“It’s amazing how far making your friends laugh will take you in this world”: Shirley Gnome
If you’re a fan of Garfunkel and Oates or Tenacious D, get ready for last year’s 2x Best Comedy Award nominee Shirley Gnome. She returns to the Melbourne International Comedy Festival with an all new show, Taking it Up The Notch – but first took some time to talk to us about punching babies, shit stirring, friends and fans.
Your songs usually cover themes of female empowerment, political satire and pop parody. Can we expect Taking It Up The Notch to be similar in this aspect? What new things can we expect?
Yes, you can expect those elements – and more. I have been signed to a record label back in Canada (604 Records), and am currently recording an album with them. Taking It Up The Notch is an innuendo, but it also refers to the challenge of making something next-level with this huge opportunity.
So there will be all the notions that got me noticed in the first place, but I’m also exploring lots of new themes and concepts – like killing dogs and punching babies. Death, religious hypocrisy, loneliness, intimacy, anger, self-righteousness, morality, and yeah – lots of violence. I’m thinking it’s going to be a commercial success. Give the people what they don’t want to hear, right? That’s how you make money, right?
Your songs, of course, are renowned for being ingeniously provocative. What’s your writing process like? How do you form your witty lyrics?
Wow, how flattering. I always thought of myself as more of a shit disturber. My lyrics come from all sorts of inspirations. Oftentimes something strangely untruthful will be happening, and my instinct is to start poking holes in it. I’ll think of a way to call out what’s really happening in that social situation through a really sweet and joyful melody that naturally follows the words. A lot of the time I’ll sing the tune into my phone and figure out how to play it later.
I will say that inspiration can come from a lot of places. Sometimes it will be from seeing an encouraging and permissive performer who allows me to be more honest in my own reflections and perceptions.
Which came first? The musical talent, or your taking to stand-up comedy? At which point in your life did you decide to combine the two?
It was definitely not a decision. I tried playing serious music, but I can’t really take myself seriously. I naturally wanted to make my friends laugh, so I took their stories and turned them into jaunty tunes. Sometimes they were about me, but I knew it would make a specific person laugh in our connection to that theme. I love music and I don’t consider myself a stand-up, or even a comedian – I’m a silly muso. It’s amazing how far making your friends laugh will take you in this world.
How do you come to write and make up melodies for your songs? There’s some amazing tunes in them. Is it difficult juggling the two?
The lyrics and melodies/chord changes come together, most of the time. If they don’t, I get lyrics first, and I write them out like a poem. I sit down with them and speak them out. I listen for the meter, the rhyme scheme, the mood; most of the time, I’ll start to hear the melody in my brains from doing this. Then I have to squeeze it out with help from my geetar or a set of keys. This method takes a little more coaxing of the muse, but I don’t think of it as difficult – it’s endless fun and discovery.
Did you have any country singers as role models? Or any role models for that matter. How much do you believe they’ve influenced your take on the joint combo of music and comedy?
Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn are my legends. Powerful, honest, hilarious, sad, beautiful, wise women who let it all hang out, whatever it happened to be. What I happen to be a silly ding-dong, so I let that hang out in the same way. I won’t ever be them, but they let me be who I am. I think they might think I’m gross. I also love many other musicians for many different reasons.
Your songs expose many sexual and societal taboos— what appeals to you about these topics?
I think I was dropped on my head as a kid because I don’t seem to feel shame about being alive, and it seems most humans do – at least about something.
I live a pretty happy existence not shaming myself, or letting others shame me – although when they try, it does inspire me to talk about why they aren’t gonna win. I can be curious about what I’m feeling, wondrous even, but I don’t imagine that my thoughts or feelings are ever inherently bad. Yet, that’s where the taboo lives. These topics are liberating to express with honesty, humour, and/or shamelessness because it makes it easier to see how subjective the taboo can really be – and there’s forgiveness in that.
Sometimes I’m so wrong about something though, I gotta say, and that’s okay. I get a lot out of presenting ideas to audiences to see what kind of reaction it elicits, and from who – no matter what the reaction. For me, there is so much that is honestly hilarious about what we can’t be honest about – and I like to be able to share that in whatever way it is received. As Frank Zappa once said, “Being alive is so weird!”
You have such a well-received audience to your songs—has it always been like this or was it more difficult to gain this traction when you first began?
I’m lucky to have some pretty ace fans. They made my life what it is, and it is gloriously fun and silly. I remember my first fan – someone who came to shows who wasn’t my friend. That was seven years ago. It has been slowly building ever since. Certain milestones helped me gain more traction – it ebbs and flows. People forget about you, then remember you again when something takes you up the notch (career-wise).
My songs are not for everyone (trust me on that), but they are definitely for some. Through word of mouth, the internet, and people bringing their friends to live shows, I’ve gathered some fine humans who fuel my fire. That steady climb of support has perpetually encouraged me to keep making money off of those lovely folks, bless ‘em. Shirley needs her whiskey.
What other musical comedians are you looking forward to seeing this festival?
The ones I haven’t heard of yet!
Also: Fringe Wives Club, The Travelling Sisters (they’re sketch but I heard one of their songs and it made me fart from laughing), Grant Busé, and Josh Earl & Daniel Tobias.
I reckon they’ll be lots of good shit at The Butterfly Club so I’ll be parking my ass there quite a bit. Can I say shit? I’m not actually talking. This was all typed. Did you know that, fair reader? My interviewer sent me these questions. I don’t even know who they are, and they don’t even know I was pantless for the entire interview. I guess we all know now.
In conclusion, I want everyone to know I saw Zoë Coombs Marr’s show Trigger Warning last year before it was selling out. Finally, proof that I am so cool!
You can watch Shirley Gnome’s MICF show Taking it up the Notch Monday 3 to Sunday 16 April. Tickets start at $25. For more information and to book tickets, head to the Butterfly Club website.