Jon Toogood and Julia Deans: To Brel and back

Julia Deans and Jon Toogood talk to Lydia Jenkin about taking themselves out of their comfort zones in a cabaret-style Jacques Brel showcase.

As TimeOut wanders into the Newton dance studio, we're greeted with the sounds of singing. Two of the four voices might belong to Jon Toogood and Julia Deans.

But there's not a guitar nor a drumkit in sight - just a pianist and a table, where also seated are musical theatre veterans Tama Waipara and Jennifer Ward-Lealand, while director Michael Hurst hovers.

The quartet are rehearsing the songs of legendary Belgian singer and songwriter Jacques Brel.

As the voices swell, Toogood rises to his feet. The passion is palpable.

A cabaret-style theatre show is possibly not something you would expect Shihad's frontman to be involved in, and Deans readily admits that she wouldn't have picked it either - for herself or Toogood - when they first met 12 years ago while on tour when she was then fronting Fur Patrol.

"Categorically, no," she laughs.

"Even at the start of this year, I wouldn't have been thinking this was on the horizon," Toogood adds.

But this is no ordinary piece of musical theatre, and as the pair - who have recorded and toured together in Toogood's side project, The Adults - break for lunch, they explain how they came to be involved.

"For me, the last two years have all been about 'what haven't I done? Let's do that'," Toogood smiles.

"It's good, it makes life interesting. Because I've been all Shihad, Shihad, Shihad, control freak, and it gets really f***ing lonely, to tell you the truth. But the last two years have been all about learning."

The pair received emails from Silo, asking if they would like to audition for the show and both were intrigued by the idea, despite being unfamiliar with Brel's work.

"I knew Ne Me Quitte Pas, but I didn't really know who he was. It wasn't until I looked further that I realised I do recognise his songs," Deans explains.

"Like Carousel," Toogood adds. "I knew that song, but I didn't know it was him, and also the one we're doing this afternoon, The Dying Man. It's like Seasons in the Sun, but his version is totally different, it's way funnier, and it's darker."

This show isn't a musical (so no dancing, chorus lines, or dramatic storylines), and is simply based around the four vocalists presenting different songs in different configurations, in a cabaret style. But there is an element of theatre involved in their stage movements and interactions, which is something neither have tackled since high school.

"I was the Potiphar in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat," Toogood recalls with glee.

"I was definitely the highlight of the show."

"I was Blousey Brown in Bugsy Malone," Deans laughs.

But in the very experienced hands of Hurst as director, both feel confident that the show is going to be a powerful experience for themselves and the audience.

One of their key techniques so far has been building the back stories for each song, all five of them sitting round the table and discussing Brel's motivations, and the context of his writing.

"You sit down and go, 'okay, this song is about the realisation that money isn't everything and power isn't everything'; or 'this song is completely humorous and wry, and is about the fact that this guy knows his friend is f****** his wife and he's going to die, but on his deathbed he's going to tell them that he knows'.

"You have to look at it in historical context too - it was after World War II, and everyone was learning how to cope with all the terrible stuff they'd been through," Deans adds.

It's clear the appeal of Brel's work was immediate for both of them, though they did have some reservations about how his work would be interpreted - as this isn't the first time Brel has been presented as musical theatre.

"I think so many of his songs have just had the life and the heart tortured out of them by the musical theatre versions, though obviously people like Bowie and Nina Simone have done beautiful covers in English," Deans explains.

"I'm so glad that Michael has said, 'if we're going to do this, let's not do Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris [a musical off-Broadway production created in 1968]," Toogood agrees. "Because, man, I've listened to some of those cast recordings and gone, 'I don't wanna be involved in that!' But if I could even come close to what Brel's doing, I'd be a millionaire. He's amazing."

Toogood is effusive in his newfound appreciation, and even though Brel made a living singing emotive, theatrical chanson, while Toogood has always been a heavy rock guy, there are similarities in their dedication to their performance.

"Seriously, he comes offstage, dripping with sweat, after every show. It reminds me of when I was young actually. As soon as you walk on stage, you're sort of possessed and you've got to burn up. He died at 59, and after watching his shows, you can sort of see that it wasn't just because he smoked 100 cigarettes a day, it was because he lived life in a concentrated blast. And his performances were insanely good.

"Shihad has made a living out of live performance, going, 'I don't care whether you like this or not, you're going to f****** like it, because I'm going to give you everything'. And that's a similarity. I mean, of course his words are a million times better than anything I've written but the performance aspect, it's about commitment to what you're doing. When you're onstage there is nothing else - and that's the same for me and Julia."

Deans also sees similarities in their aims as songwriters, which means that both she and Toogood can easily find plenty to relate to in his words.

"When you write a song, we don't just write 'gonna put glitter on my face and go to town' like Ke$ha," she laughs. "We're telling the stories of our lives, or the stories that we see around us that have an impact."

They've both had personal experiences connecting to Brel's songs, too.

"My dad died at the start of this year, so My Death totally resonates for me," says Toogood. "Because he's talking about that realisation that you're going to die too, and saying goodbye to your youth. That song is heavy for me, but so good. I can really sink into it."

"They're really cathartic aren't they?" Deans agrees. "I'm doing one that talks about being in a relationship for a long time, and all the things that you go through together. His songs are all about the journeys that we take."

Being Belgian, Brel wrote all his songs in French, and while some songs have been translated, they've also chosen to keep some in French - which has been a learning curve for the pair.

"I said right at the start 'you do know I don't speak French'," Toogood laughs, "and they said it didn't matter. Michael and Jennifer both speak French really well, and they can help us with anything we need."

"I do think you really have to know what all the words mean in order to be able to do it convincingly though," Deans adds. "So I've been sitting there with Google Translate, because I'm a nerd like that, and I want to know exactly what each word means, so that I can put it all together in my head."

There's clearly a lot to digest and a lot to learn, and though both are immensely enjoying the project, it comes on top of already large workloads.

With both of them working towards the release of the The Adults' first live album, performing with the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra, Toogood has been spending his evenings listening to mixes. Deans has been simultaneously rehearsing for performances at the Nelson Arts festival, while also releasing a new single and video ahead of finishing her second solo album.

Toogood also has a Shihad summer tour to prepare for, and The Adults will also be touring over the coming months.

The other cast members are equally busy with future projects and festivals.

"None of us are really having days off. But it's good, it makes you feel so alive. I've definitely been getting out of bed earlier," Deans laughs.

"It does tie back to Brel, actually," Toogood points out. "He says that you've got to put yourself in situations of fear, because that's when you're alive. He also talks about the fact that your mortality is coming whether you like it or not, so you better use every minute you've got. I've been trying to sing songs about that for a long time without really knowing how to articulate it, and he just came along and went 'boom'.

"I guess it's something about being older, too," Deans muses. "We really know what he means, there's a gut-ache behind the words."

Toogood: "You lost your grandfather, and I lost my dad. And when people close to you die, you realise it's coming. But it's not morbid, it just becomes more urgent. And Brel is so urgent, it's life and death. And I love it."

What: Brel: The Words and Music of Jacques Brel.
Who: Jon Toogood and Julia Deans, with Tama Waipara and Jennifer Ward-Lealand. Directed by Michael Hurst with musical direction by Leon Radojkovic.
Where and when: At Auckland Town Hall Concert Chamber, from November 1 to November 24.

- TimeOut

- NZ Herald

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