With an organic brand of pop and soul, singer-songwriter Melissa Manchester has won over audiences for four decades. Her hit records—ranging from the romantic sway of "Midnight Blue" to the power-ballad "Don't Cry Out Loud" and the reflective "Through the Eyes of Love"—have not only garnered awards, but have also paved the way for other singer-songwriters shooting from the heart. Her new collection, Playlist, gathers 14 recordings from various stages of the artist's wide-ranging career. She talks with Justin Kantor about the stories behind the songs, and how she's continuing to use her gifts.
You mention in the liner notes of your Playlist CD that when you were five, the voices of Ella Fitzgerald and Judy Garland lit your heart's "dark corners." Tell me a bit more about that.
I didn't know that my heart had any dark corners at age five. I just knew that when I heard those voices, something resonated so deeply and would move me to my core. Whenever I would hear them, everything else—like school, studies and homework—was a great nuisance. All I wanted to do was to get back to that place, because I knew that it was my guiding force. I started to write poetry at 15, and I became a staff writer at Chappell when I was 17. I studied songwriting with Paul Simon. Circuitously, what I have found is that the power of a voice and a song can really change a nation or change a life. I know that to be true.
How did you land such a prestigious job at Chappell Music at only 17?
I spent one year at NYU School of the Arts. Two of my schoolmates were budding songwriters, and they signed me up for my songwriting class with Paul Simon. They knew I was a jingle singer, which is how I had met Barry Manilow, Patti Austin, and Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson. I would sing their songs up at Chappell Music, because in those days there were no CDs or MP3s. You were performing songs live. I would watch them write. One day I went back to my mother's living room to my piano and started writing. It was like a great gush of another voice showed up. I backtracked to Chappell Music, auditioned for them, and ended up getting a songwriting contract.
You've stated that Paul Simon taught you what was most important as a songwriter. How so?