Before collaborating on an inter-twisting new album, Hotel Amour, and intertwining set lists the likes of which bring them to World Café Live on March 26, Pink Martini leader and pianist Thomas Lauderdale played accompanist and bestest bud to the toast of the Australian cabaret scene, Melissa Madden Gray, otherwise known as Meow Meow.
For the last 15 years, when Lauderdale wasn’t busy touring the land or hitting recording studios for Pink Martini’s space-age bachelor pad lounge orchestrations, he was tinkling the ivories for the kittenish chanteuse. Now fully united and integrated, the pair discussed their origin story from two parts of the globe during one conversation, with Lauderdale in his home of Portland and Meow calling from London.
The Key: How and why did your friendship commence?
Meow Meow: There’s always drama. Ours is a love affair, plain and simple. And odd love affair. I was in Berlin when I got a call from a Dublin arts festival about a band having dropped out. The audience wasn’t expecting me, but the festival needed something urgently. At this tiny club with this intimate audience was Portland’s Kristy Edmonds from its Institute of Contemporary Art. She came backstage and told me how I needed to come to her festival in Portland, and that she wanted to introduce me to a pianist that she had a strong feeling I would connect with. That’s when we met, and we’ve been mad for each other ever since.
Thomas Lauderdale: That was 2005. We did an absolutely loony concert, and found that we had a relationship, absolute mutual musicality, based on shared knowledge and complete revelation. The things we showed each other were…
MM: …Simply ‘ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh’. Thomas kept playing me the amazing creature that is Jimmy Scott and his records and talking about his voice. I’ll never forget sitting up in his loft listening to him, and other vocal pop from the 1950s. Such an amazing musical adventure. Then we’d tear through the streets of Oregon in his vintage car with the top down blaring Maria Callas singing “Samson & Delilah.”
TK: You’re a wild man, Thomas. How did all this become something physically and actually a musical thing between you?
MM: Well, I think that this was a bit terrifying for Thomas because of how much I improvise on stage. There’s a horror to not knowing what will happen next. But I think that we each had a string and instant curiosity to make it happen no-matter-what. We were hyperventilating with excitement as to how all that would go.
TL: My best gift is as an accompanist. It was absolutely delightful to be the support to this thing that would expand…it was liberating. I don’t think I ever prepared for something as much as I did meeting and working with her.
MM: In fact, A.D., the first thing we did together was a Piazolla tango, so you’re right on topic with your page there. Some of the things that we put on the album have been torturous because they are personal and painful, but others are just pouring out, the fastest I have ever written. Like the first EP we ever did together for our first appearances.
TK: That’s doubly amazing, as Thomas, you’re not a songwriter.
TL: Not at all. Until now. The lyrics and the music happened so fast and so easily, though, that I didn’t question it. I didn’t have time to,
MM: I’m forever grateful to Thomas for not allowing me to keep anything inside.
TL: The album took years to finish because we both have so many projects that were working on, but when we were working together on it, it came and went fast. The energy continues still. It’s very easy to re pick up.
MM: We also both have an affinity for older people. In show business, and maybe because it is so transitory, we have a connection with musical history. There are collaborations we have planned, maybe for the second album, doing Hong Kong songs of the 1950s. We must get Grace Chang who did “Hong Kong Mambo.” You know Thomas and I have this whole long story about almost having Kitty Hart Carlisle — the resplendent lead singer in the Marx Bros’ Night at the Opera — sing with Pink Martini, only to wind up with Carol Channing at the last moment because Kitty felt ill. But one that that Kitty told me before that is that “we want more gigs.”
TK: That is history. I know the two of you feature Michel Legrand playing piano on the new album, and the song “Sans Toi.” Is that part of that wish to portray historical perspective and interest?
TL: Legrand loved Meow Meow so much that he wrote a part for her in the stage revival of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. The song as she and he recorded it, with him playing, you can find a video of him playing for her. All I did was add a bunch of trombones, inspired by Beethoven’s” Écossaise” which he wrote for his own funeral. It was weird to realize that we had this song…considering that Michel died a few weeks ago. There is soothing beautiful about that.
TK: You know, save for the timbre of your voices, you sound like the same person.
MM: You can hardly tell us apart from the way we dress either, save for my massive bosom.
TK: is it that proximity to each other’s thoughts that makes this collaboration different than anything else in your lives or careers?
MM: The thing that I love about the relationship between Thomas and me — like what I found with Legrand and Barry Humphries — whatever age they are, they all go “ooh, what’s that?” Thomas is like that. They’re deeply curious about everything and anything they might not know about. I mean, Barry toured the world on a set of songs he found in a suitcase when he was a schoolboy, songs that the Nazis found to be degenerate. When Barry and Thomas did their first ever Dame Edna gig together, both were curious and worked diligently as to how to bridge the gap between absurd comedy and sublime music. They have a love of the unexpected. And definitely drama.
TL: I guess, no one here is just winging it. There is an essential curiosity in the beauty of all music that we share. And I believe we push each other where we might not usually go.
Meow Meow and Thomas Lauderdale play World Cafe Live on Tuesday, March 26th. Tickets and more information can be found at the XPN Concert Calendar.Two To Tango, World Cafe Live