The unexpected hit of Sydney Festival this year was New York chanteuse singer-sophisticate who was once a teenage punk rocker, Lady Rizo. She brings her deeply personal cabaret eulogy for America, a country she declares officially dead, to Lismore City Hall this week.
Why do you liken America to a bad boyfriend? Is it more serious… is a restraining order required?
Ha! Yes, at times it feel like that – but overall, no, I don’t think so or I’d have left already. It’s just a bad boyfriend because it continually disappoints. You are hopeful for change because it’s a creative, fun, often exciting energetic nation. He sure knows how to spin you around the dance floor. This nation that breeds a certain kind of self-importance that sometimes leads to bold ideas and sometimes leads to egomaniacal reality-TV show that failed businessmen who, through snake-oil swindling, become presidents. It’s such a complex country because it holds so many people with polarised opinions and doesn’t prize education. I don’t have easy faith that laws will be created with equality or rights in mind. But there are moments, like right now as these Parkland school shooting teens are organising and creating a focused counter to the NRA’s hold on politicians that thrill me. Moments like these where your heart swells with the hope for what a large, wild, energetic (albeit fractured) democracy can be.
Is it confronting as an American to travel and see how America is perceived?
It used to be. My ex-husband is Colombian, and when I first visited his family his (radically political) sister didn’t really speak to me for a week because of her preconceived idea of what Americans were. I feel so used to it by now. When I perform in the UK I can almost hear an audible sigh when an audience deems me to be intelligent. The assumption that I’m not smart could be because I’m a woman as well, though, or a cabaret singer. I have travelled in my share of countries masquerading as Canadian or even Finnish (in places unlikely that people would know the language) because I just didn’t want to get into it. Conversely there is an automatic mystique and glamour held by being from New York City, so sometimes that evens it out.
Why are the amazingly strong artistic voices of America being overshadowed in the media by the dumb voices of extremism?
I think we’re all addicted to the shock and elitist joy felt by noting intense and sometimes hilarious ignorance in others. I know some of the news coverage about it in Australia is ripe with the feeling of superiority to such a ‘powerful nation’. My fascination with Trump’s ability to reach new lows of empathy, intelligence, and morality only has grown over the last two years. It’s masochistic.
I was at a show last night where the comedian said that people who are violent are always dumb. Do you think that’s true?
I think that intelligence leads you to prize cooperation and reciprocation to get what you want. Without these skills one could resort to violence. I do believe that violence always starts with self-hatred, no matter how buried it is. Perhaps that is from a cycle of abuse or genetic place. It’s interesting watching my usually very kind two-year-old deal with frustrations. Witnessing how easily obstacles trigger a place of pure anger that bypasses thoughtful response. We are all a toddler inside but most of us have learned to respond in ways other than throwing the toy car or punching the dude.
How did growing up in a commune help shape you? Did it make you less conventional? What did the world look like to a girl who grew up to a large extent, I guess, as an ‘outsider’?
I was raised in a tightly knit intentional artist community; it wasn’t communal living but unconventional in the way that I was raised by many adults whom I was not related to in a circle formed around art; specifically theatre and modern dance. This has completely informed who I am as a person and an artist. The other world looked very clean, drab, organised, jocky and straight to me. I am most at home in queer downtown showbiz circles. I feel very lucky because having a village invested in your future gives you an underlying confidence in yourself so, even though I was an ‘outsider’, I always felt like the right kind of misfit (except for when I was 13. That was the only year I doubted. Puberty confuses even the most righteous rebels.)
You say you still have an anarchic streak. What does that mean? Do people actually understand what that means? It seems the word and the concept terrify people. We just seem to want to be regulated and controlled!
There is an agitator inside that wants to thrash about at the status quo and shake people awake into life. And even though I believe in the power of democracy and community I am most interested in personal freedom (within basic moral boundaries). I’ve been thinking a lot about morality lately; I feel that my whole life this word has been used against me as a way to heteronormative Christian values. With ‘orange twitler’ in charge of the US I feel that I’m truly seeing what someone devoid of morality is: someone who values money over humans, personal ego over all, and has no grasp on a modicum of truth.
In my youth I was into punk rock but now I package that disrupter nature into a smooth, luxurious, glamorous feminist form and the teeth gnashing only bubbles up in bursts.
Tell me about your show. What are the challenging ideas that you try to distil with comedic simplicity?
What is patriotism and how do we love our country enough to fight for it if we are continually disappointed with it? What privileges has my nationality bestowed on me? Why are Americans’ lives at the mercy of Second Amendment gun nuts? Where has feminism halted in the US? How are women’s bodies and black bodies not treated as full citizens? Has our obsession with fame combined with lack of education funding gotten us to this place where people would vote for the Sleazy Used Hate Salesman?
Expect a ride in a velvet-gloved palm, soaring notes, glitter, truth, invigoration and martinis at Lismore City Hall on Saturday when Lady Rizo presents Red, White & Indigo | 7.30pm |Tickets $25–54 | Booking: norpa.org.au or call 1300 066 772 | 16+