Jeff Pearlman

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Melissa Manchester

#193
Paul Simon's long-ago pupil went on to a Grammy Award-winning career as a singer/songwriter. But 40 years after "Midnight Blue" put her on the path to stardom and 36 years after "Don't Cry Out Loud" blew up, USC's coolest music professor returns with a new album and a respect for $250 sunglasses. POSTED February 10, 2015

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I love legends.

This sounds weird because, really, who doesn’t love legends? But I love them differently. For me, legends aren’t interesting because of their accomplishments and resumes. No, they’re interesting because of the peaks and valleys, highs and lows. To be a legend means you rose from somewhere. To be a legend also means, with rare exception, that with age comes renewed expectations of what’s important and what matters. Maybe, at 25, George Gervin only cared about finger rolls. Maybe, at 25, Joan Jett only cared about limos and bubbly. Maybe, at 25, Bill Clinton only cared about getting laid.

Wait. Wrong turn.

Melissa Manchester in a bona fide legend. If you don’t know who she is, you almost certainly know her songs. From “Midnight Blue” to “Whenever I Call You Friend” to  “Through the Eyes of Love” to “You Should Hear How She Talks About You,” Manchester is responsible for some of the biggest hits of the 1970s and 80s. But (as they say in midnight infomercials for cheese socks), that’s not all! Manchester also starred in Blossom, appeared on the Muppet Show, performed in myriad musicals and now teaches at the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music. Oh, most exciting of all, today her new album, You Gotta Love the Life, drops. I’ve had a chance to listen, and it’s absolutely wonderful. One can visit Melissa’s website here, and follow her on Twitter her.

Anyhow, Melissa Manchester, here’s something new to sing about. You’re the 193rd Quaz Q&A …

JEFF PEARLMAN: In your bio it says you’re celebrating both 40 years as a Grammy-winning performer and songwriter, but also a “renewed independence and vitality.” I’m 42, and feel my vitality draining every day. So what does this mean, exactly?

MELISSA MANCHESTER: First of all 42 sounds just about right for the first wave of the depletion of vitality. But that’s OK. You’ll bounce back. Because I teach at USC, my students have opened my eyes to a new world. To the current world of the music industry. Because the music industry is going through the industrial revolution. And literally the wheel is being reinvented, and I’m not entirely sure it will end up the same type of round that we’re used to. And what that means is they taught me about crowd funding and how to get my music out without the conventional agreement between artist and record company. And it was my students who not only explained to me how one can do this, but one became my project manager. So I’m seeing something fascinating. And it really was an adventure I did not want to miss, regardless of the outcome. And so with my tour manager Susan Holder and a bunch of friends and fans that wanted to be a part of this … I had no idea whether they’d want to or not. But they did. And the process of creating and recording music became sort of a living experience. So now I just want to keep the adventure going, because it’s so spiritually refreshing and beautiful that it feels like it validates my creative hunger. I always had it, but it was corroded because of politics and conventions that were just wearying and losing their luster to me.

J.P.: I’ve interviewed a lot of artists who, maybe they had their greatest hits in the 1980s or 90s, and they are frustrated and sort of confused by the modern music mechanisms. I mean, if you get a million YouTube views of your song, you’re a success—even though you’re not making money off of it. Do you feel like it’s better now than it was back in the you-need-to-have-a-record-deal days?

M.M.: I don’t know. It’s different. You know, based on where I am on my adventure, I’ll let you know when I find out. What is different is I’m not subscribing to the same old paradigms, which is I sign with a great big record company which essentially bankrolls my project. Which is great. And they put their energy behind it, which is great. But even after I make them back their money and we’re both in the black, they keep my work. They own my work. That’s the component that’s different.

The truth about being an independent artist is you have to do four times the work you ever did before, but at least you’re actually seeing how the mechanism works from the inside. As opposed to being sort of dismissed by people saying, “Oh, you’re just the artist. Just do your art and let us do the grownup work.” So all of this is different, and a lesson I wanted to learn to see how far I could take this.”

J.P.: I interviewed John Oates for this series, and he released an album that was excellent. He’s about your age, and we talked about how the odds are your album won’t appear on pop radio, it likely won’t chart, Ryan Seacrest won’t be talking about it. So … what is the motivation? You release an album, is there a goal? Sell X number of copies?

M.M.: I can’t speak for anybody else. I have to work and I have to express my art. That’s what I do. And my hunger needs to be vented and find a way out. So the thought that I should wait for somebody to approve of me and try to gain momentum and energy through that … through radio play … it’s not for me in this moment. I wish I had a crystal ball that works. I don’t.

That said, even pop radio isn’t necessarily the only way to get music out these days. The truth is, the beauty of being part of this industrial revolution is there are plenty of artists who never get played on the radio who are huge stars. So it’s just being a part of this moment and seeing how it turns out.

Your question to Mr. Oates is framed in an old paradigm. And that’s fine, but that’s pretending him not being played on Ryan Seacrest means it won’t be successful. There’s evidence it very well might be successful, just with a different definition of success. And that’s what’s interesting. There’s just no one path. And will you sell millions of records? Well, I don’t know. But the fact that fans can be brought closer to the process and actually be a part of the process is so unexpected. That’s one of the things I realized—even though you lift the veil a little bit so they can actually see the process and, by participating in crowd funding, they can actually peak into the components of production … it doesn’t diminish what they’re hearing in the end. It doesn’t diminish their delight if they like it. It doesn’t diminish their delight if you’ve written a song that helped shape their life or save a marriage or clarify an issue with a kid or something. Because the purpose of the song will do those things, regardless of the apparatus used to get it out.

J.P.: It’s just such a different world …

M.M.: It’s a different way of putting out music. And I didn’t want to be sitting in a corner complaining about something when I was being shown a light on an unexpected path when all I had to do was say yes to the adventure and try it. And that’s the deal.

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J.P.: Most singers have their greater commercial success in their 20s and 30s, probably because it’s a visual medium. Are you a better songwriter now than when you were 25? Does age impact an ability to write a song?

M.M.: I think as you hone your craft your sense of discernment … your ability to sculpt language and melody becomes more refined. On the other hand, in the early days, because my writing was coming out of that initial writer’s voice gush, there were songs that I was so free to write because I had no deep editorial muzzle in place yet. I don’t think I could write some of those songs now.

On the other hand, I’m delighted that there was an innate wisdom in some of those songs, and an innate depth of wisdom, that not only allowed me to write those songs in my 20s, but allowed those songs to grow and deepen with my experience.

Also, the statement that music is a visual medium … with all due respect, when I started music was not a visual medium at all unless you were on a television show. Listening to music was the medium. Listening to music was the apparatus. Listening to music was the way you got music. You weren’t looking at music unless you were on television. It was a different event, and the event—releasing an album—was the event. I’m releasing this album, which a lot of people aren’t doing anymore. But that’s my platform. One of the liberating aspects of getting deeper into my career is I no longer look too much to the right and left over my shoulder to see what other people are doing or how they’re doing it. The part of my career that won’t be changing much is that the album is the platform. It’s the body of work. It allows the listener to pick and choose from a big variety of songs. And, at the end, I hope the songs service them in some way, because that’s what I’ve been told over 40-plus years that my songs do.

J.P.: You’re Melissa Manchester. You’ve had a great career. How do you get Stevie Wonder to sing on your album?

M.M.: Well, the people who are guests on the album are people I’ve either toured with or have loved and I have made my love and admiration for them clear since I was 15-years-old. On my third album, which was my first album on Arista, I wrote a song with Carole Sager about Stevie Wonder called Stevie’s Wonder, and he never forgot. And when I see him to this day, he sings that song. I used to do that in my early career—I’d write odes to people I just loved. I wrote an ode to Paul Simon. I wrote a song about Laura Nyro and Joni Mitchell because these were my soulful guides on my early journey. They were changing the shape of American popular song. It’s hard to know what that meant, historically, but prior to the 1970s even early rock n roll was based on a very conventional form, language-wise. It was based on a very simple, conventional format. It was great, because it was singable and humable and danceable, and even when rhythm was starting to be the pinnacle of the song rather than the song itself, still the compositions were very basic. And when I started writing, Paul Simon and Stevie Wonder and the Beatles and Sly and the Family Stone and Joni Mitchell were really changing the shape of what constituted the song lyric and melody. And so those are the heroes I grew up with. Some of them became colleagues, which was a real blessing. That’s how I attracted some of them to say yes and come on the album.

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J.P.: Is it still a thrill to sing with people like that?

M.M.: I’ll tell you, the deeper I get into my career, the more precious this all becomes to me. Not only does the shared journey of my colleagues become more precious, but the actual song form becomes more precious. Because, to me, songs are what I call soul currency. And something like a song, which most of us take for granted—we listen to a song, we pass by it—and every once in a while you write things where you do not know what the effect will be on the world. You just sit down and hope for the best. And when people tell you the effect of your song, that holds such a deepening gravitas as you get older. As you get deeper into your consciousness and you get deeper into your life’s walk, and I am truly grateful for that and take nothing for granted.

J.P.: You studied songwriting with Paul Simon at NYU. I read that, then went back. What exactly does that mean—studying songwriting with Paul Simon at NYU? And did you learn anything from the man?

M.M.: Haha. Well, he felt like teaching for six months. I don’t know why he was in one place for so long. But Bridge Over Troubled Water was number one all over the world at the time. And he auditioned everybody that was applying for his class. And he auditioned me. And asked me to play a song, then he asked me to play another song. And then he asked me to play one more song. This was for the audition. And he said, ‘Have you been listening to Laura Nyro a lot?’ And I said, ‘Oh my God, she’s my muse, she’s my queen, I listen to her all the time, day and night.’ And he said, ‘You need to stop now.’

There were 10 students in the class, very interesting disparate group of students. Some wanted to write the great American musical, some wanted to do folk. But the basic assignment in the class was everybody had to show up with a new song every week and perform it. And we would analyze it and talk about it. But he also came in with things he was working on. Which was really fascinating, because you saw his process. Which was so scholarly and so in the trenches. For instance, once he was talking about Bridge Over Troubles Water. And he was talking about the composition writing of it. And he said, ‘You know the bridge—Sail on, silver girl.’ He said, ‘It actually has nothing to do with the song. I had a girlfriend who was going prematurely gray and I thought it sounded good.’ I thought that was the most fantastic thing I heard. That’s the thing about songwriting—you have so little time to create a world that what he said in essence was, ‘All of the stories have been told. It is the way that you tell the story which is your stamp of authenticity.’ And it’s true. You have so little time in a song to keep the listener engaged. The thing about songs is that simple is not easy. And a lot of people dismiss simple. They just don’t understand the soul of it. And that’s why people are frequently why the American Songbook lives on. When I’m teaching at Thornton School, I’m teaching pop writers, and I’m always finding them songs by Gershwin and Porter and Berlin to learn. And it blows their mind. They can’t figure it out, how these people could pack so much into these tiny little songs. I said, ‘Because they weren’t worrying about rhythm too much. They’re worried about melody and the content of the lyric. You’re just not used to that aesthetic, because it’s not the aesthetic of your day. The aesthetic of today is rhythm. And that creates a challenge to develop lyrical and musical ideas.’ Anyhow, that’s a long, circuitous answer.”

It was Paul Simon in an article of the New York Times magazine section, oh, 25 years ago. He said what would happen to the aesthetic of American popular song. He said it will lose its melody-driven bridge and it will become rhythm driven. He was right.

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J.P.: There’s a song on the radio called “Timber” by Ke$ha and Pitbull. And I read an interview where someone asked Pitbull what it was like working with Ke$ha. And he said something along the lines of, ‘We’ve actually never met.’ I was thinking how weird that is—she recorded her parts one place, he recorded his elsewhere. You said in your bio that you have students who never before saw music being created by actual human beings, because you recorded your album at a studio at Citrus College. Is there a disadvantage to Ke$ha and Pitbull recording in different places? Does it matter?

M.M.: Well, I had that experience when I recorded a song called Lover’s After All with Peabo Bryson. He was in Atlanta and I was in California just because our schedules weren’t working out. But I knew his voice, and I knew he’d be perfect on the song. And he knew me. We had done some Christmas tours together. And because his voice was so similar to Donny Hathaway, who I absolutely loved and who had just died, it worked out OK.

But the second part of your question, which was really interesting to watch, these students down at Citrus College where I recorded the album, had such reverence for what was going on. The actual collaborative spirit. It’s not working in a box of a studio in somebody’s garage with tracks. This is actually having discussions about how to approach original songs to bring the songs to life. To find the inner life of the songs. Songs to me are not piles of words. They’re expressions. So what I need the musicians for is to bring that voice to life so the audience can feel it. And these students who were studying to be young musicians and young engineers, and my engineer, Tim Checkett, who was also a musician and also the professor of sound there at Citrus, he had trained them so well to really understand what they were listening … he’d tell them someone like Stevie Wonder or Al Jarreau was coming in, and this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Or even the caliber of my musicians. Lenny Castro, John Pruett—these were insane musicians. Insane. And to have them all looking over charts, all discussing ‘Is this what you want? What are you looking for?’ Or allowing me to change the approach because a deeper idea came up … it was always very respectful. Because it was all about the conversation trying to come to a radiant end. They could see process, they could so the articulation of ideas. As opposed to people throwing stuff out there. There was such a deep mature musical conversation going on, and hopefully that gave them at least a sense of what could be in a creative space. Perhaps they don’t have the chops to do that at this moment in their very early 20s and late teens, but perhaps they can see it. You know, we’re the elders. And we have experience and wisdom to share. It’s ancient stuff, really. And for them to be in the presence of seasoned creative forces, it’s beautiful. It was my feeling with Paul Simon. Someone isn’t coming at you from theory. They’re coming at you from the trenches. And that allows you a peek into what it looks like. It’s deep stuff. It’s fantastic.

kaypay

J.P.: Man, I wanna take your class. And I have no musical skill …

M.M.: Come on down.

J.P.: The wife and I consider Whenever I Call You Friend to be an all-time great song. You co-wrote it with Kenny Loggins, then he scored a huge hit with Stevie Nicks. What do you remember about writing that song? When you’re a singer and songwriter, does it at all suck when someone else succeeds with your material and people think of the work as someone else’s?

M.M.: Kenny chose Stevie, I guess because of her cool factor. Which is fine. Clive Davis, when I presented that song to him, he passed on it. He didn’t get it. I said, ‘Really? Even the Kenny Loggins element doesn’t do much for you?’ That kind of stuff happens.

Honestly, I’m honored when other artists want to sing my song. Again, I came from the school where songs are written for artists. I mean, Sinatra didn’t write his own songs. And so, there are a whole top tier of writers who wrote for the top-tier artists. So I was honored Nicks sang with Kenny. And the process of the song was interesting. It’s quite a while ago, but Kenny is a formidable writer for sure, and he had this idea and it was just sort of in pieces. And the pieces were not making sense. We finished it and glued it together and made it better and stronger and clearer and all that stuff.

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J.P.: You’re driving in your car and that songs come on. Do you …

M.M.: I’m delighted. Of course, I’m delighted. I don’t get it when people get irked by other people singing their songs. I don’t get it when songwriters get irked hearing their songs. I just don’t get it. What’s the problem? That’s the universal wallpaper nodding in your direction. I’d just shut up and say thank you.

J.P.: If it’s on the radio, do you sing along?

M.M.: Sometimes. (Laughter). Sometimes.

J.P.: In 1982 you won a Grammy with your biggest hit, You Should Hear How She Talks About You. Do awards matter? Someone says, ‘This is the best song of the year!’ Are you with it? Why? What do you recall of that win? And where’s the Grammy?

M.M.: Well, awards are nice, because they create an instant energy field of more people wanting to see you. It creates that energy field of attraction. It’s really astounding when people recognize a song you’ve either written or performed. It’s amazing. Because it’s not that they recognize the song—they recognize the first two notes of the introduction. Which means you established a world that didn’t exist prior to this song. And you’ve made a pathway for people to project whatever needs they have for the song, that helps clarify and restore and shake loose something for them. It’s unbelievable. It’s only  3 ½ or four minutes. Or it can galvanize a nation. It’s just unbelievable. So in answer to your question, yes, of course awards are lovely. But the truth is the record industry is about what have you done lately. But it’s lovely to know I was acknowledged by my peers.

J.P.: Where are the awards?

M.M.: In my living room, in front of a sunny window.

J.P.: Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?

M.M.: Oh my God. What’s the greatest moment? One of the greatest moment of my career was doing a Memorex commercial many years ago with Ella Fitzgerald, who was one of the shining lights of my youth. Her voice was more than a voice. It was a light. And the worst moment of my life was that, because I was so busy in that early period of my life, I kept neglecting to sing her a song that she requested. And she died.

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QUAZ EXPRESS WITH MELISSA MANCHESTER:

• I had this debate with my friend Malcom, and he said I should ask Melissa Manchester. You drop $250 sunglasses into a public toilet. What do you do?: HA! I pick them up. Ha.

• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? What do you recall?: Yes. I was flying into New Jersey many, many years ago in April or March, and it was a terrible fear, and I just started praying. I’m a big prayer person. And I just kept saying, ‘Thank you. Thank you for this life. Thank you, thank you, thank you.’

• Three memories from appearing on Blossom?: Ha ha ha. Well, one was being introduced to the great, late Bill Bixby, who was the fantastic director. At the time he was quite ill, but he was still directing. He was very jolly. Everyone knew he was in pain, but he was still jolly. And he said, ‘I want you to be very comfortable and feel free to make suggestions. This is an open dialogue between me and the cast.’ I thanked him, and I made a suggestion and he said, ‘That’s a bad idea’ and moved on. Ha ha. Two, going to Paris for the filming of Blossom was really, really a beautiful adventure. The kids were fantastic. Mayim Bialik was unbelievable. I mean, this woman is so brilliant. She could be president of the nation. She was really raised well, and she had this confidence about her as a teenage girl where she just did not get flustered. She just walked through and created this bond. All the kids were raised really well. It was a wonderful, beautiful experience.

• What do you consider the best and worst songs that you’ve released of your career?: Ha ha ha. I don’t know about the best. There’s a song … if I have a chance to write with the Bergmans again. I was very overwhelmed and intimidating. They’re magnificent friends, and couldn’t be more loving and kind, but at the time I just wasn’t used to writing a melody first, and then have somebody set lyrics to it. And that’s how they were used to writing. I tried to do that. The song was called Tears of Joy. It’s just a hodgepodge of a melody. Their lyrics were lovely, but my nervousness shows. I don’t have one best. I think a lot of my best is on this album. I think the song, You’ve Gotta Love the Life really captures my life and the life of the artist. I also love the song Feelin’ for You with Keb Mo—and the way he produced it.

• Who wins in a karaoke battle between you, Celine Dion and Madonna?: Hahahahaha. Well, it’s between me and Celine.

• You composed and recorded the score to the direct-to-video Lady and the Tramp II: Scamp’s Adventure. In 30 words of less, can you tell me the movie’s plot?: Um, it’s about Tramp’s son and Lady’s son—a puppy who takes after his father. He’s a little rebellious and wants to be free and gets in trouble with a gang of dogs. And then he realized the error of his ways and he realizes he needs his family. That his family was really solid.

• Why aren’t you Tweeting more?: Should I? Is that what I should do? I do Facebook quite a bit. I like Facebook.

• Would you ever consider recording an adult contemporary versions of Snoop Dogg’s 10 greatest hits?: Ha ha ha. I really have to sit with them. I really have to sit with them and listen to what it is he’s trying to say. My first impulse is to say no. But I’ll give everything a listen and listen to it as far as I can.

• Five greatest pure vocalists of your lifetime?: Well, pure vocalists—that’s good. Very good. Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Nat Cole, Frank Sinatra and … hmm … number five, that s a tossup. I would say Tony Bennett.

  • Gaynor Paynter

    Nice interview. I didn’t know she sang as well as acted. Thankyou for sharing. Gaynor Paynter, http://www.popspeaking.com

  • Carmen Donesa

    Nice interview. But you got Melissa’s Grammy-winning song title wrong throughout it. The song is You Should Hear How SHE Talks About You (not He, which you said throughout your interview).

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