BWW Interview: Mary Bridget Davies on Her Upcoming Album STAY WITH ME: THE REIMAGINED SONGS OF JERRY RAGOVOY
Mary Bridget Davies is best known for her Tony nominated turn as Janis Joplin in A NIGHT WITH Janis Joplin on Broadway, and is a premiere interpreter of Joplin's music, even having the chance to tour with Janis Joplin's original band, Big Brother and the Holding Company. Davies will soon be releasing an album of songs by the Grammy winning producer Jerry Ragovoy, famous for penning hits such as Janis Joplin's own "Piece Of My Heart," "Cry Baby," "Try, Just A Little Bit Harder," and "Time Is on My Side." The album, produced by TJ Armand, masterfully reimagines Ragovoy classics including "As Long As I Have You" and "Move Me No Mountain", and features unreleased archival songs such as "Master Of Disguise" and "The Right Of Way". The songs on the album express themes of mental health, female empowerment, love and loss, serving as a beautiful tribute to Davies' sister who tragically took her own life. Stay With Me: The Reimagined Songs of Jerry Ragovoy will be released digitally and in stores, on Friday, March 20, 2020, and Mary Bridget Davies will be launching a national tour to promote the album, beginning with an appearance at The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on March 18th.
Davies spoke to me about the origins of how this album came to be; what it was like being entrusted with Jerry Ragovoy's entire musical archive by his widow, Bev; the process of putting the album together; and what it means to pay tribute to her sister's life in the most meaningful way she knows how- with music.
A bit of a two part question, how did you get into this type of music and when did you realize you had the ability to interpret Rock like this?
This is my parents' music. I grew up listening to hip hop and 90's pop and stuff like that on the radio, but this was basically the stuff that was on my entire childhood in the background, like after my parents would come home from work or at family gatherings. I had been accidentally studying it my whole life. So when the role [of Janis Joplin in A Night With Janis Joplin] came around I was prepared just from osmosis, just from listening to it my entire childhood. It definitely wasn't a choice, it was just something that was going on in my childhood and in my life and it's really paid off! It's really helped a lot!
Do you have a favorite Jerry Ragovoy song? Is it by default Piece Of My Heart or is there a surprising one that's your favorite?
He wrote so many amazing songs. Under his pen name Norman Meade he wrote Time is On My Side for the Rolling Stones. I didn't know that until I jumped into his catalog. I was like, 'Wait a second, wait a second. Oh my gosh, are you kidding me?' He just had a knack for writing really good soul music. There is a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame series called the American Master series and in it are different artists every year. 6 to 8 years ago they honored Janis, and I was on tour with Big Brother and the Holding Company in Europe so I couldn't attend, and I'm from Cleveland so I was thinking, 'How weird that I'm touring with her real band so I can't be a part of this thing.' Jerry did the American Masters conference and talked about when they first met and he said, 'I know she thought I was like her. The cool, hip, beatnik type.' Jerry wore sport coats everywhere, he was very chic, a New York City bred kind of guy. And he was older at the time, he was in his mid-forties and she was 26, something like that. And she played the Garden and went over to his apartment, and he said, 'I purposefully acted really square when I met her, just to see her reaction. She was like, 'You're Jerry Ragovoy? No, this is a joke, Jerry Ragovoy is cool.' They had spoken on the phone so much collaborating because that's how you'd do it back in the day before email. And he was like 'Hello Janis, it's nice to meet you.' He said he acted so square, and her mind was blown. She thought he was going to be wearing a dashiki, a cool dude. And he was putting her on and they had a really good laugh. When I look at all of the songs that he wrote and all of the songs I've had the pleasure of covering and modernizing for today's ears, I can't say that I have a favorite because they're just all so good in their own right. I know that's a very mom answer, 'I don't have favorites I love you all in my own way.' As Long as I Have You which is the song that leads off everything is so fun and lively and it's got that Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings kind of feel to it, and then you go to the next song and it's a soul crushing ballad. He was just an incredible writer and I'm just very lucky that I got to interpret his music for this album.
TJ Armand approached you to do this album after meeting you. Where did you meet for the first time and what was that meeting like?
My agency calls me and they say, 'We have a gig for you, this is a great one.' And I'm like, 'Okay, what?' And they're like, 'It's the Bermuda Music Festival. They want to fly you down and your band and put you up at the Fairmont Hotel, they want to pay you copious amounts of money, and Chaka Khan is also on the bill.' I'm like, '...What?!' Chaka Khan is an icon and I look up to her so much. So I said, 'Yeah... obviously the answer is yes.' So, we fly down to Bermuda and I meet TJ for the first time. They had us down two days before the show just to be in Bermuda. I was thinking, 'What is this, this is amazing!' and they had a donor dinner at someone's home the night before our first performance. We played two nights, Friday and Saturday. We get there Wednesday night, Thursday night is this meet-and-greet dinner, and that's when I met TJ Armand and Carl Paiva [Armand's producing partner]. And it was like talking to people I'd been friends with my entire life, just with a common vision. They told me they came and saw me on Broadway and that they fell in love with me and wanted to steal me, the cutest compliment ever, and they were like, 'We've been trying to get you on this festival since we saw you on Broadway, and we finally have you here. And we want to work for you, work with you, we just think that your star is burgeoning and we want you to shine. And I was like 'Uh, ok!' [Laughs] So it's been a year. We've been working together and moving and grooving. We recorded the record the last week of August, so it was instant work, instant opportunity, instant fun, and instant family. I couldn't have asked for a better group of people to be working with on this.
Bev Ragovoy gave you access to Jerry's archive and all of his unreleased material, what does it feel like to have been the artist chosen to be entrusted with that incredible legacy and all of that material?
Well, it's terrifying but it's a wonderful compliment! It's been so unbelievable to listen to demos. It's just him sitting at the piano and you hear the genius in his fingers and then he would just say what his ideas were for a song like, 'And then you know, blah blah blah...' and say, 'eh something like that, I'll figure it out later' because these were just all his notation recordings that were not meant for anyone else to hear. So, you're literally listening to the mind of a genius and his process. And I was like, 'This is the coolest thing in the universe.' I love Bev, and I met her back in 2013 and what a rare opportunity to present itself. To be entrusted with this legacy. I figured, 'She's known me now for six and a half years, she knows my work ethic.' And it was just a conversation with TJ one day and she said, 'Well, you know...' she called him Rags, 'there are so many of Rags' recordings that were never actually published and I'd really love to see where it goes, and I think Mary Bridget has the right instrument for the project.' And I was like, "What, okay!' But I totally understood it. As soon as I was listening to it, I was like, 'Oh, you know what? I do get it. I get him. This is all the stuff that was playing in the background my entire childhood that I have such an affinity for and I do have the instrument to make it my own.' And I thought, 'Alright, we're going to do this.' We had the listening party at the original Hit Factory and so many of the who's who of New York City showed up for it, and I was not as nervous as I thought I would be because I was proud. Bev said, 'You're exactly the kind of artist that Rags loved to write for.' I wish that I had gotten to meet him. He passed away in 2012.
The themes that you wanted to get across on this album are self-love, mental health, female empowerment...with so many incredible songs, how did you decide which songs would best fulfill these themes? How did you decide which of the unreleased tracks to add to the album?
It's like they just jumped out, put their hand up and said, 'Me.' There was so much, we literally could have done 4 or 5 albums, but these were just the ones where instantly I said, 'Oh my gosh, that melody is beautiful.' Or 'Oh my gosh, that message is amazing' instantly, as soon as the track started, 'Whatever this is, it's this one. I just know.' He had so much unpublished material, but some of the arrangements were very 70's, 80's, 90's, and we asked Bev, 'Do you care if we modernize this a little bit?' and she said, 'No, do whatever you want.' So it was also hearing this song that was like, 'Okay, this message is amazing, this arrangement is a little outdated, how do we modernize this?' That was also a fun problem to have. Or the song was fantastic and the lyrics were 'Hmmm, so close, what if we took this line from this song and put this here and Frankenstein something together?' She was very on board with all of the updates that we made.
This album is beautifully dedicated it to your sister, how did you decide that this was the way that you wanted to pay tribute to her?
This is what I do. I have been a performer my entire life. My whole family has had to put up with that [Laughs]. And nobody knew it better than my sister. She was the middle sister. I wasn't equipped to sing at her funeral. I was like, 'I don't have that in me right now. I am so defeated.' And of course, as the performer in the family that's my thing. Someone dies, someone gets married, 'Oh, we'll send Mary Bridget and she'll sing for it' [Laughs] and I was like 'I just simply can't do that.' Looking at my sister, my sister was beautiful, she had a beautiful child, a son, who is 25 now, she was doing well in life. Suicide doesn't discriminate, and it doesn't care how good you might look like you have it, it's just that little nagging voice that never leaves you alone and is unrelenting until finally you're like, 'I am done listening to you' and you take action. I can't imagine what she was going through. [People would say] 'She was so beautiful, she was so athletic' I'm like, 'That's not all life's about, is what you look like to other people, you don't know what's going on, on the inside.' This is a very real thing that people deal with all the time, and if I can take my art and raise awareness at the same time, that's just a win, and maybe through Christine, we're saving somebody else down the line. And we had a treatment ready for a music video for Master of Disguise. The lyrics are No one knows I'm not what I seem, I hide behind a smile, I say what I don't mean, with a slight of hand I've been in the act, I cleverly conceal the loneliness inside. Ragovoy wrote that in 1975. It is so relevant. Male, female, cis, trans, anyone can relate to those feelings, it's not exclusive, it's a human condition. I said to TJ before my sister killed herself, 'What if in the Master of Disguise music video she's the perfect wife and mother and everything is perfect and you turn and the next treatment is she's serving dinner at this wonderful dinner party but you look and the entire kitchen is on fire. As a metaphor for, this is what's really going on in the background.' And he was like, 'I love it.' And we're talking about this, and then literally that week my sister killed herself. And I was like, 'That's exactly what I was talking about, what's going on!' It was exactly that. We shared our life in music, our family is so musical. It's the highest honor I can give her, is my art with her name on it. So that's why we were like, 'It has to be.' And we're Catholic, and I said, 'Oh my gosh, she's not going be able to get a service because it's a sin' and the Catholic church was even like, 'We know your sister, we love your sister, it was temporary madness. We know if she could take it back she would have, and she was just fed up and angry and she put action into a moment that she couldn't undo.' And I couldn't believe that they were forgiving of that and gave her a proper service and it just enlightened me. We're all just going through it. We're all going through life, we're just trying to make it. There is a stigma around mental health or mental illness or suicide and depression. We need to put it right out on the coffee table at breakfast and talk about it because it's not going away. And the more you penalize it and punish people for having a bad day, week, month, year, you're just making it worse. And we need to just shed a light and be like, 'I know you're trying, please stick around. It gets better.'
Musicians on the album:
Ben Nieves (guitar), Alfredo Guerrieri (bass), Jim Wall (drums), Chris Hanna (keyboard). The album was recorded and mixed by Curtis Leonard and Jim Wall at Blue Buddha Music Studios and Play Room Audio (Cleveland, OH). The album was mastered by Oscar Zambrano at Zampol Productions (New York, NY).
1) As Long as I Have You
2) Stay With Me
3) The Right Of Way
4) Don't Compromise Yourself
5) Master of Disguise
6) Move Me No Mountain
7) Getting In My Way