Montreal’s popular cabaret scene is booming with burlesque acts, barbershop quartets, magicians, and jazz singers. Performers who might otherwise not slot easily into venues better known for musical acts such as Casa del Popolo and Petit Campus, now have a home at the Wiggle Room. Among them is Shy Shy Schullie, who sometimes drops into a southern accent as she smokes her way through seductive jazz standards and calls up friends to accompany her as she both hosts and entertains a variety show. While Shy Shy Schullie is very much a persona, I took the time to talk to her creator, Alexandra Schuller, about the creation of the character and the act.
Rachel Levine (RL): How did you get started in performing?
Alexander Schuller (AS): I was in a lot of choirs growing up and performed in high school. I joined the Lyric Theatre Singers, a semi-professional Broadway Choir and in the three years there, I learned a lot of my jazz standards. I starting meeting people and found out about the Wiggle Room. I started winning at the Wednesday night Voix de Ville, where the audience votes for the winner. I also went to a burlesque show around two years ago and there was a singer. I thought, I can do this. I love singing in choirs, but I wanted to do my own thing too. I love old-timey music. There was one summer where my friend I went to the Wheel Club every Monday. I love old country and when it mixes with blues, country-blues, that style. But I also love jazz. It’s a mixture.
RL: How did you come up with Shy Shy Schullie? She’s different from you.
AS: Shy Shy came about because I was/am really shy. When I was trying to create a persona, well, I’m really shy and thought maybe I’ll go with it. I named myself that. I started singing by being cutsey, acting like I was shy. I would peek out from the curtain. I would wave awkwardly. I would say “Hi, y’all I’m really shy, I’m really happy to be here.” Eventually I got more comfortable and the name didn’t work anymore, but at the same time, the name does work. Like calling a big guy “Tiny.”
RL: Can you tell me a bit more about how you put together your band and the Blue Ballad Sisters who accompany you in some songs?
AS: The drummer I’ve known since high school. He met the pianist and guitarist in CEGEP at Vanier together. The Blue Ballad Sisters are Isobel [Gordon-Smith] and Judith [Lemieux]. I’ve known Judith for 13 years. Iso I knew from CEGEP and she’s friend with the pianist. Anyway, we thought let’s do three-part harmonies. We practiced together and we also play at a café on Bernard. We do more country [as a threesome], that’s our thing. When we pair up with the band, it’s more like a bluesier feel. I also like having other people come in, having guest performers in the show.
RL: How do you pick your songs. You took a few Disney songs and transformed them completely.
AS: I always vary the setlist. I like having new songs. I also like to have flow where it’s not just me performing. I like when the other girls sing. I like different acts. I like the audience to be entertained constantly. If it’s just me singing one song after another, for me it would be boring. Why Disney? I grew up on those movies — Mary Poppins and Pinocchio. I love taking a song that people haven’t heard in awhile and jazzifying it and making it new. With “I Got No Strings,” I like it because Pinocchio is a really dark movie. But I also like that song because there were four guitarists playing and a bassist. I wanted to do “I Got No Strings” with five guitars. For “Chim Chim Chim Cheree,” I love that song. I love minor chords. It’s such a beautiful song. It’s also dark.
RL: Do you have any other favorites to perform?
AS: I like to take things from a lot of different artists. I like country, blues. Ma Rainey I’m into. She’s from the ’20s. She was part of this group of singers in Harlem. I really like playing “Sugar in my Bowl” by Nina Simone. It’s a sexual song. I like that its bluesy. When you sing jazz standards, you have to be technical. It’s fun to sing them. But I like a blues song because you can let loose. I like to open with blues and then go into jazz.
RL: You’ve also done some burlesque. How does it relate to your performance as Shy Shy Schullie?
AS: I took Burlesque 101 Class B taught by The Lady Josephine and Bon Bon Bombay and recommend it. It’s very empowering and awesome. It helped me. Even if I don’t do much burlesque it helps me as a performer. Plus the teachers are amazing. The community is so so so supportive. I got a lot of help from Seska Lee and Andrea Hausmann. What happens is you do a course and perform a real show at Café Cleo or at the Wiggle Room. You spend the whole time making your number, designing your costume, choosing your music. You get private coaching before you perform. Burlesque is fun.
RL: What’s your trick for putting on a great show?
AS: I guess a quirky thing is that right before I perform, I pretend I’m going to die. Even if I’m feeling tired or down, I have to make it the best show ever in case I die tomorrow. That and Guru energy drinks. I don’t think I can have those anymore. I got introduced during Just For Laughs.
Shy Shy Schullie performs Fridays at Atame (351 Duluth E) and at the Wiggle Room. Catch her next show at the Wiggle Room on September 7. 9 p.m.