David Hennessy talks to Honor Heffernan about her cabaret show inspired by Dorothy Parker, her sadness about her friend Gay Byrne’s passing, her battle with alcoholism and how she learned to leave with the sudden deaths of her mother and sister.
Known as Ireland’s first lady of jazz, Honor Heffernan is bringing her Dorothy Parker inspired cabaret show The Whistling Girl to Hammersmith’s Irish Cultural Centre later this month. Although she has travelled the world as a singer, Honor is also known as an actor and has appeared in Neil Jordan’s Angel, Glenroe and Fair City and acted for directors Lenny Abrahamson and Michael Winterbottom. Combining her acting and singing talents have seen The Whistling Girl acclaimed.
“I’ve waited all my life for this project,” Honor tells The Irish World. “This is just so perfect for me. Most of my friends who see the show say, ‘Oh God, Honor, that’s made for you’. And it is. It’s everything I could have wished for musically, creatively and lyrically. It’s like manna from heaven.”
Dorothy Parker was an American journalist, poet and satirist, known for her biting wit. Honor jumped at the chance when musician Trevor Knight asked Honor to sing in a project that combined Dorothy’s words with music.
“It really brings her alive in such a way. I put it all down to the music and her lyrics because the music is fantastic and her lyrics are incredible.
“She shows us all of herself in her lyrics. You’re moved from one place to the other in seconds. She just turns from one thought to the other and often dark but always dark with a wry smile. It’s very hard to describe the show, very hard to describe it.
“Most people just say, I didn’t know much about her. I’m going to go home and Google her now. I didn’t know that much about her. All I knew about her was her funny quips: ‘Men don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses. You can lead a horticulture but you can’t make her think’. ‘Beauty is only skin deep but ugly goes straight to the bone’.”
“She was an animal rights activist. She was a human rights activist. She left all her money to the Martin Luther King Foundation.”
The activism is something that Honor shares with her subject as she met her collaborator Trevor at a march for Palestinian rights. They have since fallen in love.
“As a five year old child, she was looking out the window on Christmas Eve- and she was a Rothschild, not one of the wealthiest but wealthy enough- She was looking out the window of her house and her grandmother or somebody was there and there were men outside shovelling the coal.
“Dorothy said, ‘Oh those poor men’. And whoever was with her, her relation said, ‘Oh, aren’t they lucky to have work?’ She said from that day on she realised the injustice of it all. I suppose I’m a bit like that myself. I’m mad into animals. I’m a vegan. I don’t eat meat, dairy, eggs, fish, anything.
“In lots of ways, I suppose I identify with her, not in her cleverness and her wit. I don’t have that, I’m afraid. I always think of what I should have said the next day. Why didn’t I say that?
“If she was alive now, I think we would be looking at her as a woman to admire and make a heroine out of because she would be so strong willed and so opinionated in positive ways.”
The show is a departure from her usual genre of jazz and Honor describes the show as Weimar cabaret: “I loved singing jazz and I still do.”
The Hammersmith show will see Honor and Trevor launch their album in the UK. They have already performed in New York, the home of Dorothy Parker and Belgrade. Some could say that making a more permanent move to London much earlier in her career may have benefitted Honor but insecurities in herself prevented her from taking this step: “I just wasn’t in the right place in my head unfortunately. Not unfortunately, I don’t really even think like that. I don’t think I should have done… I could have done… I didn’t and that’s what life was at the time and this is what life is now.
“That’s all we have. I don’t really have regrets. What’s the point? There is no point to them. Now is what we have and can do with. Tomorrow: Who knows? Yesterday: Finished.”
Starting her singing career at only 15 with Alan Dee and the Watchtower would perhaps take a toll on her as she would later struggle with alcoholism. However, she doesn’t really see it like this as she never considered any other career: “My mother said I used to la la la songs before I could speak. I went to see Doris Day in Calamity Jane when I was five and my mother told me when I came out of the cinema, I looked up at her and said, ‘That’s what I want to be when I grow up. It was all I ever wanted to do.
“Drink is such an easy thing to fall into on the road and I did, not to the point that I would be falling down drunk but I knew that it was a crutch. Eventually in 1990, I decided that I would do something about it and I did. I did what every recovering alcoholic does. I went to AA and the first meeting I went to, I could hear everybody speaking and I recognised myself in every person who spoke. From that day I stopped drinking and it was the best thing I ever did.
“But I wouldn’t even say drink stopped me going to London at the time, it was just I was quite vulnerable. I would still have days where I could think, ‘They’re going to find me out. They’re going to find out I’m a con’. That’s always there. I don’t know any artist who doesn’t think that.
“I just wasn’t ready. I wasn’t strong enough.”
Honor was very sad to hear of the passing of her friend Gay Byrne who was a regular at her concerts at the National Concert Hall in Dublin: “He was the loveliest man.
“We spoke regularly. Gay was at every single concert we did for the last 15 years. He was really encouraging.
“I loved him and I’m really sad but at the same time I know Gay was a very practical man and he would have said, ‘I’ve had a good life’. I’m glad he didn’t linger for a long time because that wasn’t his nature, that wasn’t his nature at all.
“While it is very sad and it’s certainly the end of an era, Tommy Tiernan put it really well. He said when Gay was doing the radio show and the Late Late show for all those years, we were the tribe, we were a tribe. He brought us together every Friday night and every morning on the radio. Whether you liked him or you didn’t like him, the tribe came together and that hasn’t happened since. It doesn’t happen anymore.
“The Late Late Show is not the same anymore. He broke so many barriers down so I am very, very sad. This is life though, we die. It’s awful but we die but it’s great to have left such a wonderful legacy. And he has left a wonderful legacy.”
Honor knows about loss as she was hit with a double personal tragedy in 2003 when her mother and youngest sister Fiona were found dead in their home from carbon monoxide poisoning: “It’s not that it gets easier, you just learn to live with it. It’s still quite raw.
“My mother and sister’s anniversary was on 23 October. That’s 16 years. It feels like a year ago. You just learn to live with it. My mother always said to us when we were growing up, ‘When I die, I don’t want you girls putting your lives on hold, I want you to live your lives’.
“She gave me this life. My mother and father gave me this life. In honour of her, I go on. We have no choice.
“The day of the funeral I remember looking around at people just going shopping and going for a walk with the dog. You think the world should stop: ‘Why is everybody doing stuff? My mother and sister are dead, tragically dead’.
“It was an awful, awful experience and it took us seven, eight years to be any way normal after it. It was so raw for such a long time.
“But people go through trauma and tragedy every day. Look at the poor people in Syria, look at the people in Gaza: Seeing someone blowing up your child, mother, father, mother, brother.
“Nobody escapes (trauma or tragedy). You can’t help it. You can feel sorry for yourself and your loss but this is life, sadly this is life and we have to accept life. You can’t fight it.”
The singer has been quoted before as not really believing in an afterlife. Asked about her spirituality, Honor says: “I would be spiritual in that I recognise the energy of the world and the beauty of nature and if there is a creator of some sort, it’s done a wonderful job and I feel like I’m part of that.
“I don’t know if I don’t believe in an afterlife, I’ll find out I suppose but I’m not looking for it. I really believe in the here and now. We’re here now: Do the best you can. Live the best way you can.
“People who have faith, that’s wonderful for them, whatever gets you through really.”
The Whistling Girl is at the Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith on Saturday 30 November as part of the Blásta music festival which sees Irish music events taking place there throughout the month of November.