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.
“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.”
“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?”
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”