Love of the game

Graham Pilsworth talks to Janice Jackson about L’Amour?, her rambunctious new vocal cabaret show.

A-mused Singer Janice Jackson follows her inspiration to interesting places in L’Amour?
photo Robin Hart Hiltz

Lukas Pearse’s hands were bound. Worse yet, a sheet had been draped over him, covering both him and his double bass. Nearby stood a woman, also hand-bound. Duct tape sealed her lips beneath a baggy hood pulled over her head.

Not long ago, this discombobulating scene confronted a hip crowd comprised of visual artists, NSCAD students and filmmakers, all present to catch singer Janice Jackson’s concert Duct Tape and Wax, with accompaniment by the man under the sheet, composer-bassist Pearse. What followed was truly beyond ordinary. But not for Jackson.

The Cape Breton-born performer, a classically trained soprano, is a petite, vivacious, funny, damn-the-torpedoes creative dynamo. “Her vocal prowess and broad range of material,” a reviewer wrote, “engage all of your senses, emotions, wit, intellect, goosebumps and especially, your soul.”

Indeed, the unabashedly adventurous singer sets out “to boldly go where no voice has gone before.” Jackson explains, “I follow my muse. If I have an idea, I go for it. What else is there? I don’t like convention. I am an individual. I have my own thoughts. I’m just trying to follow my instincts. If my instincts are quirky according to other people’s idea of what should be done”—by a classically trained diva—“all the better for me.”

And for the audience. Not to say she didn’t try conventionality; for years she did, in Holland. But the more she adhered to the rules, the more miserable she became. Now in demand worldwide as an interpreter, elasticizing the edges of contemporary, classical and improvisational vocal music, she’s an artist of bold theatricality and consummate technique.

With contemporary music, she says, cabaret or improv, there are few rules. “You make them up as you go.” One might think this loose-limbed approach could prove off-putting to a Halifax audience more comfortable with pop music groups or evenings with Symphony Nova Scotia.

“People think if it’s called ‘modern’ or ‘contemporary’ and it doesn’t have a ‘pop’ or ‘urban’ label, ‘I won’t like that,’” says Jackson. “If you were in a different culture and had never heard rock music before, it would be weird. Doesn’t mean you wouldn’t enjoy it.”

This is a time of pananxiety—people hungering for better than we’ve got and getting and anxious about where we’re heading as a species. And the planet itself. “Shape without form. Shade without colour. Paralyzed force. Gesture without motion,” TS Eliot wrote in his poem “The Hollow Men.” Happily, a welcome break from this anomie: Jackson and pianist Tara Scott, in conjunction with Saint Mary’s Art Gallery, present L’Amour?—“a rambunctious program of hilarious cabaret songs by some of the 20th century’s most celebrated composers,” including a suite of Beatles songs comically served up in ways not to be missed.

These are songs anybody could like. For instance, Tom Lehrer’s wickedly funny “I Got it from Agnes.” “Lehrer goes on about how many people got ‘it,’” says Jackson with a naughty grin. “But he never says what ‘it’ is. That’s up to the listener.” And there’s The Weiner Schnitzel Waltz, “about a guy who took this woman to a ball and, in the end, you figure out the woman was”—she sings—“I drank some champagne from your shoe. I was drunk by the time I got through. I didn’t know when I raised it up, it had taken two bottles to fill the thing up.”

There’s the hilarious piece “Amour.” A beautiful woman strolls along a small-town street. Everyone she passes exclaims, “Amour!” So much so, she’s arrested, charged with disturbing the peace. An unsympathetic presiding magistrate at her trial gets upbraided by the jury, overcome by the defendant’s beauty, crying, “Amour!” The judge follows suit. Acquitted, the distressed woman leaves town. As she walks past a church, even its choir switches “amen” for “amour!”

L’Amour?, the concert, promises a lineup of “songs full of delicious twists,” Jackson notes, “love on the rocks, lost love, unrequited love, blossoming love, not only screamingly funny, but, at times, deeply moving.” Jackson beams. “The songs are absolutely incredible. It’s going to be a really wonderful concert.”

L’Amour?, november 24 at smu art gallery, 5865 Gorsebrook, 8pm, $20, 429-1899 or 429-1797.

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