After six years of acclaimed cabaret performances, diva Mama Alto and her musical directress Miss Chief spent November 2016 in an extraordinary entirely analogue recording facility for vinyl records, Alex Bennett’s Sound Recordings. Recorded live to tape on original vintage sound equipment - including an actual machine used by Nat King Cole himself at Capitol Records, and an RCA microphone of the kind favoured by Sarah Vaughan - the result is a stunning capture of their best loved song interpretations from their extensive jazz repertoire, released across a four record anthology.
LADY SINGS THE BLUES:
Lady Day, Lady in Satin, the Lady of Dark Sorrows, the Lady with Gardenias in Her Hair. The great Billie Holiday was a complex and captivating icon. Her voice and her songs were idiosyncratic, exquisite, and powerful. Her interpretations, her phrasing, and her stories through song balanced joy and sorrow, pathos and intellect. She is amongst my most treasured musical influences, and in 2015 it was my great honour and privilege to present a tribute to the 100th year since the birth of Billie Holiday, as part of the wonderful American Songbook Festival in the Salon of the Melbourne Recital Centre - one of the finest acoustic spaces in the southern hemisphere. “Lady Sings The Blues” celebrated the triumph and sorrow of Lady Day, saluting her centenary, exploring her legacy, and capturing moments of her life and music in a mosaic of story and song. Billie Holiday was one of the greatest jazz singers of all time, and touched many lives. Even one hundred years after her birth, we remember her as a singer, a songwriter, a musician with immense stylistic and interpretive talent, a philosopher, an activist and a figurehead, and an agent of social change through her life and her music. When we set out to record selections from our repertoire, the inclusion of songs from our tribute to Billie Holiday were an essential inclusion.
With much love to Billie Holiday, and much love to you, dear listener -
- Mama Alto xx
“In the space between music and language, torch singing is an invitation, an opening to desire… torch singing is a becoming, a provocation to participate that doesn’t erase antagonisms and contradictions.” So wrote the magnificent Stacy Holman Jones, in her work of performance autoethnography, “Torch Singing: Performing Resistance and Desire from Billie Holiday to Edith Piaf,” which in her words explores “torch singing as a sounding of desire, as a radical, hopeful politics.”
Many singers and many songs seem to transcend the boundaries of genre, and sing directly to our hearts. We often find it difficult to define a torch song, but instinctively know when we hear it. The torch singer is telling a story, weaving a truth, narrating a journey. The torch song is at once obvious and enigmatic, with embedded meanings, a multiplicity of perspectives, and an entanglement of identities. And at the heart of the act of torch singing is the delicious tension between tradition and subversion. As a cabaret singer interpreting, re-interpreting, presenting, re-presenting, and representing, torch songs, I work both to honour the legacy of the great women who have kept the flame before me, as well as to subvert the dominant and affirm the marginalised through song and storytelling. Let us all aspire, in our own ways, to bear a torch against the dark.
There is something very special about intimate performances. When I first encountered the hidden gem of the gorgeous Porcelain Tea Parlour, it made my heart sing. The room is dim, with flickering candlelight, but you can see details emerge as your eyes acclimatise after stepping in from the brisk evening breezes of Carlton streets. The walls are a gentle forest green, the furniture is a quirky and delightful selection of carefully curated vintage and antique pieces - a leather Chesterfield couch here, a small marble table there, finishes of chocolate wood, satin and velvet textures abound, and there’s a charming record player nestled amongst potted plants. And everywhere, delicate tea sets nest and settle like little birds. We began a collaborative salon - a special project about connection and community. Seating less than twenty people per evening, with Miss Chief accompanying on the keys and ukulele and Scarlett brewing up divine artisan teas and tisanes, Mama Alto’s Salon Series was an extraordinary, gorgeous and delightful endeavour in love, kindness, joy and openness, with one salon every month for a year. With this record, we hope to pour you a cup of that magic brew.
- Mama xx
As singers, the ballad holds a special place in our art and in our hearts. The almost limitless interpretations and possibilities within a well written piece - be they present in the lyric, the melody, or in hidden subtexts - seem to be waiting, layer upon layer, to be unearthed and indulged, like an archaeology of the soul, or a delicate and fine dessert with intriguing and tantalising aftertastes. These layers of meaning and of feeling are central to the art of cabaret singing, but also connect to my belief that our feelings and emotions are incredibly important and hold radical possibilities. In a society that discounts feelings, vulnerability and empathy all too often, the role of the singer, the diva, the songbird, is to use music to hold space for our emotions and our humanity. The song allows singer and listener to express, experience and comprehend a depth and intensity of emotion that might otherwise be taboo - and in doing so, lights the way to a more hopeful tomorrow.