Meet Marcella Puppini. No, not the founder of the Puppini Sisters, the close-harmony trio cherished around the world for their ability to take a song, any song, and imbue it with the charm, poise and swing of 1940s pop. This is another Marcella Puppini – an altogether darker, more tantalising proposition.
This Marcella sings of monstrous movie starlets and shameless gold-diggers, of dirty old men flashing at teenage girls, and manifestations of the devil in the Italian countryside. This Marcella prowls about the stage as a femme fatale, croons a lullaby to the lover she has just murdered, and cracks a whip as she dreams of a lonely man flagellating himself for his guilty desires. This Marcella leads, not just a vocal trio, but a seven-piece orchestra, the Forget Me Nots, whose members – all women, all classically trained, all wearing chastity belts – are every bit as dazzling as their frontwoman. Most importantly, this Marcella isn’t content to channel other people’s songs. Every word she sings, every note her orchestra play, she has written herself.
The two Marcellas seem so unlike, they might be different people. But this is typical of Marcella’s ability to metamorphose, her quest for self-reinvention. It started when she abandoned an idyllic existence in Bologna, Italy, for London and the notoriously fraught life of a fashion student at Central St Martins School of Art. In Italy, she was a lady cultured in the classics: ancient Greek, Latin, the history of art. In London, she transformed herself into a doyenne of modern punk, graduating from her degree course to a place in Vivienne Westwood’s production team.
But deep down, what Marcella really wanted to be was a singer. She sang throughout her teens: in covers bands, in madrigal choirs, in an all-girl punk outfit called Dead Sex Kitten. And after two years with Vivienne Westwood, Marcella knew it was time to shed another skin. She turned her back on fashion and embarked on a new degree, in jazz performance and composition at Trinity College of Music, which led to a successful stint as a jazz singer.
It was during this time that Marcella encountered the new burlesque scene, the alternative performance artists transforming cabaret for the 21st century. Here was the catalyst for another reinvention. Marcella began collaborating with similarly strong-willed and provocative female artists and entrepreneurs, including Marisa Carnesky and the Whoopee Club, for whom she became the in-house songwriter and musical director. And, with two friends from Trinity, she formed the Puppini Sisters, a tongue-in-cheek trio modelled on the Andrews Sisters, who dressed in meticulous vintage outfits and sang modern pop – anything from Beyonce’s Crazy in Love to, their piece de resistance, Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights – in a gorgeously fluid, exquisitely harmonised style.
The Puppini Sisters almost pinned Marcella down. The trio became dizzyingly popular, earning a gold disc for their debut album and performing around the globe. But at the height of this success, Marcella began plotting her next, most challenging, reinvention. Something decadent, extravagant, fierce. Something redolent of cabaret – not the insipid anathema that commercialised modern cabaret has become, but the sexy and volatile cabaret of Weimar Berlin. Something that would allow her to explore the diversity of her musical inspirations: from opera to big bands, Klaus Nomi to 1970s art-rock, Nick Cave to Amanda Palmer. Above all, something totally, unflinchingly personal.
And so Marcella and the Forget Me Nots were born. This band is Marcella’s pride and joy: she writes all the songs and arrangements, taking full advantage of her liberty from the restraints of the Puppini Sisters to shift her shape at will. One moment she might be flinty and cruel, the next tenderly romantic; she is teasing in The Dancer, raucous for Femme Fatale, sincere for On an Ordinary Day. In all these twists and turns, she is perfectly matched by the Forget Me Nots, whose impeccable musicianship enriches every song.
Needless to say, Marcella and the Forget Me Nots are in a state of constant evolution. Already, Marcella is planning to transform the band into a wild rock’n'roll outfit, bringing in guitar and bass to amp up their sound. And there are so many other strands to her musical life that she could bring to the band. She moonlights as the conductor of a Russian big band; since her teens she has harboured an ambition to write an opera; she’s already in talks to write her first musical. With the Puppini Sisters, Marcella was lovable and sweet. With the Forget Me Nots, she is and can be so much more.