There are divas, and there are divas. And then there is the enigmatic performer known only as Meow Meow.
On record, the glamorous Australian chanteuse can break your heart in numerous unexpected ways, as she does on her new album, Hotel Amour, a series of alternately playful and bittersweet love songs with Pink Martini pianist-bandleader Thomas Lauderdale that features such guests as Rufus Wainwright, The von Trapps, Barry Humphries and legendary French composer-pianist Michel Legrand.
But a funny thing happens once Meow Meow makes her way to the stage in live performance, as she will with Lauderdale and members of Pink Martini at the Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever Cemetery on Thursday, March 21. One moment, she’s intoning the most doom-ridden and tragic German-language Weimar-era ballad in a funereal, shell-shocked voice. And the very next minute, she slips into an altogether bizarre stage persona in which she engages in a ruthlessly bitchy running dialogue with herself and any nearby unfortunate bystander she can drag into her act.
Meow Meow is a seemingly imperious diva who is not above regally casting blame on the assorted stage hands, managers, crew, band members and other civic authorities for the self-imposed distractions that inevitably interrupt her show. At other times, though, she is the world’s strangely neediest performer as she mutters apologies to various members of the audience for the slights and indignities she’s about to put them through. Meow Meow pleads for their psychological reassurance even as she asks strangers to help her pull on various intimate parts of her stage costume.
“I do material that I absolutely love, but I’m also aware of how ridiculous I am,” Meow Meow says by phone from London, where she’s filming a small part — “a cameo, one could say” — in director Tom Hooper’s cinematic adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical Cats, which stars Jennifer Hudson, Taylor Swift and Judi Dench. “If it takes singing a political song while doing the splits, I’ll do it.”
Meow Meow made one of the most unusual and dramatic entrances in recent memory when she performed last year at the Theatre at Ace Hotel. First, an announcement was made asking the crowd in the balcony and back sections to move into the empty seats on the floor and in front of the stage. After a short delay, the singer finally appeared — at the back of the theater, behind the crowd. Meow Meow seemed lost and disheveled. She breathlessly explained that she hadn’t had time to get into her stage attire.
Puzzlingly, instead of walking down one of the aisles of the grand old theater to get to the stage, Meow Meow chose to walk over and atop the seats and bodies of the crowd on the floor. The crowd-surfing songstress asked several of the men she was nimbly climbing over to assist her in pulling off her outer clothes and slipping into her racy stage costume. If the man was hesitant, Meow Meow rudely scolded him for not being more assertive. And if the man was too enthusiastic in helping her get undressed, she responded with even more mock outrage.
“It was shortly after #MeToo was taking off,” recalls Meow Meow, who is also known as Melissa Madden Gray. “Asking people to touch me, it was very interesting. An audience wants to feel safe but you don’t let them, necessarily. Hollywood was very sensitive about bodies and touching and what was allowed. Then we went into the ridiculousness of what I do, and hopefully the beauty. … Hollywood is in a state of shock and terror. They’re not sure what to do with my body. There should always be a conversation about what’s OK. People are different in different countries. In Germany, I do more slapstick. There are very different responses, and you tweak it in different ways. … The body is funny, and humans are weird and funny.”
For all of the campy absurdity of Meow Meow’s stage show, her songs often are loaded with heavy emotions that transcend their nostalgic settings. “There’s a lot to be laughed at. These are all songs that I passionately love,” she says, admitting that she’s not above using humor to open a door to let people into some of her most tragic songs. “When it’s done right, you can see the world reflected. As much as I’m an over-the-top character, everyone is performing. Let’s be true to the pleasure of performance.”
On Hotel Amour, Meow Meow sings in English, French, German and Mandarin. She’s fluent in German and French and says, “I’m good at faking Mandarin,” as she does when she purrs a slinky jazz-pop cover of “I’m Waiting for You to Come Back” against Lauderdale’s swanky barroom piano.
“I love singing in German [and other languages]. You’re not emotionally attached to them as a mother language. They’re not laden with a history before your creation. … When I sang with Pink Martini right before Trump was elected, suddenly singing songs in different languages became a politicized act about communication,” Meow Meow says. “Even a lot of those Weimar songs become relevant [after Trump]. The fear of the other, everything is so politicized,” she says about a series of concerts she did with fellow Australian comedian Barry Humphries, who is better known to many as Dame Edna.
“Barry found a suitcase in a shop that was full of sheet music. He’s spent his life putting that music together, music that Hitler hated,” she explains about the work of largely Jewish composers during the Weimar era that the Nazis banned as being “degenerate.” Backed by Lauderdale’s jolly, rollicking piano, Humphries and Meow Meow duet charmingly on Hotel Amour on a saucy, sassy English-language adaptation of “Mausi, süß warst Du heute Nacht” (“Mousie, How Sweet You Were Tonight”), a 1930 tune by Jewish-Hungarian composer Paul Abraham and lyricists Alfred Grünwald and Fritz Löhner-Beda. “Barry’s an extravagant satirist,” Meow Meow says. “I feel so lucky to have met another soulmate who sees the wildness and beauty in music.”
The singer’s other musical soulmates on Hotel Amour include Rufus Wainwright, who exchanges breezy French verses with Meow Meow on a version of “À quoi ça sert l’amour” (“What’s the Point of Love”) that the pair recorded together at Capitol Records in Hollywood. “Rufus is a good friend of mine and Thomas,” she says. “What a beautiful thing to have that honeyed voice in my ear — ‘Do it again!’”
The spare, lovely ballad “Hi-Lili, Hi-Lo” was anointed with ethereal, angelic harmonies by The von Trapps, the sibling group who are descended from The Trapp Family Singers. “They are beautiful musicians. They are divine,” Meow Meow says. “I’ve commissioned August von Trapp to write some pieces. He’s a beautiful songwriter; they’re all wise beyond their years. … When The von Trapps are here, things can’t be all bad.”
“Sans Toi” (“Without You”) is a rare track on the new album without Lauderdale on piano. It’s an interpretation of the melancholic song by composer Michel Legrand and lyricist Agnès Varda from Varda’s 1962 film Cléo de 5 à 7. Meow Meow’s stark version, recorded live in London, features piano by the composer, who died in January. “He was such an extraordinary artist,” the singer marvels about Legrand. “He was curious and constantly engaged, and he re-orchestrated everything” just for this rendition. “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is the perfect French film,” she adds about one of Legrand’s most beloved scores, briefly switching to what she describes as her “Gypsy Rose Lee voice” with an arch, mannered accent.
“I’ve been very lucky that I’ve had these beautiful people in my life. What an extraordinary legacy,” she says. In the past, the singer-actor has utilized her dance background to work with Pina Bausch, and she has performed in front of Mikhail Baryshnikov. Although last year’s concert at the Theatre at Ace Hotel was Meow Meow’s official debut in this city, she appeared at Disney Hall in April 2014, doing “an intense spoken-word kind of rap” about Dutch painter Piet Mondrian as part of composer Louis Andriessen’s operatic work De Materie. “I had to carry a laser light as part of a big orchestral night. Not a bad way to come into Los Angeles, Disney Hall,” Meow Meow admits. “I’ve accidentally developed a body of work that involves theater pieces that are deconstructed to let the dark in, the heart in.”
She also has performed with The Dresden Dolls’ Amanda Palmer. “We met at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. She invited me to tour with The Dresden Dolls. She and [her husband] Neil Gaiman are special friends,” Meow Meow says. “She’s given me some of her songs to sing, and we’ll jump onstage together at each other’s shows.”
One of her most durable musical collaborators has been Lauderdale, who co-wrote the original songs on Hotel Amour with Meow Meow. “I think it’s a musical gem of an album,” she says. “It’s been a beautiful musical friendship, an ever-changing beast. I think it’s our 12-year anniversary. … Finding what we like to do together, it’s a special combination. … It’s all in the lyrics. If they get too apocalyptic, Thomas is like, ‘Do you want to say that or do you want it to be more beautiful?’ It’s a different thing with Thomas. There’s a kind of tenderness. Resistance is futile; let’s face it,” she jokes about her provocative past theatrical performances and how the Hollywood Forever concert is intended to be more about the music. “They might have to gaffer tape me to a chair to finish a song.”
The most intense and indeed apocalyptic track on Hotel Amour might be “Die blaue Stunde I” (“The Blue Hour I”), a shadowy glimpse from a fever dream that was penned by Meow Meow and Lauderdale. “A lot of my lyrics seem to return to this hour I call the blue hour, the bit between the hours between day and night, those strange transitional times when everything is shimmering,” the singer says, explaining that she was inspired by the “very strange landscape” of neon-lit ballroom dance places in Shanghai. “It’s a period I find fascinating — the city waking up, the trembling sensation in the veins, kind of like neon flickering, the body waking up like a city. We debated whether to put that on the album,” Meow Meow confides. “You want the audience to not commit to a quick fix. It feels like a journey to the exotic.”
Realizing how serious she’s sounding, Meow Meow makes a quick joke about herself in the third person, “She’s quite complicated — have a listen!”
Has the singer ever performed in a cemetery before? “Yes, I have. For the 50-year anniversary of Sgt. Pepper’s, the city of Liverpool commissioned artists to take a song from the album and make a piece,” she says. “They gave me free rein.” Meow Meow chose “Lovely Rita” and “did a kind of three-day event” that involved “a procession through the city with meter workers. I was in a dress made of parking tickets. On the final day was a ‘Rita’ requiem, which we performed in a graveyard in Liverpool. It was about the bodies in the cemetery, about time and the universe, with a string quartet with trumpet and trombone,” she adds.
“It was a special thing, kind of making beautiful music for [ghosts],” Meow Meow says. “I feel conscious of the performers who’ve been there before, the ghosts in the theater. … I’m an absolute sucker for an old theater. I could feel something in the wood,” she discloses about a performance she once gave in a Parisian venue. “I’m just a little layer of all the sweat and bodies who’ve been there. … I like seeing the history of things. I like to see where we come from. I think that’s why Thomas and I connected so strongly, this love of history that is shared.”
Meow Meow and Thomas Lauderdale perform at the Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, 6000 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood; Thu., March 21, 7 p.m.; $50. (323) 469-1181, hollywoodforever.com.