Mama Alto: “We can all aspire to bear a torch against the dark”

I’ll never forget the first time I became aware of Mama Alto. It was at the 2016 Stonnington Jazz opening concert, at Malvern Town Hall; James Mustafa had put together a glorious tribute to the Australian Songbook, featuring six amazing, acclaimed, even iconic singers. Mama Alto managed to eclipse them all, with this dazzling persona of hers, this towering, commanding presence (I’m not sure how tall she is, but she seemed gigantic at the time) and most of all, this larger-than-life voice, destined to transfer emotions right into your soul. All this will become evident once again, when she hits the stage of the National Theatre, to present her “jazz age cocktail party”, ‘Exquisite’. Which is a perfect opportunity for an interview about her career aspirations, her insight into cabaret, jazz and torch songs – and about making an album with Nat King Cole’s equipment.

Miss Chief and Mama Alto at the National Theatre | Photo: Alexis Desaulniers-Lea

How has your journey in music been so far?

Music is a bit like oxygen, or blood, or water. Essential, flowing, inside of us, a life force… Music has been very good to me, and I hope I can only do music some justice in return. To me, highlights in my journey with music have included sold-out performances in the Salon of the Melbourne Recital Centre, paying tribute to the centenary of Billie Holiday; singing in Cuba as part of the award-winning Finucane & Smith Glory Box, which headlined the 2015 Havana International Festival; performing emotional jazz ballads to intimate audiences at The Butterfly Club, Hares & Hyenas and Porcelain Tea Parlour; and channelling iconic singers at Chapel off Chapel… I have of course been blessed to be accompanied in my musical journey by my amazing musical directress, Miss Chief, who is an extraordinary pianist. There have certainly been challenges – and there will always be challenges, but I think I will express those through song rather than here in this interview.

What should anyone expect from your performance at the National Theatre?

When the programming team at The National Theatre in St Kilda approached me to engage us to contribute this performance to their 2017 season, I sat down with them and discussed the fabulous evening of cabaret performance and the jazz age cocktail party we would create, and they looked over some of the reviews and audience reactions that I have had in the last five or six years and the word ‘exquisite’ recurred again and again. That’s how it became the title of this show which I feel very flattered and humbled by!

In our performance for the National Theatre, people can expect thoughtful, dedicated and transformative explorations of music – we have selected our repertoire for the evening so that roughly half of the songs are pieces we have played, interpreted and re-interpreted in our performances of the last seven years in an ever evolving way, and these ones are mostly classic jazz standards and beloved songbook selections whilst the other half comprise new material for us, selected from pop, soul, and other songwriting traditions, but delivered in our particular style.

What is the difference and similarities between jazz and cabaret?

Jazz is unleashed human expression, limitlessly creative, realised in the moment, in real time, and responsive to its context and surroundings Cabaret is direct conversation between performer and audience, which has the capacity to hold many layers, and to communicate multiple, complex, conflicting and contradictory ideas, suggestions, and meanings, exploring interior worlds, psychologies, sociopolitical implications, and life and times. When these two forms collide in a singer’s performance, this can be very powerful and create something very special, very collective and very meaningful.

When is your album coming out?

It is due for release at the end of the year. It is an anthology of four vinyl records capturing the interpretations of jazz standards and torch songs which Miss Chief – my astounding pianist and musical director – and I have performed over the last seven years. We are releasing it across vinyl, compact disc and digital online formats, but the recording process was actually done late last year in an entirely analogue facility, using vintage recording equipment – including a tape machine used at Capitol Records by Nat King Cole in the late 1950s, and an RCA ribbon microphone of the type favoured by Sarah Vaughan in her recordings. To record in the way our idols did, and in such an organic environment – single take, live to tape, with a depth and richness of sound by that gorgeous analogue equipment and with an excellent engineer, Alex Bennett – was just magnificent.

What is a torch song?

The magnificent Stacy Holman Jones wrote in her book ‘Torch Singing: Performing Resistance and Desire’ that “in the space between music and language, torch singing is an invitation, an opening to desire… torch singing is a becoming, a provocation to participate that doesn’t erase antagonisms and contradictions… a radical, hopeful politics”. I would add that many singers and many songs seem to transcend the boundaries of genre, and sing directly to our hearts. We often find it difficult to define a torch song, but instinctively know when we hear it because the torch singer is telling a story, weaving a truth, narrating a journey. The torch song is at once obvious and enigmatic, with embedded meanings, a multiplicity of perspectives, and an entanglement of identities. And at the heart of the act of torch singing is the delicious tension between tradition and subversion. As a cabaret singer interpreting, re-interpreting, presenting, re-presenting, and representing, torch songs, I work both to honour the legacy of the great women who have kept the flame before me, as well as to subvert the dominant and affirm the marginalised through song and storytelling. But I would also suggest that we can all aspire, in our own ways, to bear a torch against the dark.

You’re a very dedicatedLGBTIQA+ activist; does this become part of your singing?

Inevitably, and by necessity, my art is part of my activism, and vice versa. This has been the case for torch singers since time immemorial – we can see how great artists such as Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, Josephine Baker, and many more, by bringing their full lived experiences, their identities, their traumas and their triumphs, onto the stage and into their songs can connect the personal and the political, fostering social change and fighting oppression, discrimination and inequality. For myself, I certainly take that on, and see that our art can affirm someone’s lived experiences, validate their identity, empower them with strength, heal their wounds with love, or on the other hand, can confront their prejudices, challenge their preconceptions and engage them with positive change. The singer, and the song, acts as a conduit allowing people to experience, express, comprehend and process a depth of emotion and an intensity of meaning which is otherwise taboo in our society and repressed in our daily lives. That’s a powerful and important role of art and artists, especially in the fraught times we live in!

Which tune best describes your current state of mind?

My state of mind at the moment… I have been thinking a great deal about the challenging times our world and our society face at the moment, the rise of discrimination against minorities, of hate speech, of many troubles… But I have also been thinking about how our acts of love, and our practical actions, can make change for the better so I am thinking about ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’. We must do what we can for each other.

Mama Alto will present ‘Exquisite’ at the National Theatre, on Saturday 2 September.