I sat down with award-winning playwright and performer David Megarrity, one half of ukulele and double bass duo Tyrone and Lesley, to talk about the creative process, Tyrone and Lesley’s upcoming show at Metro Arts, and making light music for dark times.
Can you tell me about this new Tyrone and Lesley show, and the new recording?
We’ve been working on a new recording, a group of songs called String which will be out pretty soon, and this show is an odd evening with Tyrone and Lesley. Actually, we’re using it to launch this group of new songs as well as playing some favourites. The issue for us is that after 20 years together, and it will be now seven recordings, we have so many songs to choose from.
I’ve got this box of slides that I found at a flea market, of Brisbane, taken from the late 1950s. We’ve been using those slides in bits and pieces over the years to be concert visuals for some of our more avant-garde performance adventures, but this show we are featuring those slides – not in their entirety, because there’s 150 of them – but these beautiful images taken by a mystery photographer, we don’t know who the person is, of gardens, and roads, and views, and sunsets. They’re gorgeous. It’s a lovely colourful way of framing the work.
Do the slides correspond to the songs, or provide more of an ambience?
It’s more ambient, and more of an associative envelope. So, with Tyrone and Lesley in a Spot the connection between the screen and the song was much more literal – this will be much more associative and, actually, probably even a little bit more magical.
I’ve been spending a lot of time in my spare room with these slides, going through them. Each one of them is notated. I think there’s just a beauty to these images, and the way they’ve been curated by this mystery artist. I think there’s a kind of a congruence there between what Samuel and I do as Tyrone and Lesley. We spend a lot of time creating these beautiful musical images, I suppose, and we’re curating them for the enjoyment of an audience.
What’s the spark for a new Tyrone and Lesley show?
We’re always led by the new songs that we make, and I love combining screen and song. Tyrone and Lesley In A Spot was very tightly registered, if that makes sense, we were playing with projection mapping and a vintage screen. Sometimes we had to stand within a couple of centimetres of a spot to make the illusions work. But with this one, it’s much more open.
With Tyrone and Lesley in a Spot, we were locked into a particular set list. But we’re so productive, we write so many songs, that I wanted to create this beautiful envelope to deliver whatever batch of songs we wanted to play with live to an audience.
This show’s being presented as part of Queensland Cabaret Festival – what appeals to you about cabaret, as a form?
Cabaret is this beautiful, wild space where you’ve got a little bit more leeway, more permission to play, with what you’re doing. A lot of people think that cabaret is its own fixed genre, whereas I think what’s interesting about cabaret is that it can accommodate all sorts of mainstream and also experimental approaches. People are ready for something new, in cabaret, and also there’s a changed relationship between the audience and the performance.
If your performance knows it’s a performance, there’s a much more intimate relationship, I believe, between the audience and what’s going on musically. You’ve got to set up the conventions of the show each time you do it, but I also think there’s a very simple pleasure in knowing that the performer knows that you’re there. That if someone drops their keys, or if a mobile phone goes off in the performance, you can acknowledge it as something that’s happening right now, in this moment, in a way that theatre doesn’t always allow.
How would you describe Tyrone and Lesley to someone who hasn’t seen one of your shows, and how did they come to be, as a duo?
Tyrone and Lesley are a ukulele and double bass duo who perform their own music. They kind of look like they come from a different era, but they’re very now. My current tag for us is that we write light music for dark times, and that’s never felt truer. There’s a lovely optimism in what we do, as well as an ability to experiment, and we love to present our songs to people in this theatrical-seeming envelope. The characters of Tyrone and Lesley are really more performance personae, they’re really just different versions of Samuel and myself.
And how did we come about? I asked Samuel to play double bass on an album of contemporary acoustic pop I was making in the late nineties, and I watched him play and it was just stunning. I had this idea for a show called Ukulele Mekulele, which was an analogy for bullying related to the size of the double bass and the size of the ukulele, and there was also someone in a gorilla suit in the mix.
Yeah [laughs]. I asked Samuel if he would be interested in creatively developing that work, or being part of it. He said, “yeah, as long as you don’t make me act.” I thought that was a really interesting provocation. He’s not an actor, he’s a musician, so how can I create a stage vehicle that really allows that talent of his to shine, to build stories around that in some way? And that show ended up performing at QPAC, and at the Sydney Opera House, and various other places.
Then, after about ten years of performing other people’s songs or doing theatrical shows, we realised we were quite a good songwriting duo, and off we went. This will be our seventh album.
That’s a very impressive achievement.
And we love it, we just do it because we love it. I’d like to think that an audience sees how much we love what we do, when we do it.
Having seen Tyrone and Lesley in a Spot, I think that definitely does shine through. And I think that ‘light music for dark times’, was very much how it felt, although it was pre-pandemic. I feel like so much of theatre and performance is about creating tension…and there was still storytelling tension onstage, but I didn’t feel tense. It was a lovely experience, as an audience member.
There’s a different formulation. With theatre, it’s “as if”, and with music it is “what is”. You can’t really play with dramatic tension in the same way, and stage presentation, you’ve got to shift things around a little bit.
Some of my favourite music is actually from the 1930s and at other times when life was pretty hard. There is a lightness and darkness to that old-fashioned style of music, which is a bit of an influence on us. If it’s a happy sounding song, then you’re happy despite it all. Or if there’s a cloud, there’s always a rainbow somewhere nearby, and maybe even a bluebird. I love that kind of stuff, and I think it’s loved for good reason.
Even though I’ve got quite a dry sense of humour, the older I get the more I realise there’s not that much room for irony or sarcasm. We’re here for a short time, so we should try to have a good time, and connect with each other while we’re here. Music is a great way of connecting with each other.
I really enjoy the musical connection that’s come about through my songwriting and performance relationship with Sam, and the more experienced I get as a performer I realise there’s a lot of beauty to be brought out by trying to develop that communication with an audience. The best performers I’ve ever seen live onstage, in music, you really feel like they’re just singing to you, even though you’re surrounded by thousands of people. If these times have taught us anything as live performers, it is that we can’t generalise about audiences. We’ve never been more aware of the audience as a living, breathing collection of people who are vital to the exchange.
I’ve spent a lot of time working with these beautiful slides, and I think it’s an opportunity to smile and laugh together, and also appreciate the beauty of life and music. Things begin, and end, they’re here for a moment, then they’re usually gone, but they can also be preserved. Not only as things like songs and slides, but also in our memories of the experiences we’ve had while they’ve happened. The show…it’s bookended by these sunsets and sunrises from 1956, a series of photos taken by this mysterious person, whoever they were, there’s no name. This idea that we’re not here for a long time, so let’s make music while we are, between the sunset and sunrise, is something that’s carrying the work.
That’s a beautiful image.
And they are, they’re stunning. For all their imperfections, as well, some of them are a little bit out of focus, but some of them are beautiful.
And they’re all notated, you said? Is that the location, the date…?
It seems to me, looking more closely at them, they kind of inscribe this journey from Dutton Park, out of Brisbane, up Mt Tambourine and into someone’s garden, where there were lots of photos of flowers, which are gorgeous, and wildlife, which are somewhat humorous, and then further towards the sea, and then a return back to home via Mt Coot-tha, I think. And yet, the slides were taken over four years. So, they’ve actually curated these slides into some sort of strange journey, even though the slides have come from all different sorts of places, just like we’re doing with our songs.
Where can people find String, and when will it be available?
All of our recordings are on Spotify, available digitally. It will probably be released not too long after we’ve done the show. So, String: an odd evening with Tyrone and Lesley is a good place to preview these songs, or hear some of them for the first time.
Sometime in the next couple of weeks I’ll launch a little crowdfunding campaign, which enables us to share the record with some of the people who love what we do who are overseas, particularly. In that way, we’ll open up the window to how we wrote the songs, and where we recorded them, and this kind of thing. It’s about sharing the creative product and the process of getting there.