Watching New York nightlife, it’s always wonderful when a performer you admire and enjoy goes from scrappy potential to screaming success. Lady Rizo, an inspiring singer and hilarious re-contextualizer, appears back at Joe’s Pub this week with victory in her step to celebrate the release of her new album, Indigo, which at first spin runs the gamut from Broadway tunes to Kurt Weill to neo-soul to a noir soundtrack.
Lady Rizo sang on a Moby album, was featured on Yoyo Ma’s Grammy-winning Songs of Joy & Peace, and the New York Times called her an “alt-cabaret star.”
Rizo was one of the aughts-wave of downtown New York un-categorizables, people working in different forms and bleeding the lines, like performance artist/burlesquer Julie Atlas Muz or singer/comedienne Bridget Everett—unique voices refusing to be labelled one thing. I first saw her on the burlesque and adjacent scenes, in the Schlep Sisters’ Menorah Horah and in Taylor Mac’s 5-hour The Lily’s Revenge.
Perhaps my favorite early Rizo performance was on a boat ride around Manhattan, a show put on by the recently-closed, not-yet-reopened Slipper Room. Writing about it (under the name J.D. Oxblood), I compared her to Laurie Anderson, but “more downtown and Emily Strange.”
Backed by Viva and the Fabulous Five, Rizo ripped with a partial-Spanish version of Radiohead’s early winner, “Creep,” a version so blistering and over-the-top it quite literally rocked the boat.
How was the “Red, White, & Indigo” run in London? It’s been a rough year over there: midt-Brexit, terrorism, the Grenfell fire. What’s the sentiment performing as an American for Londoners?
It felt like there was a real desire to hear a rational American express frustration and disbelief at our current administration. It’s also a sneaky way to fire up activism—while traveling through the portal of a glittery chanteuse. The metropolitan audience in London is just as shaken to the core about Brexit as we are about Trump—even more so, perhaps. Their daily news is less sensational but the result of the vote is potentially more permanent.
Did that show evolve as you toured? The news cycle in Trump-land is so exhausting, with a new drama daily.
All of my shows evolve as I tour, but perhaps this one did more than most. My work is not as ever shifting as a nightly news satire show, I’m more interested in the deep underlying issues surrounding by shifts like this. When something threatens the core of understanding. I was able to pepper in reactions to recent events as they were happening, but I’m not going to add a new section about Scaramucci.
You said your 2016 show at Joe’s Pub was very much about being a new mother. How have you settled into that role?
Motherhood is not unlike tending to a big important creative project—the difference being it’s morally wrong to fail. Similarly I am constantly improvising as I go along. I love being a mother—and attempting to raise a child with independence and touring capabilites.
Your record just dropped— what’s your excitement level? How do physical items even feel these days, when performers get most of their bread and butter from live shows?
It just dropped! I’m pretty damn excited. But mainly because it will mark a moment of closure for this project that I’ve worked so hard and long on. I suppose it’s exciting to connect with fans in a way that doesn’t involve me actually sweating on the boards. (Though I love doing that.) It’s a different animal—one that I’m not entirely used to but excited to learn and experience like a teenager in a dark movie theater.
From your early New York “un-categorizable” work, you seem to have since been niched as a cabaret singer and recording artist—do you feel that’s accurate?
I’m glad you see me as un-categorizable. Lets burn the boxes! How I see cabaret is perfect for me—it’s radical, intimate, salt of the earth yet glamorous. But the world has a hard time with the label because of what it started to mean in the mid-seventies: stagnant, self-obsessed, and slightly insincere. I am an entertainer, a singer, a raconteur, a purveyor of beauty—however you label that is your business.
You came to New York in 2004, launching your own shows and experimenting in a very different downtown scene. Would such a strategy even work today?
Cream always rises. And you make cream by working hard and tirelessly promoting in an honest way about quality work. How you get quality work is to not get soft on your growth and find as many performing opportunities that you can. I think that having savvy social media skills really helps these days—but you need to have the other ingredients to back that up.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Bradley Spinelli is the author of the novels “The Painted Gun” and “Killing Williamsburg,” and the writer/director of “#AnnieHall.”