Both cabaret and jazz have ardent fans, and both have a reputation for brooding seriousness. Despite this, jazz chanteuse and cabaret performer Jessie Upton (aka Jessamae St James), while extremely talented, definitely does not take herself too seriously.
To illustrate: when we began chatting about her work she opened with ‘I just ate some tuna and then coughed-laughed and now I feel like I might have tuna in my nose… I’m not sure how I get it out?’
Basically, she’s pretty down to earth.
Since she made her start in the arts in 2010, Jessie has carved out a successful career, performing in Melbourne, Sydney and London as both Jessamae St James and as herself. Jessie has created shows about everything from Ricki Lee Jones to sexual fetish. Her latest performance is a parody of indie cabaret itself.
Jessie and I talked about making creative work, growing as a performer and the omnipresent lure of just chucking it all in to play Fallout.
On the tools she uses to write
‘I wrote my last show on Google Docs and that was freaking awesome. With every other show, when it’s been in the early writing stage, it’s been a series of notebooks and scribbled pieces of paper and random words written on my hand that I’ve then waded through and formed the show from those notes. Does that mean I wrote some of my show sitting on the toilet? Maybe…
‘It was a little stressful at the time but deciding to write a show mostly comprising of songs using vocal loops before actually knowing how to use a looper was either punishing myself or putting a whole lot of faith in myself. So I’m proud because I’ve decided I was totally putting faith in myself. Go me!’
On the creative process
‘I was a jazz singer and then moved into burlesque and I now write cabaret. When I was in primary school I used to bring my Walkman in and sing along to Jagged Little Pill in class. I was very popular. (Edit: it has been verified that Jessi was not, in fact, very popular).
‘I think I’ve become a heap more accepting of how my creative process works. I used to try and enforce this really harsh work ethic and then get really down when it didn’t go to plan, which sort of made the creative process significantly more miserable than I thought it would be. I knew that had to change so now I try to run with it and if that includes watching a season of the West Wing between working on my script, then that’s just how it is.
‘My director for the show (the heaps awesome Steven Gates from Tripod) also introduced me to some really simple ways to track progress when creating something new, which have been really useful. I think I’m getting better at it – but it’s managing the voice of procrastination that whispers ‘fuck it, go play Fallout’ and the voice of panic which whispers ‘do more, create more, why aren’t you making more, be better’.
‘I think they’re both pretty universal issues for artists though. Also making work as solo artist is great fun but sometimes it can be a little lonely – so I like to try and check in with other people I know who are creating work.’
On her inspiration
‘The stories in my show are pretty light hearted. But I do think since women are still fighting for fundamental rights the act of creating solo work and getting it in front of an audience in itself must be political to some degree.
‘In terms of direct inspiration, I think Ursula Martinez is an incredible storyteller. I’m also a big fan of Robert Lepage and his company Ex Machina.’
On the evolution of her work
‘I perform cabaret as Jessamae St James which is a stage name dating back to when I performed a lot more burlesque. There is a lot of ‘Jess’ (me) in my current show which at first was a little confronting as it’s a lot different than walking on stage as Jessamae in a burlesque setting, where she’s sultry and sexy and in a gown covered in rhinestones. Instead I’m walking on stage, creating some vocal loops and singing about things a lot more personal and embarrassing! But now that’s kind of addictive, so I think Jessamae is becoming more ‘me’ with each performance of this show.
‘Nothing is locked in, but I do have a list of things I’d like to try and achieve in the next few years. I at least know that after I’ve toured my current show I’m going back into the practice room to work on up-skilling musically. That’s going to be my focus for the rest of the year. I’d like to release a solo EP of songs and then hopefully work collaboratively with some visual artists to create some cabaret.’
If Jessie’s work was a person, it would be:
Internally: Tina Belcher.
Externally: Linda Belcher.