Poignant. Funny. Poignant. Funny. You’ll confound yourself trying to decide which she is. Until you realise she’s about equal parts of both. Rachel Collis is, just quietly (’cause she’s ridiculously, incongruously and unjustly under the radar), the great, undiscovered, unwittingly underground cabaret talent of her time. Perhaps, in the back-to-the-future era of Abbott, we’d know her better if she was male. We should know as well as Tim Minchin.

The sound might’ve been a little muddy and reverberant for such an intimate space (Glebe’s Cafe Church Space, otherwise known as jazz venue, Colbourne Avenue), but nothing can dilute or diminish the crystal clarity or razor sharpness of Collis’ intelligence, manifest in her acutely observed, pithily-phrased lyrics. Of course, it’s one thing to have genius in this department (I certainly wouldn’t rule her out of company such as Cole Porter, Noel Coward, Tom Lehrer, or Blossom Dearie) and quite another to have the compositional skills to match. Sure, one or two of those already mentioned did, but that’s just the point: they were exceptions that make the rule.

A yellow-shaded standard and orange-shaded table lamp, both fringed, speak vaguely of the Ottoman empire; via Aunt Mabel, perhaps. Somehow, this seems like a fitting milieu for the slightly kooky Collis cabaret. When I say cabaret, it’s because I can’t find a better word. But if you’re expecting breathy intimacy, faux tragedy, slinky gowns, theatrical make-up and a narrative trajectory, forget it. Collis’ shtick is much more impetuous: even if the patter is carefully rehearsed, it lends an impression of spontaneity and her quirky personality looms  large in all she does. As natural as it all seems, one senses the kind of outgoing nature typically demanded by a live-on-stage vocation is something that doesn’t come so easily; a persona is implicated. An essentially shy, retiring disposition, if I’m reading it right, is ironic, as her spiels are so engaging and there’s a sense she could rattle on all evening, regaling with anecdotes and wry reflections. She’s a singer-songwriter, that’s true, but there’s a more theatrical aspect to it than usually pertains.

Invest in the journalism that makes a difference.

EOFY Sale. A year for just $99.

SAVE 50%

She begins, in quirky, unpredictable, characteristic style, with The French Door Thief, a song about the pitfalls of the working-class burglar. It’s not all beer and skittles in the break-and-enter business; it’s just not all it’s cracked-up to be:

A person of my stature shouldn’t be climbin’ ’round on all fours, so I’ve made myself a list of ev’ry single-storey house with a set of French doors. Because it’s all about easy access honey, easy access; without easy access, I ain’t takin’ what’s rightfully yours.

There aren’t too many householders seeing things from a burglar’s point-of-view. Now that‘s empathy.

Column B falls somewhere between Mozart and an Oktoberfest beerhall, via Johann Strauss. Lyrically, it’s curiouser and curiouser: many of her words seem to capture the irreconcilable contradictions each of us endures, practically every, groundhog day; all the what ifs, if onlys and maybes. The opening line — “She cannot really sing, but she loves Jesus” — points to all the little ways, perhaps, in which we illogically, inconsistently, capriciously rationalise, arguing against our weaknesses with our strengths, such as we perceive them, or would prefer them, in order to psychically survive. It’s, at once, (self-)mocking and compassionate; cruel and kind; merciless and merciful. And an uncomfortably accurate insight into the human condition, which is what Collis is really all about. She rights from the heart, hearth and home, often implicating her long-suffering husband. (Of course, it’s not entirely documentary: just as The Bible may be more divine inspiration, or aspiration, that literal truth, you might call it intra-marital inspiration.) We’re frail, fallible and human, just as God intended us; well, not originally, but after Adam & Eve buggered it up for everyone, on that fateful day, in that fruitful garden. Forgiveness of self and others seems to be central to Collis’ theology. The song, one hopes, might serve as an antidote, or at least pause for thought, to the allure of obsessive-compulsive perfectionism. Hugh Fraser’s plodding bass and Mike Quigley’s percussion instil a comic sensibility from the get-go; indeed, their sensitive, supportive, understated, finely-judged musicianship makes this a trio to be reckoned with, once you factor in Collis’ considerable pianism.

Pilot’s Licence is about goals, personal challenges and stepping outside your comfort zone. It sports the tinkling optimism of a ’50s advertising jingle. When it comes down to it, the naked truth is, no matter where we’re at in life, what age or stage, we’re all still practicing for a licence we’ll never get. Flying through life comes with plenty of risks and, in the end, a black-box recorder is cold consolation. “I’m strapping myself in and expecting turbulence” could be the story of her life, mine, or yours.

Superhero implicates highly-entertaining introductory banter about her close, delicate collaboration with fellow singer, songwriter and keyboardist, Peta van Drempt, while It’s An Education addresses the big questions:

Have you ever asked a German why they must insist
That to be polite their men and boys must sit down when they piss?

Have you ever asked a doctor, as he opens his practice,
What his inspiration was to be a gynecologist?

Have you asked a vegetarian how he can resist
The smell of sizzling bacon and not want to slit his wrists?

Or have you thought to ask Freud’s mother about the genesis
Of her son’s insightful theories concerning Oedipus?

Have you ever asked a man why a woman should envy
The strangest looking part of the human anatomy?

She is, as I say, curiouser and curiouser. But, as she wisely counsels:

Never underestimate the joy of a golden learning opportunity,
Minding other people’s business with impunity.
And asking why Jackson Pollock is considered art,
Or why a nudist beach attracts an old fart.

And confesses, or promises, in her idiosyncratically self-effacing style:

You could inspect, dissect, countercheck and thoroughly top-to-toe me;
You could prod and poke and probe and pry and, eventually, disrobe me.
But I don’t promise I’ll suffice,
Won’t come close to paradise,
But I would be an education.

Understudy traverses similar territory, albeit in a more serious-minded way, to Pilot’s Licence: “no fear of falling in your face, when you’re an understudy”. Comfort zones offer no risk, but no growth. “No chance someone will steal your place, when you’re an understudy.” It addresses the price of fame, versus the easy attractions of anonymity. Like many of her songs, it sounds for all the world like a song from a musical yet to be written. It has a familiar ring to it. Not because it’s actually familiar (unless you’ve heard it before), but because it’s one of those tunes that immediately snags on the fabric of your memory.

Echo recapitulates the Greek myth of the mountain nymph of that name, who loved her own voice. She also loved a similarly self-absorbed young man, in Narcissus. Despite wisecracking about taking some of the limelight away from Narcissus, what we hear is haunting; almost breathtakingly so. It might well be read as an allegorical meditation on the subjugation of women down through the ages; pawns, subject to the caprice of male gods. (Of course, all that’s changed, with the new government, right?) She’s so full of surprises.

From Echo to Pablo. And it’s quite a leap. Out of the pantheon and into the molten exfoliant. You see, Pablo is a hot, Brazilian waxer. And sometimes defining that bikini line can come just a little too close for comfort. Or close to comfort. On this occasion, Collis lavished it with extra sauce, relishing every suggestive line. Any woman, it seems, would be hard-pressed to remain cool in the presence of Paolo, who implores, in his broad Portuguese accent, ‘honey, just spread your legs and relax’.

Naked Dream sees her diminutive frame rise from the grand to pick up a ukulele. Hubby, Steve, says if you imagine it as a full-sized guitar, Rachel looks like a giant. I think I get what they have in common. The song is at the scarily recognisable, tear-jerking end of the emotional spectrum. Who can’t relate to the vulnerability recalled in lines like: “It’s like that naked dream, where you go to school and everybody stares; I’m the freak at the fair.” Or the profound sense of loss embodied in the opening verse.

It’s slipping through my grip,
This slippery, silver fish;
And all the while, this leaky boat goes drip, drip, drip, drip.

Of course,  some dreams dissipate slowly and painfully, while others go bump, or bang, in the night. So Your Dream Went Boom is the story of a local shopkeeper (Collis is a fringe-dweller, from Hornsby), the gossip, conspiracy theories and suburban schadenfreude that follow and fan the conflagration even after the blaze is extinguished. The context may be local, but the pitiless, parasitic gorging on others’ misery has global implications. But don’t expect unadulterated pathos or solemn social observation. Collis, being Collis, can’t rest a sidelong glance at the funny side of fire as well. I should qualify. The song is “10% truth; 90% projection”. Inspiration comes from many sources.

So your dream went boom;
At least nobody died:
The patrons from the brothel next door were ushered safely outside.

This Old House is one of her finest achievements and, again, a song begging to star in a musical of her making. “Put this old house on the market; a young couple’s dream, now covered in mildew and rust, slowly returning to dust.” It could get by with the opening line, which so vividly paints a sad picture of the rosy red flush of first love turning to blue and green; a shiny glow eaten alive by corrosive, day-to-day attrition, signalling the death of a partnership. With the house goes the home. The hammer falls heavily on hearts and minds, which take forever to recover. Sad, but too true. If only the bulldozer and bobcat could shift the memories.

The Outline of A Thought seems to suggest a pattern; a song cycle. What’s that in the air? Is it a bird, a plane, or an extramarital affair? I’m speculating, of course. But the voyeur in me would love to be that fly on the wall, spying with my little, multifaceted eye, the life (or perhaps liteary) events, or poetic licentiousness, that impelled its being written into existence. It’s yet another sophisticated composition. And superbly orchestrated. There are aha! moments and aha! moments. This seems to document one of the less edifying ones.

Huh, I think I smell a rat.
My heart’s been knocking on my mind:
Rat-a-tat; rat-a-tat-tat; rat-a-tat-tat!
She says, ‘come take a closer look,
You never know what you might find’.

Just when I think I’ve heard Collis’ capstone composition, the jewel in the crown, she plays A Song About Spaghetti Bolognaise. We may live in the era of celebrity chefdom and compulsive culinary obsessiveness, but it doesn’t take much noodle to discern this is no ordinary ode to pasta.

You say you’re getting tired of spaghetti bolognaise,
That this culinary repetition is bringing on malaise;
I’m hoping this is just a passing phase.

Do you know what it does to me,
This fascination with variety?
You knew when you married me,
Night after night, it would be
Spaghetti bolognaise for tea.

I’ve tried smothering your plate with extra sauce and cheese,
I’ve tried spicing it up, by adding broccoli or peas;
I’ve done everything I can to please.

Still you’d rather go out and pay
For what I give you every day;
Well, maybe not every day,
But I offer quality, not quantitay;
A little self-control will keep your cravings at bay.

Also, Ms. Collis’ attorney would like to advise that in no way, at no time, has Mr. Collis expressed any desire to dine out. Any resemblance to husbands living or dead, but especially living, is purely coincidental.

If I remember correctly, Collis acquainted us with Make Room by way of a timely, heartfelt plea for us to accommodate refugees. Again, the song itself does the rest and speaks best.

Though your heart’s a flickering no vacancy sign,
Though your heart’s already working overtime,
Though your heart’s a suitcase fully packed,
Though your heart’s a disregarded artifact,
Love is spacious, love is kind,
So make room, make room.

The Art of Letting Go is a lovely, loping piece, with the most elegant of melodic motifs. Many have been down to the river (including Echo’s beau, of course) and Collis, apparently, is no exception. It’s here she unburdens herself of a load she’s been shouldering for some time. It’s a song that will mean differrent things to different listeners and, yet, somehow, the same to all.

No show would be complete without at least one encore and there were those present, including I, who wouldn’t have allowed Collis to leave without a rendition of The Germans. This was version 2.0, the Tony Abbott adaptation. It’s, at once, politically incorrect and oh so correct. It’s a comic masterpiece worthy of the aforementioned Lehrer, Groucho, or Victor Borge. She’s sussed all the pros and cons of a Third Reich victory. For example, that we’d be blonder and taller, but with smaller libraries. We’d eat sauerkraut with merriment, but our doctors would experiment. Ouch!

If the Germans had won the war,
Our trains would run on time.
Our beer would be nicer,
Instead of ‘shit!’, I’d say ‘scheisse!’,
If the Germans had won the war.

That’s the nub of it. But, for Tony, Collis has reserved extra-special bile.

We’d say ‘Heil Tony,
Der Fuehrer!’;
He ist nicht so gut,
But he’s better than Hitler,
In those speedos, looking fit, ja!
Yadle-doo, yadle-dee, yadle-day!

‘Heil Tony,
Der Fuehrer!’;
Those daughters are bewitchin’,
Put ’em back in the kitchen,
Doing ironing and stichin’,
Yadle-doo, yadle-dee, yadle-day!

Collis is the antipodean queen of truly original cabaret.

The details: Rachel Collis performed two shows at the Glebe Cafe Church Space on September 6 and 21.

Save this EOFY while you make a difference

Australia has spoken. We want more from the people in power and deserve a media that keeps them on their toes. And thank you, because it’s been made abundantly clear that at Crikey we’re on the right track.

We’ve pushed our journalism as far as we could go. And that’s only been possible with reader support. Thank you. And if you haven’t yet subscribed, this is your time to join tens of thousands of Crikey members to take the plunge.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
SAVE 50%