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Interview: Emma Dean's pop cabaret universe



Singer/songwriter Emma Dean, who hails from the city of Brisbane, has created her own unique, magical universe and established herself as “pop cabaret” performer.  Her signature style of catchy alternative pop music and visual feast of imaginative costumes, make-up and theatrics has won over many fans – including the New York Post, who named her as “1 of 10 Artists to watch in 2011”.

With her Cabaret Fringe Festival show in Adelaide approaching fast, Emma takes us through her quirky and creative mind.


You’ll be performing your show Stripped soon.  What was the process for writing the show like?

To be honest, it was a very backwards process. I had been hired to perform every week for three consecutive weeks at a wonderful Cabaret venue in Sydney called El Rocco. I wanted to make the shows low-key but still involve my “theatrical flair”. I knew I couldn’t afford to include any other performers so it needed to be a one-woman-show!

I had just released my new album Dr Dream and The Imaginary Pop-Cabaret so I had already rehearsed most of the songs that I wanted to perform. In the end it became a question of how I could string them together in an interesting and different way using just one person on stage – me! Remember, I’m used to performing alongside flamboyant physical-theatre performers, so I was feeling the pressure!

I decided the theme of my show would be about stripping back the musical layers and revealing the raw emotion and some of the stories behind the songs – all the things that are sometimes lost in a big theatrical production. Then on another layer I’ve incorporated a mannequin in to the mix who helps me with my costume changes where I literally “strip” on stage. Don’t worry…no pink bits. Totally PG!


How did you decide which songs to include and which ones to leave out?

I always find this tough. But, the great thing about this show is that there is so much room for movement. The formula is set, so I can now add and subtract songs as I write them as long as they fit in to the four scenes/themes. In fact, my Adelaide show will be different to my Sydney show!


The shows and videos you create are visually striking and dreamy. Where do you get the ideas and inspirations for the costumes, make-up and the whole look of the stage/videos?


I am so lucky to be surrounded by an incredible creative community of artists, dancers, costume designers, make-up artists, actors, musicians and dreamers. Most of us work independently and understand the financial difficulties that sometimes exist in our chosen fields, so we often help each other out with various projects. Some of the artists I have collaborated with on a long term basis are: Angela White Costume And Couture (who made many of my film clip and performance costumes), Lia Reutens (who features in my “Something They Can Hold” video and is also an imaginary friend), Amanda Laing, Walter Davis-Hart, Giema Contini, Dale Thorburn and Jamie Kendall (who all act/have acted as my imaginary friends) and Jonny Williams (who has made two of my film clips), and Tony Dean and Ben Stewart (who have played in my band and recorded my albums).

Outside inspiration comes from all things magical. I’ve always loved Tim Burton movies. I’m fascinated in exploring the world where reality meets Gothic-fairytale-fantasy and the place where music and theatre meet and explode! This is the world I want to live in when I’m performing and creating.


How would you describe your distinctive ‘pop cabaret’ style?

To break it down simply, I’d say it’s “piano-driven alternative pop music presented in a theatrical or cabaret style.”


You were named as “1 of 10 Artists to watch in 2011” in New York Post. Apart from the size and competitiveness, what are your thoughts on the American market?

The American market is something I’d like to explore. I’d been working really hard in Australia for 9 years without much airplay (which is a shame) and then BOOM…New York came calling! After the New York Post surprise, my single “Sincerely Fearful” was in the US specialty radio charts top 15 for a month alongside the likes of R.E.M and PJ Harvey. Surreal.

I often wonder if America, due to its large population, has the ability to sustain an artist like me who sits outside the mainstream box. I’m not sure. But I’m going to go over and find out whilst having an adventure at the same time!



How did you discover cabaret?

I’ve always been theatrically inclined and have been interested in musical theatre since I played the lead in my high school musical. Cabaret was an obvious step for me. After working with a company in Brisbane called Zen Zen Zo Physical Theatre, I became interested in performance techniques, which work on the power and energy of the body in performance. That’s when I began to incorporate some physical-theatre actors into my show. It was a really natural progression. To listen to my music without seeing the visuals often doesn’t seem like a typical cabaret experience, although, my songs and themes are clearly theatrical. For me, it’s all in the live show!


Cabaret to you is….?

A medium in which the “others” of the underground have a voice…


What appeals to you the most about performing cabaret?

I love the feeling of being in a cabaret club where the rules of society have flown out the door. I love the freedom. Of course, it was not always like this for cabaret artists, especially during WWII. I feel very lucky to be able to express myself artistically to the fullest extent.


The biggest source of inspiration?

I’m so inspired by the people around me, particularly my friends and family. Some of my musical inspirations are Tori Amos, Queen, Wicked (the musical), Cabaret (the musical), Chicago (the musical), Kate Bush, Silverchair, Jacob Diefenbach and mucho mucho more!


The best thing about performing as part of the Cabaret Fringe Festival?

Being in Adelaide again for the first time since the 2010 Adelaide Fringe Festival. Being recognised as being part of a thriving musical genre that has SO much to offer. Seeing my dear friends and meeting new ones.


What’s in store for you next?

I’m playing Sally Bowles in the next Aussie production of “Cabaret” with Zen Zen Zo Physical Theatre! Then I’m planning some shows overseas! Can’t wait.


Official website:


Emma Dean will be performing her show Stripped as part of 2011 Cabaret Fringe Festival at Tuxedo Cat on June 5th. Book your tickets here.

You can also see her at the Melbourne Cabaret Festival on July 20th & 21st. Get your tickets here.


Lena Nobuhara

Cabaret Confessional Associate Editor


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Reader Comments (2)

i love emma dean's album - it would be wonderful to see her live. enjoy good people!

June 1, 2011 | Unregistered Commentercottonsocks

I'm going to see her on Sunday, and I can't wait...I'll report back after the show :)

June 1, 2011 | Registered CommenterLena Nobuhara
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