BEAUTIFUL TOOL: MARY MARGARET O’HARA AND PEGGY LEE at the Lula Lounge (1585 Dundas W.), Tuesday (September 4), 9 pm. $15. 416-588-0307. See listing.
Canadian cult singer Mary Margaret O'Hara is in the middle of a flurry of activity, which comes through in her flowing, rapid-fire speech when she calls me from Montreal to discuss Beautiful Tool, her collaboration with renowned Vancouver cellist Peggy Lee.
The two musicians met at a UFO-themed cabaret called Longest Night in Whitehorse late in 2010. "And then she started to phone me," says O'Hara, calling Lee a real go-getter. "She said, ‘Will you do something at the PuSh festival in Vancouver in 2012?'"
While both women are improvisers, they have different approaches to music: "I love doing free improv," says O'Hara, "and so does Peggy, but she likes a little bit more structure. I like starting from nothing. She's a great, wild player; she really affects an audience."
Their PuSh performance in January backed by Vancouver musicians J.P. Carter (trumpet), Ron Samworth (guitar), and Dylan van der Schyff (drums) was O'Hara's first show in Vancouver. The same group - with the addition of O'Hara's long-time collaborator Rusty McCarthy, who played guitar on O'Hara's 1988 (and only) album, Miss America - play with Lee and O'Hara in Toronto at the Rochester and the following day at Guelph Jazz festival.
"I wanted to have some fun, because we haven't had a chance to play together since the PuSh festival," says O'Hara, "so I thought, ‘Let's do a show.'" (The group will play some of Lee's songs, a handful of songs off Miss America, new material by O'Hara and some covers, maybe even a Chemical Brothers song).
In her typical fashion, O'Hara downplays her co-leading role in Jem Cohen's feature film Museum Hours, which screens at TIFF (September 9, 11 and 14). "I think I'm just going to be walking down the street, maybe saying a few lines," she says. (She hasn't seen the film yet).
Cohen also had a hand in arranging the collaboration that recently brought O'Hara to Montreal's Hotel2Tango studio to work with Constellation Records' Thierry Amar, Fugazi's Guy Picciotto (members of Vic Chesnutt's band) and Australian drummer Jim White of Dirty Three.
Though she insists that this is not a new Mary Margaret O'Hara record - not yet, anyway - and that the musicians were "just getting to know each other," she's effusive about the fledgling project. "They are so open," she says. "That was the best part."