BWW Interviews: Grammy-Winning Singer/Songwriter Melissa Manchester Comes to Feinstein's This Weekend
Melissa Manchester's career is remarkable not only for its longevity and accomplishments, but for its versatility. Following her stint as a founding member of Bette Midler's Harlettes, she established herself as a solo artist with Top 10 hits like "Midnight Blue," the GRAMMY-nominated "Don't Cry Out Loud" and the GRAMMY-winning "You Should Hear How She Talks About You." Her songs have been tapped by motion pictures, netting her two Oscar nominations, and recorded by such artists as Barbra Streisand, Dusty Springfield, Alison Krauss and Roberta Flack. Manchester has appeared on both the large screen in movies (For The Boys) and small screen in television (Blossom), as well as the stage.
She is an honorary artist in residence at Citrus College, where she recorded the new album. Manchester also teaches at the University of Southern California's Thornton School of Music. In fact, her students at USC inspired her to consider taking an independent route with You Gotta Love the Life. Manchester financed the album with an Indiegogo campaign and is contributing a portion of the proceeds to Barry Manilow's The Manilow Music Project, which benefits school music programs.
BROADWAYWORLD SF's Linda Hodges was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to interview Melissa Manchester before her performance here at Feinstein's at the Nikko, for two nights only July 10-11. Follow the link and get your tickets, then dig into this interview with the wonderfully talented, Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Melissa Manchester. She talks about her new album, the SCOTUS decision and her new Broadway musical, "Sweet Potato Queens: The Musical."
LINDA: Hi, Melissa. Welcome to BroadwayWorld San Francisco! Thank you for making some space in your amazingly busy schedule to talk with us. You must be flying high with the success of your new album "You Gotta Love the Life." It was crowd-funded on Indiegogo.com which was something new for you. Can you tell us a little bit about that experience?
MELISSA: I was introduced to the world of crowd-funding by my students at USC where I am an adjunct professor at the Thornton School of Music. They would come in to class with their CDs all pressed and professional-looking. I asked them how they got their music recorded and they explained to me the fascinating world of crowd-funding. Although it creates a new paradigm for me, it is simply my students' version of normal. One of my students became my campaign manager. It was also interesting to have your fans be part of your journey by actually contributing to it.
LINDA: "You Gotta Love the Life" is on permanent rotation on my playlist. It's a glorious and melodic tune about the ups and downs of showbiz to be sure.
MELISSA: Thank you, Linda. I am so glad YGLTL resonates with you. I wanted to write a song to add to the short list of songs about showbiz, but from my point of view. I wanted to write about the grit, the grind and the joy of the journey which has been my experience.
LINDA: It definitely does that. What message do you think that people who aren't in "the business" can take away from the song? (As an aside: I think the overarching metaphor speaks to a broad audience. It's the second half of Joseph Campbell's famous quote, "Follow Your Bliss." It's not all wine and roses and that's what speaks to me about "You Gotta Love the Life.")
MELISSA: I would hope that anyone who loves what they do, and is lucky enough to do that for a living, feels the hunger, understands the sacrifice, the insecurity and the passion that is the driving force. Even if that doesn't describe you, it's a great song for walking on the treadmill. P.S. Joseph Campbell was a giant! Thank you for citing him.
LINDA: It was exciting to see that You Gotta Love the Life was released on February 10, 2015, and hit #17 on the Billboard Magazine Jazz Albums chart for the week of February 28, 2015! That must have been a great feeling.
MELISSA: Yes, it's very gratifying to see your music climb the charts. We just released the single "Big Light," a duet I sing with my extraordinary friend Al Jarreau, and it is climbing in the Smooth Jazz world as well. It makes me happy that my music connects with people.
LINDA: You're also connecting in a big way with "Feelin' for You," which hit #2 on the Smooth Jazz charts! Can you tell us the genesis of that song?
MELISSA: "Feelin' For You" is a song I wrote with Sara Niemietz. It was produced by my dear friend, Keb' Mo'. The song was inspired from an encounter I'd had while in the Mississippi Delta, doing some research at a juke joint. I was effectively propositioned by a guy who was completely wasted. When he asked if I was married, and I told him I was, he replied, "That's too bad, 'cuz I got a feelin' for you." I can recognize a great title from a mile away.
LINDA: Oh, absolutely a great title. And the vibe definitely evokes a Mississippi Delta juke joint. Melissa, you did a TedXRiverside talk in December of last year. What was that experience like for you?
MELISSA: I was honored to be asked to give a TEDx talk. I spoke about what I know which is the process of writing and how mysterious it is. The title of the talk is "The Sonic Thermal." You're not allowed to use notes and you need to speak for 18 minutes. It took some mental muscle to organize my thoughts but it turned out to be big fun.
LINDA: You looked like you were having fun! In that talk, which can be seen on Youtube, you shared that 12-time Grammy winner Paul Simon was a teacher of yours in an extraordinary music class he taught at New York University. I love the wisdom he shared with you: "All the stories have been told. It's the way you tell your story that is your stamp of authenticity." What would you say is your signature stamp of authenticity in music and in life?
MELISSA: It's an intriguing question to try to answer. I try to capture moments in my songs where clarity has happened or is about to happen. Songs reflect chapters in my life. They're vehicles for my heart - for my soul - to sing.
LINDA: Another chapter, or perhaps ongoing theme in your life is your work in the area of social justice. You must have been thrilled with the June 27, Supreme Court Decision on gay marriage. That decision is the kind of "Big Light" that you and Al Jarreau sing about. How did that duet come about?
MELISSA: I wrote "Big Light" with John Proulx who is such a great pianist. My percussionist, the fabulous Lenny Castro, was playing on an Al Jarreau session. (This was while we were recording my album at the same time.) Lenny called me to say Al wanted to talk to me. Al got on the phone and said, "I hear you're making a record. Can I sing on it?" When I thought of what song would suit Al, it instantly came to mind that "Big Light" was his. Al has such a sweet, optimistic spirit. We recorded it, we hugged, we cried. And yes, in this moment with SCOTUS and the equal rights for marriage now the law of the land, I would say, "A Big Light is gonna turn this world around!" But actually, the song "You Are My Heart" was written as a wedding song for my two friends, Steve and Bill, who married last year. I was pleased to have sung it at their wedding.
LINDA: Did we ever think we'd see the day? And now it's here and you were a part of it from the beginning. Melissa, you are an inspiration to many, so I have to ask, how does inspiration come to you? Is it different for each style of music you compose?
MELISSA: Inspiration comes in different ways. I'm very big on eavesdropping. I hear rhythms and melodies in how people talk to each other and it sparks something in me. When I'm sitting with a collaborator, I start to hear music come out of our conversations. If I am writing for theatre, however, I am listening for a motif that will reflect the soul of a character as it will be referenced during the show and must never sound like any other character.
LINDA: When you're working on a song that you know in your heart is coming from an "eyebrows up" place - a term you explain in your TEDx talk -- what's your process from getting to the "heart down," soul deep place?
MELISSA: You have to keep out of the way for the truth to show up. I can feel it when it does but it is impossible to effectively describe. I came close in the TEDx talk.
LINDA: Yes, you definitely ride that Sonic Thermal. BWW SF fans, go watch it on YouTube - but only after the rest of this interview! Melissa, let's talk musicals since this is a Broadway audience. "Sweet Potato Queens: The Musical" is your latest theatrical project. Can you tell us what it's about?
MELISSA: People ask me all the time what's it about and I'll be damned if there's an easy way to answer it. There are however A LOT of sequins involved. It's inspired by the life and writings of Jill Conner Browne so it's thrilling and life affirming. It's about dreaming beyond the daily "dreck" of life in a huge way. The bums get tossed, the girls becomes boss and we leave the audience singing Jill's central philosophy which is, "Do what makes your heart sing."
LINDA: Words to live by for sure. And you're working with two top talents: Oscar nominee and Nashville Hall of Fame inductee Sharon Vaughn who wrote the lyrics to your music and Tony Award winning playwright Rupert Holmes (The Mystery of Edwin Drood) who wrote the book. I think the three of you are going to redefine the term "Triple Threat" for Broadway! Holmes has been around theatre for a very long time now with multiple shows to his credit. And Vaughn is amazing. What is it like to work with them?
MELISSA: I am thrilled to be working with Rupert Holmes and Sharon Vaughn on "Sweet Potato Queens: THE MUSICAL." Rupert understands "the bricks," the construction and pacing of plot, exposition and these crazy devices he concocts. It's wondrous! Sharon is fiercely funny and a brilliant lyricist. I am in grand company.
LINDA: I'm absolutely positive that the feeling is mutual. TUTS - Theatre Under the Stars - staged a reading of the show in March of this year. What was that process like for you? Are you still in rewrites? And when will rehearsals start?
MELISSA: The reading for SPQ at TUTS was mind-blowing. There was a 29-hour rehearsal period. The performance was on a bare stage with all actors wearing black. There was not a relative in the audience to sway a reaction. The lovely actors were singing the songs, saying the lines, and the audience giggled and cheered. Characters that had lived in our minds and on pages were suddenly brought to life in a beautiful theatre. Bliss! We are returning to TUTS in August for notes and to begin re-writes. The full production opens in March of 2016.
LINDA: BWW can't wait to hear more about Sweet Potato Queens: The Musical, so hopefully we'll be talking to you again in March! The bliss of having your work come to life is what makes the "grit and the grind" bearable. Like you wrote, "You Gotta Love the Life."
Melissa, elsewhere you've talked about the bridge of a song as the section that wraps up what the whole song is about. If you were to write a bridge for your life, what would it be?
MELISSA: That is such a lovely question. Indeed, I think the bridge is either to wrap up what a song is about or to introduce one last bit of information. If I were writing a bridge for my life, I believe, in this moment, I may build upon the following idea: "Waking up is easy. Staying awake is the motherlode."
LINDA: That's the work of a lifetime and your career shows that you've worked at staying awake for a very long time now, gracing us with magic and music that continues to inform our lives. I can't thank you enough for doing this interview for Broadway World San Francisco fans. We love you in the bay area!
MELISSA: Thank you, Linda. Please let my fans in the Bay Area know that I love them back! MM