Australian Kim David Smith is performing his show Mostly Marlene at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival. While Marlene Dietrich wasn’t French, she spent a large portion of her life in France and was a close friend, and rumoured to me maybe more, to Edith Piaf. We had a chat to Kim David Smith ahead of his Mostly Marlene season at Adelaide Cabaret Festival.
Australian audiences might know you for two very distinct shows: Kim Sings Kylie and Morphium Kabarett. You’re performing Mostly Marlene, a show which is also a tribute to a singer from the Weimar-era. What appeals to you about the Weimar-era and in particular Marlene Dietrich?
I stop short of describing Mostly Marlene as a tribute show, in that I’m much less celebrating Marlene herself, and much more evoking a vibe, or deploying the music associated with Dietrich as a séance of sorts, to enshroud myself and my audience in the whispers and glamour of one of cabaret’s most famous and influential practitioners. She’s one of my chief mega-muses, along with Kylie, Eartha Kitt, Liza Minnelli, Julie London, Judy Garland…I could go on typing!
The Weimar era is an eternally fascinating time (to my mind), and for as long as I can remember I’ve been captivated by the music, art, history, menace, and the advancement of gay rights (and LGBTQI+ identity) that proliferated during this time. It’s all so romantic and frightening!
When did you first take an interest in Marlene Dietrich?
My dad gave me a Marlene biography when I was 14 or 15 years old, and I remember being absolutely fascinated at every turn of the page — I also used to moon over Hollywood’s stars of days gone by when visiting with my Nanny (my maternal grandmother) as a child, and I remember Marlene’s photo spread in Nanny’s big book of silver screen stars as being particularly intriguing.
What can audiences expect from Mostly Marlene at Adelaide Cabaret Festival?
You know? That’s a hard one. I find expectations to be one of my least favorite things about being a human! In terms of the show, and any of my shows really, I would hope that people find an opportunity to laugh (at both myself and at themselves, too), to see themselves in in a ballad or two (I just love losing and/or finding myself in a ballad as an audience member!), and to take the opportunity to zone out from the real world, which, honestly, is a bit of a circus fire these days.
The show blurb refers to Mostly Marlene as a show which “infuses Dietrich’s blueprint for shock, glamour, grace, and gravity with queer mega-muses such as Madonna, Kylie and Liza.” Does this mean audiences can expect songs from Madonna, Kylie and Liza but performed in the Dietrich style?
That’s mostly what it means, yes! I would go on to clarify, that all of the above, including the music associated with Marlene, is reimagined and rearranged in MY style — I’m so proud of the arrangements in this show, and the translations of Kylie songs in to German in particular — my music director here in the States, Tracy Stark, and I have a fabulous working relationship. I’m so proud of my work with her, and so happy that it’s encapsulated on my live album, Kim David Smith Live at Joe’s Pub, which we released last year amid the pandemic: https://open.spotify.com/album/4McT8EVxCtjzrCeFjFnawF
You’ve been described as the “male Marlene Dietrich” as well as the “David Bowie of cabaret”. How do you feel about these descriptions?
I mean, I never say no to good press! I would firstly (and mostly jokingly) say that these are completely accurate descriptions! Secondly, and more humbly, I would say that I’m incredibly grateful whenever I’m reviewed by someone who truly understands what I’m going for on stage, and who appreciates the nuances of cabaret as an art form.
You’ve performed in English, French and German. Do you speak these languages? What is the challenge in singing in a language that is not your mother tongue?
I think it’s less challenging, honestly, than singing in English! To sing in a non-native language is very freeing, and I feel like it impacts my English repertoire very positively, in that I am encouraged to explore sounds that aren’t otherwise present in my dubious mish-mash of an Australian accent (which nowadays features many borrowed, musical, American-accented elements). I have been told that my German is quite good (thank you, whomever said that!), but that my French has an Australian lilt. Ha!
You worked and lived in New York City for over a decade. Where has been your highlight performance?
I’m a 13-year New Yorker, and very proud of it! It’s my most favorite city in the world, and in all the time I’ve lived in NYC I’ve had too many wonderful experiences on stage to really recount just one as a stand out — I adore performing at Club Cumming in Alphabet City, and am equally at home at Café Sabarsky at the Neue Galerie, where I’ve been singing since 2009 — there’s nothing quite so glamorous as singing in that converted ballroom (in an old Vanderbilt mansion), knowing that Klimt’s Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I hangs in the gallery directly above where I’m singing!
Where and with whom is your dream performance?
I have always fantasized about recording a duets album with Kylie, but all in German, and consisting only of German cabaret tunes from the 1920s and early 1930s. I imagine it’s going to be a hard sell to get her into the studio for that!
What is your favourite Marlene Dietrich song to listen to and why?
I absolutely LOVE Dietrich’s recording of The Surrey with the Fringe on Top — it’s hilarious, and so fun, with sleigh bells to boot! I love to listen to it at Christmastime.
What is your favourite Marlene Dietrich song to perform and why?
My favorite Dietrich song to perform is DEFINITELY Jonny, Wenn du Gebusrstag Hast? I absolutely adore my arrangement, and have honed it over many years into the (I think) cabaret jewel that sits pride of place on my live album. My cabaret mother, Karen Kohler, translated the verse for the spoken word portion in the middle of the song, which, along with the undulating yearning of the repeated chorus, makes for a very special and rewarding moment (for me, performance-wise) in all of my shows.
WHAT: Mostly Marlene as part of the Adelaide Cabaret Festival
WHERE: Space Theatre, Adelaide
WHEN: 24 & 25 June
HOW: Tickets are available via this link
HOW MUCH: Adults $49, concession $39 and under 30s $25 plus $8.95 transaction fee.
You may also like to read our interview with Craig Ilott about the show L’Hotel at Adelaide Cabaret Festival.
What’s your favourite Marlene Dietrich song?