Interview: Author Matt Howe Talks Writing the Definitive Book on Barbra Streisand's Recording Career

Matt Howe will light the corners of your mind with his knowledge of Streisand's 60 year career.

By: Feb. 17, 2023
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Interview: Author Matt Howe Talks Writing the Definitive Book on Barbra Streisand's Recording Career

Barbra Streisand is an entertainment icon with one of the most successful recording careers of any artist in history. Spanning over 60 years, Streisand's recording career features 71 albums, over 150 million records sold worldwide, 11 No. 1 albums on the US Billboard 200 chart - a record for a woman, 10 Grammy Awards, and she is the only artist in history to achieve No. 1 albums in five different decades.

Now, for the first time ever, comes the definitive book Barbra Streisand's recording career, Barbra Streisand: The Music | The Albums | The Singles, from Matt Howe, the founder of the Barbra Archives website.

The book, set to be released by Fayetteville Mafia Press on April 24, 2023 takes readers through every album, soundtrack, and single Streisand has released over the past sixty years. The book also features interviews with members of Streisand's team of producers, directors, and arrangers, and includes over three hundred photos.

BroadwayWorld spoke with Matt Howe about the process of putting Barbra Streisand: The Music | The Albums | The Singles together, his favorite Barbra Streisand album, and much more.

You are the creator of Barbra Archives. When did you discover Barbra Streisand and how did that discovery take you to the place you are at now, which is having just written the definitive book on her 60-year recording career?

Oh my god, quite a journey, right? I write about it in the book, I discovered her when Yentl came out. I had bought my sister an Olivia Newton-John album for her birthday, and the album, as it happened back in the day, was warped, and wouldn't play. So, I brought it back, and exchanged it, and got her a second one, and that was warped, so I was like, 'Well, let's just switch to an entirely different album altogether! Let's do Yentl! So, I gave her the Yentl soundtrack, but then I ended up listening to it all the time, I just loved it.

And then I finally saw the movie. So, I heard the album first, saw the movie second, and it just really rocked my world. And then I became obsessed with, mostly, her recording career. I would go to the used record stores in Atlanta, and I would start collecting all the Streisand albums. And then eventually, around 2003, I'm kind of obsessive, so I wanted to put everything that I knew about her in one place, and I thought, "Well, it should be a website." And so, I learned how to do web design! I put it online, and it's grown from there.

What inspired you to write this book on Barbra Streisand's recording career?

Interview: Author Matt Howe Talks Writing the Definitive Book on Barbra Streisand's Recording Career I've always wanted to do it. And the process of writing a book is different than a website, on a website, I've got to repeat information so much because I never know what page somebody is coming in on! So I have to explain who Marty Erlichman is almost every time, and I have to explain who Michel Legrand is, but in the book I can write a bit more linear, and Marty is covered in the first few pages, so I don't have to explain who he is anymore, he's got a nice page all to himself! [laughs]. And the inspiration, really, it was my publisher, Scott Ryan, at Fayetteville Mafia Press, he contacted me and said, "I'm an independent publisher, and you should do a job about Barbra's music career." And I was like, "Okay! I think that sounds like a great idea!" She's so talented and has such longevity making movies, and I love all that stuff, but first and foremost for me it's the records, the albums, that's what I love most about her.

This book is so extensive. Where did you begin in the organization and research process? Did you start chronologically and go from there?

I did. I started chronologically. The process is really interesting. I would basically copy and paste my website into a word document, and I would just start over. I would make sure that whatever story I was trying to tell about each album made logical sense, and then I did new research. Sometimes I'd just go down a Streisand rabbit hole and go, "Who wrote that song?"

For instance, 'Absent Minded Me' from the People album, it appeared on a Julie London album before Barbra recorded it. By the time it appeared on a Barbra album, it was written by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill, but on the Julie London album it was just written by Bob Merrill, and I was like, "Well, why is that?" And then you just start going down a rabbit hole and it's like, "Well, I think Jule Styne was the star composer for Funny Girl on Broadway, and this was a song by Bob Merrill, and Jule Styne probably asked to have publishing credit on it even though maybe he didn't write it..." [laughs] I could talk about it all day. I have fun researching and discovering new things about Barbra's songs and Barbra's albums.

How long has it taken to write this book?

Two years. I started during the pandemic when we were all locked down. So, 2021, and then I've just been diligently writing as much as I can. And then eventually Scott would send me the layouts, and it's so much fun to see everything you've written laid out in book form. That's exciting in and of itself. And then we had two months of the just really horrible work of proofing it! [laughs] It's just so tedious and hard, but I really want it to be right. I want it be meticulous, I don't want Sondheim misspelled, do you know what I'm saying? Everything has to be perfect because the fans expect that. And Barbra's fans love her attention to detail, so that means I have to be just as meticulous as she.

You interviewed members of Barbra's team of producers, directors, and arrangers. What was the interview process like? How do you even begin to single out who you should speak to in a book about a career that has spanned so many decades?

Well, William Ross is a great example there, he is her arranger/conductor, and has worked on a lot of the latest albums, and of course, he conducted her two or three times in concert. Richard Jay-Alexander was the lead-in to William Ross. Richard Jay, I was interviewing him and he said, "You need to speak with Bill Ross, he gets her so well when he conducts with her, you can't not include him, he's so integral to Barbra's career," and I said, "Well, would you mind introducing us? I don't have William Ross' email handy!" And Richard Jay facilitated that.

And what I found, everybody that I've interviewed over the years, they're just so nice and so complementary of Barbra, and you can just tell that they love working together. I try not to geek out too much, but these are my heroes too, my god. William Ross, and Jay Landers, and Richard Jay, and when I interviewed the Bergmans [Alan and Marilyn] many years ago, they were just delicious. It's kind of a dream come true for me.

Interview: Author Matt Howe Talks Writing the Definitive Book on Barbra Streisand's Recording Career

Do you have a favorite song/album of Barbra's?

You know, it changes depending on my mood. I am a huge fan of her album Love Is The Answer, which came out in 2009.

Me too! It's one of my favorites.

It's so good. And it's Diana Krall. Those two ladies worked really well together, and that album is just... such great songs, such great song choices, the arrangements, Barbra worked a little bit differently with Diana Krall than she usually does, whereas they recorded the quartet versions first and then they laid in the orchestra later. And you can listen to both versions, both versions are available, which is totally cool. But I also just think it's a shame, I write in the book a lot, that Barbra has been nominated, but not won Grammy Awards since 1987.


I don't think people realize that. She won the Grammy for the Broadway Album, that was 1987, and then she got in 1992, a Star of the Decade congratulatory one, it wasn't competitive, but all of these years she's usually nominated, and usually Tony Bennett wins. And then, Michael Buble starts inching in too! It's not a fight, I just think Love Is The Answer should have been her Grammy Award after all those years of not winning, and I'm just sad she didn't get it.

I'm sure there are so many things that you discovered about her and her career while writing this book that you didn't know, but looking back, on the whole, what did you learn?

I learned something about me, which is how to write about music. And I didn't realize that was going to be such a challenge. And so, I've written a book about her music career, and all of her albums, but you've got to talk about musical things like tempo, and key changes, and modulations, and all of the musical vocabulary that I had to learn. And I had to ask musical friends sometimes, "What is that note?" "Am I hearing a modulation in that song?" "They're singing in different keys, right?"

For instance, New York State of Mind with Billy Joel, they're both in two completely different keys, but they're modulated up and down and it sounds whole. But just to write and address what I was hearing was a great education, and very interesting. And writing about music, I think people will find the book to be very conversational, it's not academic in any sort of way. It's like we're sitting down for a cup of coffee and I'm like, "Let me take out this Barbra Streisand LP and play you this song," You know what I'm saying? I think people will enjoy it. I think I'm funny! [laughs] There is definitely some humor in there. I get critical too, I'm not a huge fan of Back to Broadway, and I write all about that.

Most people don't have a 60 year career. What do you think is the secret to Barbra Streisand's longevity in her recording career?

I think it's a combination of several things. I think she has impeccable taste, so I think even though the fans get frustrated, like, "Why did you record a movie album and didn't sing any songs from Disney or a James Bond theme?" it's because she very carefully chooses her material, to this day, and doesn't sing what people expect. So I think that she keeps us on her toes, I think that she always surprises us. On her album Walls, 'Take Care of This House', is from this obscure musical that ran for, like, three performances, how unexpected and surprising was that? I mean, I didn't know that song.

So, she surprises us, she has impeccable taste, and the voice. Like they say, when you hear somebody on the radio and you can identify who it is in the first line or so, that's an iconic voice. And I think Barbra has this iconic, amazing voice that she's shared with us all these years, and we all love the voice. And she is still singing good too! We haven't heard anything the last couple of years because of Covid, besides the Release Me albums, but she's still singing good. How many singers at 80 are still making, producing that beautiful resonance, and impeccable readings of lyrics, and also still bringing all that emotion that she still brings to the recordings? She's still bringing it. I just love her so much, I just think she's the best.

Interview: Author Matt Howe Talks Writing the Definitive Book on Barbra Streisand's Recording Career

Do you feel like there is anything she hasn't done that you would love to hear?

I sure would love to hear her sing the score to Gypsy. I'm so sad that she never got to make the movie, but she can still sing it. I would love to hear that. I have no idea how she reacts, relates, obviously it has to affect her for her to sing anything, but I would love to hear her sing some of the more modern Broadway composers. Some of these younger writers that have these amazing songs, and they're so actorly, and I just think it's something she would really go for.

This book is such a deep dive, what do you hope that readers take away from it?

It's what I write in my introduction, first of all, I hope they have fun. This book is best read while listening to whatever Streisand album you're reading about. But I really hope that I light the corners of their minds on some of the older songs that maybe they haven't considered or listened to for a while. Every album has 12 or 13 songs, there are always one or two that are just amazing, and then there is one that is sort of like, "God, I haven't really listened to that for a while, boy that is so good!" Because there is so much to choose from, I hope that I'm a tour guide, and I'm saying, "Hey, look over here!" [laughs] This is 1969, What About Today? You've got to listen to this again, it's not so bad, it's actually really, really good! That's what I hope people get from reading the book.


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