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Globe-trotting Meow Meow brings her kamikaze cabaret to Spoleto Festival USA

Feline Flow

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We try to time it so I'm still awake and she's not sound asleep. Fumbling around WhatsApp, I mistakenly dial in for a video call. Known both to the world and her familiars as Meow Meow, the performer politely responds with a message.

"Hi Mary, I'll call you on audio." When we connect I apologize for the attempted video call; "God, I'm never ready to see my image on a front-facing screen," I laugh. "Oh, I'm always ready! It's just early," Meow replies. It's 9 a.m., and she's on.

Meow is calling from Australia but when I ask if that's where she's originally from, she declares, in her ineffably charming accent, that she's "spectacularly global."

The multi-hyphenate performer — she sings (quite well), acts, dances, writes, jests — will be putting on an original show during Spoleto Festival USA for a five-night, sold-out run at Woolfe Street Playhouse. "I call it feline intimate," she says. "It's just me and piano. It's a very great intimacy, there's a beautiful focus on music you can really respond to."

Cabaret, an amalgam of singing and soliloquies and sometimes even magic, stems from late 19th century France. An audience would group around a platform in a small club, one that served liquor, of course, cheering on a series of amateur acts. It's fitting that this Brittanica entry has "probably" as the third word; the medium is fluid, malleable, mutable.

In a 2017 interview with BBC, Meow tells interviewer Deborah Bull, "I live this way on and off stage in a very heightened way which I find much more truthful."

Her truth is big, dark locks curled tight and round falling across her made-up face, eyelashes enviously long, daily dress black and tight and lacy. Meow Meow is a character, born from Meow's mind. But she's also simply herself, a chanteuse "living out of suitcases" who loves to "whip around" whatever city she's currently in. She hopes to check out some art galleries in Charleston.

In that same BBC interview, Bull and Meow describe cabaret as possessing a "hallucinatory" quality. It is a medium, perhaps more than any other form of entertainment, that recognizes itself over and over again. The songs are over the top, the costumes outlandish, the person taking center stage inextricably tied to their art.

The audience can empathize and laugh and project their own stories into the tragi-comic narrative — hell, they'll very likely participate. But there's still a subtle aura, a gentle haze surrounding Meow Meow. You get the unnerving sense, as you listen to her album, Hotel Amour, or watch clips of her performances from Edinburgh to New York, that she knows something we don't. Something we haven't yet realized.

Meow says there was no 'aha' moment in which she discovered she could in fact, sing. Instead, she says she's "always known" she's had the need to speak or express herself — "I wanted to make noise."

On Hotel Amour, her album with Pink Martini's Thomas Lauderdale, Meow sings on the title track, "I sat still and wrote love some letters, but love doesn't read any more." She's whip smart and wicked funny, but Meow, more than anything, has an uncanny ability to hit the occasional raw nerve.

"I am always taken by surprise. When I first started writing, in a way it was a light love song — as if love songs were ever light! It became something else, much more profound for me."

During her one hour and 25 minute "feline intimate" show at Woolfe Street, Meow says she'll incorporate "beautiful jazz," early French pop, and Radiohead into the production. She's got range. And she'll look fantastic, no doubt, her lips painted a deep red, her high heels tapping across the theater's concrete floor. No word on whether she'll solicit audience members to build upon her feisty feline narrative, but don't expect to sit unnoticed in the corner.

"I still remember seeing classical ballet, sitting in the front row," says Meow. "I could hear the Prima Ballerina gasping as she was thrown around, I could see the sweat, all of the beauty. There was an incredible, real, visceral passion. I've always felt that I need to ... it will only come out if you feel passionate. I have a tiny voice if I don't really believe what I'm singing. If I have a story to tell, my voice is there."

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