interview: maeve marsden, lady sings it better

This interview appeared on on 19 September 2013, in the lead up to Lady Sings it Better’s Melbourne Fringe season.

Kicking off its run at the Melbourne Fringe Festival later this month, Lady Sings it Better is blackcat productions’ pièce de résistance. The performance sees a troupe of 4 women ‘take on the western world’s most famous male musicians and reinvent them as hilarious, high energy cabaret‘. Ginuwine’s Pony, AC/DC’s You Shook Me All Night Long, Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger and more are all reinterpreted for the purpose of discovering how the meaning of a song can change when sung by a female voice. We spoke to a quarter of the LSiB troupe and blackcat Artistic Director Maeve Marsden about R&B, misogyny in music and bringing feminist cabaret to the masses.

Firstly, tell our readers a bit about Lady Sings it Better. How did the idea come about?

Back in 2008, I was going to a lot of cabaret and I was keen to start performing again, having taken a break after university. The idea built when I was sitting in the audience for two different shows – Alan Cumming’s I Bought A Blue Car Today and Camille O’Sullivan’s show at the Studio (Opera House). Alan performed Mein Herr from Cabaret spectacularly and I started to think about how a show would work with women singing only songs written by men. I remembered a conversation I’d had with a singing teacher when at high school. She’d told me I had to change the gender pronouns when singing men’s songs because ‘audiences expect heterosexuality.’ So the premise grew out of that and is really very simple: Find men’s songs that will tell a different story when sung in a female voice; don’t change the gender pronouns.

An AC/DC song is reinterpreted in the performance. This is a band that represents a particular brand of masculinity, from which women are typically excluded. What was the thinking behind this particular number?

You Shook Me All Night Long was actually one of the very first numbers we arranged, along with Fat Bottomed Girls. We looked at the verses and the way they describe this woman has both awe / desire and a kind of admonishment or slut-shaming. We wanted to show that desire to be sexually very free, to be overwhelmed and overwhelming, and also show the way women are forced to contain their desires for fear of being labelled slutty or ‘fast’. The result swings between a rock feel like the original and an over-the-top choral feel. And the number has an operatic riff for an orgasm, which all good cabarets need. For me the song that most represents the kind of masculinity we are excluded from is Closer, by the Nine Inch Nails. It’s so aggressively sexual, and it took time for us to be comfortable in our own skin singing it, finding the moments to be genuine or funny. It’s easy to mock masculine sexuality, much harder to emulate it.

Any hip hop/R&B covers? If there ever was a genre that needed to be reworked to include a female perspective, that’s it.

Arguably, too many. We are concerned we’re overdoing the R&B but there is just so much material in there and Libby, one of our singers, is a fan so keeps coming back with new arrangements! For our Melbourne season, we’re doing Usher’s Yeah (with a ukelele and maracas), R Kelly’s Ignition (as a barbershop quartet) and Shaggy’s It Wasn’t Me (as a pantomime). Oh and Pony by Ginuwine forms the base of a medley of horse-themed songs, as you do. The beauty of these songs is that the words are so absurd, the comedy work is almost done for us!

Are there any songs you just wouldn’t ever perform, either due to not liking the artist or liking them too much?

No. Some songs we really want to sing but they just don’t work, because the lyrics aren’t interesting enough or we don’t come up with an arrangement we like. The Beatles, for example, are very hard to cover as their lyrics aren’t really misogynist and the songs have been covered so much that it’s hard to sound original. But, as a rule, nothing is sacred.

Strong male voices have always dominated music and misogyny has always been rife. Do you think this has gotten better or worse?

I think it’s gotten better. Feminism is hacking away at the patriarchy and of course having an impact. People may argue that music didn’t used to be so offensive, but we’ve found evidence to the contrary! We’re currently working on an arrangement of this song, for example, and we performed this at the Sydney Comedy Festival. I get very riled up at the lack of female representation in a lot of music festivals or in triple j’s Hottest 100 lists and so on. But at least now people are having the conversation about misogyny in pop culture.

People get pretty possessive of their favourite songs, and you’re singing quite a few that are considered ‘sacred’. Any angry diehards?

We cause the most distress with our cover of My Sharona, which is probably the song that pushes the envelope the most in terms of what is appropriate to joke about. We’ve had people walk out, because when you slow down the lyrics – ‘such a dirty mind, i always give it up for the touch of the younger kind’ – and make the music a little discordant it takes on a pretty terrifying edge. We just remind audience that we haven’t changed any of the words. These are top 40s tunes!

Was it easy to bring the idea of feminist cabaret to people?

To be frank, no. Marketing feminist art is incredibly hard. People think they are going to be lectured, which really isn’t the case, and there’s a stereotype that feminists – or indeed women – can’t be funny. We often sell the show on its comedy / cabaret style and then hit audiences with the feminism once they’re in their seats. It’s delightful to watch people slowly start to get the show and warm up over the course of the hour. We performed at Cherchez La Femme in Sydney and it was amazing. A room full of feminists who ‘got it’ from the first note. We were overwhelmed!

What has been the reception so far? Did the reception differ from festivals here, to Edinburgh?

Reception really differs gig to gig. If we have a bunch of women or young people (who get into the 90s songs) in the crowd, it gets rowdier and people warm up. Edinburgh crowds were sometimes very quiet (polite and British) but then they’d stay afterwards and say how much they loved it and buy CDs and t-shirts, so it’s hard to judge from the stage. Sydney crowds are wonderful because we’ve been performing here for a while so we have a following, but going to new places is great because it’s a real test of the material.

One of the aims of blackcat productions is to nurture creative talent. Have you been afforded opportunities to give people an opportunity to breakthrough in the arts, who otherwise wouldn’t have?

I don’t think we’ve offered opportunities they wouldn’t be able to get on their own as they are all very talented, but we provide a framework that allows them to perform without worrying about schedules and marketing and budgets and such. That’s mainly due to my business partner, Phoebe, who manages the act with me. She’s an organisational machine and ensures we can focus on the work instead of the nuts and bolts of touring. I am also really proud that we toured Lady Sings it Better to Edinburgh without the team having to invest their own money (except on food, booze and show tickets). That was a massive planning and fundraising effort which none of us could’ve managed alone. We’re sponsored with free vocal training by Dr Cate Madill, which wouldn’t have happened without the company. The notion of a ‘breakthrough’ is hard to define, though. Emerging artists generally have day jobs and numerous projects and it’s hard to find a tipping point where you can devote yourself full time to performing – we haven’t found it. We’ve produced events for some great emerging artists, though. It’s great watching Brendan Maclean’s star rise. I remember in 2011, we asked him to perform a show at our Mardi Gras cabaret season and he was a little taken aback because he said he normally did support spots. He put on an amazing show, though, and sold out the venue. That was great.

 You’ve also been an advocate for people with disabilities, right? Do you see this passion crossing over with blackcat at all?

I wouldn’t claim to be an advocate for people with disabilities, but I worked in the disability sector for four years, on a number of advocacy and awareness campaigns, and I really enjoyed it. I now work on a national music education campaign. I think all my work has been informed by an interest in social justice and finding ways to communicate about the issues I am passionate about. In a practical way, working in the disability sector means that we always aim to perform in accessible venues and we are a Companion Card member.