BWW Interview: MARE WINNINGHAM at The Cafe Carlyle
Mare Winningham. Say the name and people sigh and say "I love her." Considered one of the great actresses of the 80s and 90s, the twice Emmy bestowed Winningham defined true craftsmanship for a generation of people who watched her artistry flourish on screens big and small. While other actors of the era faded into the background or flamed bright, then flamed out, Mare Winningham continued to work, proving that an actor in Hollywood can have longevity and a happy family life, out of the spotlight, raising their family. With an Oscar nomination for Georgia and a Tony nomination for Casa Valentina, and an ongoing roster of new roles, Mare Winningham continues to create art, and lately, her artistry has a decidedly musical focus. In 2018 Winningham played the prestigious Public Theater of New York in the musical The Girl From The North Country, a musical so successful it will open on Broadway in a few months. While awaiting her return to The Great White Way, Ms. Winningham accepted an invitation to sing at Manhattan's legendary nightclub The Cafe Carlyle.
Yes, Mare Winningham is singing in a club. Because Mare Winningham has four CDs. Surprise! Many do not know that the actor's actor loved music long before she spoke lines on camera; and in 1991 released her first cd, What Might Be. Other CDs followed in 1997, 2007, and 2014. Now the self-described "living room singer" brings her unique sound to the most elegant living room she has ever played, and the fans will be lining up to see their idol live.
Before beginning the exciting chapter of cabaret crooning, Ms. Winningham gave me a phone call to talk about her music, family sing-alongs, and a little movie from 1985 starring a memorable pack of young actors.
This interview has been edited for space and content.
Mare, you are making your Cafe Carlyle debut next week!
Yes! The 29th through November 2nd, yes.
Even though it's your Carlyle debut, you actually play out quite often, don't you?
Well, no I wouldn't say that. I play in living rooms quite often. (Laugh) And I've had shows over the last 35 or 40 years, but very sporadic. So I don't really play often. When I have a record coming out, I've had four, I'll do a little tour, but there can be big breaks between live shows.
In what city have you found the biggest fan base for your music?
In the last ten years New York because I was doing a musical here, two musicals, and that sort of, I guess, alerted people that I do do that -- 'cause otherwise I pretty much fly under the radar. So the phase where I was playing in the south because my backup band and producer are from Arkansas, so I had run there for a while. So, I guess New York.
But you sing your own original compositions.
Well, it's a combination of, first of all, I do feel like I'm an enigma for the Carlyle - I was surprised to be asked 'cause it is a cabaret club. But I'm a country-folk musician, so I will be playing half of my own stuff and half of some good old-fashioned folk tunes and some country tunes. I guess that I saw that Judy Collins plays there every year and I figured OK, even though I know she does some Sondheim, she also is a folk artist. And it is a beautiful room for folk music, so I couldn't say no! (Laugh)
I remember when your first CD came out, What Might be...
I remember people were shocked and amazed that Mare Winningham, the serious actress, was also a rocker.
(Laugh) It was a long time ago when that record came out! I haven't sung those songs in a long time but I'm going to do about six of them at the Carlyle! It was fun to kind of go back and revisit them.
What was your experience at the time, showing this new side of yourself to your huge fan base?
(Laugh) Well... first of all, I love your praises, (Laugh) it's very generous (Laugh). It's a fan base which, I think, is pretty particular and small, but I did have, at the same time that I released "What Might Be," I was working on this film "Georgia" where the character that I was playing was supposed to be this well-known country-rock singer. So that helped with the promotion. And I had a run there, in the Bay area, I was kind of an opening act for a lot of amazing songwriters. Everyone from Richard Thompson and Marshall Crenshaw, The Roches, and I had a really good run where I did my twenty minutes or twenty-five minutes before some spectacular people. So that kind of put me on the radar. You know that record didn't really do anything (Laugh) for me. Whenever I hear of anyone who heard it (Laugh)... You know, I had been playing all of my life, from Middle School on, so that record was a big deal for me. But I financed it, and I didn't have a record label initially, and then a tiny little label put it out, and then that label folded. The whole thing was maybe what you would call a vanity project but I just really wanted to make a record! (Laugh) So I did.
I'm one of the people who bought that record when it came out.
That's crazy, Stephen! (Laugh)
I played it ALL the time, I LOVE that record. The sound you created on it was amazing.
(Laughing) I'm just surprised and delighted that you ever heard that. That's cool.
And your music is extremely original, drawing from rock, country and your Jewish faith - from where do you draw inspiration when you are songwriting?
I have a folk background, which I think my mom and dad gave me with their choice of records, and I never moved out of that. I think if you wait long enough things swing back around (Laugh). So many of the wonderful folk artists and country artists that I was listening to when I was a kid... Did you see this Ken Burns country music documentary?
I haven't seen it but it's on my list.
Those of us who have seen it get a little bit obsessed about it because you get sucked into this beautiful tunnel of love and it reminded me of all the things that I loved about the music that I listened to when I was little... early country and folk from the sixties, which often crossed over into one another. So I think with my writing I think that I'm musically inspired by those early folk records and country records and, as they say in that special, three cords from the truth is about what it is for me. I really love that it's swinging back around again. I guess it never left for many people but in the 80's it was not that popular. That's how I ended up being a living room artist. It wasn't that cool to be folky in the 80s... or the 90s for that matter. (Laugh).
Well, it is now.
I've heard it said that writers should write every day. Do you?
I do not. I am grateful for these shows because it's making me play every day, which, sometimes you need a little kick in the pants, 'cause my guitar and my dulcimer are always out in the living room. I play often but there's nothing like knowing you've got five nights of gigs coming up, to play every day. That actually is what was helpful with "Girl From The North Country." First of all, just to be living with these Dylan songs on a daily basis, on a nightly basis, was REALLY special, and something that I can't wait to start up again. I'm never tired of singing them with the group - it reminded me of what I loved about singing so much in High School, singing with other people in choirs, and in musicals. It was a huge part of my life last year and I can't wait for it to come back in January and start all over again. That's probably what's making me play more and write more. I had a very long dry spell that my son kind of helped me out with 'cause he, one day, delivered these fifty, sixty, seventy poems to me and I was able to find music again and write to his lyrics. But I haven't really written a lot to my own and it's doing the musical that got those engines going again. It was really nice.
Are you playing any instruments in the show?
I will play guitar and dulcimer and a little piano.
I read you play the drums, too.
No, I don't know where that ... You read that somewhere?
I read that in a couple of places, so somebody on Wikipedia and IMDB needs to check their facts.
(Laughing) Yeah, YEAH! I would say I'm one of the more uncoordinated people you will ever meet, so the drums is WAY outside my wheelhouse. I used to look at Luba Mason who had to take up the drums for "Girl From the North Country" and I would just shake my head and say "Luba, there's just no way I could do that", she'd say "Of course you could, I was the same way." I"m like "NO, no... (Laugh) You have something going on inside you that can keep a beat." But, no, I depend on other musicians for that.
The cover art for your CDs is always interesting. How do you decide what to put on your records?
Oh, there's too much angst that goes into it! I worry, worry, worry, and then I end up not liking any of it. (Laugh) I would say... maybe you also feel this way, that cover art is such a beautiful part of memories of listening to records, and the effects that cover art had on me, with my favorite albums. It was considerable. I think I just get really obsessive about it and then it becomes overwhelming. My favorite one is actually my most recent one of my album I did of my son's stuff, called "What's Left Behind," only because it's a photograph. I never tire of looking at it 'cause it's my Grandmother and my daughter on a front porch. The earlier ones... the fetal one, I wonder why I chose that color; and then the drawing one for "Lonesomers" - that's really nice, although I don't know if it speaks to what the album is like. And then "Refuge Rock Sublime" which is the "Jewgrass" record, that one is fine but it seems slightly ... I don't know, (Laugh) maybe that one is alright! (Laugh)
Ok, you and I are about the same age... what are some of the record covers, looking back at your youth, that you remember really being drawn to?
Wow, almost always they are photographs. I loved "Blood on the Tracks" - that photograph of Dylan. But I also loved all of Joni's drawings. "Court and Spark" is amazing with those pastels, that orangey color. "Sweetheart of the Rodeo" with that kind of folk art look on it. But you know what? At some point, maybe you feel this way, these are all albums that I love, so am I loving the cover art because I love the album so much? Or maybe there's a little bit of that...
I think it's a little bit of both because the albums we loved when we were young stay with us forever.
Yeah! Just seeing the covers just fills me with love. Graceland, too! Which is also really simple.
Some years ago I was watching a TV game show and there was a trivia question asked about which actress had appeared in the most TV movies - people guessed Jaclyn Smith, Lindsay Wagner, and Joan Collins, but the answer was Mare Winningham.
Yeah! (Laugh) I heard I might have that!
You were aware that you held this distinction?
(Laugh) I fly my freak flag proudly! That is QUITE a distinction! I lost count... I think there's, like, sixty or something, I don't know. I mean there was a phase.. Remember, if we are kind of... I think I'm older than you but... there was a phase in the 80s when I was doing two or three a year... this was when there was a big separation between movies and television. And movie stars did NOT fit into television, it was seen as being beneath... it was not well regarded. So I really had a run there when I just had my pick of some GREAT writing! You know? And then, I don't remember who broke it first, whether it was Vanessa Redgrave or Glenn Close or Jane Fonda, but the three of them, around the same time, did some kind of television work, really notable. I think Jane's was The Dollmaker, and Vanessa Redgrave was Playing For Time, and then Glenn Close - I think Glenn Close might've been first, and hers was, like, Sarah Plain and Tall, something very wheat oriented. And I thought "Oh, here it goes" and once that happened, then... And it 's better! Right? Obviously, now television can compete with the movie world, maybe even more so, with good roles, especially for women. But then it was very segregated, and that was how I took it and ran with it.
You've done some really respected work on the New York stage, including two musicals and a Tony-nominated turn in Casa Valentina! When will we see you in a Broadway musical?
You'll see me in February! With "Girl From the North Country" which comes to The Belasco starting on February 7th.
Sweet! I had not heard this yet! I can't wait.
It's such a perfect theater for our show, we're all reuniting and we just can't wait to get back into the rehearsal room with Conor McPherson. It's going to be a lovefest.
Why did you choose Here There and Everywhere for The Gong Show?
(Laugh) Good one! Because I was a huge Emmylou Harris fan! So I was totally copying her. She did a great cover of Here There and Everywhere that was so moving and so emotional. So... The goal in that whole experience, cause I was 16 or 17, was to win the five hundred dollars 'cause I wanted to go to this arts camp that I not going to be able to go to if I didn't figure out how to get the money. So a friend of mine came up with this idea, he said "You have to be someone that everyone feels sorry for, you have to pull off a character where you are so pitiable that the response should be that people will pick up their gongs and laugh at you... and then you have to sing whatever you want to sing very emotionally and heartfelt" and that's why I thought of that cover of Emmylou's 'cause it was just such a tearjerker. And it worked! I got my five hundred bucks!
While you were raising your kids did you have family sing-a-longs in the car and around the house?
Yeah, especially when... my kids have influenced my musical tastes, they kept me current throughout the 90s. We lived in the woods for a good ten to fifteen years, and we were out there where there was no television, there wasn't a telephone, so music was huge. And the record player always worked. They laughed in my face when I very much wanted to find a way for all of us to make music together but that was not in the cards (Laugh). That wasn't going to happen! My daughter is a great singer-songwriter and my son is a spectacular lyricist. He is a deep, poetic soul, so his lyrics are very beautiful. They get me going. So I have realized the dream of making music with my kids, it's just not the way... I had some sort of vision of being on the stage with them.
What a nice creation, to write songs with your kids.
So nice, much better than performing them even. It's really special. And they write together which I also.. I can well up just thinking about how satisfying it is, as a parent, to see your kids make music together. It's just the best!
Around the popularity of the legendary 80s film St. Elmo's Fire...
...the cast was given the name The Brat Pack - but those other actors were younger than you, and you were already a wife and mother. Did it make you laugh, being included in that so nicknamed group of actors?
Yeah, it seemed a little silly, but at the time it was very much attached to their skyrocketing fame. And there was a part of me that was very nervous for everyone because THEY seemed very nervous. They would say "this is too fast" and I do have a very strange solid feeling of, I guess because I came from television, and I had done all these tv movies, and I was making a living and I was seeing it more as "wow, I have won the lottery - I get to hang out with my family and raise a big family and live off the grid, and still, I'm working constantly." So it was a funny moment but I also thought that the group was really talented. It was a LOT to come at them. They were the cover of Rolling Stone, which had all of them except me. And I know that people might have felt sorry for me, or thought that I would have a rough time with that, but I kind of felt like "this is alright." I wouldn't wish that kind of stress on a young person, it was nice to kind of dodge that.
You got the best of both worlds.
I think I DID! If I hadn't had the kind of creative power... I had choices! I really did choose the tv movies that I wanted to do, and a lot of it was about what fit with my family, cause I just kept making kids, and I wanted to work but it was great to get a script and say "where does this shoot, and can we all go there?" So it was like a decade of a lot of, lot of fun and St. Elmo's Fire was right in the middle of that. And it was unusual for me to be doing a film - I didn't do them very often. I think that film... it still amazes me how popular it was.
You're a California girl, but you do quite a lot of work here in Manhattan. What are your favorite things about these two places where you spend your time?
Since I moved to New York ten years ago, maybe a little longer, there's no looking back! I'm a New Yorker! And I wouldn't want to live anywhere else! Everything that I love, with the exception of my sweetheart, is on the West Coast, I mean family-wise. My grandkids, my kids, my parents, on the West Coast. So we go there a lot, and my parents are still in my childhood home and they're in their nineties, so it's someplace I know I'm going to go to, but I'm not nostalgic about it. The only reason I go is because all of those loved ones are there. Los Angeles doesn't pull me. Just as soon as I land in New York I'm happy. I realized when I moved here, I'm happy. I find this city endlessly inspiring. I'm just happy here.
My favorite trip is the one that brings me from the airport back to my apartment.
Right?! Everything about it, the air, the city... to walk out on the street and walk home, it's like an adventure. I totally get the obsession with Central Park, I can now see why, once one has lived near it and utilized it, it's hard to imagine living without it.
What excites you most about playing The Carlyle?
I think it's the beauty of the room. It's almost like a fantasy, and since I love to play in living rooms and that's where I'm most comfortable, it seems like a place in New York that's the most elegant and beautiful living room you could ever imagine. And I think I'm also really curious about doing five shows in a row, not having done that. I've done tours but that was years ago. It will be... Sometimes when you do like Joe's Pub one night, Barrow Street one night, the pitch of the anxiety is really severe. And as soon as it's over there's this huge sense of relief and I'm thinking "Why am I relieved? There's too much stress!" Five nights in a row sounds like a dream come true.
For information on The Girl From The North Country visit their Website
Follow Mare Winningham on Twitter @mare_winningham and Instagram @marewinningham