When I reach Meow Meow on the phone to talk about her upcoming shows in Los Angeles and Palm Springs, she is jet-lagged. She has just arrived in San Francisco from Sydney. So when she picked up the phone at the appointed time for the interview, she thought I might have been selling something. When I remind her of our appointment she laughs and says, “Oh, I love to forget an interview.”
That alone should give you an indication that Meow Meow has a unique point of view. She will be bringing her one-of-a-kind performances to the McCallum Theatre in Palm Springs on Wednesday and to the Theatre at the Ace Hotel in Friday as part of the CAP-UCLA series. Thomas M. Lauderdale from Pink Martini joins her for these shows.
Meow Meow regularly performs the songs of Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill, Radiohead, Jacques Brel and throws in her own compositions as well. She has appeared in Shakespeare’s plays and sung the music of Schubert and Schumann. Rather than try to describe Meow Meow, I’ll let the following video give you an idea.
I began the interview by asking Meow Meow to respond to this quote by Bette Midler, “Cherish forever what makes you unique, ‘cuz you’re really a yawn if it goes.”
I think I really have followed my joy and my obsessions, I would say. It never occurred to me they were in any way unusual, until I realized I had a body of work that seems to be unique. But it makes total sense to me. Singing Brecht and Weill has been an obsession since I was 14. Standing on stage with an orchestra singing, that feels like an obscure thing for a girl to follow, but it feels right. It’s about the joy and the magic of theatre. I enjoy the ridiculousness of what I do. It’s the ability of music to move people very quickly.
You are often referred to by various labels. Even your own website calls you a post post-modern diva. Do you find the labeling suffocating?
Absolutely. The minute you put a word on it it already has associations. For some people cabaret means New York show tunes. I think Stephen Colbert is cabaret. I have a very broad term of what it is. Often people say you can’t describe me until you see it. That’s wonderful, but people desperately want to put you into something they can understand quickly. I like to be known as genre-hopping. It’s almost about context. In a concert hall it is high art. In a bar it’s low art and radical.
Stephen Colbert recently had RuPaul on and asked about his quote “We’re born naked and the rest is drag.”
Gypsy Rose Lee has a quote I loved, “I wasn’t naked. I was covered in a blue spotlight.” I think there’s a heightedness about my career. There’s also a joy in that that allows the imagination to run. I absolutely believe people are in uniforms all the time and playing roles. I guess that’s what I want to shake up all the time. Why are we limiting ourselves?
I remember a girl went to see me who was five years old. I was afraid she’d be frightened of me. At the end of the night I had this blue dress on and she said, “A mermaid!” She painted me a sparkly blue image that I carried with me all around the world. She wasn’t scared. There wasn’t judgment or terror. She went with it and it was beautiful. That’s the feeling I get when I’m really on fire – that childlike joy.
What’s your opinion of Los Angeles?
Apart from performing with the LA Philharmonic, this is the first time I’ve performed in LA. My knowledge of Los Angeles is basically the history of it. The story that stays with me the most is Russian actress Alla Nazimova who brought Chekhov to Broadway. She had the Garden of Alla Hotel. That’s the kind of LA I’m intrigued by, that creation of identity. The fact that her Salome headpiece was recently found by a college student in a trunk in his family’s attic, that’s the LA I’m interested in. The preservation of illusion.
[Note: When Nazimova opened the hotel, the name was spelled “Alla” to mirror her name. When she sold the property in 1930, the name was changed to “Allah.”]
In an interview with The Australian in 2016 you said that “the more heightened you are, the more space there is for people’s fantasies.” Is the persona of Meow Meow more important to you than people’s acknowledgment of how genuinely talented you are?
Ahhh…that’s difficult. What I love is the interaction and if by making yourself particularly vulnerable by being a comedian and singing torch songs, I’ll do that in whichever way I think will speak to people most. I think of layers of things. I’m never singing exactly what I’m feeling. I’m always working the juxtaposition of how I’m thinking.
With “Surabaya Johnny,” I feel so truthful and possessed. It’s such a brilliant song. It allows you to tell such a different story in those three verses. I feel so haggard and wrung out at the end of each one. There’s something in the finesse of going deep that is very magical.
In troubled times what role can music play for your audience?
I do feel rather worried about the world, but I still think that live music is the very heartbeat of things. I’m still obsessed with live music and having the audience and even having people on stage. The thrill of anything can happen. I found that doing Shakespeare at the Globe in London, there’s so much in Shakespeare that says everything in the world. When are you at the Globe, under the stars, the energy is so electric and you realize how much Shakespeare was writing for the playing of it: the world, the globe, the house. It’s all directly to that audience. That joy is absolutely what I want to evoke.
Photo Credit: Karl Giant