“It’s not about the applause at all”: Meow Meow on why performing is integral to her identity

“It’s not about the applause at all”: Meow Meow on why performing is integral to her identity

Words By Bryget Chrisfield

Meow Meow can’t wait to dust off her high heels and stage-dive into Hamer Hall when Meow Meow’s Pandemonium hits Melbourne.

“I’m about to stick on some high heels, because I need to prepare for my Melbourne Symphony Orchestra shows,” Meow Meow shares.

Has it been a while between occasions where high heels are mandatory for this Australian-born actress, dancer and cabaret performer?

“Well, actually it’s been less than 24 hours, but still…” she laughs, explaining that she taught a masterclass at Monash University yesterday, “So the supreme effort was necessary and there’s no point in half doing it”.

“There’s been the sporadic high heel, but nothing like my usual schedule of never having a rest except in a stage-dive.”

Stay up to date with all the latest Melbourne arts news here

In fact, Meow Meow’s pre-COVID schedule of “nonstop flying and doing shows” was interrupted to the point where she estimates “over 100 shows” have been cancelled in light of the pandemic.

“The last thing I’d done was with Rufus [Wainwright] in Perth and then I sang in his concert the next night, and then I curated Amanda Palmer the next night,” Meow Meow recalls of the shows she curated for Kabarett Haus’ debut season, as part of Perth Festival 2020, before lockdown hit.

“Then I got on the plane and flew to Germany where I was about to perform these massive concerts. I was listening to Rufus on the plane and then everything sort of went backwards.

“Suddenly after three weeks in Germany, instead of going on to Paris and 36 concerts in the States, and then a big season on The West End, I was in lockdown. And I couldn’t stop listening to Rufus… anything beyond that was too raw, really.”

Meow Meow’s Pandemonium was also part of Perth Festival’s 2020 program, with accompaniment supplied by the West Australian Symphony Orchestra. The upcoming Meow Meow’s Pandemonium Melbourne shows mark her first large-scale collaborative project with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra (MSO).

Self-described as “orchestrated chaos”, Meow Meow’s Pandemonium is “always improvised, to a degree” and she acknowledges, “Obviously with an orchestra you need really brilliant musicians to cope with all of that. I feel like the musicians love it, because it really is genre-hopping and the orchestrations are sublime.”

Audiences should prepare to hear Piazzolla tangos (“Music that I love from the ‘20s and ‘30s”) plus songs by the likes of Jacques Brel and even Radiohead, with extra “shimmering beauty” supplied by the MSO.

“It is funny. I mean, it’s absolutely rollicking,” Meow Meow promises of… Pandemonium.

“But, musically, it’s really meaty… you know, political music – which is kind of amazing when performed by a full, screaming and wailing orchestra – and then there’s also contemporary, original pieces.”

Meow Meow was named Best Cabaret Performer at the 2012 Helpmann Awards for Little Match Girl and her performance style has been labelled “kamikaze cabaret”.

“I like the shock of stage-diving in a concert hall,” she admits. “It’s out of place, it’s unexpected. And it’s the same when you re-examine some of these really early pieces; there is an aha moment of, ‘Oh, you’re talking about the 1920s and the rise of Hitler, but, my God! That’s totally relevant right now!'”

“To me, the best material is the work that can be reinterpreted and has enough space in it for people to find their own meaning within it.

“And even something like ‘Pirate Jenny’ – that song by Brecht and Kurt Weill from The Threepenny Opera, in 1928 – that has been re-interpreted, like ‘Mack The Knife’. And ‘Pirate Jenny’ – you know, that amazing song about revenge – when Nina Simone sings it, it becomes about a Southern flophouse and it becomes about Black Power.

“And that’s an amazing thing to me: to see these songs that were so ‘of a specific era’, in a way, that keep going on because there’s enough room in that – the human emotions, of uprising and rebellion. And that’s a magical thing to me; that’s the work that I like doing.”

Her enforced break from the stage has only served to highlight just how integral performing is to Meow Meow’s identity.

“It really is so clearly my soul,” she emphasises. “It doesn’t feel a selfish thing, it feels like you’re not connecting to the universe in the way that gives people some kind of succour and healing, which I love, you know? It’s not about the applause at all; it’s the energetic exchange that I missed so much.”

So does Meow Meow still have Wainwright on high rotation?

“The rhythm of ‘Poses‘ is beautiful to walk to, it’s a very good tempo for walking,” she enthuses, before ‘bah-bah-di-di’-ing the song’s melody by way of demonstration.

“I realised I just sing the backing vocals loudly and it’s probably like, ‘There’s a mad lady in a leopardskin coat walking around the streets of Fitzroy singing,” she chuckles.

Meow Meow’s Pandemonium comes to Hamer Hall on Friday May 21 and Saturday May 22. Grab your tickets from the MSO website