Though she’s previously declared herself “the Courtney Love of comedy,” Tessa Skara says it would actually be more fitting to call herself the comedic Liz Phair, referring to the ’90s alt-rock musician’s confessional style. All these music comparisons aren’t pulled out of thin air, but refer to Skara and her rock music comedy cabaret creation Rock Goddess, being staged at The Duplex this Sunday.
We meet at the strange void known as the Bedford Avenue Starbucks, and I’m given my cold brew in a plastic cup surely only intended for children at amusement parks, with an illogically thick lid that I have to violently stab my straw through.
Getting through to my small cup of overpriced caffeine was indeed a challenge, but speaking with Tessa was much easier. She details growing up in rural Canada, writing songs as a teen and joining the type of bands to largely only get booked at talent shows. To further illustrate this, she asks me to imagine “me singing ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’ when I was a virgin.”
In college, she dove into musical theater, shifted her studies to regular theater, and then tried comedy upon graduating.
“I started doing stand-up and I was like, this is kind of fucking boring. I felt like I was making all this stuff for people that they would think is funny,” she says. “I was really depressed because I was going through this literal divorce and was like, I need to get my life back. So I started doing all the stuff that I used to do when I was 14, which was like, fuck around on the guitar.”
This led to joining the pop musical comedy group Pop Roulette, where she learned how to combine comedy and songwriting. The genre of musical comedy can be a perilous one to do successfully, and like many other facets of comedy and society, is often male-dominated.
“I guess I was really inspired by people like Tenacious D, but also really offended by them. I wanted to make something that was badass, so the show is basically me inhabiting this alter ego of myself that’s a rock goddess and empowering, and talking about all these different things from my actual life,” she tells me. “[Rock Goddess] came from a place of true depression, and wanting to take back all of these forms that I had seen only men ever do.”
Skara says it has been tricky to find the right scene for her, so she’s “trying to make [her] own home” in the creative landscape.
She explains doing more “vulnerable” autobiographical work at alt-comedy shows can make audiences squirm; bringing music to storytelling shows and comedy clubs throws people off; deviating from the expected “formula” in institutional settings like UCB and commercial theater leads to your work being dismissed. She had a fulfilling stint performing at queer nightlife events like Chris Tyler’s Total Rejects Live, but there she predominantly performed characters, something she’s trying to move away from now.
“I’m excited to do the show at The Duplex because I think they have a long history of doing, like, alternative queer performance, so I feel like they fit in with what I like to do. But also, I’m not going to be this femme-y girl who’s gonna go up to all these gay men and make them laugh because I’m doing a Barbra Streisand cover. Those aren’t the songs I listen to, so that’s not what I’m gonna sing. I am my own person.”
Her feelings on this matter extend to musical theater as a whole, not just cabaret performance. “[Musical theater] should be gay, but it should be LGBTQ, it should be weird as fuck. I don’t get why all the women in musical theater are always so feminine. The musical theater ideal is these straight women and these gay men, and I’m like what the fuck is this shit? That’s not real.”
Though Skara says she’s ditched characters for the most part, she still implements them in her work here and there. Rock Goddess has a few character appearances, and several of the songs are sung while paying stylistic tribute to notable women in rock like Stevie Nicks and Joanna Newsom.
“For me, it’s less that I’m parodying other female rock musicians and more that I’m becoming my own rock musician as a comedian. I don’t want to play a character of Stevie Nicks. [Some people might] think I’m going to be doing the whole show as Courtney Love, like a one-off joke that goes on for an hour. And that’s not what it is, it’s all music I legit wrote without wanting to sound like another artist. Because I think parodying, it can be fun for a little bit but it doesn’t hold a show. I would rather point out what’s funny about life and funny about my life than make fun of Stevie Nicks for an hour.”
Tessa Skara: Rock Goddess is Sunday, July 23 at The Duplex, 9:30 pm. $8 advance, $13 at the door.