If you listen to the almost atonal melodies and unique rhythms of composer Kurt Weill, who authored some of the most famous songs associated with the Weimar era (including The Threepenny Opera), you’d hardly think they’d lend themselves to modern-day genre crossovers. Yet Australian transplant Kim David Smith has made a name for himself in the local, national, and international neo-cabaret scene by combining the highlights of Weimar-era cabarets with arrangements by pop divas like the Supremes and Madonna. This high- and lowbrow fusion make Smith’s act a smooth fit both in experimental downtown venues such as Joe’s Pub and Club Cumming (including on December 16) and in gilded, uptown establishments such as the Neue Galerie, which hosts a regular series of cabaret nights at its Café Sabarsky.
We chatted with the performer about how he got his start, his artistic process, and the versatility of Kylie Minogue.
What Should We Do: Tell us how you began in show business.
Kim David Smith: I grew up in a little country town outside of Melbourne. It’s pretty much an industrial town, not a very culturally enriched place necessarily. I was always encouraged to pursue my interests. There was a local theater company that I performed with; I met my first singing teacher there. It was a great place for me to grow up in. I think I would have turned into a monster had I grown up in a city.
Sure, I have a therapist, sure I journal, but this is how I work out my issues.
I got a B.A. in musical theater and started exploring cabaret because I liked creating my own work. The head of the school, an amazing woman, encouraged us. She’d say, “You have to go out there. It’s not just about auditions; it’s about creating your own work.” And so I left the gates jumping straight in.
As soon as I finished university, I went to the Butterfly Club in Melbourne, which is a beautiful cabaret spot. It changed locations, but it used to be in this tiny townhouse in South Melbourne chock-full of totally bananas objects—a beautiful, queer place. That was a great place to cut my teeth. I’ve been performing ever since. I have pursued songs, music, and stories that interest me, and I’ve honed my own things over the years.
WSWD: What do you like about singing?
Smith: I am very expressive and always have been. While you can express yourself through an oboe or a kazoo, I am very much about language and selecting my words carefully. Singing was naturally interesting to me. I was always intrigued by singers. I did learn piano a little as a kid, but I was most interested in vocalizing.
WSWD: What type of singers-performers were you drawn to? Was there someone who you were actively trying to emulate?
Smith: In a literal sense, no. I rarely listen to male vocalists. I don’t want to make sounds that others make, and a lot of music that has historically been written for men does not have the rich, emotional landscape, necessarily, as music performed by women. I’ve always been drawn to Judy Garland, but Kylie Minogue has been the constant throughout my whole life. There’s an essence of her that I just treasure and cherish, that builds and maintains a fire inside of me, which I bring with me wherever I go.
Kylie Minogue has been the constant throughout my whole life. There’s an essence of her that I just treasure and cherish, that builds a fire inside of me.
WSWD: Really, you never had a phase where you distanced yourself from Minogue and her songs?
Smith: No, it was constant. When I was a teenager, what I refer to as her dark album, Impossible Princess, came out, so it was superfitting. It was moody and convulsive in a way that a teenager is, and it has some Björk to it in terms of feelings. Plus, she has a track for every mood. If you’re feeling spacious and explorative, then “Light Years” is a brilliant song. If you’re feeling bubbly and excited for the future and energetic and flirty, then “Spinning Around” is what you play. If you’re feeling like annihilating the universe with pop perfection, then you’ll opt for “Can’t Get You Out of My Head,” and you’re going to be that cyborg-robot amazing space seductress. If you’re hurling against your limitations, you’re going to put on “Into the Blue.”
WSWD: How do you artistically combine your love of Minogue with your love of Weimar-era singers in a way that’s organic?
Smith: They’re my two favorite musical avenues, so for them to take just one path makes a lot of sense to me. I sing “I Should Be So Lucky” in German because I want to amp up the sultry nature of [Marlene Dietrich’s] “Johnny Wenn du Geburtstag Hast” and throw in some Madonna at the end to bring it into the ’90s. My little shows are fertile gardens of my interests.
WSWD: Introduce us to your cabaret persona. Do you consider it separate from the self who is talking to me right now?
Smith: The person who is talking to you right now is having some champagne at the end of a long day, in a more relaxed mode. I think the general spark of the person is the same. My shows usually ramp up. I start from a place of strange, purposeful awkwardness combined with some flirty smiling, because it’s an easy place to start from. It’s not in me to march on, with my oboes in the air, just belting something out, being just sort of “Welcome!” I like to be a bit strange at the top of my show, and then I warm up together with the audience.
WSWD: You combine your singing career with modeling for visual artists; how does that work?
Smith: It’s all entwined in my mind. A lot of my artist friends come to my show. I appreciate [their work] and they appreciate what I do. It’s a lovely exchange, and I feel very lucky to be a part of other people’s creative process. Travis Chantar is amazing; he is responsible for one of my chief images that I find describes my show without me having to do anything. I pose with stars and moons glued to my face; it has such a 1920s collage-y sort of feel. I [also] love Rick Day—I think he is fabulous—and Kevin McDermott is really clever.
My little shows are fertile gardens of my interests.
WSWD: What is your opinion of the small-stage circuit here in New York? How does it co-exist alongside bigger productions and the onslaught of jukebox musicals?
Smith: I read Patti LuPone’s amazing interview in The New York Times, and she’s so frank. She was like, “A lot of these shows belong in Las Vegas,” and I do believe that. But the thing about New York is that there’s room for everything. I never felt at risk of being crowded out. I think my friends and people whom I love and respect are doing their own thing. You look at someone like Joey Arias, who has been the center of the queer alt-drag cabaret; he is just a star people orbit around, and New York has been his cabaret home forever. There are the fabulous downtown weirdos; there are people I call cabaret-ish; and there is the very polite midtown crowd. There’s room for that: Do your Frank Sinatra show—knock yourself out.
WSWD: And you also perform uptown, at the Neue Galerie.
Smith: Yes, I do my shows downtown at Club Cumming, then I go aaalll the way up to the Upper East Side to this old Vanderbilt mansion, at Café Sabarsky, with those fabulous people sitting with their elderly husbands and rattling their jewelry, and they’re really so up for it. I’ve been performing there for more than 10 years. Everyone is like a little family; they’ve been so embracing and so wonderful to me, and I feel so included. I love that space; I love its mission. It’s lovely to perform downstairs from Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I [the famous Klimt painting]. She’s just sitting up there being expensive, while we’re having a riot downstairs in the ballroom!
WSWD: So what would the essence of your act be?
Smith: It’s about exploring the dark corners and having fun; it’s about being embraced, but it’s not about a specific journey at all. I am never like, “This song relates to this, and blah, blah, blah.” This is my favorite way to express myself. Sure, I have a therapist, sure I journal, but this is how I get my stuff out and how I work out my issues.
Kim David Smith’s A Wery Weimar Christmas
505 East 6th Street (between Avenues A and B)
Monday, December 16