QUICK CHAT W/ CECILIA LOW (‘THEY SAY SHE’S DIFFERENT’ – BETTY DAVIS TRIBUTE)
They Say She’s Different is not your standard tribute show. Cecilia Low and her production team have put together a sonic fusion of live music, film and theatre into a production for the Melbourne Fringe Festival that brings to life the early career of influential 70’s funk Goddess Betty Davis. Dean Forte talks to Cecilia to find out her inspiration behind the project, blurring the lines between live music and a theatrical experience, and Betty’s influence on today’s music scene
First of all, congratulations in putting such fantastic project together. You’ve managed to differentiate many tribute acts by piecing together a number of different art forms, in music, theatre and film, into the one project. How has a project as bold as this come about for you?
Firstly, it was Betty’s music that I really wanted to share with people. She was a bit of an unknown story and an unknown but influential artist that people hadn’t really heard about. When I first heard about her music in the 90’s I fell in love with it. I just hadn’t heard anything like it. I knew from then I really wanted to do something with her music, and I guess 20 years later it’s come out in the form of a live immersive theatre experience. I’ve always wanted to bring film into theatre, and sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t, but I really wanted Betty’s music to come alive and I thought about ways to do this. So the great thing about film is that it can make something very intimate very quickly, and I wanted to bring that into theatre and I wanted to use film to bring Betty’s music and Betty’s life a little bit closer to the audience and give the audience the feeling of being thrown back in time. Betty’s music has really been the driving force, but I wanted to also challenge the way we experience theatre too. We have some live projections throughout the show and we also have pre-recorded film sequences throughout, and then we have the band in a traditional type of rock set-up.
Is the topic of Betty Davis one that has been close to your heart?
Yeah, when I first heard her and I was blown away. My sister came home with a Betty Davis CD, and I just boogied non-stop. I just knew then I wanted to do something with her. I took her to parties and blew people’s minds with it. So back in the 90’s, it was really hard to look up anything on her as the internet was very new, and she had only done very few interviews since she left the industry. There’s a feature documentary that is going to be released next year that she will be a part of, so it’s going to be very exciting to hear about it and for people to experience it.
The project debuted last year; how is this production different to the version that you have compiled in the past?
It is a little bit tighter, we’re under a little bit of time constraints (1 hour show), so we’ve dropped one or two songs, so we’re really only touching the iceberg of Betty’s career as we’re only really covering her first two albums of her four album career. We’ve got a new drummer as the original drummer was away but other than that, it will be a pretty similar experience.
Betty Davis was known for not only her vocal talents but also her bad girl image and particularly strong appetite for sex at the time. How do you convey this image of Betty in your production?
Well…. Haha. It’s a bit of a naughty show. She was very much commenting on society and what was going on around her. People got her quite confused about what she was about. Her bad girl stage image really wasn’t her – it was more of a character that was reflecting what was going on around her. She still turned heads and was controversial, she wore negligées on stage and talked about whipping men, but there’s no real live video footage that has been found of Betty on stage. At the same time it also gives us a bit of a creative licence when interpreting what it would have been like. There’s a bit of gyrating and skimpy outfits, but we try and balance it out. We show that side of things, but also show that she was more the girl next door off stage.
Betty was largely renounced in both the African American community and the musical community for her fairly controversial views at the time, which lead to boycotts of her live shows and radio air play, and was a real sad way for her to finish her career in music.
Definitely, one of the reasons why she left the industry was that music industry didn’t know how to place her. Her father got very ill towards the end of the 70’s, and a number of her friends died in that period, like Jimi Hendrix, and it became too much of a fight to be who she wanted to be in the music world. The musicians and celebrities of the day embraced her, but it wasn’t enough to get over the line in the end. At the time, African Americans were really trying to fit in, and this was really a difficult position for them to get behind. A black woman producing her own music back then would have been quite something new, and as a woman of no compromise, she knew what she wanted and if it wasn’t going to be what she wanted it wasn’t going to happen.
Comparing her fairly open lifestyle in today’s modern age, what female entertainers would you compere her with or see her influence amongst modern musicians?
I guess a lot of female and male artists have taken a lot from Betty. I always thought Madonna, Kelis, Prince have a lot of Betty in there. There’s a dirty groove and dirty funk that really came from Betty. There was rock back then, there was blues, there was funk, but Betty was one of the first artists to fuse a lot of those elements together. Today it seems common place, but now artists such as Erykah Badu emulate that raunchier side of a woman, I see a lot of Betty in there. Even though Amy Winehouse isn’t with us anymore, she definitely had a strong vision with her music and just didn’t compromise. I think Betty, without her even knowing it, musicians have really learnt from her groove.
You’ve put together a pretty stellar cast for this project, how did you go about convincing all these great artists to get on board with this project?
I was really good friends with Tony Kopa already who is my musical director, and I just went to him for some musical advice, and after an hour of chatting he was like “I could put this band together tomorrow!” so I was like “really?” and he just put it together that week and everyone was really excited to play her music. It takes a certain type of musician to emulate the 70’s like these guys have. They have really stuck to that dirty, gritty 70’s sound. It’s been fun getting right into that sound and creating and feeling what that scene was like. They’ve all got their own little personalities that I like, because that enhances the piece. We’re all in a band together and we’ve all got a great relationship together, so I’m really honoured and stoked to be able to play with them.
By Dean Forte
They Say She’s Different (The unknown story of the original funk-rock diva Betty Davis) plays at the Gasworks Theatre for the Melbourne Fringe Festival from September 22 to 26.
Tickets are on sale here http://www.gasworks.org.au/event/they-say-shes-different/