BWW Interview: BISTRO AWARD Recipient Michele Brourman
It is apropos that Michele Brourman's most famous composition is a song titled "My Favorite Year" because she is having a great year - and it's only March. After a lifetime of working as a singer, a songwriter, a musician, a producer, a musical director, Michele Brourman is finding herself at a place in life and in herself, where she has found a peaceful strength that informs her daily life, one in which she sees clearly, and appreciates what she sees. A popular songwriter with respected colleagues whose company and industry she enjoys, Brourman continues to grow as an artist, whether she is writing, singing, or playing for the artists who have come to rely on her immense talent. All of that talent is being recognized, fully, by a slew of accolades recently, and tonight she will be presented with The Bistro Award for Singer-Songwriter-Musical Director, an honor with which she says she is most pleased, an honor which she deserves, for Michele Brourman is not only one of the industry's hardest working artists, she is also one of the most beloved.
Just days before The Bistro Awards ceremony, I caught up with Michele by phone to talk about this exciting time in her life and how it feels to be the woman she is.
This interview has been edited for space and content.
Hello. There you are!
Hi Michele. How are you today?
I'm fine. How about yourself?
It's a good day today.
Good, good, great.
You're out West, aren't you?
Yes, I'm in Venice, California.
That's where you live full time. That's very different for a girl from Pittsburgh, huh?
Oh, it really is. I get to go back to Pittsburgh in April to visit 'cause I'm being inducted into my High School Hall of Fame.
You are having quite a year.
I'm having an amazing year! This first quarter is kicking off so beautifully. You know, it started with... I wrote (oddly enough) lyrics for a musical that we started to write well over 10 years ago, and I had to step away from it because I had two other musicals that were going into production and it was too much. And my friend Chip Rosenbloom, who was mainly the composer, brought in another lyricist years later and finished the project. I still have a bunch of songs in it and we just won an Ovation Award for best music and lyrics, and the book writer won for the book - that was in January. So yeah, I feel like I'm having an extraordinary year.
Is the Ovation Award still that beautiful blue statue of a dancer dancing?
Yes. It looks pretty.. It looks like -- my son went to Venice High and in front of Venice High there's the statue of this beautiful woman sort of on one foot and it was apparently sculpted of Myrna Loy - it kind of reminds me of that.
It's really one of the prettiest awards
It is. And I didn't get to bring the statue home. They only gave us one for the three of us.
Are you guys going to divide it up? You know, a few months a year?
Well I can pay $300 and get one of my own, but then I would have to dust it. I think the important thing is that we won.
Dusting is a bore.
Dusting is a bore and I don't know about you but I live with so many pieces of everything, you know, books, papers, CDs, LPs, tapes, cassettes, notebooks, a million books.
You know what you do, is you have someone take a nice picture of you with it and you put it online and you look at it online and you don't dust it.
That's right. I have that picture. I have a lovely picture with me and my co-writers and I'm in the middle holding the award. I got to hold the statue. There we go. Done. Got it.
You've just mentioned your co-writers. You are one of the most prolific artists in the business. You are constantly putting out new content. How on earth do you continue the creativity coming?
See, I don't think of myself that way. I noticed this... first of all, I'm really lucky who I get to write with. I write a lot with Amanda McBroom and she's brilliant and talk about prolific - she's unstoppable. And on the East coast I have a writing partner, Sheila Ray, who's terrific. And then I have other people that I get to write with more spottily but they're all wonderful. And I write from work. I've always written from lyric, even when I was a little girl and I had nobody to write words for me, I would take books of poetry and put them on the piano and find melodies for the poem. You know, I am inspired by words. I love the intersection of music and words. So I'm very lucky. Amanda and I are now writing songs for yet another animated feature for children. We had one come out in September, it's called Curious George Royal Monkey. And we're actually writing two more animated features - just the songs, I don't do the scoring. So there's something about it, that it's so easy to be spontaneous 'cause we're writing for children. So you know, I'm not reaching for the most sophisticated idea I could come up with here. In fact it's like one hand tied behind my back because the creative executives get very uncomfortable if there are any minor chords at all. So imagine only major chords.
I don't read music so I wouldn't know a major from a minor, but it sounds like an accomplishment.
I think I was given something at birth. I was born into the world with a gorgeous gift and I'm grateful every day in my life and not only use it, it was a gift that I could make music all different kinds of ways, you know? So I don't think of myself as prolific. I look at the list of songs I've written, and I've been writing them for, oh gosh... I've been committed to being a songwriter for at least 50 years. So I don't know that I've written all that much.
The animated film industry has been very good to you.
Yeah, it has.
How did you break into that? How does one become so popular in that genre?
I'd been working consistently since 1994 for Universal, in their animation department, and they are fabulous people. And I stepped into that in a really interesting way. I was musical director for Dixie Carter. Did you guys see Dixie perform?
I never got to, but I will tell you that almost every day, at least once, I sing "Me, I'm 27"
(Laughing) And we're all 27 right?
It's one of my favorite songs.
I love that song, and by the way, Dixie and I, we did that song - I used to travel and perform with her for the first several years, and after I had my first child, I would just write her shows with her and she'd go off to play them at The Carlyle. Every year when she did that song, John Wallowitch had to rewrite the lyrics because every year there were at least half a dozen people on the list who had died.
That's a fun tidbit, and so amazing of him.
I know - and he was so clever. I produced a CD with Dixie singing all John Wallowitch songs.
Yes, I have that CD.
And then I produced this other one with her that we just rereleased because it was actually an LP called The Heart of Dixie. After she passed away Hal Holbrook and I got together and decided that, for Dixie, singing was more important than anything. So we remastered it and had a real talented man named Doug Havarti do all new artwork. So that CD is out there and it's really gorgeous. First of all, it's a masterclass in cabaret singing really is. Dixie was amazing. I miss her. So the way I got into Universal was, Dixie wanted to do a yoga video. I walked into her house to rehearse one day and she said, "Oh Michele ma belle, Wendy (that was her personal yoga trainer) wants me to do a yoga video." So we wound up making it and she said, "Michelle, you will write the music." So we wound up doing that with MCA Home Entertainment, which was how I got introduced to Universal.
You won't believe it, but I have that yoga video.
Are you serious?! Dixie Carter's Unworkout?!
Oh my god, that is so cool. So when next time you put on Dixie's video, that's my music.
Well I should have recognized it because your music is so unique and individual.
Thank you, what a great compliment. Thank you.
How did you go from songwriting to producing?
We had this wonderful woman who was our creative executive - everyone I've worked with at Universal has been fabulous. I'm really lucky 'cause you hear people bitch about their experiences with other companies. Universal has been amazing - everybody. The first creative executive was this wonderful woman named Suzie Peterson - she was the executive on Dixie's yoga videos and she called me one day and she said, "Do you still write with Amanda McBroom?" And I said yes. And she said, "Would you and Amanda want to write songs for a sequel to "Land Before Time?" And we said yes! That's how we started. After the first two that we did, I would bring in song demos and then the scoring composer wonderful guy named Mike Tavera would produce the songs because he already had a whole orchestra coming in to do his score. He would arrange and produce the songs. On about the third one of those, Suzie said to me, "You know, Mike's work is wonderful, but there's something in your demos that we're losing in translation - would you want to produce the next batch of songs?" I said yeah, that's how I made the transition. I think that life has just kind of led me very gently down a really nice road. I didn't always see it - in fact, for many years I didn't see it. I didn't know how fortunate I was. I couldn't. I kept seeing the things that I didn't get. And then all of a sudden I turned around and went, "Wow. I've been given so much."
Well, it's a question of perspective and of getting to a point where you're old enough and you're wise enough to see the truth before you.
Yes, and also to see, you know, over the years, I have had friends who are majorly, majorly talented. They deserve everything in the world, and a lot of them have not gotten it. So I'm wise enough to know that I'm fortunate, and to know gratitude and maybe some humility.
I was once talking to an Oscar nominee who hit it really big later in life and she told me that success is often just a question of being in the right place at the right time.
It's also a question of not quitting. It's a big thing to not quit. I read this somewhere and I'm going to get the words wrong, but it's something like if you haven't been stopped, then you're unstoppable. Isn't that nice?
It is nice.
And there's something amazing about getting the recognition of your colleagues. I mean this sudden kind of burst. (Laughing) You know, last year I had a MAC nomination, and to me a nomination is a win. That was for my CD. And then this year is The Ovation Award and now The Bistro Award, and then my High School Hall of Fame, which sounds goonie but I graduated in a class of 500.
It's actually incredibly meaningful to me. So I feel like there's something about that... you suddenly go, "Oh, I see. I thought I was working in the dark all this time."
Yeah, it's cool, isn't it?
It is cool. And you must be feeling really gratified at this time.
I am. I'm really excited. I'm excited to be at the Bistro Awards and they're honoring Maltby and Shire -- they're so, so good. I've loved their music for so long.
It's nice for you to get to have an opportunity to be around other artists that you admire, isn't it?
It's huge. Yes it is. One of the best decisions I ever made, and again, this was life leading me. I was working on a benefit project out here for a fellow songwriter who's been going through some major illness, a really gifted woman named Marsha Malamet, and Ralph Lampkin was co-producing it with my friend Hillary Rollins, who I also now I'm writing with. So Ralph and Hilary produced this benefit and I was one of the performers and I had a date coming up in New York at Pangea. So Ralph and Hillary were on the phone one day and he said to Hillary, "So who's helping Michele with publicity for this show?" And she said, "Oh, Michele doesn't have a budget for that. Nobody does that." He said, "I'm going to do it for her." And he did. He just jumped in as a gift and did a lot of work to help get people to that show, and it was a sold out night. It was a wonderful night. Subsequently I called him and said, "I'd really love to keep working with you," because of that feeling I always had that I was kind of like working in the dark -- and Ralph has really changed it. I had to make a commitment to myself to do that 'cause I need somebody to help people know, so that they don't see me as, pardon the expression, just the piano player. And that choice has been one of the best things I ever did.
Do you really think that people think of you as just a piano player?
I have, so often, been introduced by people who know that I write and sing that they will say "Hi, this is Michele Brourman and she's Amanda McBroom's musical director." And it's not that I'm not thrilled and proud, I love Amanda and I love our work together, but that is not the total of who I am. And so, yeah, I really did feel that that's how I was being perceived.
I think that people really want to define us by how they see us, rather than letting our definition of ourselves wash over them.
Or maybe it's just our responsibility - if there's a certain way we want to be viewed, maybe it's up to us to make sure that we really are presenting that.
There you go. I read on your website that you have been writing music since you were a child.
Yes, I was three.
Do the tunes just come to you, do you wake up and there they are, or do you sit down at the piano and say, I'm going to write a song today? How does a lifetime of music come out of you?
Well, every experience is different. Karen Gottlieb and I wrote "My Favorite Year" in an hour and a half because we were asked to submit something on spec for a movie. We didn't get the movie. We wrote this because we got a call saying, "Can you have a song ready to submit by tomorrow?" I thought the guy was joking, but we wrote it in an hour and a half. Sometimes some songs... like there's a song on my first CD called "Aurora" - I had the first four lines of the lyric of that song for three years and didn't know where it went. Then, three years later I had had a romantic bad experience - it was a learning experience. And I suddenly went, "Oh, now I know what that is." And I wrote the lyric in 10 minutes and wrote the music in an hour.
Thank goodness you didn't throw it away.
I never throw things away. That's one of the reasons I have so much clutter.
Well, it's a good thing you didn't want that Ovation Award.
(Laughing) I know!
So your song didn't get picked for the film and yet it has become your most famous song that you've written, hasn't it?
It has, and really thanks to Margaret Whiting 'cause Margaret recorded it. I don't know if you spent much time with Margaret, but she was like a guardian angel for all of us songwriters and singers. She was amazing. She and Julie Wilson, they came to every performance we ever did in New York, they were just phenomenal. Margaret recorded three songs that I wrote, "My Favorite Year" and the song that Karen and I had written called "Take a Bite," and then a song Amanda and I wrote called "Best Friend."
Well everyone listened to Margaret. You were right about she and Julie, they were like the two fairy godmothers of the community.
They really were, they were so generous and so supportive, and not just musically, personally. You know, when my first marriage was hitting some really rough patches, Margaret would sit with me and talk with me about it and tell me what she thought I should do and how I could say that to fix it. And by the way, she was married to a young man who was my classmate at Northwestern. Everyone's connected, somehow we're all connected. I was performing with Dixie at Freddy's in New York and in walked Margaret with Jack Stillman. It was fabulous. And it's all inclusive, you know, it's only about love.
While you were talking about some of your collaborators, it occurs to me, you have written with some incredible women. Isn't it wonderful, at this time where women are becoming more and more empowered, to look back on your career and know that you've had these amazing work relationships with all these incredible women?
It's been a couple of songs with guys, but mostly it's always been women. I don't know why that is. I never actually thought about it until just this minute.
Well, I'm glad to shed some light on that for you. So you're coming to town for the Bistros?
Yes. I'm coming Saturday to go see John Ryan perform at The Green Room 42 on Saturday night, the Bistros are Monday night, and I'm taking my nephew to see West Side Story.
Have you picked out your outfit for the Bistros yet?
I think so. I think I might be bringing two - one sparkles and one doesn't, but they're both nice.
Always bring a back up. You know, I like sparkles. I love the picture of you with the black sequence. It's just gorgeous.
Thank you. But that's my backup. The other one is kind of a very beautiful deep raspberry colored velvet.
Sounds elegant. I love listening to you sing - you have such a unique voice and it's so sweet and so clear. When you started playing and composing at the age of three, did you think that you would go into performing as well?
I had no idea. I didn't know, but I have two younger sisters. So when my sister Robin was like eight she was going to this summer music day camp and there was an opera teacher there that called my parents and said, "This child has the most amazing voice. She could be an opera star." And that was it. My parents were sort of pigeon-holers, so I was the piano player and Robyn was the singer, which you know, in a way tells you so much about the rest of my career and why emerging more and more as a singer has become so important to me. So I didn't think of myself as a singer. I felt like nobody really wanted to hear me sing.
Well, this boy wants to hear you sing.
Thank you so much. I'm grateful.
I am obsessed with your singing voice. It is just so natural and honest and clear and beautiful.
Thank you. Do you have both CDs?
Yes I do, via downloads.
Okay, that's fine. All you need is music, and I'm working on what will probably be an EAP that I want to have ready in the fall. I'm going to be at Birdland on September 14th... and this is scary: I'm going to be in the big upstairs room.
I have it on my calendar.
Oh good. So I feel like I want to bring new stuff there. I'm working on a new recording and even if it's half a dozen songs that I love, I just want to bring it.
Well, so are you going to be singing at the Bistros?
Yeah, I'm singing one song. Guess which one?
Oh, I couldn't hazard a guess.
We were asked to submit two or three options. And I wrote and said, "Well, I really think I should sing this one song, but if you want an upbeat song I can do it." And Shellen Lubin wrote back and said, "Oh no, no, no, no. You sing your song, someone else can sing upbeat."
It's sort of like inviting Amanda McBroom to sing, but asking her not to sing The Rose.
Every blessing has its curse to the quote I'm quoting my sister Robin, who's also one of my co-writers.
Well it's sorta like the saying magic comes with a price.
Yeah. You know, you can flip it and you can say a curse has a blessing... if you can figure out what it is,
Well, you can always change the narrative. You just have to change your mind.
Oh, I like that. I have to write that down.
If you put it in a song, let me know.
Narrative's a hard word, but I'm writing it right now. You can always change the narrative. You just have to change your mind. That "just changing one's mind" is a challenging thing. It's something I work on lately. Every day.
It's nice to have things to work on.
It is, and it's interesting also... I feel like, really, where the work is, is that internal thing. If you can shift something on the inside, all kinds of things manifest differently on the outside, if those shifts aren't easy - some of them are easier than others, some of them are really hard to see because it's such a habit of thinking
And it takes some real work. I'm challenging myself to look at a situation from a different perspective.
That's the work where the reward comes.
That, and practice.