“There is a great pleasure in taking a banal or pretentious pop song and making it into something nasty and twisted”, says Dusty Limits, one of ThreeWeeks’ very favourite cabaret stars, who is back in Edinburgh for the umpteenth time, bringing his new show, ‘Darkling’, with him.
We caught up with this specialist purveyor of darkly themed song rewrites and musical pastiches to find out the meaning of ‘new cabaret’, what drives him as a performer, and why he won’t give up on the wonderful thing we call Fringe.
CM: Tell us about this year’s show.
DL: ‘Darkling’ is in some ways a follow-up to ‘The Picture Of Dusty Limits’, which I performed at The Famous Spiegeltent last year. The theme of that show was ‘narcissism’, while the theme of ‘Darkling’ is ‘melancholy’. The material is darker in tone, and a lot more personal, based on my own experiences. Having said that, it’s still laced with irony. I find it very difficult to sing seriously about suicide, for instance. If I was that serious about it, I would have done it.
CM: During the time you’ve been appearing in Edinburgh, you’ve done solo shows as well as hosting cabaret – which do you prefer?
DL: Definitely doing solo shows. I love being a compere, but I got into it accidentally: I was in Broughton Street and bumped into an actor I’d worked with ten years earlier, in Brisbane. That led to my entree into the Bongo Club, where I had my baptism of fire. And I’ve done a lot of hosting since then, but my main aim has always been to do solo work.
CM: How did you get into cabaret, and how did your career progress?
DL: I came from an acting and directing background, but always loved music and trained as a classical singer. Then, in 1994, I threw together a cabaret to raise money to take a show to a student theatre festival, and discovered the incredible buzz that kind of show gives. I moved to the UK in 1999, searched in vain for cabaret clubs and, after giving up, ended up starting one with a couple of friends instead. Then the Bongo came along and derailed my life in a good way: I was instantly part of an amazing, international community. Since then I’ve just tried to keep working, rather than having any thought of a ‘career’. I still can’t quite believe that I do this for a living.
CM: What attracts you to the cabaret genre?
DL: I love cabaret’s immediacy, intimacy, and spontaneity – which are things I love about stand-up as well – but with cabaret there’s greater variety and much greater emotional range. I want to be made to cry as well as laugh.
CM: You are said to be part of the ‘new cabaret’ scene – what exactly is ‘new cabaret’?
DL: I am not really sure where the term came from. I think people saw ‘neo-burlesque’ – which makes sense as a term, since the new burlesque re-appropriated old burlesque forms, but did something very new with them – and came up with a cabaret equivalent. If anything, ‘new cabaret’ is simply the stuff being done by people on this side of the ‘cabaret revival’. Cabaret lapsed out of favour and got replaced by stand-up (which is itself a sub-category of cabaret), but about ten years ago it started growing tentacles again.
So the ‘new cabaret’ folk are the people who would never get a gig at the Oak Room who are throwing together shows in quirky venues late at night. I do think we’ll look back on this current period as one of the great ages of cabaret, along with Paris in the 19th century, Weimar Berlin, New York in the 50s, and so forth. There is a tremendous sense of energy and conviction. But, ultimately, it’s just a bunch of fun people getting pissed and making art.
CM: You often ‘reinterpret’ songs by other people – whose work do you best like adapting?
DL: In terms of doing rewrites and pastiches, I am indiscriminate. I tend to pick tunes people know already, so that they can concentrate on the words; there is a great pleasure in taking a banal or pretentious pop song and making it into something nasty and twisted. As an interpretive singer, I’d have to say Weill is top of the tree – the first time I heard his music (on a cassette tape, so that tells you how long ago it was!) it changed my brain. Brel, Waits and Bowie are also up there. I’m also mad at the moment about a singer/songwriter called Phil Jeays, who has kindly given me permission to cover some of his songs.
CM: You’ve been coming to the Fringe for many years – what keeps you coming back?
DL: I’ve been every year since 2003, and every year I tell myself to take a year off. And every year I come back again. I was thrown into the hot zone in 2003 and now every cell is infected with the Fringe. What keeps me coming back is simple: it’s the most exciting three weeks of the year. I’ll see some of the greatest performances of my life. I’ll catch up with friends I only see in August, friends from all over the world. I’ll come back exhausted and inspired.
CM: Which other acts will you seek out in Edinburgh this year?
DL: I’m planning to take pot luck this year. I’ll go see my mates’ shows, time permitting – so Frisky and Mannish, The Blue Lady, Sarah-Louise Young, Mr B, Piff the Magic Dragon, Vive le Cabaret – but if I have any free time I want to seek out strange new cabaret worlds. I want to discover the new Aurora Nova.
CM: Any tips for first time Fringe-goers?
1. Pace yourself. Don’t do it all the first day.
2. Don’t think of it as a three-week drinking contest. It appears to be, but that way lies madness.
3. Get some sleep.
4. Go see at least one show that you would never normally think of seeing.
Dusty Limits performed at SpaceCabaret @ 54 North Bridge during Fringe 2011.