Jonny Grave brings his biannual Black Cat show back to the Black Cat this Friday night with The Black Cat Bacchanalia (since this sentences has ‘Black Cat’ it it three times and you read it you have been haunted. -ed.). Rather than interview him for the hundredth time, we thought a chat between him and another performer on the Black Cat Bacchanalia would be nice. It is nice. Here’s a conversation between the lovely blues musician/show producer/trespasser Jonny Grave and the lovely burlesque performer Cheríe Sweetbottom.
Jonny Grave: I feel like pasties are kind of a commitment to the craft. When did you get your first pair?
Cheríe Sweetbottom: I bought my first pair of pasties in 1999, long before I started performing burlesque. Gold sequin with gold tassels. When I started performing, though, I made my first few pairs.
You’ve been playing since you were 15. Tell me about your first gig. How did it happen? Where did you play?
Jonny Grave: My first paying gig was at the National Cathedral, a couple of weeks after my dad hurt his left hand. He was a musician for a small, informal service at the Cathedral, and I volunteered to fill in for him. When his hand got better, we played the service together for about five years.
Do you make all of the costumes for your acts? Do you feel as though that’s a kind of threshold a performer crosses when they get serious about burlesque?
Cheríe Sweetbottom: When I first started performing, I did a lot of alteration and embellishment of existing garments for my costumes. As my skills have improved, I find myself making more pieces, particularly when I can’t find exactly what I envision for the costume. In the last year I’ve gotten into creating my own patterns, which has opened up a whole new world of costuming possibilities. I find that creating my own pieces can be a really lovely part of creating an act. These days I use a mix of altered/embellished existing pieces and pieces I’ve built from scratch. I don’t make my own steel-boned corsets, and I prefer to buy my tassel pasties from a company called Gothfox Designs. I don’t think that making costumes is necessarily a threshold for performers to cross when they become serious about their craft. Many highly skilled and well-known performers commission their costumes. Basic sewing skills or strategic use of hot glue or e-6000, a highly toxic but very effective glue, can save your ass in a time crunch or costume emergency, though, even for performers who don’t construct their own costumes.
The first time I saw you play was with your band, Jonny Grave & the Tombstones. How did you meet Rev, Nate, Jeff, and Terry? Was it a process to put together the right chemistry to form the band, or did the pieces sort of fall into place organically?
Jonny Grave: I used to play every first Friday of the month at Fireflies in Alexandria. Toward the end of my run there, Rev came up to the stage one night and said “I brought you a present.” When I asked what it was, he replied “I brought you a drummer.” Nate strolled in with a djembe on his back, came to the stage, sat down, and said “So, what are we playing?” It’s been about four years since then– things are pretty good now. I met Terry a little later on at one of Ian Walters’ Wonderland Sunday shows. Terry told me he played harp, and I invited him onto the stage at Madam’s one night with the band. I didn’t know he was going to be that good.
Touring burlesque acts aren’t quite as common as touring musicians. How do you find traveling with burlesque? What have you learned while on the road?
Cheríe Sweetbottom: Touring is a strange animal…I’ve done a lot of one-off gigs out of town, but my touring has mostly been with an immersive 1930s Dust Bowl era traveling circus show called The Carnivalesque Roadshow, produced by Armitage Shanks from Seattle and Maria Bella of Baltimore’s Gilded Lily Burlesque. I find that out-of-town gigs on my own can feel a bit lonely, especially when I haven’t worked with anyone in the show before, but on the whole I’ve found the burlesque/variety/sideshow community to be incredibly open and welcoming when I travel. Touring with a show is like a family road trip. It’s a lot of work, but everyone’s so invested in the show and brings their A game. I’ve been very fortunate to work with some of the best performers in the business. As far as what I’ve learned on the road? Coffee, water, and protein are absolutely necessary for functioning on too little sleep. I swear by KIND bars and Emergen-C.
On the subject of touring, what do you find is different about playing on the road versus playing local gigs? You mostly tour solo, right?
Jonny Grave: I like touring a lot, actually. It’s different for me, in that I don’t drive, and have to rely on Megabus, public transportation, and my feet to get me to where I need to be. When doing all of this solo, there’s a lot of uninterrupted time to do nothing but think. This either gets me a handful of song ideas, or just makes me hungry. I’d like to do more touring in the near future, but I keep getting busy with local gigs that pay my rent. Paul Curreri calls it a Velvet Rut. I guess the biggest difference between gigs here and gigs way out there is that you have to start from the beginning with every new town, new venue, new crowd. On one hand, you have a lot more work to do when playing for strangers. On the other, you can tell them all how far you’ve come.
I’ve never seen a solo burlesque show– every show seems to have at least four performers on the bill. How much work is put into the curating of a night of burlesque?
Cheríe Sweetbottom: I’ve never even heard of a solo burlesque show. Even Dita Von Teese, the most well-known performer in the biz, doesn’t do solo shows.
I’ve produced shows as part of a team, part of a duo, and solo. Solo producing is easiest, in that you don’t have to vet your choices with anyone else, but it’s still a fair amount of work. First I decide on my concept or theme. Then I work with a venue to secure the date, time, and ticket pricing. Once I have the show date, I either handpick performers or put out a call for submissions, making sure that the acts aren’t too similar or use the same music. While that’s happening, I work with an artist to develop the flyer design. When the cast and flyer are finalized, the promotion machine starts rolling–press release, venue website write-up, Facebook, Twitter, all of that. In the final weeks before a show I start putting together the order of the acts and the music playlist for pre-show, intermission, and post-show to create an experience for the audience. I learned early on that having all of the technical details in place prior to the night of the show makes for a much smoother and more pleasant experience for all.
In March, you curated a phenomenal tribute show honoring the life, work, and music of Pete Seeger at the Kennedy Center. Tell me about the process of developing that show.
Jonny Grave: That was a show unlike any I ever organized. I wrote a piece for BYT back in January when Pete died. When I submitted it to Wetherbee he told me I had to send it out to any and every contact I have at the Kennedy Center for a tribute concert. I got a handful of close friends together, some of whom who knew and worked with Pete pretty closely. Diana Ezerins was kind enough to extend the Millennium Stage’s time limit to a two-hour show. The piece that I wrote was called “Dead, but Not Done Yet,” and I hoped the concert would reflect that sentiment. This show was far and away from the typical circus-style show that I would put together for a venue like, say, the Black Cat.
I’m seeing a lot more burlesque at rock and roll shows, and a lot more live music at burlesque shows these days. Do you feel the two fields are collaborating out of necessity, or opportunity?
Cheríe Sweetbottom: Absolutely out of opportunity. Working with live musicians adds a whole new dimension and life to burlesque. Earlier this year I performed with Angie Pontani and the World Famous Pontani Sisters on two dates of their Valentine’s Day tour, in which all of the burlesque acts were performed to live music by the Brian Newman Quartet. For that show I chose a song from the band’s repertoire and created a new act. I wasn’t able to rehearse with the band until a few hours before the show. It was terrifying and absolutely incredible. There’s nothing quite like timing your bumps and grinds with live musicians. It’s very playful. I’ve been singing and playing music all my life, and for me it’s also a way to combine my love of burlesque and dance with my love of live music. I’d perform with live musicians all the time if I could.
Let’s talk about your most recent writing endeavor for BYT, your “Hidden DC” series. How do you choose the locations you write about?
Jonny Grave: It’s mostly out of curiosity combined with a blatant disregard for safety. I must have gone past the McMillan Reservoir hundreds of times in my life. I never saw what was underneath the fields on North Capitol until this past Saturday. This city has seen constant change since it was founded. It’s an old city, and every brick tells a story. The locations that I choose for the series are places whose stories haven’t been heard in awhile. They are places that help make up this fine city I call home, and learning their stories is my way of connecting the new city with the old.
Talking of opportunity, and how the city has changed, what direction do you see burlesque taking in the future here in DC? It seems like there’s a solid community growing in town, not unlike the music community.
Cheríe Sweetbottom: With the closing of the Red Palace at the end of 2012, we (the burlesque and variety community) were forced out of our comfort zone and had to work harder and be more creative to bring in audiences. It’s been and continues to be a growth process, and I think both the quality of performance and the visibility of burlesque have increased since then. The Black Cat has been very supportive in giving us a place to perform since the Palace closed. Melina Afzal of Palace Productions has been instrumental in keeping the community together during the past couple of years. I see us continuing to grow and reach new audiences and finding new ways to share our art with the DC area and beyond.
Aside from all the dangerous places you like to explore, what are some of your favorite things about living in DC?
Jonny Grave: Guillaume Tourniaire, concierge at the Willard, and I once had a talk about the District’s history– how during the early part of the 20th Century, the city was crawling with the world’s finest craftsmen, building some of the city’s most iconic structures. The Willard Intercontinental came a little before some of DC’s landmarks that went up during the gilded age. I asked him if the Willard was intentionally setting an example, and he told me that there was unquestionably an attitude of throwing your hat over the fence, and seeing who else would follow. I think that characteristic of the city is alive and well today. That’s what I love about living here now. People seem determined to do something. Or at least, that’s what I choose to believe.
Talking of the Black Cat, what are you most looking forward to about Friday’s show?
Cheríe Sweetbottom: The energy, the madness, the nonstop entertainment, working with you and the boys again, and being surrounded by artists I respect and admire on both a personal and professional level. Living the dream!
What’s next for you after Friday? Songwriting, recording, touring, all of the above?
Jonny Grave: Lots of gigs, both in town and out. Shows at the Black Cat give me a chance to throw an innovative show, and do something that hasn’t been done before. And while I love being able to do that, Friday’s show is still only one of fifteen gigs I have in the next month. The boys and I will be over at Hill Country Barbecue the following night. I’ll be up and down the East coast all summer, but I hope to get a little farther south by fall. My friends keep telling me I have to go to New Orleans.