The Artist Stripped Bare

This article appeared on the Gay News Network on 12 May 2012.

Some artists love maintaining an air of mystery about the creative process but ‘pop-cabaret darling’ Emma Dean was refreshingly frank when I asked her why she is performing solo in Stripped, making its Adelaide Cabaret Festival debut this June.

“In all honesty, I originally devised my one woman show because I was so sick of losing money on tours comprising myself and other performers. [Laughing] The truth comes out!” Dean says.

Fortunately for Ms Dean and her audience, this business-minded decision led to a fabulous show that, according to the blurb, ‘distils her personal chaos to its most basic visceral elements.’ Personal chaos for a young, independent artist such as Dean involves hectic touring schedules, the aforementioned financial risk and the wearing of “numerous hats” in order to organise life and career.

“Some people suspect that over the years I may have developed a few multiple personalities for all of these differing roles,” Dean says. “This is actually what my show Stripped is all about – I realised one day that all of my songs fit into one of a few different personality categories.”

Dean often writes songs about being a performer, the artistic process and its seemingly inevitable self-doubt, drawing the audience into these experiences. Her self-deprecating honesty shines through in her music and performance, contrasting wonderfully with circus theatricality, sensuality and costumes that would look equally appropriate on a burlesque dancer as a highly-skilled musician. Indeed, the lines between cabaret and burlesque blur frequently in the Australian performance scene, the former a popularity juggernaut in recent years.

Ever eager to expand her skillset, Dean says: “Burlesque is something I’m very interested in learning more about as I think there’s definitely a crossover between the two art forms. I feel [they are] both a bunch of gutsy circus freaks at heart and there’s romance in the air. Burlesque and Cabaret sitting in a tree… k.i.s.s.i.n.g!”

Cabaret is a little more indefinable, however, spanning a huge variety of musical styles and audiences. Dean defines it eloquently, clearly adept at reflecting on her work, with contagious passion.

“Cabaret, to me, is a very honest form of performance. It can umbrella burlesque, dance, theatre, music, storytelling, satire and comedy individually or all at once! Cabaret tends to push social boundaries, and for me, has become a home for the un-boxable fringe dwellers, like myself. I struggled for many years with the question ‘how do you describe your music?’ Now my answer is ‘pop-cabaret’ – alternative original pop music performed in a cabaret style.”

And what excellent music it is. Dean has been compared to Rufus Wainwright and Tori Amos, but she cites an even broader mix of influences when prompted, including Freddie Mercury, Fiona Apple, Taylor Mac, Kate Bush, Danny Elfman, Tim Burton, Imogen Heap, Liza Minnelli and Placebo.

Her originals are a mixed bag, sometimes frenetic and raw, other times delicate building to powerful, like ‘Something They Can Hold.’ She deftly wields her soaring soprano, avoiding unnecessary vocal acrobatics in favour of delivering lyrics clearly and rhythmically, allowing the music to serve the story, rather than the other way around.
Dubbed one of New York Post’s ‘10 Artists to Know’ in 2011, there is no doubt Emma’s particular brand of pop-cabaret is hitting nerves and tapping toes well beyond our shores. As well as touring, in 2012, Dean will be launching a new EP with her side project, Geppetto, which she describes “electro fairytale pop duo with the incredible Jake Diefenbach.” The pair will then tour their show, An End to Dreaming to the New York International Fringe Festival in August.

You can see Stripped at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, a major event on the international arts calendar, and arguably the most comprehensive cabaret festival in the world. If you just can’t get enough cabaret, Dean told me she can’t wait to see Camille O’Sullivan, Boylesque, Cosentino, Eddie Perfect, Zoe Keating and Jack Charles V The Crown, so maybe you’ll catch her in the audience as well as on stage.