Filed under: feature, special | Tags: interview, marcella and the forget me nots, mario onnis, the puppini sisters
2010, a girl-group odyssey #1: marcella & the forget me nots
As the first decade of the 21st century draws to a close, a whole new breed of girl group is emerging from the darker enclaves of the UK to ruthlessly pursue a clear agenda: to rescue performance art from the ubiquity of bad burlesque, to reject the patriarchal standards of beauty that continue to enslave the women of the Heat generation, and to give those posturing indie boy bands that clog the charts a powerfully feminine heave-ho. Over the coming weeks, Wears The Trousers will be speaking to some of these artists to discuss their gynocratic ambitions to reign over music in 2010. There’s the eye-popping Gaggle, a 22-piece female alt.choir who dress in vibrant hooded cloaks and sing ritualistic, multilayered chants about vices, lacklustre men and circling birds over a rough-hewn, rudimentary instrumental backdrop; there’s Sisters Of Transistors, an Anglo–Icelandic group of four women who are eight-handedly (well, ten-handedly if you include their drummer and head of research, Graham Massey of 808 State) resurrecting the briefly popular 1940s attraction of Ladies Organ Quartets, a practice pioneered by one Lillian Meyers; and then there’s Marcella & The Forget Me Nots, who are a whole other kettle of fabulous lunacy, both in conception and in execution.
You’ll no doubt already be familiar with their Italian figurehead, Marcella Puppini, founder of gold-selling trio The Puppini Sisters, but you won’t have heard (or seen) her quite like this before. Leaving the sultry Andrews Sisters stylings of her day job far behind, Marcella has recruited a platoon of seven classically trained musicians to realise her vision of an all-girl post-apocalyptic cabaret orchestra. With Marcella dressed in top hat, figure-cinching leather and riding breeches, and the Forget Me Nots rocking an androgynous, workmanlike look with braces and berets, any thoughts of the delicate blue flowers that act as their namesake are instantly banished on encountering the full force of the band in action; there is nothing timid or cloyingly sentimental about these ladies (even a song as harmlessly titled as ‘Lullaby’ is injected with a wryly observed bloodlust and menace).
“Marcella & The Forget Me Nots has been on the cards for quite some time,” Marcella tells Wears The Trousers over email. “I wanted a vehicle for my songwriting which would give me complete artistic freedom. When you’re singing as part of a group you have to adapt your sound so that it becomes homogenous with the other singer’s sound. You are constantly striving to listen to the others and become one with them. There is a lot of beauty in doing that, but it doesn’t allow for a lot of individual expression. The Puppini Sisters are all about fun and unity, whereas writing and singing as a solo artist I get to just be myself. My vocal quirks, the expression of my own feelings: that is what I get, and that is what I mean by having more freedom. It’s very exciting, and it makes me feel very good. Also, when writing songs for the Puppini Sisters I tend to be lighter and possibly more generic, as it’s impossible for three people to put the same expression into something emotional.”
With The Puppini Sisters currently taking a break before recording their third album (“We have been working solidly for five years and wanted to have a breather to concentrate on our own projects”), Marcella is seizing the chance to cultivate her latest crew towards the spotlight, a process which kicked off in earnest last year when London’s Chelsea Theatre invited the band to curate a site-specific show as part of their Sacred Season of Performance Art. Dubbed ‘The Kings Road Project’ after the borough’s most famous street, the songs were written based on stories collected through interviews Marcella conducted with Chelsea residents. “I visited an over-50s group and a women’s refuge, and I spoke to Marco Pirroni from Adam & The Ants, amongst other people. Most of the stories I collected were unusable because they were too harrowing, but it was an incredible experience which produced a really good show. I am thinking of doing the same thing in Soho, where I have quite a lot of history myself.”
Other shows at the Queer Up North festival, alternative cabaret staple The Vauxhall Tavern, Shoreditch speakeasy The Last Days Of Decadence and South London’s most versatile “creative space” Corsica Studios have left spectators scrambling for new ways to say “cor blimey!” and “holy shit, that blew my face off”, and Marcella is loving every minute. “I like to let myself go when I’m performing,” she states unnecessarily; the gusto she gives to songs like ‘Monster Mae’ and ‘What Have You Done To Your Face?’ is hardly the trademark of a half-hearted performer, and it was very important to the band that their first recordings conveyed the same sense of unhinged enjoyment. Teaming up with Stephen Coates of The Real Tuesday Weld (whose 2008 album The London Book Of The Dead featured The Puppini Sisters), Marcella and the band laid down their first tracks in May this year, recording all the instruments in the Main Hall at People Show Studios in Bethnal Green to give the same raw, expansive sound of their live performances.
The band’s first official releases will be in January as part of Twisted Cabaret, an aptly-titled part-audio, part-video compilation curated by French label Volvox. Among the video content will be the clip for ‘Monster Mae’, a blood-spattered extravaganza directed by regular collaborator Alex de Campi (the woman behind Amanda Palmer’s controversial ‘Leeds United’) that mixes live performance with high-camp photography of shocking demises. “The idea of the song came from a couple of chapters in ‘Hollywood Babylon’, Kenneth Anger’s fabulously made up book on old Hollywood scandal,” explains Marcella. “‘Monster Mae’ was the title of the chapter about Mae West, the star who incensed Middle America with her antics. But the actual girl of the song was inspired by Charlie Chaplin’s child bride, who wasn’t particularly pretty and couldn’t act, but who had a very pushy nature (and mother) and was prepared to do anything to be on the big screen.”
An avid reader, and a big fan of graphic novels, Marcella cites dark horror fantasies, sci-fi dystopias, Hollywood biographies and classic romantic novels among her literary inspirations. As she reveals, “I see life through a Tim Burton/opera-coloured lens, a world suspended between nightmare and fairytale, and this translates into the lyrics and the orchestration of my songs…The final murder in ‘Monster Mae’ is, of course, just in my head as Charlie Chaplin died an old man and of natural causes. The idea of the screams which nobody hears came from Fatty Arbuckle’s gruesome murder of a starlet during a debauched party.”
The Volvox compilation also features ‘What Have You Done To Your Face?’ on the audio portion, a song which Wears The Trousers discovers, with a little detective work, was inspired by Jennifer Aniston. “How did you know? Yes, that song is about Jennifer and other women like her: the cool girls that every girl wants to be, who sadly get to a certain age and cannot resist the temptation to ‘improve’ their looks. It’s about the disappointment that they could not have the guts to remain role models even as they are aging.” Another de Campi clip accompanies the song, pulling just as few punches as the lyrics as Barbie and Bratz dolls are burned, a clay head is decimated in various ways, and an array of syringes and scalpels dance in kaleidoscopic formations.
But while lyrics like “What have you done to your face? / you have erased all of the things that suggest you’re alive!” are no doubt meant as fiercely as they are sung, Marcella isn’t completely devoid of sympathy for women who have plastic surgery. “I totally understand why they do that, but I get a little sad if it’s the ones I really like. Of course, Jennifer Aniston hasn’t done anything too drastic. The song has become more of a question to all women: ‘Why did you do that?’ The more people go for ‘improvements’, the more it becomes the thing to do. And because it never really works, we now have a strange humanity of slightly askew clones walking around, being photographed by the paparazzi and creating a need that was never there in the past.”
Of course, it can’t help but be noted that Marcella herself likes to be surrounded with strong, attractive women, and with The Forget Me Nots’ string section Anna Jenkins, Geri McEwan, Wei Wei Fraser and Jo Silverston in one corner and clarinetist Beatrix Graf, trombonist Kim Lagos and percussionist/pianist Amy Kelly in the other, there’s certainly no shortage of talent around her. Their claim to be the ultimate girl-group may be a little premature – and with competition like Gaggle, hotly contested – but Marcella seems fully in control and assured of their destiny. “I love having pretty girls around and being bossy to them,” she admits. “Also, on a more serious note, I love the camaraderie of working with women. And if I’m honest, there’s a bit of a sisters-doing-it-for-themselves element in it too.”
In the future, Marcella sees herself fulfilling a lifelong ambition to pen an opera of her own, though she’s currently mulling over the prospect of a musical to precede it (“I am already speaking to a playwright I want to collaborate with so that might happen soon”). But first on the checklist for world domination is to lead the charge and watch the Forget Me Nots bloom into the nation’s premier alternative cabaret act. And, perhaps, its ultimate girl-group.
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Alan Pedder and Mario Onnis
Marcella & The Forget Me Nots bring their post-apocalyptic cabaret to London venue Bistrotheque tomorrow night (November 3rd). More info on their Myspace.
‘What Have You Done To Your Face?’
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