Meow Meow at the San Francisco Symphony

Q&A: Meow Meow

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Singer Melissa Madden Gray, better known by her stage name Meow Meow, will join Pink Martini founder and pianist Thomas M. Lauderdale in a rare duo performance at the Davies Symphony Hall on Saturday, Jan. 27. The program will feature Meow Meow’s eclectic mix of music, dance, and comedy, with Lauderdale accompanying her on piano, bass, and drums throughout the concert.

Leading up to the show, Meow Meow spoke to Music in SF™ about what she thinks about being labeled cabaret, what her inspirations are, and what’s the wildest thing that’s happened to her on stage.

Where are you right now?

I’ve just left the Globe in London, and I’ve picked up a beautiful star cloth that my designer made and I’m just packing it away getting ready to get on the plane to the Sidney Opera House where I’m preparing to do two shows with the Sydney Symphony. I’m physically in London with a massive twinkly fairy light beautiful star cloth leaving Shakespeare and about to hit the Sydney Opera House. So, not a bad day.

Not a bad day, indeed. Let me ask you. You’ve been referred to by many as a post-post modern diva. What do you think of that label?

I guess there are many layers in my work when you peel back and deconstruct the diva, and deconstructing the music that I’m singing. Rebuilding it and reconstructing it again. Really going deep I guess. And it’s got a lot of layers, so people will make their own meaning.

I like things to be on lots of layers and lots of levels. You can read it as something of great entertainment or something more poignant and tragic. I’ve stopped trying to control how the audience will interpret it. Often I try to appeal to as many of the senses as possible. So it’s comedy, it’s political, and it’s ridiculous.

Thomas Lauderdale San Francisco Symphony
Thomas Lauderdale of Pink Martini

What are some of your biggest inspirations?

Let me think. I’m very influenced by the Weimar period I suppose. It’s an exciting period regarding the experimentation of what was happening with music and art. You’ve got high art and low art mixing, and it’s things that I like to play with a lot in a contemporary way. Lots of those experiments with Communism and politics are very reflective of what we’re living today. So I find that music very inspiring. And the politics of that time as well.

Your act has been labeled cabaret. What do you think makes cabaret special?

I see myself as a performance artist rather than cabaret. I define cabaret very broadly so I guess there’s this sort of flexibility and intimacy about the performance that you can still get in a stadium. It’s the essence of the performance, I think. That’s what I like about a broad definition of cabaret. That you can adapt the material to the politics or the environment that you’re in. You don’t have to be in a forceful pretend theatrical situation. You’re very much with the audience in that moment and I like that very much. The immediacy of acknowledging the space that you’re in. So that’s what I like about Cabaret. It’s something that implies a flexibility and a responsiveness to the audience.

How did you first develop your persona?

I simply am. I just am.

So, who is Meow Meow?

Me? I’m a performer and a musician and a writer. So, yeah, I describe myself as a creative artist. I write a lot of original songs, some that I’ll be playing in San Francisco that I’ve written with Thomas Lauderdale from Pink Martini. We’ve been working together for quite some time now, a few years. We’ve had this sort of Art/Love relationship for a long time.

I can’t cook. But I can heat a croissant with a hairdryer in a hotel room.
~ Meow Meow

Christy Edmunds saw me performing in Dublin, and she told me “I know this amazing composer. I think you’ll just love him.” So she took me to an Art Festival and introduced me to Thomas. I think this might be our 10 years anniversary actually, of our friendship and working together. It’s really beautiful, and we’ve managed to play all over the world together whenever our two schedules allow for it.

We’ve got an album that we’re working on together with the musicians from Pink Martini. I used one of the songs we wrote together just recently touring all around the world with “Little Mermaid,” this Theater show that I wrote. So, yeah, so I guess my work is very hybrid. I’ve just done a thing for the 50th anniversary of Sgt Pepper in Liverpool, which had a kind of street riot and requiem in a graveyard and an installation. So the work really crosses installation art and poetry as well as all-out comedy really.

Getting back to the San Francisco, what can audiences expect?

Well, it’s actually sort of just Thomas and I. It’s a lot of music that we’ve written together so it’s quite beautiful if you know the work of Pink Martini. And if you know my work, there’s Brel in there, there’s 1920s 1930s songs, lots of original songs. And it’s fun. I’ve got a brilliant band. I think it’s a celebration of the music that we both love. There might be some stage diving but we’ll see, you never know.

That’s what I was going to bring up. It seems from what I’ve read that you like to encourage a lot of audience participation in your shows.

I guess it has to do with what I was saying earlier about flexible form. It’s more that I like to acknowledge that the audience is there and so I really like to have everyone be excited and be a little bit on the edge of their seats. That’s the whole beauty of live theater. There’s an element of surprise and danger. That’s what’s to be celebrated!

What’s the wildest thing that’s come out of that audience participation?

Gosh, it’s pretty wild all the time I have to say. I mean sometimes it’s wild, and sometimes it’s very tender. I think stage diving.

David Bowie curated a concert that I did in New York, and that was pretty amazing. Somebody poured a martini into my mouth but missed my mouth and got my eyes. I was being carried along crying Martini tears, which was pretty good for David Bowie.

Dancing over the head of Mikael Borishnikov was also pretty wild. There are all sorts of stories. Sometimes it’s a tiny, tiny show where you have something miraculous happen. Sometimes it’s about the spectacle and other times it’s the feel and the connection with the audience and the universe. Particularly if you’re doing your own material then it becomes a much bigger thing than you could have imagined.

What’s one thing that many people would be surprised to find out about you?

I can’t cook. But I can heat a croissant with a hairdryer in a hotel room.

Meow Meow and Thomas Lauderdale play the Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco on Saturday, Jan. 27, 2018 at 8 pm // Tickets: $15–69

Note: the San Francisco Symphony does not appear in this concert.

Photo Credit Autumn deWilde

Having released albums under Digital Nations, a label founded by Steve Vai, music critic Louis Raphael has remained deeply connected to the pulse of the San Francisco music scene. Following his tenure as the San Francisco Music Examiner for and, he embarked on creating Music in SF® to authentically highlight the vibrant offerings of the city's music scene.

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