BWW Interview: Jamie Lawrence of NORA YORK TRIBUTE CONCERT at Joe's Pub
Nora York was adventurous and she was unique. This one of a kind artist was a jazz singer who became known for her genre-crossing work and inimitable performance art. A successful concert performer and multiple award winner, York composed and recorded for television shows and films, as well as passing along her knowledge by teaching performance at NYU. York released three cds and created a popular TED talk, as well, before her untimely death in 2016. Greatly respected and hailed as a truly original talent, Nora York left behind a wealth of musical material, sadly unfinished and unheard.
Jamie Lawrence is an Emmy award winning composer and musical Jack of All Trades, with skills ranging from instrumentalist to conductor, from mixer to master, from conductor to producer. Jamie Lawrence is Nora York's close friend and collaborator, writing songs with her, producing music for her, and in a dedicated display of devotion Mr. Lawrence has produced SWOON, a final Nora York cd.
Swoon, featuring album artwork by York's husband Jerry Kearns, drops on October 4th on all digital and streaming platforms, and on cd from CD Baby and is comprised of unreleased, never before heard compositions. York was hailed as "an ingenious, radical, extravagant talent" by The New Yorker and to celebrate her life and artistry, as well as the release of Swoon, Joe's Pub will present a one-night-only concert on October 7th at 7 pm.
This interview has been edited for space and content.
Jamie you are a composer of instrumental scores for film and television. What are some of the differences between writing music for film and tv?
Right now it's (laugh) sorry to be vague, that's a tough question (laugh) cause sometimes they're no different at all, and sometimes they feel very different. Because obviously a lot of films are on tv, so .. tv is such a broad .. I've done a lot of documentary films that are destined for tv and for HBO and they're just called films ... and then I write music for the Tony Awards.
You won an Emmy Award for your work on All My Children.
Yes I've done a lot of work for the soap operas. I had the theme on As The World Turns for fifteen years (two different themes).
In that instance, music has to be created for it every single day, whereas a film, you're creating music for a two hour movie - is there a pressure to create music for something that happens every single day?
Well the way those shows are done is there's a library piece. So those are very low pressure. I just do things to create a library for the music director, who's at the show every day. He chooses songs and stuff for the show every day. So that's actually a wonderful gig, it's very low pressure, you just use your imagination. Sometimes they'll call you and say "we have a new couple, they're young and in love, he comes from a troubled past and has an addiction problem, are they gonna make it, can you create a theme for them?" Music like that, sometimes it's just tension music, they always need tension music. That's much more relaxed, while films get complicated fast. You're trying to get in and out of dialogue, there's cut changes and there's directors listening to every little note, you're adding orchestra to it, there are many things coming into play when you start getting into the whole thing?
What's the process when you're creating a score for the cinematic artform? At what point in the creation does the composer become involved?
It used to be, they'd finish the film and you'd get involved at that point, when they're in the edit. You go through the movie with the director and figure out when the music should come in and out. That process has changed quite a bit because editors like to edit real music. So often you get in earlier on a movie and create music while they're shooting or before they start editing that you can send to the edit house that they can then cut to. I try to do that as much as possible, so if they cut to music it's your own music they're cutting to. It makes it easier later on if it's your own music that's written for the film, you get that much farther along.
You conduct the Tony Awards every year. Do you get at all nervous anymore, doing a live television broadcast?
You definitely get a little nervous, not too nervous because the hardest thing you do for that show you've done before you get to the broadcast. The hardest thing on the Tony Awards is when they announce .. you have a live orchestra and when they announce the five nominees we have five pieces of music in front of the orchestra and myself, and once they announce the winner you have to say "Ok we're going to play number two!" and you just have a downbeat and everyone comes in. Everyone gets nervous at that point. Those parts there are very nerve racking.
You are also a record producer. For the benefit of people not in the business, would you tell us what a record producer does, so that they know it isn't all about putting up the money?
The name producer has changed a lot. Now it means that we create the tracks, create the music, often we write the music with whatever artist you're working with. In my case, I engineer, I mix it - sometimes I send it out to be mixed. As a producer you're wearing a lot of different hats. You have to figure out what can I do or do I need to bring this drummer in or I need to bring this flute player in or this is the correct bass player... Who are the best players to do this kind of thing.
One of the artists you have produced is the late jazz singer Nora York. How did your collaboration begin?
She's a friend of a friend and she somehow got it in her head that I was the right person to produce her next record, back in 2002. So she brought me to one of her shows at Joe's Pub and watched her, and I said "Ok, let's work on a record." She just approached me and asked me to work on her record, then it turned into a long, long collaboration that lasted the rest of her life.
I understand it was you who encouraged her to nurture her songwriting talent.
Yes! Because that's my prejudice - I'm a songwriter and a composer, so I like to hear something new. One of the things that Nora was so fantastic at was that she loved combining songs. She'd play a Jimi Hendrix song and she'd combine it with a jazz standard and the way the words would interact was fascinating to her. Sometimes she might mix three songs in a song and the audience wouldn't even be aware that she was playing three different songs. It might sound familiar but you don't realize that this is the bass line from I Can't Get No Satisfaction with the lyric from a Jimmy Van Heusen song. That was one of the things she had developed a lot with her style. But I also liked her original songs - on that first album we did it was probably half and half original vs cover, maybe a little more originals.
Did you spot her special gift for songwriting immediately?
Well she had a bunch of songs, so I encouraged her to do more. It's a better legacy to have your own songs. It means more. That's my opinion, it's better than singing other peoples' music.
Did she take you at your word or did you have to convince her?
No, she was definitely up for it.
In your point of view, what was it that made Nora York a unique and special artist?
Her voice was unbelievable, it was just incredible. She had an amazing spirit. She had a way, especially in her public appearances, of just being hilarious onstage without trying to be. She was able to put a whole way of putting what's now called a cabaret show together that was very interesting, combining songs, working poetry into the set, talking about politics. She was coming out of a jazz background so there would be a lot of solos in the band, and then she had this amazing instrument. Then she went on to do an extensive amount of teaching at NYU. She taught a lot of students all these kinds of things. We taught together the "cabaret" class there for about six or eight years. She sort of tried to teach all this stuff to these kids. How do you write a song that comes from you. How do you deliver someone else's song in a way that comes from you. How do you pick songs that mean something to you, or make it about you, or what your interests are. She was an amazing teacher
The new cd Swoon features some new songs by Nora York, that you have completed on her behalf, posthumously, right?
One of the songs we recorded for "What I Want" and it was never on the record. Some of the other songs we might have recorded for another project, then went on to another project. Nora would start a project and it would take her off in another direction, then we'd do a few songs in that way, and then we would be on to another project. After she died, I realized we had so many songs that are just sitting here that we never finished. I felt like it was great, I just needed to tighten up the drums or replay the piano, add another instrumental here, cut this shorter, do all those things that you do as a producer and arranger. And we have a very special record. One of the songs is actually a demo we did for another singer, we were pitching it and it never went anywhere. When I went back listened to it there's some AMAZING singing on this set. So we've got to put it out. It's me on the piano and Nora singing the song. It's an amazing cut.
I understand that Swoon also features some music listeners might already know, as well.
It starts out with the Elvis song "All Shook Up". Classic Nora interpretation of something that everyone knows so well but it sounds completely different. Then we do the Prince cover "Nothing Compares 2 U" - everything else is original songs.
I understand you sing as well, do you perform on the cd?
I'm playing piano, sometimes synthesizer, sometimes drums, sometimes all of the above.
Did you and Nora collaborate on the songwriting?
Maybe 2 of the other ones are all Nora, and the rest we did together.
Tell me a little about Jamie Broza and his music for children.
WELL! I have three children and at one point they were really little and super cute. I wrote song called "Bad Mood Mom" which was about my wife, who is a wonderful person, but she hates to cook, and when she starts to cook she tends to get in a bad mood. So I sat down one day and wrote a song called "Bad Mood Mom" and I went to my older son's kindergarten class and sang it. The kids went crazy and all went home singing it. So I ended up starting to write kids songs. When it came time to record them I didn't know who to get to sing them, so I ended up just singing them myself. It turned into a little sideline of mine while I was writing a lot of soap opera music. I put out three Jamie Broza cds. I didn't know how much I loved kids until I had kids and I love working with kids.
Does the Jamie Lawrence Sextet ever perform live?
I'd like it to but I haven't done it this year. That's a sadness of mine but I hope it will soon (Laugh).
Back to Nora York's cd, Swoon: what's the perfect occasion to turn on this cd?
Definitely when you get in your car to go anywhere. It's a beautiful record to put on when you're in the house, doing the dishes, at a cocktail party. I think it's a very easy listen. Easy on the ears. Nora's voice is captivating.
When an artist like Nora York dies so young, leaving behind unheard music, what is the emotional journey like for a collaborator wishing to honor them and their work?
I talked to her husband, Jerry, who was devastated and I found the time, went back in there and found it very pleasant to work with her because when I have her voice up on my speakers it sounded like she was in the room with me. I'm a very audio person, so it was a wonderful experience. That part was all pleasant. I am deeply committed to getting these songs out.
It's going to be an evening of incredible Nora York songs sung by young talent that most people have never seen but you'll be hearing a lot of in the future.