Let’s start with the first time I got paid to sing solo, it was a comedy variety set called ‘The Electric Frock’ sometime about 1986 at Club Swerve, a weekly event run by Toadshow for a season or two. I’m getting changed in the kitchen of the Red Brick Hotel, trading under a different name, but the same old fleapit where my big sister took me on under-age drinking expeditions to the folk club on Friday nights in the 70s. The Electric Frock is cage of wire hoops covered in gold lamé hanging like an old crinoline, but without the skirt. I’m wearing shiny gold tights and an orthopaedic girdle covered in fake circuitry (for which I had learned to solder), including a copper crown of LED lights, and at the décolletage a humble cassette player. The whole effect is simultaneously absurd and startling. Battery powered speakers hang at my knees in the hoops and the cassette holds a selection of humorous 50s cabaret numbers, “I Wanna Be Evil” being the most memorable, recorded by my first real accompanist, Paul Chantrill. The songs are delivered with heavy irony to accompany my first forays into memoir. So yes, I’m a classic 1980s feminist. My first stages were political cabaret. There is an innate complexity for me in working out how to inhabit the role of the chick singer.
In the next phase of my formation, I have blessedly moved on from taped backings – I have a regular accompanist, Greg Hillcoat, with his solid, reliable, clean strumming guitar and I have learnt some rarer repertoire from the Rosetta Records compilations of early women’s blues. Under the patronage of the publicist Sue Needham I’ve got my uniform together, hair in a red bob, wearing a vintage black cocktail frock and black suede pumps with wine glass heels. It’s a cabaret night at La Boite Theatre and I’ve brought along a hat-stand and seven old black hats, one for each song. Little feathery hats, flowery cocktail numbers and big broad brimmed felt hats. It’s all off the cuff. Everyone gets my gentle lampoonery of the female archetype. It’s the ‘80s, and we were fully Jungian. The La Bamba crowd are stacked up on three sides, and that’s fun, working the room keeps me moving. The material is easy, funny, cheery and spirited. Three quarters of the way through the set, Kerry O’Rourke from 4ZZZ dashes out to make an announcement. Some men have climbed out onto the roof of Boggo Road Gaol as a protest. Remember, Brisbane was still in the grubby grip of corrupt police. Protest is something young folk in Brisbane respect. The audience applaud in solidarity. Then we wrap up the set, probably singing “The Cow Cow Boogie”. That’s Brisbane. It would have been maybe 1988.
And then professional jazz musicians arrived in my life like a tropical storm, washing away old notions, but also and leaving a film of cultural debris behind them. You know the old jokes: ”How do you know there’s a chick singer at the door? She can’t find the key and doesn’t know when to come in.” Very tasteful…But taken all in all, I got lucky, cause I fell in with a bunch of players who were thrill seekers on stage, like me. So its 1991, We’re on stage at a festival, Steve Russell, Helen Russell and Ken Edie and I. We’ve been working on arrangements together for a year or so. We’ve gotten to know each other and we know which way things are likely to go once we’re on stage. Though mostly we're playing a rather obscure selection of the Great American Songbook (aka my mother's records) we've picked up Van Morrison's "The Way Young Lovers Do" for all the fun that the 8 over 6 riff that opens the song provides to the band. Steve loves dramatic gestures, expansive phrasing and witty quotes, his ideas flowing like water, and Helen can second-guess just about all of it, nimbly staying on top of the rapids. The truly random influence is how Ken is going to build the feels up like a ten foot wave then smash into the landscape for the joy of it, cracking the arrangements wide open like the true iconoclast he is. This is an approach to the material that might potentially annoy the biker fans at the blues festival. But we are having such larks!
I recently digitised this performance from a cassette tape of a desk mix. I cringe to hear my mannered, wry introductions. I'm telling the crowd this is the first gig I have ever done wearing jeans. I am unbearably smug, but so innocent, an overgrown puppy. And I am so over-excited. We are irresistible and delightful. At that moment 27 years ago, everything I really know about music performance coalesced. As a woman who has had to continually negotiate the boundaries of the feminine on stage, those early experiences of feminist themes and musical freedom have shaped everything that came after.
Photo of "Flora and Fauna" set at The Paint Factory, West End circa 1987 Photographer unknown