Australian Stage profile: Maeve Marsden

This profile appeared on Australian Stage on 12 August 2009, in the lead up to Lady Sings it Better’s debut season.

For me, the burning question is, what was the inspiration or motivating factor that eventuated in a group of women singing popular songs that were originally written and performed by men?
In a longterm sense it came out of an experience I had when I was 14 and a singing teacher told me I had to change gender pronouns when I sang ‘Midnight Hour’(from The Commitments). She said she understood that a girl could sing about a girl but that audiences expected heterosexuality. Well I thought that was crap and continued to sing with the pronouns I preferred! But it stuck in my memory. It’s problematic that mainstream music can have such a simplistic view of sexuality. Then there’s the fact that my favourite musician is Leonard Cohen and I was burning to sing some of his songs. And I’d covered a few songs by men when I was singing back up for Kate Duffy in 2008 (she’s also our support act for the show). I enjoyed the humour of singing these songs, the strength in a lot of the songs, and how well-known a lot of them are.

And why cabaret style? Would you say that this musical genre is typically the domain of women and therefore the perfect antithesis to the music you have chosen to perform?
You could say that. But honestly, I produced a cabaret in 2005 with 6 singers and it worked well. It’s a style that suits my voice and a formula that’s succeeded in the past. Also, cabaret is by definition quite varied in style, so it allows for us to take a wide range of styles and sing them as we wish.

You have said that this cabaret presents new meanings in the lyrics such as jealousy, friendship, anger, affection and a whole host of other emotions. Does the idea behind such a show also intend to present new meanings of gender and sexuality in music or challenge old ideas?
Yes, I think so, especially in some of the love songs. I sing ‘I’m Your Man’ by Leonard Cohen and I love the power of a woman singing that, of being both genders and no gender all at once. That said, this isn’t a drag show nor is it an entirely queer show. We have female singers of all sexualities and some of the band are male – the mix of ideas and emotions and attitudes to gender and sexuality has been great creatively. And we’ve had fun in rehearsal discussing the songs and what they mean to us. I think first and foremost, the audience will be just enjoying the music. But perhaps, one or two songs will resonate with each audience member and have them reconsider what they desire or how they present their gender. That’d be nice anyway!

You have selected some interesting musical examples from the 20th century popular domain, for example AC/DC and Leonard Cohen, what was the decision making process behind the songs you have chosen to cover?
Look, to be honest it was a bit random. It is a mix of songs chosen specifically for the gender twist (I’m Your Man, Always a Woman, You shook me All Night Long, Try a Little Tenderness), songs chosen for humour (Faith by George Michael…and there’s a boy band medley in there…), songs chosen because they are big old anthems like Satisfaction or have a political resonance that amuses me like Beds are Burning. Then two of the singers chose their own solos and we ended up with Jamie Cullem and Coldplay, who I wouldn’t have selected myself, though I love the end result. We’re not intending to only present traditional masculinity – we really just sat down and thought of what songs we wanted to cover. There’s loads missing that I’d like to do in future! David Bowie, Guns ‘n Roses, The Beach Boys, Nine Inch Nails, the list goes on…

As this is a new concept in music, in what format will the songs be performed? How have you fashioned the original music to be delivered? Because when we think of male rock bands and musicians images of longhaired, guitar toting, testosterone fuelled males or suit clad crooners comes to mind.
Well we’re neither suit clad crooners nor hard rockers, though perhaps there are moments of each in there. A lot of us studied theatre, so there is an element of theatricality, some songs presenting a bit of a narrative and others delivered like we’re lounge singers in a bar. I don’t know how new a concept it is – think of Triple J Like a Version and covers bands like Nouvelle Vague. Mix in a bit of musical theatre, new burlesque and queer performance and you get us! As for how the music came to sound like it does, we started with only singers in rehearsal. They had to learn the songs by ear and reframe them. Our wonderful pianist, Chris, bassist/cellist, Lily and drummer, Greg joined us a month or so ago, we bought sheet music, scribbled changes all over it and then added staging and costumes to suit.

Is there a theme or common thread to the repertoire other than the songs have been written and performed by men about women?
Not every song involves a man singing about a woman, sometimes it’s less literal than that. The way that men and women tend to write lyrics can be quite different in mainstream music. You’ve got the girls asking for the man to “put a ring on it” and then guys being allowed to use far more powerful language and tone to declare desire, or indeed other emotions. For some of the songs, it’s nice to highlight the gender ambiguity in the lyric. The Scientist by Coldplay for example never mentions a he or a she so it’s a nice flip.

For our first show as a group, it was key for me that the singers sing songs they enjoy, so we were quite free in our choices. In future, I’d like to build a repertoire that was more thought out ideologically… though maybe that’d take away from the fun surprises we’ve got in there!

Will this be an ongoing creative project for you and Phoebe? If so, what are your ambitions for the group?
Yes, I hope so. Phoebe and I have worked together on and off for years and it’s a great fit. She’s just fantastic. We need to shift our way of thinking though, and see this group as a band rather than producing it as a theatre show. In the longterm, I want a musical group who can work together really well and I’d like for us to be able to produce a show each year and then do the odd gig here and there that was less of a big affair. I’d like a few more musicians as well! The three we have are fantastic and bring so much to the group. We’d like to stick with the Lady Sings it Better concept for a while. That said, there are so many female musicians I’d love to cover – I’ve talked with Siobhan, one of the singers, about doing a show covering all the big alternative divas of the 90s and noughties – PJ Harvey, Tori Amos, Bjork, The Gossip, Hole, No Doubt etc etc. That would be great fun. I like doing covers. I think they are underrated and considered the domain of pub bands, but you can do amazing things with covers. One of the most popular songs of all time – Jeff Buckley’s Hallelujah, was a cover!