SOUND OFF Special Interview: Tituss Burgess Talks New Solo Album, 30 ROCK, Broadway & More
Today we are talking to a breathtakingly gifted vocalist who premiered the first single from his brand new solo album COMFORTABLE right here in this very column on BroadwayWorld earlier this week - the one and only Tituss Burgess. In this career-spanning conversation, Burgess and I touch upon many of the Broadway entities which he has played a part in over the last decade or so - THE LITTLE MERMAID, JERSEY BOYS and GOOD VIBRATIONS included - and Burgess generously some onset stories involving his stints on NBC's hit comedy 30 ROCK, as well. Most of all, though, Burgess and I dissect the finer points of his sophomore solo album, COMFORTABLE, and he explains his songwriting process and progress this decade, in addition to expounding upon the many influences and inspirations that have infused this passion project over the course of its years in writing, recording, and, now, finally, releasing - and the live concert premiere of much of the material. Plus, Burgess looks ahead to the future and clues us in on what we can expect from his late-night concert at New World Stages on Sunday night and also illustrates his plans as a solo artist, the true fulfillment of his lifelong dream. All of that and much, much more!
Click here to listen to the SOUND OFF World Premiere Exclusive of "I'll Be Alright" from COMFORTABLE.
More information on Tituss Burgess - including all about his new album and all about his upcoming appearances in promotion of it - is available at his official site here.
Comfortable At Last
PC: You wrote all of COMFORTABLE yourself, correct?
TB: Yes. I wrote every single song on there myself - well, except for "For All We Know", of course, which we included as a bonus track.
PC: I have to ask: does that song have a special meaning for you given its inclusion as the only cover?
TB: Well, since you ask, that song was actually recorded a few years ago. We didn't know it at the time, but that was sort of the prelude to me working with Donnie Kehr, who produced this album. Donny produces this thing called ROCKERS ON BROADWAY - which, this year, is actually going to be the day after my concert, on Monday - and when we did that live a few years back it went so, so well. You know, we just rehearsed that track and did it in under ten minutes - page to stage; got it all together - and that's what turned out. So, from then on, we thought we had something together.
TB: Yeah, I was like, "Wow! We should just put this out there and take a cue from that on how to build the rest of the album." So, that's pretty much what we did.
PC: What was your main inspiration behind the new album? Sophomore albums are always tricky - this one starts off with three ballads, unusually. Was that intentional?
TB: Oh, absolutely. Listen, it's like this: when I moved to New York, I moved here to do what you just heard. I didn't move here to do theatre - and it was by sheer coincidence that I did. Back then, I went to this casting agent - I didn't know the difference between a casting agent and a talent manager then - and my songwriting sort of took a backseat because I was getting so much work as an actor. But, then, when GUYS & DOLLS closed a year or two ago, I said to myself, "I will not set foot on another stage until I at least produce another album," because I had all these songs that I had written since the first album, most mainly just for me. But, you know, the goal was always to do this - to do an album like the one you just heard - and now here we are.
PC: A dream fulfilled for you.
TB: Yes. Truly, I felt it was my obligation to at least do one more album and expose people to these songs - I had to do it. I just wanted to do an album that people could really, honestly, truly relate to and give them some stories, too - it's pretty straightforward, too; every story I tell on this album has happened to me. So, I guess that was my main motivation for doing the album.
PC: So, "I'll Be Alright" is the single. Are you thinking of releasing "Glass Ceiling" perhaps, too, someday?
TB: Oh, I love that you said that! Yes - I f*cking love "Glass Ceiling!"
PC: As you should. It's definitely a stand-out on the album. Did you spend a lot of time on the overall production of it? It is quite a specific sound mostly maintained throughout.
TB: Well, we recorded about twenty-five songs total for the album and I definitely knew what I wanted each individual song to sound like even though I didn't really know what I wanted the album to sound like as a whole by that point yet, if that makes any sense. Does it?
PC: You knew the steps to the dance, just not how the whole routine would play out.
TB: Exactly. So, the way that we went about choosing the songs for the final album was basically saying, you know, "OK. These are my favorites. Now, what are the songs that will compliment these and round out the project to make it a full experience for the audience?" And, that's what we tried to do - we tried to figure out what songs sounded like they were supposed to be on this album once we had nailed down the ones that just had to be on it. That's basically how we went about it. I think that you're right, though - there are a few songs that throw you off since I start the album off with three ballads; it's a little surprising.
PC: It definitely is - a bit jarring.
TB: Yeah, and, at first, it might seem a little out of left-field, but I felt like it was such a stream-of-conciousness type thing for me - I was actually writing the "I'll Be Alright"s and "Glass Ceiling"s and "I'll Be With You"s and I kept getting these 1-800 numbers! [Laughs.] I said to myself, "If I get one more of these 1-800 number calls I am going to scream!" I felt like I just could not not include the writing process of the album in the album, so that's why I structured it like that and that's where the inspiration for that came from.
PC: Did you set out to create a modern R&B type sound in general or did you let the music dictate the production sound?
TB: Well, I definitely tried to do something contemporary...
PC: And you did. "Comfortable" is mildly Frank Ocean-esque, at least to my ears - is that at all intentional?
TB: Well, the way it all technologically worked was basically me giving my producer lots and lots of songs that I love along with the ones I had written and saying to him, you know, "This is how I want this to sound," and "This is how I want this to sound," and we went into his computer and found sounds and effects and things to add, too - so I definitely had a part in the creation of the overall aural experience of the album, both in terms of accompaniment and the way the melody on the track sounded overall. But, to answer your question, to be incredibly honest with you, I haven't even heard Frank Ocean's entire album yet, but I certainly know who he is and what he has written and I think he is fan-f*cking-tastic - kudos to him for coming out. I take that as a compliment to be compared to him - thank you.
PC: What did you want to say with this album? Who would you like to cover these songs someday, if anyone at all?
TB: Well, in the case of "Comfortable", that was written ten years ago, when I first moved to New York. I just never wanted to sing it out in front of everyone until now because I felt like people would judge me for it - you know, that song is really my prayer to God to help me work through this mess that I have inherited from another life that was before this city and me arriving here so that I can be as free and successful as I could be and can be and know I am going to be - and, now, am being. [Laughs.]
PC: That's a lot.
TB: For instance, though, "You Outta Me" is a little John Mayer, I'd say - I'd love to hear him sing that song; I love John Mayer.
PC: What are some of your favorite songs to sing in concert yourself, so far?
TB: Well, "You Outta Me" I sang at this great set-up we had somewhere a little while back - the crowd just ate it up as if they had already heard the song! It was like they were saying, "Wow, absolutely, I am really feeling this show." And that was really great to experience. I hope that's a good sign of what is to come.
PC: What's the oldest song on the album? What did you write first?
TB: Well, I think it might be "Comfortable", which I wrote years ago, and which wasn't even supposed to be on the album, funnily enough - and, of course, it became the title! [Laughs.]
PC: Indeed. What's the story behind that song?
TB: Well, "Comfortable" was a song we recorded one night when we were done with the work we had intended to do that day - we had like an hour and a half left to play around with some stuff, so I started playing it for Donnie. [Pause.] Not to sound masturbatory or anything, but my mom would always say to me when I was stressed out or whatever, "You don't need to go to a psychologist or anything like that, you can always heal yourself." So, when it came to singing, for me, that's what I would do - and I still do; I just sit down and play it all out of my system.
PC: A catharsis.
TB: Yeah, exactly. So, with "Comfortable", one night, we were sitting around and I sang this for Donny, who at that time had never even heard it. He was like, "Oh, let's put some organs on it and let's do this and that," and I said, "No, no, no; I want this to be extremely naked and extremely transparent-sounding." You know, with that song, at first, I was venturing into the most uncomfortable of areas in recording it, too - it was just piano and vocals. I said to him, "We'll do the rest of it later," and we ended up just using the bare version on the album. And, I had a lot of difficulty coming up for a name for the album and we tried to figure out, you know, "What one song is indicative of what the whole album is? What one song is The Common denominator of all the experiences you've had?" And "Comfortable" is it - it is the Cliff's Notes for the whole album, I think.
PC: That's the theme.
TB: Yeah, it's about being comfortable versus uncomfortable - when you look in the mirror and you don't like what you see and you realize that you are in a society where, you know, a size 32 waist and big pecs are what is getting all the roles, all the attention, all the boys; everything. That is not a comfortable experience to have for anybody and I decided to walk around owning it - and that journey is what I am on and that is why I chose that title; I am on a journey to becoming comfortable. I am finally brave enough to put that message out there to see if anybody else feels the same way now - and I have found a lot of people do, which makes me so, so happy.
PC: A lot of times it is the eleventh hour addition to the album that ends up being the most memorable track. Getting the album down from twenty-five tracks must have been tough, was it not?
TB: Oh, it definitely was. [Laughs.] It was definitely not easy.
PC: Do you have cut-outs from your 2006 album around somewhere, too?
TB: I do! I do. I'll tell you, at first, I actually wanted to re-recorded "Here's To You" and "Breakthough" because I just hear them in such a different way now. When we do the live album launch concert on Sunday, we'll have horns and a whole string section that we have added, so it will be a little different - there are about fourteen people who will be backing me up - so it will be interesting to hear it like that.
PC: That is certainly enough to back you up with your big, big powerhouse of a voice.
TB: Oh, thank you - yeah, I am trying to play some stuff from the first album, too, at the event, you know, just to see how it sounds now. The first album had a more throwback sound to it than this one, I think - I kind of wanted it to sound like it was recorded in the early 80s.
PC: The Phil Collins sound still seeps into a couple COMFORTABLE tracks, too, I found - appreciably so, I might add.
TB: Oh, hell yeah! Phil Collins is the f*cking man! I think his vibe has so much swagger - so sophisticated and so cool.
PC: I completely agree - truly a one-of-a-kind.
TB: He is so, so cool - I absolutely wanted to do a shout out for him. The anger that you get with the guitar riffs bubbling under and me belting as high to the rafters as I can on top…
PC: "It's Over".
TB: "It's Over"! Yes! If I were to bake a cake and walk it over to Phil Collins, it would have "It's Over" attached to it somewhere. [Laughs.]
PC: I bet he would respond favorably. What would you say to him about the song were you to present it to him someday?
TB: Well, I hope he would like it! I think I would probably say to him, you know, "This is for all you have done for me over the years through your music - this is how much you mean to me." Without being a plagiarist or too much of a mimic, I wanted to really show how much he has influenced me with that track.
PC: He has influenced a lot of people in hip-hop and R&B - all genres of modern music.
TB: Yeah, it seems sort of funny when you first think about it, but his stuff works so well with rap - it really is so influential.
PC: The synthesizers are coming back in a big way! Bruno Mars is using them a lot of his next album, apparently, as well.
TB: They are, they are! It's a synthesizer fever. [Laughs.]
PC: Who are some of your favorite artists to listen to yourself?
TB: Well, above all others - first and foremost - is my diva, Renee Fleming.
PC: What an unexpected choice!
TB: Oh, child, if Renee is singing, I am there! [Laughs.]
PC: You are the ultimate fan.
TB: I am, I am - I never miss her! I remember when I was reading her autobiography, I kept thinking, "Hmm. I wonder who she listens to?" and she talks about it in there. And, yeah, I know, I know - I really did read her book. [Laughs.]
PC: Is there a performance of hers that stays with you?
TB: Oh, are you kidding?! All of them! I will see that diva anytime, anywhere, in anything. [Pause. Sighs.] She just is music to me, you know? Her vessel is the conduit for... I don't know… it's just astounding to me how well she knows herself and how she is able to move in and out of all these genres - outside of classical music - and really own them all. She can do anything - it's just amazing. She is so inspiring to me.
PC: Are you classically trained yourself?
TB: Yes, I was classically trained in opera at the University of Georgia.
PC: I suppose that makes sense given the notes you can hit - seemingly quite effortlessly, I might add.
TB: Yeah, that's the only way I can hit those notes in the upper register, honey! [Laughs.] I'd never be able to do that without my training, but, you know, if I stopped riffing, it would probably sound like an aria for a lot of these songs.
PC: How illuminating. It's almost impossible to outwardly sense that training outside of your range. Who else do you listen to and aspire to be like, vocally?
TB: Oh, I love Donny Hathaway, too - it was such a loss that he died so young. I love Stevie Wonder, of course, as well. There are so many. So many.
PC: Who inspired "Pick Up"?
TB: "Pick Up" is sort of my homage to Prince, I would say. Prince is another big influence of mine - definitely. Prince is just so provocative - "Pick Up" is a sort of p*ssed off, angry song, but, if you really aren't listening close to the lyrics and paying attention, it might sound, you know, lovable. Prince does songs like that sometimes and I love that kind of thing.
PC: It really does. What was the intention behind that?
TB: Well, it's sort of like luring a child with candy or something - you're trying to get someone in a relationship to come back to you. It's about being so spellbound by how he asked the question that you didn't really realize what he asked or what you agreed to do.
PC: You could positively kill Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 You".
TB: Oh, my God! That is so, so, so funny you say that, Pat - my friend who just got signed to a label, Morgan James, and I both keep saying we are going to do that song. We have been threatening to do it for a good two years now but we can't find any excuse to really, really do it. [Laughs.]
PC: Do it on YouTube!
TB: Maybe we will! That's actually a really great idea! Maybe we will…
PC: Your cover of "Crazy" by Cee Lo on YouTube is sensational. Have you sung "Forget You" yet, as well? You must!
TB: Oh, thank you. No, I haven't sung "F*ck You" yet, though - I do love it, so it would be a lot of fun for me to do someday.
PC: Is "Stop Calling Me" the sequel to "Pick Up"?
TB: [Big Laugh. Pause.] No.
PC: I had to ask! It's an interesting sequencing of songs, I thought - sort of a mini-musical; "Pick Up", "Stay" and then "Stop Calling Me".
TB: That's true! That's true! [Laughs.] It's like "I love you! I want you! Now, get the hell out!"
PC: It runs the course of a relationship in ten minutes.
TB: It really does - I'm so glad you found that in there. That's just hilarious.
PC: So, what can we expect specifically from the song-stack at the New World Stages album launch concert on Sunday?
TB: We are definitely going to be doing "You Outta Me", "Stop Calling Me", "Comfortable", "Pick Up" and "It's Over" from the new album and then I am going to do "Breakthrough" and "Here's To You" from the old album. I think we are going to do six or seven of the eleven on the new album, though - you know, it's mainly a party, but we will do eight or nine songs altogether, I think. It will be a lot of fun. I am really looking forward to it.
PC: Do you ever do any musical theatre material in your solo shows or do you mostly stick to your album content and the occasional cover?
TB: Well, it's a tricky thing - here's what I have learned about human beings: we may say variety is the spice of life, but the consumer doesn't really want to be surprised by what you give them. You know, you don't necessarily go to Whole Foods for fried chicken and collard greens...
PC: An illustrative point.
TB: You have to give people what they expect to get - but, as for cross-pollination, most people are interested in stuff from my albums if they are coming to my shows, I have found; they are not usually my theatrical audience, and, if they are, they are happy to hear the other stuff. I've found that most people know I have been on Broadway if they come to my shows, so I don't really feel like I have to shove that stuff down their throats. I figure if they come to see me in concert, they want to see what I can give them the most of myself doing.
PC: It's your show, you do what you want to do.
TB: Exactly. Exactly.
PC: Did you and Jeremy Kushnier ever get to work together on JERSEY BOYS? He is so talented and has done great studio work, too.
TB: Oh, I just love Jeremy - we never got to do JERSEY BOYS together, but we did JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR together in Kansas City a long time ago and we had a total blast. I really just love him.
PC: Tell me about working with another participant in this column with a stunning instrument, Sierra Boggess?
TB: Oh, Sierra is fantastic! She is so talented. Man, she is my diva, too! We had such a lovely working experience doing THE LITTLE MERMAID and I think it is really nice to see the real deal like her getting the acclaim she deserves - it's refreshing to see that, especially these days. She is certainly among the best of the best, I think. I loved working with her.
PC: How do you see Broadway transitioning and the new corporate era we are in? Is Broadway dying?
TB: Oh, well, if I am being completely honest I would have to say I certainly think it's in a coma! It's really sort of depressing to me to think about - I know what you mean.
PC: What do you think of the jukebox musical genre? You did one of the first - and most infamous - with GOOD VIBRATIONS, of course.
TB: Oh, God! [Laughs.] Listen, I don't know, I think it's like the chicken and the egg syndrome - is it the producers' fault or the audience's fault? It's hard to tell.
PC: An intriguing way of looking at it - and quite true.
TB: I look at it as, we can only go see or not go to see what they produce - what they put out there. I think that a lot of producers think audiences are stupid and that a lot of the general public does not want to be challenged.
PC: A lowest common denominator mentality.
TB: Yes. And, I will say, there is a segment that there is a certain percent of the buying public who want surface entertainment and there are a lot of financial risks at stake and I understand that. I mean, if I put a million dollars of my own into a show I would definitely want there to be a star above the title!
PC: A little insurance policy - or so it seems.
TB: Yeah! I mean, it's risky - and, as much as I hate that and as much as I feel like it is a betrayal to what I believe, it's hard to get anyone's attention in Times Square - especially when it looks like Las Vegas has thrown up like it does now - if you don't!
PC: Too true!
TB: It's hard to have faith in things that are risky - I feel like it is so important to support new work and not just London imports or whatever! There are some amazing, amazing musical theatre writers here. We always hear about how, you know, A CHORUS LINE was the renaissance of Broadway in the 70s and how Times Square slowly got cleaned up after that and I think we can totally, totally have an artistic renaissance now. [Pause.] I think it can totally happen.
PC: No question that it can - but time is running out, it seems.
TB: I know. I hope that somebody with some b*lls fosters from its inception a new show or two - someone just has to be brave and just start the new trend.
PC: What was Brian Wilson like working on GOOD VIBRATIONS? Did you work one-on-one? He is known for being tough.
TB: He actually gave me notes - he was very warm, if a little elusive; sometimes he seemed like he was in an alternate state at times, but he knows his music and he knew how he wanted us to deliver it, so it was fine.
PC: That must have been exciting as a songwriter and devoted pop fan like you.
TB: Oh, it was - it was definitely the best part of doing that show. The rest? [Sighs. Laughs.]
PC: What can you tell me about the final season of 30 ROCK? Will D'Fwan be coming back sometime soon?
TB: I think so - I think D'Fwan may be coming back. I mean, I haven't heard anything official yet, but they called me at the last minute to be on last season. Actually, when we were all on set last time, Alec Baldwin said "Why doesn't D'Fwan have his own spin-off?" So, Tina has a new production deal at NBC, so you never know! [Laughs.]
TB: Jane Krakowski has done this column, as well - she is just the very best, right?
TB: Oh, my gosh, yes! She is just amazing - and she is so, so good at everything she does. I hope I get more of a chance to work with her in the future.
PC: What are your thoughts on GLEE and SMASH? Would you be open to appearing on either someday? You seem to be a good fit.
TB: Oh, yeah - I'd love to do any of those things some day! I think it's so great that they have brought so much awareness to the theatre - that is so great to see.
PC: Lastly, I adore your recording of the setting of Shakespeare's Sonnet XXIX by Georgia Stitt. Do you have any memories of recording that?
TB: Oh, let me tell you: Miss Stitt is it! [Laughs.]
PC: That's so funny.
TB: It's true! It's true. Really, I love her - and, she actually is working on a solo show with me in mind based on the psalms, so you can keep your eye out for that someday soon!
PC: There is so much to look forward to from you, Tituss. Thank you so much for this today. I love the new album.
TB: Thank you, Pat! This was just fantastic - I had a blast. Bye bye.