Australian-born, British-based singer Melissa Madden Gray, asked about her stage performances (from a West End take on “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” to her one-woman show in Berkeley in 2014) doesn’t answer when addressed as Melissa. At the outset of a recent interview, she said, “I have no idea what you’re talking about, my name is Meow Meow.” The chanteuse, known for her Louise-Brooks-retro style, is about to release “Hotel Amour,” a collection of cabaret duets with her old friend Thomas Lauderdale of Pink Martini. The project grew big enough for cameos from Rufus Wainwright, Barry “Dame Edna” Humphries, the Von Trapps and even the late Michel Legrand, their peers who are equally fascinated by the Weimar Republic.
What sets cabaret music apart?
Well, I have a really broad definition of it, actually. So I wouldn’t pass this album off as cabaret, really. Because some people see it as show tunes at a New York bar, don’t they? And then for others, it’s about the Weimar aesthetic. But for me? Cabaret is about the material, the storytelling, with the song taking you on a dramatic journey. There’s something about the intimacy of the material, regardless of the size of the size of the crowd, or the actual space you’re playing in. Which I really love about it; you’re acknowledging the fact that the audience is really there. You’re not doing a play pretending that there’s a fourth wall. It’s very immediate.
You love its rich Germanic history, too.
It’s the potency of the words that makes it so fantastic. Some of those songs from 1920s Berlin are just deconstructing language, and others are absolutely screaming politics. A lot of those lyrics are just hideously resonant now — about invading countries in three days, or governments falling apart — that old thing. It’s weird. I’ve been doing a show with Barry Humphries, or Dame Edna. And since he was a kid he’s been collecting this music, as have I. And we did these concerts around the world four years ago, and we did it again last year. And again, the words from the ‘20s and the ‘30s felt like they were evermore real and necessary. Which is kind of shocking, We are literally repeating history.
What obscurities have you dug up?
That’s where Thomas and I have really connected, I think. We’re total history buffs, and we’re both hoarders. But we have very eclectic record collections. So with Thomas, one minute you’re listening to Jimmy Scott, and the next minute you’re listening to a New Zealand girls’ choir, singing folk songs in a church hall.
IF YOU GO
Meow Meow & Thomas Lauderdale
Where: Bing Studio, 327 Lasuen St., Stanford University
When: 7 and 9 p.m. March 20
Tickets: $30 to $75