Larger than life, clad in an arsenal of gowns, Lady Rizo explores the joy, pathos, mystery and tenderness of a modern day diva. Unabashedly interpreting popular songs from all genres, in several languages and also sharing her own songs. "An anarchist streak still runs through me,” says Lady Rizo, the singer-sophisticate who was once a teenage punk rocker. “I love the idea of claimingsomething that’s uncool and making it authentic.” To that end, the NYC-based artist has earned a name for herself by transforming nightclub-pop intoexperiences that are more soulful, more theatrical. A provocateur with an electric wit, Lady Rizo is a vessel for the spirits of Edith Piaf and FreddieMercury. The New York Times once referred to Lady Rizo (né Amelia Zirin-Brown) as “a formidable belter who can sustain phrases and notes even whensprawled on her back on a piano and scissoring her legs.” They’re not alone in that enthusiasm. Lady Rizo—who released Indigo, her secondalbum, has collaborated with Moby, Reggie Watts, and Yo-Yo Ma, the latter on his Songs of Joy & Peace album, which won aGrammy Award. Boy Scout talked to Lady Rizo about travel, talent and training wheels.
Boy Scout: If you arrived in New York City in 2019 filled with great ambition, how might you ascend to your artistic summit? Lady Rizo: I put New York on a pedestal, because the world does, but it took me a while to realize that New York is just like any other town. You know, cream rises. Really, the combination of craft, and diligence on your craft, and then this unwavering kind of blind idiotic faith… that what you have to offer is worthwhile. Or, perhaps, not idiotic, but it feels idiotic, occasionally, because there's so much fear and self-doubt surrounding you. Also, the mind plays tricks when you do the comparison game.
I believe in the boards. I believe in practicing your craft. If it is live entertainment, or whatever you want to do, relentlessly, at every level that you can do it. For small audiences, or as large audiences as that will fit in front of you,and putting it out there, blindly, and then listening to trusted voices about the feedback, and be able to take feedback, that's the hard thing, and not just give up…
It's hard to feel your progress. If you're an ambitious person you're always looking to the next step and sad that you're not there. But occasionally, it's like you have to step up … if we’re using this kind of metaphor as a summit … and look down below and see where you've gone, and feel pride, and gratefulness.
Boy Scout: In a time of faltering news platforms, transient facts and generations who opt for digital currency over great literature, how will the stories of those that came before us survive?
Lady Rizo: I'm comforted by the truths of humanity that I know. That we'll always hunger for fables of connections, of even Gods, and demons, and goddesses, and simple men and women, and people who straddle the gender divide. Looking for a place in this world … because we all yearn for connection. Connection is our birthright, and through other stories, we find the path.
Probably every generation’s fear is that the stories that they had built their truth and concepts of beauty around will be lost. But I remember when I was a teenager and Cluelesswith Alicia Silverstone came out … and I enjoyed the movie immensely, it was a good movie… Amy Heckerling. But, it was the story. It was a Jane Austen story retold for my generation. So the story’s there. Maybe, it's the ways that we tell the story that will change for the digital world.
Boy Scout: As a seminal figure in downtown performance, where do you find your motivating heartbeat? Is there still a living, breathing downtown culture?
I find my motivating heartbeat for downtown performance easilyin New York. It's living and breathing. I don't necessarily think it's easily categorized as “downtown” mainly because the greed that surrounds walkable cities, and the real estate that it's on, is so large. You can't really hold that sort of culture in one space anymore. Because artists and queer people make things cool…and then rent rises, skyrocket, etc. But I think that there's so many pockets in Brooklyn. It's spread out because we don't all live in the same neighborhood anymore.
The idea of downtown performance circles and really you just have to follow where the performers that you enjoy their work go and perform. Then you can usually find variety shows, or collections of those performances. There's still so much wild subversive, queer, downtown art happening constantly. The burlesque world, the drag world, the alt cabaret world… It's living and breathing and as weird as it’s always been…. But I can take you to some things!Just get in the back of my subway car! Just hop on my back, and I'll take you to some shows if I'm ever in New York again….(laughs).
Boy Scout: The late Harry Dean Stanton believed “Everything is predestined. Nothing is important. Life is an illusion. It’s all a movie. Nobody’s in charge” which is lovingly referred to as his Appreciation of Nothing. Do you have a guiding life philosophy that keeps you on the path?
Lady Rizo: My guiding life philosophy is usually returning to the radicalaffirmation that “Life is Good” and should feel good. I've been waking up lately and saying “What if there's nothing wrong with me?” That's been my morning mantra. Because I do think that we live in this culture of diagnosis and constant fear (I think I'm going to write a book called “What if There's Nothing Wrong with Me?”) We're in an over-medicated, over-prescribed, over-diagnosed society.
So, yes, the radical affirmation… because it is truly radical to say “Life is Good.” To fight against the sardonic, oppressing, negativity in the world. Negativity sells. So, we share it. We share it around a lot. it's much harder to stay Pollyanna in the face of the world. I think a lot of my work is about being in a space together for healing. Some people do it with like gongs and sound baths… I choose to do it through feminine trappings: gowns, and glitter, and lashes, and the luxury of a slower moving pace. That is how I choose to get …in song and humor… to gather people to feel the healing power of community. Even, if it's only for an hour and a half.
Boy Scout: Was there a moment in your artistic life where you took an out-of-character risk and it transformed you?
Lady Rizo: Everything that's truly a risk is something out of our comfort zone, right?
Look, I started out with 18-training wheels. And each step, I took off two. You know, I took off two. I took off two… The first step was: I used to perform only with team of dancers and burlesquers, and I was the host, and I was kind of finding my way with this alter ego. What I had to offer was this alter ego, but with the safety of having a bunch of sexy amazing movers around me. And I'm on-and-offstage… and then I moved to doing a show with one other person… was a weekly or monthly? It was weekly! And that's the best way. Weekly is like a part-time job. Because you have to constantly come up with new, new ideas. Then, from that, it was doing solo shows and that was a real hard step, like I remember my first solo show… and that was a real hard step. I remember my first solo show… I had so much fear. I said, how can I entertain an audience? Just meand a band for over an hour? I just had so much fear about it …and now, it's like,Oh My God, just try to make me only do an hour… I get fined when I do bigger festivals that require timing, specific timing, that I’ve gone over like, in like Edinburgh, and their like “You run over every time. You really need to cut it down or we're going to fine you…” and that was the second set of training wheels.
The third one was: Time to put your own songs in the show. I had somuch fear about that. I mean, I respected song writing so much. And really, honestly, I think Leonard Cohen kept me from songwriting for a long time, that bastard, because I kept on saying “There's no way I couldn't write a song as beautiful, distinctive, as he does.”
Boy Scout: The last couple of years has seen a country divided. Has the current political climate inhibited or infused your work?
Lady Rizo: I don't know how you could be a living breathing artist living in America and not let the divisive, caustic nature of this executive branch not affect your work. It's almost impossible and truly a test for our nation. We've never ever had a president like this and it's enough to make you just want to crawl under a rock. But, I chose to make a show out of it.
What I do with my shows, the simplest equation that I've made is, whatever I'm most obsessed with at the time, I make a show about. Whatever is consuming a portion of my brain. Because I assume that if something is taking up valuable cellular matter in my head then it must be; (A) Interesting to others, and (B) Have my interest enough to work on a whole show about it. You know, waking up in November in 2016 that I had to, all of a sudden, really, truly fight and care about my country… and did I care about my country? Especially feeling like such a world citizen for the last five years. Spending a lot of time out of America and really feeling like I had connections all over the world. I had relationships with other countries …and I have a partner who is Australian, and a half-Australian baby. I've been raised by people who didn't identify as American because that identification kind of usually meant that you were conservative… hyper, kind of, nationalistic view. But like how could I find that feeling of being American as a positive thing and what was it that I was proud of?
What are the values? You know, also another two couple words that I feel like have been stolen by the Conservative Party, and the Republican Party, is “morals” and “values.” Using Family Valuesas a way to describe, you know, a heteronormative, family structure… and the structure that isn't touched by the realities of divorce, or separation, or any truths of our life. So, like kind of reclaiming those words because that is the biggest front that I feel. I try not to say his name… I feel like the the most egregious marker of his character …is his true lack of a moral compass. It's replaced by complete narcissism… I never in my life thought I would feel nostalgic for George W Bush.
Boy Scout: You have flown the world for work, what have your recent travels taught you?
Lady Rizo: I loved experiencing different cultures, I always have.
When I was 13, I was chosen to be part of a musical in the then Soviet Union… don't do the math. They took fifteen American children and fifteen Soviet children to make a play about peace and understanding between the two nations after the Cold War. A musical! I feel like that definitely ignited my desire to meet with other cultures, and see the differences, and just look outside my comfort zone, and see the things that have kind of been randomly decided for me because I was born in a specific place. Even though I had grown up in a lower, lower middle class family. Teachers were my parents, you know? Teachers don't make any money in America. I was so wealthy compared to many of these Soviet kids and it's so important to like see what you have. That thing I was saying before about if you're an ambitious person, always saying what you don't havebut very important, regular practice, of seeing what you've been gifted. Feeling that gratitude for what you do have. It really helped me at that age. It’s so important, because that age it's all about what you don't have. I mean you're just looking all around you at 13 be like “Oh my god, she has this she has this… I don't have this.” So, I came back from that with that early lesson of saying; “I have a washing machine, I have a dryer,”
Boy Scout: Has your bravery grown through the ages?
Lady Rizo: My bravery’s constantly grown. I hope it still does. I was so afraid to even move to New York. I had this idea about New York being this like thing that chewed you up and spit you out. Anywhere can chew you up and spit you out. I owe a lot to some people who were in New York in the early 90s who pulled me aside and said “Let me let you know a little bit about what's happened, what you missed.” I'm not at the end of my growth… you can feel sad about that… but I think that's one of the signs that I'm still alive.
Boy Scout: Anthony Bourdain’s wrenching “Parts Unknown” finale takes place in New York’s lower East Side where a good deal of your history resides. In that episode, Lydia Lunch says: “People were beautiful, doing things because they had to do it—not because of any other grand idea. Happiness was not the goal; satisfaction was the goal, as it still is. . . . We had to do something because we were burning; our blood was on fire.” Lunch made very clear that in the present day, she wastes no time pining for that bygone time—but Bourdain seemed a little more wistful. As a cultural revolutionary, are you ever wistful for an older, grittier New York?
Lady Rizo: Trumpet player that I worked with once… when I told him that a friend told me that “New York was dead” he said; “Yeah, a guy said that to me in 1963, too.” So, I think that every decade is a chance for us to mourn something about the last time. I am fearful about greed taking over. Mainly because I'm sad that our government doesn't prize the artistic legacy of New York with people who have a lower income. That's what makes me sad. Obviously, real estate money goes into politician’s pockets so easily. So, they don't put caps on how much land can be sold for… and there's not a clear kind of protection in their minds for the artistic legacy of New York to continue.
Boy Scout: What is your greatest fear?
Lady Rizo: My greatest fear before I had a child was that I would lose my ambition. Right now, my greatest fear is that I'll let fear dictate any of my life choices.
Boy Scout: How would you like to be remembered?
Lady Rizo: I'd like to be remembered as a broad. A wild, loud, broad who owned her own sensuality in a way that renewed everyone's soul.