Tell our readers about your upcoming concert in Chicago and then the concert in New York. Are you featuring songs from your latest album? Is there a theme?
MB: I’m excited about bringing my songs to Chicago! It’s where I went to school in every sense of the word. I was a music composition major at Northwestern, though as a musical theatre geek I was kind of a misfit. I wrote songs for the WAA-MU show each year; in fact, Joanie Winter, my special guest at Davenport’s, performed one of my earliest songs in that show! I also scored a theatre production of “Finnegan’s Wake” that starred Peter Strauss, and co-wrote a musical revue that ran off-campus. But my real education, once I graduated, was playing in various clubs around town. As Al, my agent, loved to say, “They’re terlets. Some have décor and some don’t, but they’re all terlets.” In those days, we’d play five nights a week, six hours a night, seven hours on Saturdays. You learn a lot about how to write a song if you play a few hundred of them every week! And you learn a lot about audiences too.
In New York, the Birdland Theatre has been beckoning to me since Jim Caruso gave us a guided tour just before it opened. It’s the kind of intimate space where you can put your arms around everyone in the room. And they have a great piano!! I’m calling this series of shows “Love Notes” because I so love making music, and because every song is a kind of love letter. I debuted the show in London in June. It includes several songs from my cd “The Price of Love” as well as some newer songs – one that I wrote with Adryan Russ called “She Has Wings” and one with lyrics by Hillary Rollins called “My Daughters”. Plus several that I co-wrote with my dearest friend Amanda McBroom.
Upon listening to The Price of Love, I have concluded that your style is so infectious, one can listen to the songs over and over and learn something new each time.You are positive about relationships and love, letting go and looking ahead, content, if not with the man, then with the music creation that results. The music cleanses your soul. You talk about memories. Are they from your life or imagined or a mixture of both?
MB: I mostly compose to a lyric, and that lyric tells me how it wants to be sung. And though I’m pretty sure I have a musical “signature,” I feel like the style can – and should – shift, depending on the emotions, the energetic, the tone of the lyric, the story.
I love what you said about being “Positive about love” – I think I am. Finally. I wasn’t always.That line in “My Favorite Year” - “After all the loves I’ve lived through all these years…” that’s’ pretty much autobiographical.
And memories? They’re probably enhanced, filtered, photo-shopped.
By the way, Michael Feinstein, whose recording really launched that song, recently shared a new video of it - just him and a piano. So personal and beautiful!
What is Karen Gottlieb trying to convey in "Indian Boy"? It seems different from the others on the album. What is its substance?
MB: Indian Boy” was a gentleman I met while playing a gig in a dusty desert outpost near Mohave. A film crew was shooting a movie there for a month; I got hired to entertain them every weekend. And every weekend, this man appeared in an impeccable white linen suit, red silk scarf knotted at his throat, a carved wooden cane, silver-white hair, leathery weather-beaten skin. As the evening progressed, he’d be more and more in his cups – and he’d ballroom dance. Alone. A few weeks in, he came up to me, introduced himself as Indian Boy - and asked me if I could write a song that could bring his runaway daughter home. I told Karen Gottlieb about him and two days later she handed me that lyric. Somehow in the writing the song became more personal, evoking Karen’s father and mine. We’d both put 3000 miles between us and our dads…
I have always admired Amanda McBroom. She has a great sense of humor with "You're Only Old Once". In "Mary Said No" she really creates a thought provoking message, making Mary reflective, luminous, and human as well as angelical. What are your feelings about this song?
MB: I’m glad you asked about Amanda! She is an extraordinary songwriter, a cherished friend, and a joy to make music with! The two of us have been writing songs together since the first day we met – and that was (gulp!) 45 years ago!! Her lyric to “Mary Said No” grabbed my heart. I have two wonderful sons. I am absolutely sure that the world is a better place because they are both in it. But if someone had told me before they were born that they would be sacrificed, I too would have said No.
To me, “Mary Said No” is a song about the Ultimate Woman’s right to choose. And I got to draw upon my favorite undergraduate course – “Music of the Middle Ages!”
Your music creates the mood and atmosphere of what the song is trying to convey. I love "Let's Order In". It's romantic with a cozy, by the fire feel, but I can't help but remember "Love and Take Out" from a previous album that displays your tremendous humor. Talk about these themes and how they affect you in your own life.
MB: They’re about two of my favorite topics – food and sex. And about approaching both with a sense of humor. I named my music publishing company “FingerFood Music”. (I was gonna call it “Hand to Mouth”, but that sounded a bit desperate:)
There’s something wonderfully sensual about food, sharing food, dining by candlelight. And I love feeding people! If you were to appear at my door, the second words out of my mouth (after “come in quick before the cat gets out!”) would be “What can I get you? A latte? Home-made muffins?” As for “Love and Take Out” – that was inspired by a friend who said to me, “That guy is like Chinese food – one hour later, you’re hungry again!” Like I said, it took me a while to get the hang of Love.
Let's go back in time. Tell us about your upbringing and how it has affected your passion for music.
MB: I was born into a musical family. My dad wrote songs – though he only wrote them during the 14 months he spent as a POW in Germany when his B17 was shot down during a mission.
He and my mother met and married after he came home, and moved into my Bubbie’s big house. My dad’s youngest brother was 14, living at home, practicing his violin. So my mother – and I, in utero – would spend hours listening to Uncle Jack. My Bubbie used to carry me around and sing to me. And my parents sang together, beautifully. I used to say it was the only time they were truly in harmony, though I probably exaggerated.
By the time I was three, I was sitting at Bubbie’s piano, playing and singing entire songs by ear. I started piano lessons at four, learned right from left cause the left hand played the low notes. It’s baked into my being; the piano feels like an extension of my body.
I moved on to my beloved piano teacher Aaron Gross when I was six; he was incredibly patient with a child who’d learn a Bach invention by heart – but play it in the wrong key. Growing up, I performed with my sisters -
my sister Robin Munson, btw, is a gorgeous singer and songwriter -
and with a troupe of girlfriends, all terrific singers. I co-wrote special material for The Troupe with my friend Iris – Iris Rainer Dart, the author of “Beaches.”
Have you found yourself changing focus over the years? In your mind, have you become more or less serious about issues? In what ways?
MB: We all change over the years, don’t we? I wrote a song called “The Joy of the Ride” that wound up being the end-title song for Universal’s “The Little Engine That Could.” It said, “I know what is precious – what to hold, what to let slide. “
We learn, hopefully, what matters. I had kids. That changed me enormously. I continue to change, make mistakes, learn, open my heart. There’s a shift that most of us make, I believe – from “am I getting what I want?” to “am I giving something I feel good about giving?”
I notice you stay away from politics. For me, that's a good thing. Your music helps us to get away from the turmoil around us...to think about love and lighter issues, like choosing dinner or how to spend an evening or appreciating flowers and nature... How do you feel about this?
MB: I don’t write many political songs. I wish I did! I admire the songwriters who take on important issues. I was even in Bob Dylan’s band once for two weeks! Maybe if I’d learned guitar instead of piano, I’d be more of a political songwriter. Have you noticed how you can get very message-y with a guitar? But with a piano, those messages sound heavy-handed. Besides, you can’t take a baby grand to a protest march! I try to write songs that offer some insights – or help listeners take an emotional journey. People need to laugh – and to cry.
Tell us about anything that I have not mentioned. Future projects? Who are your music idols, past and present?
MB: Amanda and I wrote the songs for a movie that’s being released this week from Universal - “Curious George: Royal Monkey.” It’s the 17th animated feature for which we’ve written (and I’ve produced) the songs, including 10 sequels to “The Land Before Time”, 2 Balto sequels, and “The Chipmunks Meet Frankenstein.” They’re all direct to DVD. “George” will also be streaming on Hulu. It’s been a delicious project, working with a stellar creative team at Universal, plus I get to work with my favorite studio collaborator,
Stephan Oberhoff. And we’re finishing the songs for another animated feature that’ll be out next year.
Amanda and I have started on a new musical with book writer Duane Poole. A musical that I co-wrote with Sheilah Rae and Thomas Edward West, “The Belle of Tombstone”, just had a beautiful production in Hartford, CT. And I’ve started recording songs for an EP to release this spring.
I’ll be doing some performances with Amanda – including
a Christmas concert in December – and several with Amanda and Ann Hampton Callaway. The three of us have a grand time onstage and off!
We close those concerts with a medley: an anthem that Ann and I wrote called “Love and Let Love” and “The Rose.”
Music idols? I have so many!! Leonard Bernstein, Frank Loesser, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Harold Arlen. Adam Guettel. Maurice Ravel. Laura Nyro, Joni, Carole, Aretha, Ivan Lins, James Taylor. I love practicing Bach and Mozart, just for the sheer joy of it.
I’m grateful every moment for the music in my life – and the people in my life! I feel like a very lucky person!!