When Linn Lorkin brought her show about her time playing piano bars in the 1980s to last year’s Fringe, it won the wholehearted approbation of our ThreeWeeks reviewer who called it “a treasure”. She’s back this year at SpaceCabaret @ 54 with the same show, and – soon after putting her on our ‘to see’ list – we also added Linn to our ‘talk to’ list. Here she is, telling us all about how the show came about…
CC: Let’s start at the beginning – how did you originally find yourself playing the piano bars of New York in the 1980s?
LL: I went to the US after I’d done a wee season at London’s Ronnie Scott’s and I was actually on my way to LA, where I had in mind to look for work playing piano in a funk band, because that’s what I’d been playing in New Zealand for the last several years. But as soon as I arrived in NY I got hooked on the city. One evening I played a piano that was just sitting in a restaurant and the owner said “Come back Saturday and play for the customers and I’ll give you $20 and a meal”. And that’s how I started! One piano bar led to another and I was never out of work from then on.
CC: And when and why did you decide to turn the stories of that time in your life into a stand-alone show?
LL: In 2010 I took in some cabaret shows at the Auckland Arts Festival (mostly with Australian artists performing) and I thought to myself I’d like to devise a show that I could do at festivals too. I have a huge number of original songs and many of them are derived from events in my own life, and upon reflection I realised I had rather a large body of songs about my time in New York, which is a totally inspiring, magical place. And in fact it’s the place where I first started writing songs.
CC: Tell us how the show itself works.
LL: There are two realities in the show. One is the woman sitting playing in a piano-bar with a guy at the bar who keeps requesting songs, and that reality is expressed in the theme and title song of the show, which comes and goes. The other reality is me telling the whole story of my eight years in New York with various stand-up anecdotes which are enhanced by the songs that follow them. In a couple of places these realities coincide when I’m both the story-teller and the woman playing who has her enamoured bar-fly.
CC: Were the songs written specifically for the show, or are they a collection of songs written over the years?
LL: A number of the songs were written white-hot “at the time”; for example, ‘I’m a Mole And I Live in a Hole’ was written when I was having a terrible time living in a dark and dingy apartment and had just lost my bread and butter gig. Others were written specifically for the show when I went to New York for six months in 2010 to play a number of house-concerts and develop the show.
CC: Our reviewer last year noted how you “flawlessly recreated the 80s New York piano-bar scene”. How do you go about doing that in an Edinburgh venue?
LL: The main thing is to have the “tip-jar” stuffed with American dollars clearly in view! And of course my cocktail style piano-playing also helps. In my venue last year (Hendersons) I had a real upright piano, and that felt so authentic to me because nobody played an electric piano in a piano-bar in NY in the 80s! However, with the electric piano I’m playing this time I feel I’m able to “sell” the songs much more easily because I’m facing out to the audience as I sing. Whereas last year I actually developed RSI in my neck from delivering songs over my right shoulder for 24 shows in a row!
CC: How has the Edinburgh crowd responded to the show – last year and this?
LL: I do feel that the people seeing the show this year are better able to connect to the words of the songs for the above reason. (The spoken stories have always gone down well). And I did a cunning thing this time around: since research has shown that people generally have to hear a song two or three times before they appreciate a melody, I devised a ‘middleture’ for my 2012 show, an overture in the middle where the audience hears again all the hooks of the songs so far, and this new piece also advances the plot, so serves two purposes.
CC: What’s your favourite memory from the era the show is about?
LL: Just sitting in my Wedgwood blue living-room in my floor-through apartment in a brown-stone on the Upper West Side, wearing my Marks & Sparks emerald green dressing gown and happily writing songs for hours, using those marvellous American yellow legal pads and my little Wurlitzer spinet. I think true creativity can be a state of bliss for any human.
CC: And what was the hardest audience you ever had to play for?
LL: I never had a hard audience in New York. When I played the piano-bar scene there, it was kind of an art form I’d say, because the regulars would expect to hear the pianist’s very own interpretation of particular ‘standards’ and were truly appreciative. There’s only a handful of piano-bars left in NY now and the pianists are often expected to accompany some customer singing the song he or she has brought in. So it’s almost karoake!
CC: Have you seen many other shows this Festival – any stand outs?
LL: I just started going to other shows this second week. Stand-outs so far: comedy – Rhys Darby; theatre – ‘The Boat Factory’; music – The Jewbadour, Daniel Cainer; magic – Wet Paint.
CC: And finally what plans have you got for the show after the Fringe?
LL: I want to explore the possibility of staging the show with a grand piano and a couple of other musos on upright bass and drums. I can really swing out when playing with a rhythm section and I would still keep the solo piano bits whenever I’m the piano-bar lady in her piano-bar and the musos can double as customers drinking cocktails on the other side of the lid! Plus I will be applying to perform in the 2013 United Solo Festival in New York which features solo shows in a series of theatres on 42nd Street.
Linn Lorkin performed ‘Hey, Piano Bar Lady!’ at SpaceCabaret at Fringe 2012.
Photo: Kat Gollock