Interview with Geraldine Quinn

By Noel Kelso

Geraldine Quinn has been a regular face on the comedy scene in Australia and the UK since 2005. Combining music, comedy and acting into her sell-out shows she presents an imposing figure on-stage in outfits as outlandish as some of the songs she sings. Last year she was busy with three productions – ’80s Apocalyptic sing-along Sunglasses at Night; Bowie-esque musical Stranger (a personal favourite) and touring her show You’re The Voice in Australia and New Zealand.
She has twice won the Brian McCarthy Memorial Moosehead award at the Melbourne Comedy Festival, most recently in 2013 for her new show MDMA: Modern Day Maiden Aunt , a reflection on life without marriage or kids at 30+ which debuts at Melbourne International Comedy Festival 2014.
I asked the self-described ‘ginger idiot’ a few questions about MDMA and more during a gap in her busy schedule.

Noel: Have you always been attracted to performance?

Geraldine: At early primary school, I would devise plays and ask teachers permission to ‘tour’ them from class to class, so…yes. I am sure I was a thoroughly annoying child, but it was my outlet for being incredibly shy. I barely spoke to anyone otherwise.

Noel: What inspired you to first get started in comedy / musical comedy, and why not be a straight musician?

Geraldine: When I was 18 or so, I couldn’t play any instrument well enough to accompany myself, and I didn’t know enough musicians to start a band, and I wasn’t really writing songs. And unless you could do pub circuits, etc. or someone wanted to push you there weren’t really any options. So I went into acting, auditioned for the occasional covers band (and failed to get in) or musical in Dingley, then sort of let it slide. Cabaret was an outlet when I discovered after three years of acting training that there was even less work for thespians.

Noel: Which comedians – past or present – do you admire?

Geraldine: Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, Morecambe & Wise, Lucille Ball, Joyce Grenfell, Terry-Thomas, Carol Burnett, Lynda Gibson, Marg Downey, Eleanor Bron, Rod Quantock, Dave Allen, Jo Brand, French & Saunders, Fry & Laurie, Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews, Olivia Colman, Sean Lock, Johnny Vegas, Sarah Millican, Armando Ianucci, Chris Morris…not to mention people I know like Anne Edmonda, Kate McCartney & Kate McLennan, Geraldine Hickey, Flick Ward, Celia Pacquola and Lori Bell. There are loads – Denise Scott is an anecdote machine. And Cal Wilson has more energy than all of us. And that’s not to mention the cabaret people.

Noel: Anyone who knows you will know how much you love David Bowie how does he inspire your work?

Geraldine: Bowie is a very clever magpie – he knows how to steal smart, how to search for ideas and sounds and break up traditional formulas for writing to try to get to a fresh idea, a lot of which I think was influenced by the luminary glam-nymph that is Brian Eno. So when I get stuck, I run for my Oblique Strategy cards or put a Berlin album on, because I don’t see much point in producing work that is neither honest nor innovative. One or the other should be true, if not both.

Noel: Who are your other musical heroes?

Geraldine: This list threatens to be as long as the comedians one – Neil Hannon, Andy Partridge and Elvis Costello are all bit songwriting influences. Same for Kate Bush, Kirsty MacColl and Bernard Butler/Brett Anderson, Leon Russell, Mick Ronson, Willie Nelson, Nick Lowe, Thin Lizzy, Toto, Clare Bowditch, Patti LaBelle, Roxy Music, the Finns, Elliott Smith, Divinyls, The Kinks, Vanda & Young, Levi Stubbs, Dusty Springfield, Heart, Hall & Oates, Janelle Monae, Lightspeed Champion, Loudon Wainwright III, Jarvis Cocker, Mina, Peter Gabriel, Vince Jones, Ella Fitzgerald, 10CC…I have a lot of space sucked up by music.

Noel: Which do you find comes first in terms of writing – the music or the comedy? Or do you find they both appear simultaneously?

Geraldine: I think most people who do their job interestingly have a sense of humour. Though it is nice sometimes just to write a song without trying to rhyme a gag in it, I find when I am left to my own devices to write a serious song, I get a bit too Neil Finn and bitsy with my imagery, so I try to follow the Paul Kelly/Neil Hannon/Kirsty MacColl influence and write stories.

Noel: Your shows appear to draw on real life experiences for inspiration. Songs such as ‘Fang It’ and ‘Festival’ are clearly drawn from personal experience. Do you find yourself consciously using real world events as inspiration for your writing?

Geraldine: How can you not? The hard thing is changing some truths a bit to save feelings…or get a better laugh by exaggerating it.

Noel: You were nominated this year for a Green Room award in Cabaret for your show ‘Sunglasses At Night: The 80s Apocalypse Sing Along Cabaret”. Is recognition by your peers important to you as an artiste?

Geraldine: Of course (and you don’t need to put the ‘e’ on the end, I’m not posh!). If you can’t pay your rent and you wonder about your worth every day, it means even more that people who you admire like and respect what you do. It’s what gets you through the day sometimes.

Noel: Your costumes appear to be an integral part of your shows. Do you have an image of what you’d like them to be as you write or is it more of an organic process as you rehearse?

Geraldine: Pretty organic, I tend to have ideas of what I don’t want, and then a stack of broad ideas. I do a lot of Google searches of eras or acts or designers, and then say “let’s make something that mashes up all of these, adds a bit of Bowie, then make it 70% more bonkers”. The people I’ve worked with don’t get given a drawing to create, we sort of work out and brainstorm, and then bear in mind my level of activity, my vanity and whether or not I have to play a guitar!

Noel: Do you make them yourself?

Geraldine: I WISH!! I’ve worked with Tristan Seebohm and Sam Bolton so far, and I am always on the hunt for interesting stitchers. Lately I have got some leads through burlesque circles as well, which is exciting to me.

Noel: What can you tell us about your latest show ‘MDMA: Modern Day Maiden Aunt’?

Geraldine: I’m almost 40 with no kids or spouse, unlike everyone else in my family, and I wondered why having kids was such a focus for everyone else when it wasn’t for me. And as they got older, I wondered what sort of a terrible role model I was becoming to my nieces and nephews. The eldest is about 22 years old.

Noel: How long did it take you to write? And was there a specific process or daily routine for you whilst it was being written?

Geraldine: Who says it’s written yet – I mean, yes,the ideas ping around for months, then I try to cement a structure then the crying and screaming writing process begins and things shift around. Then repeat in microcosm for each song.

Noel: In the past, society tended to pity women who remain single while those around them married. Is this new show intended as a commentary on this outdated attitude?

Geraldine: In a way. I don’t see why a breeding status should have anything to do with a person’s sense of self. That goes for people who make presumptions about parents, as well. Just because they have kids doesn’t mean they are all alike. I suspect if I ever ended up in a mother’s group a) I probably would have got lost and b) I’d struggle not to throw up in contempt on everyone. There’s only so much chat about nappies and schools one can take, and I imagine that’s the same for parents.

Noel: Are you constantly planning for the next project?

Geraldine: For the next festival or grant pitch, yes. But I’ve already done three different shows in 2014 (Sunglasses in Melbourne and Perth, Stranger  in New Zealand and now MDMA  in MICF) and it’s only March, so I might need a rest first…

Geraldine’s MDMA: Modern Day Maiden Aunt  is at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival from March 27 – April 20 in the Melbourne Town Hall – Lunch Room

Details on the website http://www.comedyfestival.com.au/2014/season/shows/mdma-modern-day-maiden-aunt-geraldine-quinn