Transforming pop trash to pure gold
Transforming pop trash to pure gold

Like many young girls, Ali McGregor spent her teenage years listening to what she might now call "trashy pop". True, among the trash were some esteemed artists such as Madonna and Kiss, as well as Salt-N-Pepa and the Foo Fighters - and well, maybe Britney Spears.

"But I always say that one girl's trash is another girl's treasure," McGregor says on the phone from her home in Melbourne where she is preparing to come to Perth with her latest cabaret show Alchemy.

"The title is deliberate because alchemy is the art of turning base metals or trash into something of gold. I loved all those trashy songs of my teenage years, and now I've found my own way of reinterpreting them - of turning them into pop treasures."

Perth cabaret lovers may remember McGregor from her performances last year in the Spiegeltent with her previous show Jazz Cigarette, in which she retooled jazz standards from the Great American Songbook in her inimitable, intimate and sexy style.

Alchemy was first performed as a cabaret show for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and McGregor will spend the first half of this year touring it to Australian cabaret and theatre club venues, with Perth the first stop.

"The show is in some ways an extension of Jazz Cigarette, but I've gone back to the favourites of my teen years in the 1980s," she says. "Some of my audiences in Edinburgh didn't know many of the songs but I told them not to worry - I've turned them into my own songs so they're quite different from the originals. I've never wanted to do just cover versions of famous songs."

Among her reinterpretations is Madonna's big hit La Isola Bonita, which, she admits she always thought as a teenager was about a young girl pining for a young man - instead of a song about an island.

"But a lot of girls of my age told me they made the same mistake," she laughs.

Another pop classic to get the McGregor treatment is Kiss' I Was Made for Loving You Baby, this time turned into a smouldering, slow and "really sexy" song.

Then there is Soft Cells' version of Tainted Love, turned into a New Orleans-style jazz song, harking back to its origins as a Gloria Jones bluesy number.

That McGregor should find inspiration for her latest show in her teenage years is perhaps surprising, in that after her misspent musical youth she trained as an opera singer, and spent five and half years in Opera Australia's Young Artists Program.

Her formal training in music began at the Australian National University in Canberra, followed by postgraduate studies at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, England.

She admits that she "kind of fell into opera" and that a chance encounter at the Spiegeltent in Melbourne one evening while relaxing from her opera duties set her on the path to cabaret.

"I found I enjoyed the freedom and the creativity of singing cabaret, and it really came out of my training as an actor and singer for opera," she says.

"There is no grand game plan in my career, but I'm enjoying creating cabaret shows, and I'm already planning another show which I will take to this year's Edinburgh Fringe."

Married to comedian and TV presenter Adam Hills, the couple have a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter who goes with them when they both tour to places such as Edinburgh.

While the future is full of possibilities, McGregor says she is looking forward to taking Alchemy around Australia.

"I think that with this show I've really discovered my own voice," she says.

She will be accompanied by pianist Sam Keevers, Switzerland-based bass player Rodrigo Aravena and Canadian drummer Chris Wallace.

The West Australian

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