BWW Interview: Karen Oberlin of BAD LOVE: THE RANDY NEWMAN SONGBOOK at The Birdland Theater
When it comes to her work in cabaret, Karen Oberlin does not mess around. With a fan base on two continents, Ms. Oberlin is continually booking dates in clubs, frequently with shows of completely different themes; and when not engaged in performing her own shows, Oberlin can be found lending her voice to group shows, sharing the stage with colleagues who have a developed a healthy respect and admiration for the down-to-earth elegance, informed eloquence, and professionalism that she brings to every new show that she does. In December, fresh off of a sold-out Christmas show at The Beach Cafe, the award winner announced a February show at The Birdland Theater and a performance in March that would put her back at The Beach. Clearly, Karen Oberlin won't be slowing down any time soon, and the cabaret community, fans, and fellow artists alike, wouldn't have it any other way. As Karen entered the final rehearsal days for her February 16th opening, she was kind enough to take a call from me to talk about music, motherhood, and misogyny in the ever-changing life of a musical storyteller.
This interview has been edited for space and content.
Karen, I'm looking at my calendar and I see who you are doing a show on February 16th in one club and a show on March 13th in another club.
That's right. I get around.
You are so busy. How do you do it?
Oh, I don't know. I think a lot of us are busy doing all sorts of things and these are both shows that I haven't done in a while, but I've done before. If they were brand new shows each month I think it would be impossible.
When you're revisiting a show that you've done, but it's been a while, how do you prepare for that? How do you brush up on it?
I go back to all the charts and the patter and my list. I do a deep dive into the biographies, in this case, Randy Newman, for the February show; I just refamiliarize myself, steep myself in his life and his work, that kind of thing because it has to be everything involved. I need to have him, his songs, his life in my head for the show, rather than just going back and re memorizing things.
I'm glad you asked that because very often in my shows, I like to choose a subject or a songbook that isn't well-represented or people don't have the whole story. I had a show of Elvis Costello songs because he has all these modern standards. He has Brodsky string quartet songs. He has all of this material that people don't know about. They think it's ended with "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding". So the same thing with Randy. I think that there's such a rich body of work that hasn't been represented as it should be, such beautiful, heartbreaking ballads, you know, sort of hilarious songs, sad songs, beautiful instrumental pieces that you'll hear Ian Hermann play because I didn't want to leave that out... from his film scores. He has lots of beautiful instrumental work. Obviously it's from my point of view but I like, the breadth of an artist, to bring forward what makes him special, unique, and bring forward the real story: that Randy Newman didn't just write "Short People." He's in the songwriters' hall of fame, the rock and roll hall of fame, he's won two Oscars and he was nominated for one this year, he's won six Grammys, three Emmys. And people really don't know his work. That to me is exciting. It feels like an opportunity to bring his work to light.
You have a number of shows, you also do a Doris Day tribute show. If somebody were to call you up and say, "Hey, I've got a spot opening for a club act," how many shows do you have from which you could offer them a choice?
Depends on how much time I have to prepare. But in my many, many years of doing this, I would say around 20 shows. The ones that I would readily pull up, maybe seven or eight that I would think would be, depending on the club. The show that I'm doing in March is "I'll Be Hard to Handle: Songs of Daring Dames. That is a variation of a show I did many years ago. It was at Steve McGraw's and then at Feinstein's. So it's Women's History Month and Dave Goodside wanted to represent Women's History Month and it seemed like the right show to put there, and I've always wanted to bring it back in the wake of the me-too movement. Gloria Steinem came to my opening night, that was pretty exciting. So this is something I've wanted to bring back for a long time. And the Randy Newman one, I'm definitely not ready to let go of that one. The work is very personal and beautiful and special and I just really connect with that songbook like I did with Doris Day. I definitely connect very deeply with her work as well. I also think that people think she's all about "Que Sera Sera" and she's so much more than that. She was a jazz singer. She was one of our great singers and actors, but I focus more on her singing in the show and she's had a fascinating life, so that makes great show material as well.
I find that people, once they've been exposed to one aspect of you, they want to put you in a box.
How have you found that to be part of your life in show business?
Yeah, I think I have. Previous to my Elvis Costello and Randy Newman shows, and even before, I think I was. When I would get my New York Times reviews, lucky me, I would be categorized as a gentle, demure sort of old fashioned-ish cabaret singer. And there is nothing wrong with that, because that is a big part of what I love and I love to do, but it is by far not the whole picture. So I really wanted to break out of that and branch out, show the different sides of what excites me and interests me in what we do
Don't you find that duality is an interesting thing about being a person and being an artist?
Yes. Perfectly put; and people don't want to accept that, right? They want to simplify - it's comforting. Or they want quick, easy answers. Life is sort of distracting and people just want to kind of say "Okay, that's that and I can move on now." But nothing is that simple, right?
No, it's truly not.
Nothing at all.
Speaking of duality, as you just said, people sometimes think of you as demure and you've got your Doris Day show, but here's this wonderful title: Songs Of Daring Dames. What do you think makes a Dame daring?
There are songs by daring Dames, written by daring Dames, about daring Dames, it covers a lot of territory -- and it depends on what they're in, right? So Loretta Lynn -- I sing two songs by Loretta Lynn, one being "The Pill" about being on birth control pills, which was banned from the radio in many places in the country. To me, she thought that is what women need, they want to not have to constantly give birth at home and be limited in that way. They should have a choice about being a parent. So that definitely qualifies in my book, but there are all sorts of different ways that women can be daring, or even women in the music world, writing songs. "You Don't Own Me" was a very daring song to sing in 1963 when the same year that "Wives and Lovers" was being written about, you know, "women, you better look good for your husbands or it'll be your fault if they wander or leave you." And then there's this song by the next generation that says "You Don't Own Me" -- that's really brave. So I think we have to look at the context, sort of the culture at the time, too, without getting too theoretical. (Laughing) But it's important to sort of show what made that specific thing daring -- about what they did or what the song is about
Listening to you talk about Loretta Lynn and "The Pill" in the 70s conjures up images of the last several decades of the double standard against women -- all of that mess recently with people saying that Jennifer Lopez and Shakira were too provocative at the Super Bowl. Why do you think it is that women are still having to fight to get out from under the oppression of double standards?
I think that we've come a long way, but there's still a long way to go. And I think anybody who says that that's not true isn't being honest with themselves or isn't paying attention. If I might be so bold to say that.
It's not like a few important things are going to happen and then it's all over. I think that bit by bit, maybe we can... if somebody's saying that they shouldn't have done what they did, what about the Super Bowl where Adam Levine took his shirt off, with all his tattoos last year, two years ago -- no one seemed to mind that. I think at least it opens a discourse and we can talk about it, and maybe sing about it.
In your time in the business, have you experienced that kind of judgment?
Yeah. I don't know a woman, certainly my age, or maybe any woman who hasn't experienced some of the predisposed ideas. Maybe that's a little bit of what I was responding to when I was breaking out of my own box -- just saying, you know, don't fence me in. (Laughing)
You just mentioned your age. You've obviously been in the business for a while. Have you seen the cabaret industry change since you first started singing in clubs?
I have. There's a part of it that stays the same part that I really love, where we have this intimate community that supports each other, that's filled with fascinating creative people doing all sorts of fascinating creative things. But it has evolved with more contemporary music, which I actually think is important because the songbook needs to be evolving. That's what I believe about Randy Newman's contributions or other recent contributions -- that the songbook has to have Cole Porter at the heart of it. But also, there's a lot of songs still being written, we're still telling stories through songs and that's what we do, right? So communicating to an audience, being part of it, bringing them in, telling those stories and it's still happening thankfully,
You have just mentioned the tight-knit community that the cabaret world has. And it reminded me that I see you out at people's shows a lot. What kind of feeling does it instill in you, knowing that you are one of the leaders in cabaret and you are supporting their craft?
It's so important, I think. A part of me believes that we need to open it up to new faces and new people and strangers and taking our shows out of New York Times, The Daily News, The Post -- in the past 10 years it has been really difficult to kind of bring in people from the outside. I love the work that people are doing, it's inspiring and I want to show my support. (Laughing) My son is 16 and when he was younger, even a few years ago, it just wasn't possible for me to see as much as I see now. It's wonderful to support great work. I saw, the other night at The Beach Cafe, incredible work, great creative work, beautiful singing, smart, fascinating, showing personal elements of himself, but there wasn't a moment of indulgent anything -- it was new, it was fresh, everything that I think our community should be -- that was Ari Axelrod, by the way.
You are, literally, just days away from opening up at the Birdland with the Randy Newman show. How are you feeling?
I feel good. I'm really happy to return to this material. You know, he doesn't shy away from politics and that is just what it is, or difficult stories -- he jumps right in. And I think it's maybe a little bit of a panacea for me, hopefully for the audience (Laughing) right now, as we're underneath all of this burden of the difficult political climate. So it just feels like the right thing to do right now. It feels great. It's an amazing songbook. I'm floored by how brilliant he is and his songs are.
What do you have to say for all of your fans that are greedy for a new Karen Oberlin CD?
I have so many ideas that I'd like to bring forward. I think within the next year or two, my thought is I've done so many shows since my last cd with Sean Harkness. I'd like to take particular songs from a variety of shows that have moved me, that I want to share and make sort of compilation cd, maybe in the next year or two. And do people still listen to CDs? I hope so.
They listen to them after fashion. Some people have gone back to vinyl. People are buying vinyl again and buying CDs. The younger people are all listening to streaming.
I am on some streaming services, thank goodness. At shows, it's great to have CDs. People buy it just to have a tangible something to take home with them, something maybe signed, that kind of thing. When I play in London, people definitely want that kind of thing. Uh, but you know, they are of a certain age probably, uh, the people who are still buying CDs. We need to evolve there too, right? So as a community, I thought, why don't we have cards that we sell with a download of our songs or our CDs -- sign that for people at shows and then they can go home. They can either buy a CD or take one of these cards home with them, so it's something tangible, but then they don't have to actually have a CD drive in their computer, which most people don't have anymore. I think we should evolve in that way.
So your 16-year-old, any musical interest, are you guys going to be doing duets anytime soon?
Actually we have! My last show at Birdland Theater was the Doris Day show and he sang a duet with me. I did the same show in London a few months before that and he sang a duet with me there, and he's a Junior at LaGuardia High School as a vocal student in the vocal studio music studios. So... Apple/tree, you know... (Laughing)
I see a duo CD on the horizon.
Maybe (Laughing) you know, I'm lucky to have him in our family so I should make good use of it. (Laughing)
Yeah. Start that college fund early.
(Laughing) Exactly. It's not early anymore, let me tell you! He's been looking at colleges so let me tell you - it flies by so quickly.
Photos by Takako Suzuki Harkness