sort of medieval castle in a music festival outdoors. I’ll never forget standing there ready to go on and it was absolutely pouring with rain. Storm had basically nothing but a very tiny little thin red dress on. I’ll never forget watching her just sort of give in to the weather and she went out and started dancing in the rain, and the spot was lighting her from behind. And I was filming it because it was seriously like watching La Dolce Vita or something like that; it was just amazing. There’s sort of visceral things and then all the electricians are saying, “we have to stop”. And Thomas is saying, “No, we go on, we go on”. And I’m, of course, ringing the German sound engineer at the back saying “I don’t want to die.”
There’s all these really kind of potent visions of exquisite beauty amidst the dire row of suitcases, endless back pain from lifting them all yourself and all that sort of thing.
It’s not as glamorous as it might always seem, huh?
A lot of it is super glamorous and then absolutely hard slog and that’s what it is. There are amazing images of beauty there, I think, and that’s also something lovely that feel magical and that’s what I think is in this show in a way – it really encapsulates so much joy of performance and music. And it’s very special this piece. It’s kind of the orchestra on fire and that’s a great way to go on stage.
Apart from the fact that you have the orchestra with you. How does the Meow Meow’s Pandemonium differ to other shows that you’ve performed at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival or in Adelaide?
I have performed with the orchestra there before. It’s an orchestra, you’ve got the full force of the Adelaide Symphony, so that allows for new stratospheres. We really will blow the roof off of the new theatre. After all that construction, I’m sorry to say it, but I hope the roof will be in tatters, in the best possible way.
I always have a special time when I’ve come to Adelaide, but this is very special, I think, because I feel, in a way, it’s my natural habitat is actually having a full orchestra. And it’s joyful.
It must be quite difficult to go back to just having a piano after that.
Yes, but there’s also different ways, where the simplicity and the flexibility of that is magic. I just did a concert with Paul Grabowski and it’s lovely because listen to his take on my songs and my compositions and taking that somewhere else, allows for a lovely new fresh ear on things. But I particularly am loving at the minute just performing with Mark Jones and Dan Whitten, both will be familiar to cabaret audiences. They’re just beautiful, flexible and hilarious musicians. We’ve got a really beautiful thing happening just with piano and double bass and there’s something magical – I don’t want to say triangle because the audience is very much part of it. So what shape is that? squarely? Where are they? Add the ceiling and the stratosphere into that as well. So, it at least has five points like a star!
It really honours the orchestra. You’ll see when you see the show that I really give a lot of love to, and space for, the orchestra to be magnificent and beautiful for them to play.
You mentioned university students…What do you do with the university students? What course are they studying?
Some of them I’ve done in US. Like they’ll have a summer program for instance of performance, and then so you’re performing for them. And then other times, you know, it’s masterclasses in craft and history. I had to do some lectures and they asked me to talk about lineage. And I love that because I’m completely about honouring where you come from. I think it’s not just a history of performance, it’s also all of these songs that I love and perform because they aren’t separate from history or from the crises of the time. Why I love a lot of, you know, Brecht and Weil and those German songs is that they’re so potent from that period of the 1920s and 30s. And they are completely relevant, still shockingly relevant, and that’s frightening. So, there’s a lot to talk about, what we can learn from history and music and the arts and the role of the artists. That was just one I could do recently.
They asked me to do one on repetition and comedy, and repetition and surprise and repetition, which is the sort of secret of comedy, apparently one of the rules of comedy. That was great to be talking about it in a technical way in sort of small scale. Then again, that feeds into this notion of history repeating and where we shock and surprise with things that are known. Sometimes it’s a broad thing on performance history and politics and other times it’s literally the craft of pulling apart a song, all sorts of things.
Where or for whom would you like to perform?
That’s hard because I’ve had so many of my dreams fulfilled! I have to think about that. Because I immediately think of experiences that I want to relive.
That works too.
No, because like I played Miss Adelaide at Royal Albert Hall in Guys and Dolls. That was an unexpected, but amazing, pleasure because she’s such a beautiful character and so full of poignancy and comedy. It was completely satisfying in terms of being someone else’s work. It’s a brilliant piece. But it was so it was so beautiful to have a brilliant director and a brilliant cast and the incredible venue and the orchestra that was just totally sort of like childhood joy and ridiculousness in terms of someone else’s work.
I still want to work with that naughty Barrie Kosky. And I work with Christophe, this director…. My dream company is Pina Bausch Company and I’ve worked with them and I’m still a guest artist with them. Gosh, I’ll be here all day…
It’s good that you’ve had so many fulfilled dreams.
I have and I want to keep going working with Jurowski, the amazing Russian conductor. There’s Edward Watson from the Royal Ballet, we want to do a piece together. There’s a lot of waiting for the Australian Ballet to create a whole work around me – hurry up!
Recording with Rufus Wainwright was beautiful, so when we get together on stage. It’s hard to say because there’s a lot of people I love. I love working with Kanen Breen, beautiful Australian opera singer, that’s just a a quality on stage that is beautiful to be onstage with. Mitchell Beutel I absolutely loved. He performed in one of my shows in The Little Match Girl and it’s lovely to be on stage with friends that you get the giggles with, but you completely trust them as well.
Just before the pandemic, we were doing that Christmas show in New York at BAM. And that was absolutely a career highlight as well as the Hollywood Bowl. I must say that I’ve had some wonderful experiences and I want more, for sure. Stage diving at the opera house has got to be a highlight. It can be in a tiny venue or a huge venue when you feel the magic happening, when you really connected with the audience, that’s the thing. As I said on the Sydney Opera House stage, “it’s come to this, ladies and gentlemen”.
Anything in particular to add about the French elements of Meow Meow’s Pandemonium?
There will be lots for French lovers in this show. What I really strive to do, of course, for the non-French speakers is ensure that it still is very clear . The beauty and the agony, I think, is why a lot of French material is so amazing. You don’t necessarily need to know the poetry of the words, but I do love the poetry of that French writing that I’m so attracted to.
We thank Meow Meow for this interview and can’t wait to see Meow Meow’s Pandemonium in Adelaide this weekend.
KEY INFO FOR MEOW MEOW’S PANDEMONIUM
WHAT: Meow Meow’s Pandemonium with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra
WHERE: Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide
WHEN: Saturday 18 June, 7:30pm
HOW: Purchase your tickets via this link: https://www.adelaidecabaretfestival.com.au/events/meow-meows-pandemonium/
HOW MUCH: Ticket prices are as follows:
- Premium $119.00
- A Reserve $99.00
- B Reserve $89.00
Have you ever experienced a Meow Meow performance? Will you be seeing Meow Meow’s Pandemonium?
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