Tag Archives: singing

Cabaret performer Lili La Scala gets emotional over Nick Cave & a dead cat

Lilli with Rafferty Basil Danger Wills

Lili La Scala + Rafferty Basil Danger Wills

I talked to cabaret performer Lili La Scala at a famous members club in London this week. It seemed suitably suave and sophisticated. (She is a member. They not unreasonably rejected me several years ago.)

Lili is married to performer Sam Wills aka The Boy With Tape On His Face. They had a son last year They named him Rafferty Basil Danger Wills.

“Why those names?” I asked.

“Rafferty because we just liked it,” explained Lili. “And Basil was my grandfather’s name.”

“And Danger?” I asked.

“Because I just love the idea he can truthfully say: Danger is my middle name.

“And you named yourself after the Italian word for staircase?” I asked.

“I trained as an opera singer,” explained Lili, “so I named myself after La Scala opera house in Milan – or the picture house in Glasgow, whichever you prefer.”

“Why are you not an opera singer now?” I asked.

“Because I fell into the dark, dirty world of burlesque and cabaret. Well, actually, I fell into street performing first.”

“As what?” I asked.

“As an opera singer on the street. They called me The Songbird of Trafalgar Square.

“Who did?”

The Songbird of Trafalgar Square on Flickr

Songbird of Trafalgar Square attracted a following on Flickr

“One day on Flickr, I stumbled on a group dedicated to me… it was a compliment but also slightly freaky. There were about 200 pictures of me – I looked a bit unusual, with dark hair and a Fifties dress singing opera. They didn’t know what my name was, so they just put Songbird of Trafalgar Square.”

“Didn’t your voice get lost in the vast open space of Trafalgar Square?” I asked.

“The low notes did,” said Lili, “but the high notes carried because they were a higher frequency than the traffic: it was when Trafalgar Square was still a roundabout. I sang with my back to the National Gallery. I was a Swing dancer for a long time, too. My mother trained as a ballet dancer but now she’s a physio who works with performers.”

“Did you dance in Trafalgar Square?”

“No,” replied Lili. “You get sent home for dancing in Trafalgar Square.”

“And singing?” I asked.

“Yes. That too. They sent two policemen and a police car. But they just told me to go away. It would have looked ridiculous for them to arrest a girl who was much smaller than them and wearing a 1950s-looking dress.”

“Why do you dress in 1950s costumes?” I asked.

“When I was about 21,” explained Lili, “I decided if I wanted to dress like a 1950s film star I should because you only have one life and it’s important to dress like you want to.”

if I wanted to dress like a 1950s film star I should because you only have one life and it’s important to dress like you want to.

“I decided if I wanted to dress like a 1950s film star I should.”

“But then,” I said, “you went into burlesque. Why?”

“A friend of mine said one day: Have you ever thought of putting together opera and burlesque? Don’t you think it would go really well? And I thought Ooh! So I tried it and it was really good. I have a huge soft spot for the burlesque world anyway.”

“You are saying Burlesque not Cabaret,” I pointed out. “Isn’t cabaret more respectable?”

“I think burlesque is pretty respectable at the moment,” said Lili.

“I would have said you were cabaret,” I told her. “You’re Monte Carlo 1963. What’s the difference between burlesque and cabaret anyway?”

“Burlesque has more tits,” said Lili. “There was more stripping originally. American burlesque evolved into what is now big sparkly showgirl stuff whereas the English Music Hall style was much more of a send-up, making it funny, taking the piss out of stuff. Don’t get me wrong. I adore the showgirl stuff, but I just couldn’t do it. I’m too kookie and too clumsy.”

“The last couple of years at the Edinburgh Fringe,” I said, “a lot of the funniest stuff has not been in the Comedy section but the Cabaret section. I loved your show last year Another Fucking Variety Show. You’re a very good compere.”

There are, inevitably, clips on YouTube.

“It’s really funny,” said Lili. “Everyone thinks I’m this cool, in-command person.”

“Well,” I said, “Lili La Scala couldn’t do a really emotional show, could she?”

Lilli La Scala created emotional War Notes

Lili La Scala created emotional War Notes

“Rubbish!” said Lili. “When I decided I wanted to stop doing street performing, the first solo show I created was about my first love: vintage songs, because I grew up watching movie musicals. So I created a show called War Notes – songs from World War One and Two, but I wanted to make them more relevant. So I found letters from servicemen in current conflicts. This was 2010, so the wars were Afghanistan and Iraq. The letters were the ones that said: If you are reading this, I’ve been killed.

“I found them on Google and wrote to a member of the family of the service personnel. It was fairly gut-wrenching researching them but I found a lot of the sentiment in the letters was really similar to the sentiment in the songs, even though they were sometimes separated by almost a full century in time.

“I had friends and knew boyfriends of friends who were serving in Afghanistan. I performed the whole month of Edinburgh and it was a really emotional show – to listen to those letters every night.”

“What did you do immediately after the show?” I asked.

“I went out and got very drunk.”

“And the next show after that?” I asked.

“After that, I created Songs To Make You Smile which was just an hour of comedy songs from 1920-1950, real British variety. That has toured ever since – Sweden, New Zealand, Australia and all over the place.”

Lilli’s new show - not in Edinburgh until 2015

The new show – not in Edinburgh until 2015

“My new solo show Siren is on 21st June at the London Wonderground – the closest thing London has to a cabaret festival. I just did it in Adelaide and it was very well-received there. I attempt to sing stuff I’ve never sung before, which is wonderfully challenging for me.”

“But you’ve sung 1930s standards and opera and music hall songs,” I said. “there’s nothing much left.”

“Well, there’s some Tom Waits,” said Lili. “All the songs in the show are about the sea and journeys and travelling and some are really emotional for me.

“There’s one – Nick Cave’s Ship Song…

“I got very emotional when I sang it, because it reminded me a lot about a love affair I had when I was very young which went horrifically wrong and it had left me utterly broken-hearted. He said I could be his girl in London but he wanted to have an open relationship and I’m not really an open relationship kind of girl. I attempted it because I really, really loved him, but I ended up giving him an ultimatum saying: Look, we have heaps of fun together, but I can’t do this. We can either be together – just us – or not… And he chose Not.

“I thought I’d dealt with it back then but it turned out I’d just buried it under the patio. To find out it was still festering was an emotional shock for me.

“Then he turned up in town and we bumped into each other because – of course – we have the same circle of friends. We hadn’t spoken for eight years, so it was awkward. He said he was having an open relationship with his girlfriend. He said: If I could have been with just one someone, it would have been you… or maybe the girl I dated the year after you… He said he couldn’t even own a refrigerator. Too much commitment.”

“It’s alright for a spoken word performer to well-up emotionally,” I said, “but, if you’re singing and genuinely well-up, your voice won’t recover from that for – what? – 10 seconds?”

“Really,” explained Lili, “what you’re aiming for is several glistening tears rolling down your cheek. I was genuinely very tearful when I sang it. Then he came to the show and it gave me that moment to say all the stuff I wanted to say to him without him having any way of going But… but… but… By the end of it, I was Oh. I’m done now. It’s over. That’s fine. we’re done.”

“So what happened the next time you sang the song?” I asked.

“I then had to find some other way of creating that emotion in me that affects the audience because, obviously, I like the way it emotionally affects the audience.”

This bemused creature has a dog’s life

This beloved bemused creature has a dog’s life

“So how did you find that?”

“I thought about my dead cat.”



“How many cats do you have?”

“Five cats and two dogs. The dogs are utterly cowed, though the dachshund is like a little dictator, perhaps because he’s German.”


Filed under Cabaret, Comedy, Music

An actress/singer, not really a busker, who enjoys the bitty madness of life

One of the good things about writing a daily blog is that I have an excuse to randomly drink tea and talk to interesting people.

Last week, I saw – and heard – a girl singing in Leicester Square tube station. There is a video of her on YouTube busking at Bank station in 2010.

She was no ordinary busker.

Yesterday, I had tea with her in Soho.

London-born Danusia Samal spent part of her childhood in the Middle East. After returning to London, she studied at the BRIT School for Performing Arts, then started a BA in European Theatre at the Rose Bruford College of Theatre & Performance.

“I did a year,” she says, “then changed my mind and took a gap year” during which she performed in various productions including The Suit at the Young Vic, where she played the Shabeen Queen, the jazz songstress narrator of the show. After her gap year, she got a place on the BA Acting course at the Central School of Speech & Drama and, during her time training, she was nominated for the Laurence Olivier award and the Carleton Hobbs BBC Radio Award.

Since then, she has performed at Soho Theatre, Manchester Royal Exchange, the Citizens Theatre, Unicorn Theatre, Pleasance and Watford Palace and she has collaborated on various music projects, including writing music for 1001 Nights at the Unicorn Theatre.

She is 24.

“How long have you been busking?” I asked Danusia.

Danusia on her way to Soho Theatre last night

Danusia Samal on way to London’s Soho Theatre last night

“On-and-off for just under six years,” she told me. “Acting’s a career thing. You have to work hard and do all of the networking and things you don’t enjoy doing and the music thing is just something I really enjoy. So I’ve decided to do that out of enjoyment and passion. If the two ever merge, that’s great.

“I meet people, I sing to strangers, I enjoy the interaction and it keeps me ‘up’ when I’m not working as an actress. I don’t do that actor ‘resting’ thing because I’m out doing something, performing all the time, so I don’t get that ‘low’ thing.”

“When I saw you busking last week,” I told her, “singing jazz, I thought Ooh! What a great voice! and walked past, Then I turned back to have another listen and, as I did that, some bloke you knew came out of a side tunnel and there was something indefinable in the way you looked at him and your body language. It was something like This is something I have to do as a rite of passage: standing in the underground singing. But it wasn’t Ooh, I should be doing better things, it was like you were just taking things as they came along. It was an intriguing reaction.”

“Well,” Danusia told me, “I’m not embarrassed by standing singing to strangers for money in a tunnel, but I know some people think… That was another actor you saw… I sometimes run into people who don’t know about it and it’s quite a good laugh to watch their faces change as they do a double-take and realise they know me.”

“In one of the few job interviews I have ever had,” I told her, “the person interviewing me said: John, your CV seems a little unfocussed. He seemed to think this was a disadvantage. I thought it was on the plus side – doing lots of different things.”

“I quite like the bitty madness of life,” said Danusia.

“Ah!” I said. “Maybe that was what I saw in your eyes when you were busking. Someone who accepts the bitty madness of life.”

“I enjoy surprising people by doing all sorts of stuff.” she told me. “And completely unexpected things always come up. When I’m down and I think nothing’s going to happen, something random happens. You know the other day the whole Victoria Line closed down because they accidentally poured quick-drying cement into a control room?”

“With people in it?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” said Danusia. “The signal room was flooded with quick-drying cement, so they had to shut the whole line. I got trapped in a tunnel full of commuters at Tottenham Court Road. These people were queueing to get onto platforms and it went on for about an hour and a half and I thought Oh God, I’m going to be really annoying them, because I’m nose-to-nose with them and they just want to go home and I’m in the way, but I couldn’t get out because I was trapped in my little performer’s semi-circle. So I carried on singing and it was one of the best sessions I’ve ever had because I was actually cheering people up.”

“I guess it was like singing in the tube stations in the War while the bombs were falling,” I suggested.

“Yeah,” said Danusia. “I remember a really elderly lady stopping to talk to me and singing me old songs. She told me she used to be a singer in World War Two. I meet interesting people.

“Strange people ask me to sing strange songs"

“Strange people ask me to sing strange songs”

“Strange people ask me to sing strange songs. And I had a man come and talk to me the other day for about ten minutes in unintelligible… He was British and I think he was trying to speak in English, but I don’t know if they were even words… He just spoke at me for a really long time.

“When I first started, I stupidly gave out cards with my phone number on. I got called a lot by this guy who was allegedly a rapper. He kept phoning me at like four in the morning, telling me he was going to pick me up in a limo if I just gave him my address. Really weird stuff.”

“So,” I said, “you sing, you act…”

“…and I write music with my cousin, who’s a guitarist. He used to have an Indie rock band now he writes these gorgeous guitar riffs and I write lyrics to them.”

“You should write songs about the people you’ve met through busking,” I suggested. “You’ve got endless songs in you about bizarre people. Have you written plays?’

“I’m trying to write one.”

“Which is about…?”

“It’s gonna sound too autobiographical, but it’s about a woman who’s partly of a foreign background, partly British and it has two split scenes. One with her family who are not from here. And one with her English friends. And the scenes blend in and out of each other, so she’ll walk from one into the other. But it’s a sort-of comedy. My mum is Polish – well, she was born over here, so she’s British – and my dad is Kurdish.”

“Which bit of Kurdistan?” I asked.

“The bit in Turkey.”

“And where are you off to after we finish talking?”

“Soho Theatre. I did a play in Manchester with comedian Ed Gaughan and we got together and did a sketch for his night of sketches at Shoreditch Town Hall and one of the acts there was Julian Barratt (of The Mighty Boosh) and he’s doing a night at Soho Theatre tonight and we’re doing ten minutes of our thing there. It’s kind-of last-minute, so we’re just meeting and grabbing something together.”

“And after that,” I asked, “in the grand scheme of things?”

“I don’t know. I’m definitely in the middle at the moment. I’m not sure what I’m doing right now.”

“And does that worry you?”

“Sometimes. But it’s also kind of refreshing.”

Danusia has an online showreel.


Filed under Acting, Singing

A stand-up comic struck down with amusia before the Edinburgh Fringe

As anyone wise enough to read this blog regularly will know, I love the very funny US TV detective series Monk which has a central character with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. So I am now a sucker for any OCD stories.

Which brings me to British stand-up comedian and writer Gill Smith, who (as I explained in recent a blog) inspired the annual Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award – now there’s something for her to put on her gravestone.

Last week, she asked me to wantonly plug her upcoming Edinburgh Fringe show in this blog.

I am a man of principle. It is not something I would normally do except for wads of used £50 notes or, at the very least, a free meal. But, perhaps foolishly lured by the carrot of OCD, I told her:

“I will give you a blatant plug if you give me a quirky anecdote.”


The lovely Gill Smith is returning to the Fringe this year with her new show OCD: the Singing Obsessive – at The Three Sisters as part of the Laughing Horse Free Festival. The hour-long show is 6:05pm from 4th to 28th August daily… except every Tuesday.

Only someone with OCD, of course, could even conceive of performing a full run of Edinburgh Fringe shows daily – but not do them every Tuesday.

That was not the quirky detail Gill told me, though – she probably doesn’t even think that IS quirky…

The billing for her show reads: “For years Gill Smith resisted her biggest obsession – breaking into song… Now she’s accepted her own obsessive toe-tapping and is sharing her inner soundtrack.”

There proved to be a slight problem about this concept, though, which she discovered in her pre-production preparations.

“In the course of planning the show,” Gill tells me, “I discovered that I can’t actually sing! Of course, I’ll be doing so anyway. But my singing tutor and I found that I do actually suffer from a little-known condition called ‘amusia‘, which is the musical equivalent of dyslexia… It doesn’t stop me enjoying singing… but I can’t promise others, especially those with good pitch, will find it as enjoyable!”

When Gill told me that her condition is actually called ‘amusia’ I began to think she was taking the piss – she is, after all, an esteemed former Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award winner.

But, no, it’s all true, She actually does have this condition and, incredibly, it is actually called ‘amusia’ – surely that name must be like striking gold for a comedian.

“The even better word for the condition,” say Gill, “is the Japanese one – ‘onchi’ – which translates most closely as ‘tone idiot’… I love it!”

I disagree.


Who would have thought?

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Filed under Comedy, Health, Music, PR, Psychology