Fascinating Aïda – Dillie Keane “My ambition was to do something achievable”

Some silver jubilees last longer than others. Having settled on celebrating their 25 years in business – the entertainment one – Fascinating Aïda did so a little late, starting in their 26th year. They are still – but only just – at it, having allowed the silver celebrations to take them into year 27.

Fascinating Aïda

Thanks to the ladies embracing up-to-date stuff like Facebook, I was actually able to contact them and beg for an interview. Not much begging necessary, in actual fact, which felt good. Dillie Keane on Facebook is as friendly as you’d hope for. Rather like the girl in the year above you at school, being willing to speak to someone more junior.

A few hours before Fascinating Aïda’s concert at the Lowry in Salford, I’m led through the vaguely purple maze behind the scenes. I’m pleased to see that the purple on the public side carries through to backstage, and I also realise that I’ve inadvertently dressed according to Lowry colours (minus the orange, obviously).

As I open the door to changing room 16, I’m greeted by an eager, black puppy, which is a bit of a surprise, but I conclude that my track record of meeting dogs at interviews is clearly continuing. Liza Pulman and Dillie say hello and while arranging chairs to sit on, offer apologies from Adèle Anderson, who had to be somewhere else.

Adèle Anderson

I pick the chair nearest to me, which is covered in a paw print patterned blanket. ‘Is it the dog’s blanket?’

Dillie – ‘Yes, do you want another one? I put it down in case she wanted to sit on the chair.’ Dillie herself is wearing jeans and a red top, which look just right for touring and playing with a puppy.

‘Do you find it’s all right travelling with a dog?’

Dillie – ‘It works surprisingly well, yeah.’

Liza – ‘She’s great; she’s only young. And she loves the dressing room.’

Dillie – ‘She’s only been depressed in one dressing room…’

Liza – ‘Quite sensitive to the ambience.’

Dillie – ‘She didn’t like the hotel room last night, actually. Too small or something.’

I had noticed a big lovely touring coach outside the Lowry’s stage door, and I ask if it’s theirs.

Liza – ‘No, we have a white van…’

‘I caught that thing on YouTube from 1985, with the three of you squeezing into your van.’

Dillie – ‘You don’t have to squeeze; that’s the great thing about a van. It’s actually quite clever.’

‘Yes, none of you has to sit behind the other two, I suppose. What do you actually do when you’re here, and you don’t have to do interviews? Before a performance; what do you do?’

Dillie – ‘What we do is just rest.’

Liza – ‘Normally we’re not here. I have to say this week has been particularly kindly organised week, so all of the venues have been north of the border (?!), with the big drive up to Harrogate a couple of days ago. Having got here from Pocklington and then it’s Kendal. Most of our venues are just the way of one-nighters. To be honest, we tend not to arrive before about half past five. We leave the hotel at about eleven o’clock, and by the time you’ve stopped to get some food, it’s sort of five o’clock by the time you get there. It’s not usual for us to be here as early, as happened today.’

Dillie – ‘Catching up with a little work,’ gesturing at her open laptop on the dressing table.

‘When do you update the latest of your newsy songs? Is that something you’d be doing now?’

Dillie – ‘We ought to. We’ve got to rewrite a song.’

Liza – ‘We wrote in the van last night on the way back from Pocklington.’

Dillie – ‘We’ll have to see how that goes tonight! Then we wrote a few lines about Salford…’

We laugh, and I say I hope they are nice lines.

Dillie – ‘Yes,’ laughs, ‘oh yes, it was very touching.’

‘I was struck last year by how very fresh the the newsy songs were.’

Liza – ‘Where else did you come, Ann?’

‘I came here, to the Lowry.’

Liza – ‘Did you? You’ll be amazed at how different it is, actually.’

‘Completely different,’ says Dillie, chortling.

‘Then it was the Oscars,’ I say, recalling what was in the news.

Liza – ‘Oh, Kate Winslet!’

‘Yes, that’s right.’

There’s a big whoop from both of them.

Dillie – ‘ I was checking the script, as we’re making a DVD of it next week. I came across it when I looked. Oh, Kate Winslet. Oh, that was here, yes…’

‘Is there something new for every show?’

Dillie -‘Yes.’

‘Is there really? And you’ve obviously got to discard something as well?’

Dillie – ‘Of course. Yes we do.’

Liza – ‘Something just stops working, you know. Gordon Brown announces the election… There’s always bits to do and we don’t give it nearly enough time,’ Liza laughs.

‘But it turns out so well.’

Liza – ‘Well I think it’s also part of the.., it’s a bit like doing your makeup half an hour before the show, and it’s the last five minutes before you’re due to go on and you go “oh, I’ve got so much to do”. And for me it’s the stimulation of having to do it very quickly; it’s part of my process for getting on stage, and I think part of it, it’s sort of getting our brains in gear to write, at that level. You know, in a constrained amount of time.’

Dillie – ‘We need it. We quite like it, although we wouldn’t admit that. When we started, we had a song at the end, which we now have customised to every different town we play. At first when we started doing it, it was the same every night, and we had the town changed. Then we, I can’t remember, we went somewhere and we started to change something and it was funny, and maybe a few days later, we came up with the idea we’d change it.’

Liza – ‘It was just one line, and then we just got more. Our confidence would grow and grow.’

Dillie – ‘We change at least four or five lines, have sort of hurried conferences.’ Laughs.

Liza – ‘And we’d come back on stage and we’d go…’ and she makes the sort of buzzing noise they make.

‘So not only do you have to have time to write it, but you need to remember what to sing.’

Dillie – ‘It’s very good for the memory, staving off Alzheimers.’

We laugh again. ‘For me, who couldn’t write a song to save my life, it’s just amazing that not only do you write things very fast, but you can virtually compose stuff on the night.’

Dillie – ‘We’ll come up with something and the others will go (makes a face) “not really, no” and then in all likelihood someone else will go “yes, that’s good”.

Liza – ‘The joy when there’s three of you is that somebody will say something… Oh I know, I’m really no lyricist or songwriter at all, but I quite like to help and pitch in. There is something about the vibes between the three of you that one will often say something that will stimulate the next person to go “no that’s not right, but what about if we put it here or if we do that”. There is something great about that; that dynamic of three.’

‘I read the other day that when you started on Stop the Week (Radio 4), you had more or less just a day to write a song on a particular topic. In those days I used to think “how can they have something that is quite so fresh?” Which I thought was exceptionally clever. Where were you hoping to go? In that BBC programme from the mid 1980s; what were you hoping for as you set out? Did you want to be here 25 years later?’

‘I certainly didn’t think that far ahead. I’m beginning to feel like the Tremeloes, anyway’, Dillie says with a throaty laugh. ‘You know, it’s “oh my god, they’re on tour AGAIN.” So no, I certainly didn’t think that far ahead. I’d just lurch from day to day. My ambition was to do something achievable. I remember doing interviews on “what’s your ambition?” and I’d say “to own a washing machine”. We laugh. “When I own a washing machine I’ll think of the next. A tumble drier, you know and…”’

‘And now you’ve got a MacBook!’ I say, eyeing Dillie’s laptop.

Dillie – I do. I’ve got that one and a big Mac at home.’

Liza – ‘Big Mac?’

Dillie – ‘So my ambition now, er, I don’t know. I’m not especially ambitious really.’

‘I was thinking, back in the 1980s, at least I was hoping for a better world, and I thought if enough people criticised things, then those things would change for the better. Did you think that?’

Dillie laughs – ‘No I didn’t. I suppose, I thought it would always be a struggle. That’s the Catholic in me, you see, that life would always be a struggle.’ She laughs. ‘Sorry,’ as she gets a tumbler out and fills it with water. There is an old-fashioned wicker picnic hamper on the dressing table next to Dillie.

‘Is that your picnic hamper?’

Dillie – ‘It is. It was my mum’s. I’m very fond of it.’

‘It looks very grand.’

Dillie – ‘It is quite grand actually. It’s my little bit of civilisation, because we eat where we change. You know when I’m really down in the dumps I eat straight from the plastic. Like last night.’ Laughs. ‘Low moment. I was too tired. It’s the end of the tour; I’m absolutely knackered.’

Fascinating Aïda

‘Is it about another week now?’

Liza – ‘We finish up here, tomorrow night in Kendal and then Tuesday is effectively our day off, but I just looked at the timetable and we’ve got four hours to Dillie’s, which is Oxfordshire, and then Adèle and I really have an hour and a half back to ours. Then on Wednesday it’s Basingstoke…’

Dillie – ‘Basingstoke, thank god. Croydon’s Friday.’

Liza – ‘And then we’re, in true timely fashion we’re filming the show on the very last performance ever of this jubilee tour, so that will be next Sunday.’

Dillie – ‘At least it will be practised…’

Liza – ‘We’ll be in Edinburgh with a slightly different show…’

Dillie – ‘… with a few songs straggling over.’

‘Will there be any more sort of silver jubilee tours?’ I’m thinking that 27 years on you can’t take anything for granted.

Liza – ‘No, you can only have one silver jubilee.’

Dillie – ‘This tour is now over. We have toured our jubilee show. I didn’t want to mislead the public into thinking it was a different show, so we used the same logo, the same title, the same image, because I didn’t want to deceive anyone. It’s not fair on the audience.’

Liza – ‘And we’re going up to Edinburgh with an almost new show. It’s not the new show, which we hope will be next year, but we’ve been asked by the Assembly Room to help celebrate their 30th anniversary, if we would join them for ten days, and so we’re doing a sort of “new old”.’

‘Is that in August?’

Liza – ‘Yes. The first part of the festival.’

Dillie – ‘We have a title for that. It’s called “Pearls before wine”, so we’ll stop using the silver jubilee idea.’

‘So if you’re planning that for a few months’ time, and then you are hoping for another tour next year; do you get up to anything else in-between? You’ve got limited time there.’

Dillie – ‘We’ll need time for writing.’

Liza – ‘It’s difficult. Certainly for the summer, and Edinburgh, there are too few to warrant, you know, a new house in the country, but enough to prevent us from taking other jobs.’

‘OK, so you can live off it for a while.’

Liza – ‘And it’s kind of spread out, over the summer and autumn. Other than a little bit of a break in the autumn. As Dillie says, there’s work to be done for next year, and with that we’re not inclined to take too much time off before the next show, because you know, we had a great time here on tour and we built up a lovely momentum and a lovely relationship with the audiences, again. It’s been fabulous, and we’d be loath to sit down for too long and loose that.’

Dillie – ‘Absolutely, I’ve given up trying to kill the google’, she laughs, ‘and also I think, we’re at the top of our game at the moment. We really are so tired, it’s the best show we’ve ever done. I just won’t stop now.’

‘I just wondered because you seemed to stop – ten years ago? – and came back.’

Dillie – ‘Six years, seven years.’

‘Were you really resting, but always intending to come back?’

Dillie – ‘No, never. I really, it’s very, very difficult to keep, has been very difficult to keep good sopranos. We’ve had terrific sopranos, who always in the end wanted to go off and do something else. And it’s a very, very specialist thing. Maybe ten people, maximum, who could do it.’

‘I’ve been struck by the fact that when the third person in Fascinating Aïda changes, it’s always somebody who fits in perfectly.’

Liza – ‘You can’t do it with the wrong one, so I suppose when you see the right person you feel confident, and because it’s the right person, it really does work.’

Dillie – ‘Yeah, maybe five people in the country who could do it. And there’d be a couple of others who would probably be OK, be able to do their own things, marvellous performers. But you know, I despaired, and I thought, why cudgel my brains and break my heart over it? It’s easier to stop. I had every intention to give it up, when a strange thing happened. We met Liza, just at the end of our last tour. After we finished in the UK we agreed to go to Israel and the States, and somebody’d mentioned Liza. And cutting a short story even shorter, I got her to join and it was great.’

Liza Pulman

‘So how does it feel to just jump into something that’s been going for so long?’

Liza – ‘Initially I didn’t know what I was going to be, other than the fact that I joined them to do this show, to go to Israel and then New York. So for me at the time it was like any other job.’

Dillie – ‘It was a gig.’

Liza – ‘It was a gig. It was lovely. I enjoyed it, and it was clear that we had chemistry, but I had no great expectations as to what it would be. But during this one, coming back and doing this one, we’ve had about eighteen months of the show. Now I feel different. Now I’ve been able to put my own penn’orth in, and to watch the dynamics shift, watch the group become slightly different, because it does become different when you bring a different person in. And actually, that group brings with it all sorts of new and wonderful things, different attitudes to everything, different energy, energy that can weigh up, thinking about things differently.

Suddenly all thoughts of … and touching the wood (touches the dressing table), and I absolutely loved it. For me, I would feel like it’s the sum total of everything I’ve ever done in my life, because I’ve had a very secure route, getting here. My background and my training is both curious and complex, and so THIS little group where we find ourselves, is actually the fruit of every thing I’ve ever done. I require all of my gifts and skills, and so I love it. Really love it.’ Liza’s theatrical background is obvious in the way she speaks, enunciating very clearly, even in an informal chat like ours.

‘Is it difficult being three girls?’

Liza – ‘Well – I can’t seem stop talking – personally I think three is a magic number. I’ve never understood why people think that three is a bad number. It’s a wonderful number, because with three of you, there’s always one person who is allowed to have an off day, and then the other two can go “oh come on, she’s just a bit bonkers”, and then we carry each other. Just two is painful! I’ve always loved dressing rooms, I have always loved groups, and I have absolutely no problems with the dynamics. It’s helpful.’

Dillie – ‘Yeah, three’s a terrific number, and Piper (her puppy) makes four… And we’re all Geminis.’

Liza – ‘Nooo, Piper a Gemini! No wonder she’s as bonkers as she is.’ She pulls her knitted wrap around her shoulders, again. For someone not-yet-made-up Liza looks marvellous.

Dillie – ‘I’m a bit dopey about my dog,’ sounding apologetic. I find Dillie’s voice a lot deeper than I’d imagined, somehow. She sounds different chatting face to face like this, than she does on stage.

‘I’ve been wondering, do you do any physical practising, so that you can do what you do when you play the piano and …?’

Dillie – ‘During the summer I will go to the piano and play the German song two or three times a week.’

Liza – ‘Do you?’ sounding incredulous.

Dillie – ‘Yeah.’

Liza – ‘You don’t..!’

Dillie – ‘I have to. I hadn’t done it for four years, and I really regretted it. So now I do.’

Liza laughs – ‘Hilarious! That’s funny.’

‘Is it difficult to play the piano at the same time?’

Dillie – ‘No. No. I went to lunch recently with a screenwriter in Edinburgh, who has two very shy little boys, ten and twelve.’ Dillie relates how she played a couple of songs. The boys both play the piano, and she asked if they enjoy it. They shook their heads. Their mother said she has great difficulty getting them to practise, and Dillie asked them if they like to practise. More head shaking, and her host asked her to show them why they should practise. ‘I said they should practise “so you can do this” and I threw my head back and I played something’, showing us how she did it. ‘You can do all sorts of things, like that’, plays under her leg; ‘I riffed with the kids.’ I bet those boys will remember Dillie.

We laugh.

Dillie Keane

Liza – ‘Two of the more admirable qualities I see in people, is being able to type without looking at the keyboard, and being able to play the piano with your eyes shut.’

Dillie – ‘Playing the piano, I play very badly. But I play very well badly. I have a very nice touch, and I can do that without looking, and I can sing harmony whilst doing it, which is really difficult, but I don’t play very well. A lot of meat on here’ (holds up her fingers), ‘but they sort of know their way round the keyboard. It’s passable piano. I’ll say no more. I make a mistake every single night. Really big clonking mistakes.’

Liza laughs out loud.

‘Maybe that’s part of the show.’

‘I wish it weren’t,’ Dillie says drily.

Liza – ‘I love the sort of … with Dillie back at the piano, it’s where it sort of started. I love the slightly Victorian front room quality of it.’

Dillie – ‘Showbizzy.’

Liza – ‘I love the juxtaposition of acutely modern sensibilities and lyrics, with what is essentially a very old format.’

‘That’s quite nicely put. Like these old films where they gather round the piano.’

Fascinating Aïda

Liza – ‘I absolutely love it. I think it’s one of the reasons why this show has worked so well.’

Dillie – ‘We’ve got terribly similar tastes in music. I err slightly more to the European and you slightly more to the American, but basically we can play something in-between.’

Liza – ‘We’re constantly trading music, trading tracks.’

Here they start quizzing me about CultureWitch and about my accent, which the perceptive Liza has determined has the same origin as that of her best friend’s. And since this interview was made possible thanks to their Facebook page, I ask how they find Facebook works for them.

Dillie – ‘It’s more and more of a marketing tool, yeah.’

‘I thought your page looked quite active, with people talking to you and you replying, which is nice.’

Dillie – ‘Yes, I try to answer even if I just say thanks.’

‘It’s makes your fans feel that you’re there.’

Dillie – ‘Yes, and it’s actually much more lively than a website.’

‘It seems to work well. If you haven’t been on today, there was somebody who posted a link to a podcast of an interview with Adèle last year, which I listened to, and it was really good.’

Dillie – ‘Right. No I haven’t been on there. I’ve been diligently…’ and she waves her hand in the direction of her laptop. Always busy, and doing the work herself. It might be hard, but it’s what makes Fascinating Aïda what they are. Special.

I leave to go and wait for the show to begin, while they have a puppy to walk, lyrics to write, faces to put on and pretty frocks, sequinned or otherwise. There’s nothing quite like the glamour of life on the road!

(Photos borrowed from the Fascinating Aïda website.)

3 responses to “Fascinating Aïda – Dillie Keane “My ambition was to do something achievable”

  1. Fascinating is the word–I’ve loved FA since the beginning, when my old schoolmate Issy Van Randwyck was part of the trio. They make me cry with laughter. Great interview, Culture Witch, thank you for bringing back some happy memories. Now I must find out about the next tour and go and see them again. It’s been about 4 years, so it’s time.

  2. Maybe an author onslaught in Edinburgh this summer?

  3. Thank you for linking to the two Podcast episodes with Adele. I have updated those to point to this interview in turn.

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