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THE MAN A NEWSPAPER ONCE DESCRIBED as “a more debonair, calmly coifed Edward Scissorhands“, Joseph Keckler, greets me from a theatre dressing room where behind him are photographs of Nona Hendryx, Laurie Anderson, Judy Collins and some he has not yet identified. It’s as if they knew he was coming.

Not that Keckler, who has a classically trained voice that can travel from operatic bass or nightclub schwing to mocking croon and high flutiness, sounds like them, or is trying to channel them. But there is a sense that this singer, writer, comic performer and alternative-to-alternative-cabaret star (“People come up to me and say ‘Oh you’re really a conceptual artist.’ I’m not saying I’m a conceptual artist; I’m saying I’m a bewildered person who does things,” he once said) is part of a tradition that straddles multiple genres, theatricality, and a sense of purity. And maybe even a touch of iconography.

There is even a little shared history given Keckler a few years ago commented on how he took a different approach to Anderson who had said that part of her career choices was because she thought she wasn’t good enough as a violinist to focus on it and therefore this freed her to explore a melding of many elements into a kind of performance art.

For Keckler, however, becoming good enough in one area to specialise – in his case, that operatic voice – was crucial in his multifaceted career.

“I kind of regret saying that about her because my intention wasn’t to say anything negative. I think she is such a beacon in such a reference point is a really accomplished Renaissance person,” he says. “But I think the point I was trying to make was my aspiration is to achieve a certain level of mastery – which sometimes I hit and sometimes I don’t – and then it becomes really clear that the other choices you are making are choices.

“Being good at something in a traditional way and then doing something weird seems like a strong move, and a lot of the people I admire are examples of that. Or sometimes they were forced [to explore beyond their specialist area], so black American classical artists who weren’t necessarily allowed into the classical realm, Nina Simone for instance, which is a different example.”

The small element of defensiveness in him is interesting because, at least for me, reading that comment didn’t strike as a criticism of the likes of Anderson but more establishing his direction: mastering something and then seeing what you can do with it outside the norm, by contrast.

You could say that contrast is at the core of what he does, whether it is humour and seriousness, or supposed high art (his operatic training) and low (downtown rooms and a fondness for the “priest of the ridiculous”, Screaming Jay Hawkins). Listen to him about “the atrophied language of love” in GPS Song, a story of multiple loves told from the perspective of the car’s guidance system. Or about sex with a ghost. Or the Wagnerian drama of Goth Song about shopping for black vinyl pants, but sung in Wagner-ready German.

“There is something very liberating, like having my cake and eating it too, where I can have colloquial, conversational text but then putting in a foreign language it becomes more abstract, give me permission,” says Keckler. “Also, certain languages, like Italian, are so sumptuous and dramatic. So I can take in this whole other emotional dimension whilst being in a non-emotional dimension.”

Australian audiences will see him in in another context again when he tours from this week with New York No Wave pioneer, writer and provocateur Lydia Lunch. There may appear little in common, at first glance, for this pairing but as Lunch told me recently “I consider myself naturally hilarious but most people are just too frightened to laugh. I’m a natural born hedonist: I seek pleasure and good times”, and she will use whatever medium, whatever artistic form is necessary. A style Keckler knows well.

“I feel really excited by shifting, by movement. I have played with this in different ways in performance: for a while I was on comedy bills and I would sort of ramble in streams of consciousness until the audience would rebel or start booing me, then I would shift into something that was surprising and displayed talent. So I would go from being ‘non-credible’ to ‘credible’,” he says. “I’m excited by shifting from being very casual to be informal; underprepared to over-prepared.

“And certainly with the opera stuff, I don’t intentionally court a cabaret aesthetic – sometimes I’m in that context and there is an element of that – but what I think about more is pairing something that’s the personal narrative and de-familiarising it by running it through this art form which involves a lot of artifice, might be in a foreign language, might evoke another time and place.”

You know, like those photos, and the people in them, on the dressing room wall.




Lydia Lunch and Joseph Keckler – Tales Of Lust & Madness will play at.

Ohm Festival, Brisbane, March 7-8

Byron Theatre, Byron Bay, March 9

Adelaide Town Hall (Adelaide Fringe), March 14

Melbourne Recital Centre, March 15-16

Theatre Royal, Castlemaine (with screening of Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never Over, and Q&A), March 17

Phoenix Central Park, Sydney, March 21

The Great Club, Marrickville, March 22

MONA, Hobart, March 23

Lydia Lunch and Black Cab will perform a special show featuring the songs of Suicide at The Tote, March 20.



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