Catching Up With Melissa Manchester
I recently had the wonderful pleasure of interviewing Melissa Manchester in-person and in her hotel room. While I’ve interviewed countless people over the past few years, this was a first for me and a surreal experience. Melissa was as lovely and charming as could be, and our conversation exceeded my expectations, covering a wide swath of her impressive career. In my interviews with artists, I try to connect with them in some meaningful way because it establishes an excellent rapport and lets them know that I understand them. Well, Melissa and I connected right from the get-go, and, as a result, my appreciation for her artistry and love for her music has increased ten-fold. If you haven’t bought her new album, The Fellas, you should. And make it a point to see this lovely lady live, as she puts on a show like no other.
Your 1980 album For The Working Girl is excellent, and the title track is a collaboration between you and Bernie Taupin. What was it like working with him on this track?
Well, I never did actually work with him because he sends you a finished lyric. He does that with Elton John and he does that with any of his collaborators. Perhaps, we discussed a concept. It’s hard to say. He had seen me in Vegas. He would follow the essence of your life and the way you spoke. Then it transmogrified into a lyric. And it wasn’t just a lyric. The thing with Bernie is he sends you a piece of literature that you could just frame. It really doesn’t require your music because it just lives.
What was interesting about For The Working Girl is that when I did write it – it sort of just spilled out – I was at the top of a Colorado mountain range. As I said, the lyrics literally sing themselves. When I recorded it and started performing it, I was at a truck stop one night after a show with my band, we were getting a bite. In those days there were very few women roadies, very few women truckers. And I was in this truck stop and a woman trucker came over to me. She thanked me for the song. She said, “Very few people talk about us or sing about us.” Then she gave me a big, solid hug, climbed onto her semi and went into the night. Off she went.
All these years later, do you feel that women are in a much better place?
Well, I don’t know about female truckers. However, there are definitely more women roadies, tour managers, sound and lighting designers. So, I think that the presence of women is much more palpable than before.
The arrangement of “For The Working Girl” was beautiful too.
Thanks. That was my Dad playing the bassoon line.
Wow! I’m sure that was special for you.
It was extremely special. Performing in the studio was not his specialty. He was an opera player, so it was also really fun to watch him navigate recording with headphones and looking into the control room to see if he should keep playing – it was kind of sweet. It was really great.
I read online that Bernie Taupin and Michael Lippman wanted to produce the film Working Girl and feature you in the starring role. The film didn’t come out until 1988, and by then it featured the music of Carly Simon instead and you weren’t in it. What happened?
I wasn’t even aware of it.
Interesting. So, is this a case of incorrect information online?
I’d say that “For The Working Girl” is a three-act story because Bernie wrote a vignette for each of the working girls in the song: a waitress, a trucker and a dancer. But I’m not aware that the song was supposed to be turned into a movie.
In between For The Working Girl and the follow-up album, Hey Ricky, you filed suit in 1981 to be released from your contract with Arista. What made you want to part ways with the label and Clive Davis?
I was trying to get out of my record contract for a long time. From the time that I was absorbed into ARISTA from Bell Records, where the albums sounded more acoustic, my albums, starting with the second and third records at ARISTA, became highly produced and there was the insinuation of electronic instruments and I felt they were really scraping at the souls of the songs. But nobody listened to me. Even though I was hired to do what I did, which was be a singer-songwriter with a piano and a band, there was another vision happening with ARISTA. And the only way I could find to move forward and get to the end of that contract was to make records. I didn’t have the courage to sit it out like Bruce Springsteen did with his last two records with Columbia. I had a long contract for several reasons. So, I just kept making these albums that became more and more dance/disco-centric. The positioning of the lead singer shifted because of electronics. The producer became the central focus of the albums. Even though your name is on the cover, suddenly you’re in a big mix that you’re not accustomed to. However, it was lovely to work with someone like Arif Mardin, who was a fantastic musician and an extraordinary gentleman. So, we did the best we could and sometimes we had great success, and other times we looked at each other and said, “I don’t know. What do you want to do?” (laughs). We were both trying to move forward, and Clive and the guys wanted what they wanted.
Hey Ricky featured your massive hit song “You Should Hear How She Talks About You,” an infectious dance track. The success of this song seemed to influence your next two albums, Emergency and Mathematics, which were filled with synth-driven upbeat music. What was it like making such a big departure from the music that you released in the 1970s?
The struggle for me was I got to a point where I was competing against myself to get a couple of cuts of my songs on to those albums, because, more and more, they were bringing in outside songs. That was very difficult for me to reconcile. I had to keep practicing as Steely Dan said “pretzel logic” to find the justification to sing a song, that if it was really successful, I would have to sing for a really long time. Some of the songs were OK, and some of them weren’t really very good. But they were singles, and some of them were really good. It was wading through the disco era. I was just sad that some of the songs around the time of “You Should Hear How She Talks About You,” which was a really well-structured song – it was tongue-in-cheek and it was cheeky and it was fine. If I had done it with just piano, mid-tempo, it would have been adorable. It would have really held up because the composition held up. Some of the songs really didn’t hold up and they didn’t move forward the point-of-view I had established earlier in my career: songs about affirmation, songs about not surrendering, songs about speaking your peace, songs about reaching out to a partner and saying, “How do we get through this?” That was always my struggle. I couldn’t reconcile a lot of that, and there was nobody to talk to about it. It got harder and harder to make sense. While you’re busy being grateful for being given the shot, you also have to deal with what’s in front of you; and if it’s not good, it’s just difficult.
In 1995 you released the album If My Heart Had Wings, which was your first album of original material in 10 years. In between you released a great album of cover songs, Tribute. What was it like writing and recording original material again after such a long time?
It was grand. First, doing the Tribute album was wonderful because this was the music of my DNA. This was the music I grew up with. Paying homage to the women who fortified me from the time I was five-years-old and discovered Ella Fitzgerald, that was thrilling. But that was a one-off album, and the next one-off album was If My Heart Had Wings. One-off meaning you sign a contract for just one album.
If My Heart Had Wings was lovely. I had a chance to write with Amy Sky, a fantastic Canadian artist. It felt good, and I felt a little more that I was being heard. But that was for Atlantic Records. It was my dream label since the age of 15. I kept submitting my demos to them. The reason why I was attracted to them is because they had this extraordinary history with women singers – Aretha and Roberta Flack – and they really treasured their artists. Unfortunately, by the time I recorded If My Heart Had Wings, there was a regime change and the album was, essentially, lost.
It reminds me of Rod Stewart. Right before he did all of the Great American Songbook albums with Clive Davis, he recorded and released Human, a fantastic R&B album on Atlantic. Unfortunately, no one bought it because of poor promotion on label’s part, which is a shame because the album, like yours, was excellent.
Yes. At that point I was so gutted that my dream label turned into a nightmare, that I had to back away. I had two children to raise and I just couldn’t fathom why I had been given this enormous gift and I just kept banging my head against the wall. I backed away from recording and the pursuit for awhile.
I noticed that If My Heart Had Wings isn’t available to buy or stream digitally. Is that because you don’t own the rights to it?
Does that expire at some point?
Well, all of those things expire, the whole termination of rights things. But that won’t be for awhile. I don’t know the exact amount of time, but some of my music can’t be touched for 20 years.
Your 1998 holiday album Joy is acoustic, and it’s beautifully done. What made you want to take a minimalist approach with this timeless music?
I had made a couple albums with Steve Buckingham and I had such a sweet time recording with him in Nashville. He was so different than the business guys I had been recording with. But we lost touch. He was a sweet fella who would send me Christmas cards with no return address on them. Then, I was in a restaurant in LA and someone came over to my table and said, “You’ve recorded with Steve Buckingham.” I turned around and said, “I don’t know who you are, but where is he?” And he gave me his information and I called Steve Buckingham and he was at my door a week later and we decided to do a Christmas album. Jay Landers, who was the head of A&R at Angel Records, thought that would be a dandy idea. So, I did the album Joy for Angel Records and it was just a fantastic experience. We did it in July, when most Christmas albums are made. I found a broken-down plastic wreath and hung it on a nail in the studio. We brought down some great jazz musicians, some who had never been to Nashville. It was the only seasonal album that I ever did.
Before, when you were asking about music I created but don’t have the rights to, one of the ways of moving forward is if I re-recorded everything on the albums that are out of print, they’d be mine.
And some artists have done that.
Absolutely, and that is my intention.
You followed up Joy with the album When I Look Down That Road in 2004. A reviewer said, “In the opening line of her album When I Look Down That Road, Melissa Manchester basically sums up the latter half of her career: ‘I’ve been walking through the smoke of a thousand burned-out dreams, so hard to shake the ashes of the past from my feet.’” What are your thoughts on his analysis?
That was the first song that I wrote with the brilliant Sharon Vaughn. I was telling her about a dream I was having, and that’s how she reinterpreted it through those lyrics.
So, you think this person was over-analyzing the song.
I would say so. I think he was projecting a large opinion into that. In fact, I have claimed my authenticity in the latter half of my career, and I hope it goes on for a really long time.
Your next album, You Gotta Love The Life, wouldn’t come until 2015. It’s a wonderful album. What led to you taking such a long break from recording new music?
I just couldn’t figure out how to make a record. I really couldn’t figure out how people were doing it. I heard about crowdfunding. I didn’t know how you did that. I was also with management that didn’t know how you did that. When I started teaching at USC, my students were coming in with their CDs every couple of months and they looked so nice. I was still in an old headspace and I’d say, “Wow! Are you signing with new independent labels?” They said, “No, we’re doing crowdfunding. You should do that!” I said, “Great, what is that?” They said, “We’ll tell you and we’ll help you,” and they did. One of my students was our project manager and we had a street team. That’s how we ended up doing You Gotta Love The Life. It was the first crowdfunded Indiegogo campaign that we did. It was a new world. Since I’m an artist in residence at Citrus College, they welcomed me to create the album down there.
I wanted to return to creating an album like I originally did, with my band and have musical collaborations and musical discussions. Because the studio at Citrus College is a teaching studio and our engineer is the professor of audio arts, we were creating new songs and teaching the students at the same time. They got to see Dionne Warwick, Al Jarreau and Stevie Wonder come into the studio and record and play on this. There were engineering students who had never seen artists of this caliber in this kind of environment. The students were in reverential awe. And, while we were recording, our engineer would ask the kids, while we’re in the studio, “What am I doing up on the screen? Why am I turning this knob?” And the students would respond with answers to his questions. There was a back-and-forth like nothing I ever saw because it was a teaching studio. It was unbelievable. And those artists, it was not my design to have them on the album. They were talking to other people on the album and asking, “Can I be part of this?” It was wild. I got a phone call from Stevie Wonder at 2 a.m. while I was in Florida asking me if he could play on the album. I thought, what the heck is going on? It was amazing!
Isn’t “Bad Weather” a song Stevie Wonder wrote that you recorded?
That’s an awesome song.
It is. It’s an awesome song. It’s crazy. And Stevie always remembered that I had written “Stevie’s Wonder,” paying homage to him.
“Bad Weather,” “Shine Like You Should,” and, of course, “Don’t Cry Out Loud,” which is one of the greatest vocals ever, made for a really wonderful album, not to mention all the other terrific tracks on Don’t Cry Out Loud.
You leveraged crowdfunding for You Gotta Love The Life, as well as for your new album: The Fellas. What lessons did you learn the first time you used crowdfunding for an album, and how did you apply those learnings to your most recent campaign?
We simplified a lot. We only had a budget for eight songs, not 13. For The Fellas, we recorded eight tracks in one day. So, for those who donated enough to come to LA and sit in the studio, they had the same experience I was having. I never recorded eight tracks in one day. My head was exploding.
What time did you start?
We started at 10 in the morning.
And what time were you done?
We were done around 4 p.m. We did it in three waves. The first day was the horns and the rhythm section. The second day was the French horn and the harp, isolated. The third day were the strings. But the first day were all eight songs.
I did scratch vocals the first day. Then I did the final vocal a week or so later.
Is that scratch vocal meant for you or the other musicians?
It’s meant to give them guidance so they the world that they’re performing in. I always want musicians to know that they’re part of a greater world, that they’re supporting lyrics and supporting the singer. It was thrilling because we had fantastic arrangements.
Did Barry Manilow create the arrangement for your duet with him, “For Me And My Gal”?
He essentially did. He took the original version, done between Judy Garland and Gene Kelly, and brought in one of my arrangers to flesh it out. But it was based on Barry’s specifics.
And you got to record it at the studio in Barry’s house.
Yes, it was fantastic!
On You Gotta Love The Life you sang Hal David’s last lyric as a duet with Dionne Warwick. How did that come about?
Dionne had built her entire career on the lyrics of Hal David and Burt Bacharach. So, I called her and asked her if she’d do the duet with me. I sent her a scratch vocal of the song. I really wanted it to be a duet between two women. The conventional wisdom would of had it be between a man and a woman but I really wanted to show the solidarity between two women. She said, “Oh yeah, I’m in. This is Hal’s lyric. I get it.”
How did the lyric find its way to you?
I was at a New Year’s Eve party where I was singing and I was sitting next to Hal David. The host was smart enough to split up the husbands and wives. So, Hal’s future widow was sitting over there and Hal was sitting over here. He was quite elderly at the time. I got up to sing and he was so apologetic when I sat down. He said, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize who I was sitting next to.” I said, “Would you like to write?” (laughs) I went over to his gorgeous home and I said to him, “I don’t know how you do this. How do you like to collaborate?” He said, “Well, I don’t know how you do this. Usually, I like to get to know somebody and learn how they use language.” Then he said, “Be right back.” He shuffled out of the room and shuffled back in, returning with three ideas. One wasn’t finished, one was partially finished, and then he handed me “Other End Of The Phone.” It’s very spare writing. I said, “Is this a finished lyric?” He said, “Yes, I was taught to be a journalist and this is how I write. I write the next piece of information.” I said, “Let me take it home.” There were no markings or punctuation, just the words. So, I was trying to hear how it should be sung. As a composer, I try to hear where the intentional commas are, the breathes to make the music more angular, more emotional, make it more conversational. As I was writing it, I was starting to see Dionne sing it in my head. That informed how I wrote it and the shape of the phrase “on the other end of the phone.” So, it was unbelievable when Dionne agreed to do this and the late Joe Sample played piano on it. I had been trying to work with him for 30 years and he was coming to the end of his life. I flew to Houston and he just played the way Joe Sample plays.
And you got to sing with Dionne, who you paid tribute to years prior.
Totally! It was just amazing.
Some see you as a singer-songwriter that writes beautiful lyrics, others think of you as a tremendous vocalist and some think of you as an artist that sang backup for Bette Midler and broke out on your own with a string of hit songs. Looking back on your career and where you are now, how do you see yourself?
I see myself as none of the above. As an artist, I’ve lived my life in chapters. I have been a composer, I have been a lyricist, I have been a substantial singer of beautiful songs, and some not-so-beautiful songs. I’m also a survivor of the ebbs and flows of a career.