My phone interview with Lady Rizo begins with a lengthy discussion about nap schedules. Not ours, but those of our children – both of whom are sleeping in adjacent rooms in our respective flats. Her son Tennyson is nine months old and is about to accompany his mother from New York to Edinburgh, where she’s performing her new show Multiplied.
More than being a mere travel companion, Tennyson is integral to the show, though mum is coy about the nature or extent of his involvement. Considering she performs in a genre more usually associated with escapism, I open by asking what prompted her to take such an autobiographical approach.
“I have this radical and sometimes confusing commitment to reality within art,” she says. “I’m interested in the place where fantasy and reality collide, taking the truth of situations and giving them a glittering veneer of beauty and song and glamour.”
Lady Rizo—the stage name of Amelia Zirin-Brown—burst onto the Fringe scene in 2012 when she won the inaugural TO&ST (Time Out & Soho Theatre) Edinburgh Cabaret Award. Her work typically features soulful and often irreverent versions of well-known songs, from Broadway classics to R&B, interspersed with A-grade patter and lashings of sauce. But recently she’s begun to take a deeper, more self-reflexive approach.
In true Rizo fashion her epiphany for this change in direction occurred in a fantastically glamorous place. She was having dinner at bestselling author Neil Gaiman’s pad in New York, and it was the Stardust scribe who suggested she channel some more personal stories into her work, particularly the pain of separation from her husband of 12 years. That led to her 2014 hit show, described by Fest as “refreshingly unfamiliar”.
As the title of Multiplied suggests, it was her transition to motherhood that inspired her latest offering, which evolved while Tennyson was still in utero. “I loved performing when I was pregnant. I wasn’t tired at all and my voice was in really good shape. And most importantly everyone’s expectations where dramatically lowered – they were happy I was just standing.”
She noticed that attitudes towards her as a pregnant woman were often strange, particularly from white people. “Pregnancy means I’ve had sex, it means a baby is going to pass through my vagina. In black and Hispanic cultures they’re so much more comfortable with sex and their bodies. But white people are so weird about it, and about babies in general.”
She admits to “over-simplifying” these racial attitudes, but is keen to explore them nonetheless. The poster for Multiplied—which features a photo of her breastfeeding her son—seems a clear provocation. “It’s definitely a statement. But it’s also a reflection of my reality. I’m breastfeeding so much that most of the time I just feel like a walking tit.”
But there is more to it than merely celebrating an often taboo physical act, she adds. In a culture where women are pressured back to the workplace after having kids and juggling careers with childcare, she is proudly combining the two. She’s a cabaret star, yes, but also a mother. Why can’t she do both at the same time? This attitude goes back to her self-described “hippy-dippy” upbringing. Her parents lived in an artistic community and made theatre productions together. The mothers in the community became “milk sisters” and shared breastfeeding duties. It was a million miles away from the corporatised world of nuclear families and office nurseries.
As with most new parents, having a child has altered her psychological state. “It feels like you’ve been lobotomised, because a part of your brain is now reserved for keeping another being alive. In a sense you become infantilised.” However, she is very keen to emphasise that she is still the same Rizo we have come to know and love. “The core of who I am is still the same, and I’m trying to articulate in the show that just because I’ve had a child not all my emotions and perspectives are related to that.”
She recalls the feeling of inferiority she was often made to suffer before having kids – the ‘you wouldn’t understand’-type conversations. “I used to think, ‘fuck you, I have a rich, vibrant and complex life. Plus, we don’t need everyone to breed'.” But now she is a parent, she says society would be richer if everyone “leaned in” and became invested in a child’s life. “Being around children is how we fight cynicism. It’s how we fight the sardonic nature of growing old. I swear an hour with a baby or a young child is the only answer to that. Unless you’re into heavy meditation.”
And in America currently it’s very easy to be cynical, with the rise of Trump and the phobias he plays on. I’m intrigued to know how Rizo responds to this febrile political climate. “My greatest service to people is to provide them with a brief cleanse of all that stuff. I’m obsessed with the current political circus, because it’s so frightening but it’s also so entertaining. But my job as a performer is to get to the truth of humanity underneath.”
Referencing the Brexit vote, she says she’s afraid of “the decisions people make when they’re scared”. So can cabaret help? “Absolutely. People should leave my show feeling less fearful about their lives.”
And with that, she needs to get back to her son.