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?
The central idea is that all of the stories have been told. So, it’s the way you tell your story that puts your soul-print on it. It’s the shape of your language and the uniqueness of your thoughts. Within the context of the time, I was amidst that first wave of singer-songwriters who were changing the shape of popular lyric-writing: Paul Simon, Laura Nyro, Joni Mitchell, The Beatles, Sly Stone, and Stevie Wonder. The Beatles were writing “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”; Laura Nyro was writing, “can you surrey, can you picnic?” So, we were really challenged as young students to really think about our subject matter and see if we could infuse it with interesting metaphors.
Was it via your association with Chappell that you landed in the New York nightclub where Bette Midler would eventually see you perform?
It was all around the same time. It was really stunning to be in New York City then, because I would literally stumble onto adventures. I was playing in all the coffeehouses in Greenwich Village, which led to me playing in all the coffeehouses of the universities of New York state. Those were really hard dues, because there were no electric instruments. It was mostly playing on some piece-of-crap upright piano with your back to the audience. When I met Barry Manilow through my jingle work, he introduced me to Bette. It turned out that we were working in clubs across from one another. She was working at the Continental Baths; I was working up the street at The Focus. She came to see me do my show one day as she was getting ready for her Carnegie Hall performance. That’s where it all started.
What was the extent of your work with Bette, and what did you learn from the experience?
It was an incredible time, right after her first performance on the Carson show. She was getting ready for her first Carnegie Hall concert. She didn’t really know about background singers. She wanted to be one, but had never had that experience. Manilow and I had a lot of that experience. We formed the Harlettes to back her up. Just to watch her brilliance—although she called it very low-brow, it was really very high-brow stuff. She transported an audience. Everything is about context. Life was really a “cabaret, old chum.” This was right before we started to experience the effects of the first waves of AIDS. We were both at the forefront of that. It was amazing to see Bette’s gigantic intelligence on that stage and how she could transform an audience. Having Barry Manilow as her musical director was spectacular, because he could interpret all of her ideas.
Let’s talk about your transition into recording. When you debuted in 1973 with Home to Myself, what was it like being a debut artist recording your own songs, particularly as a female in the music business?
Needless to say, the landscape of the recording industry was gigantically different than it is today. When I was first signed to Bell Records the company was primarily a singles label, but they signed me as an album artist. They left me alone to make my album. I thought that was the way all record companies treated their artists! It was great. I worked with Hank Medress and Dave Apple. We worked hard and had a great time. All the musicians played live; there was nothing electronic about it. Then, I went on the road for a really long time. While I was on the road, I started writing for the next album. By the time of the third album, Bell was absorbed into Arista Records, where Clive Davis was President. It was a different approach to record-making.
Playlist opens with two classics from that third album, Melissa. How did “Midnight Blue” and “Just Too Many People” come to be? What do you remember about the experience of them taking off?
“Midnight Blue” is my sentimental favorite, because it was the first hit. We worked very, very hard. I crisscrossed the country to break the song on college radio stations, which were very important at the time. It was right before radio went into automated playlists. Music directors and disc jockeys still had pull. Right after “Midnight Blue,” everything changed. What was so touching about it: I had two albums under my belt; but suddenly with massive radio play, as soon as the audience would hear the introduction they would start going crazy and screaming. I think a trademark of the songs that Carole Bayer Sager and I wrote was that they sounded very intimate. They sounded very conversational because they truly did come out of conversations that we had. That’s how we always would write.
“Don’t Cry Out Loud” was your first big single interpreting another’s lyrics and music. It was written by Carole Bayer-Sager and Peter Allen. Was it different for you recording a song which you didn’t write?
It was interesting, because Carole and I wrote all the time; and Carole and Peter Allen wrote all the time. Yet, Peter and I never wrote together. It was like a revolving door at Carole’s apartment. So, there was suggestion of similarity in something about the songs. When I heard “Don’t Cry Out Loud” originally, it was a very quiet, exquisite version by Peter. When I went into the studio and it was this gigantic, bombastic, anthemic kind of song, it really took me by surprise. But I was very touched by how it resonated with people.
“Lovers After All” is a song you wrote with the venerable Leon Ware on which you duetted with Peabo Bryson. What stands out to you about those collaborations?
Leon had such a fabulous sense of harmonics. He had worked with remarkable talent like Marvin Gaye; so it just opened the atmospheric possibilities. I did a lot more lyric writing than composition when I wrote with him. To sing with Peabo was fantastic, although we were not in the room together. He recorded in Atlanta; I recorded in L.A.
You’re a white artist who recorded some very soulful records early in your career. Did industry types ever want to pigeonhole or categorize you as a pop artist?
I had tried to get a record deal for about seven years [before signing with Bell]. This was long before faxes, e-mails—before anything! I remember I was in New York and about to be signed to a label whose main office was in L.A. I was in the room when the New York rep picked up the phone and said, referring to me, “Yes, she’s white. I thought you knew.” I wasn’t signed because I was white. Craziness happens.
In 1982, you hit with “You Should Hear How She Talks About You,” which introduced a markedly different sound for you. How involved were you in that decision, and what was your reaction when it took off like it did?
It was one of those decisions that you make along the journey of your life, to try something and see how it works. The marketplace was changing, specifically because electronics were being introduced to all of the producers. That was shifting what was possible in a studio. What was wonderful was that the song was written by two colleagues of mine, Tom Snow and Dean Pitchford. It’s a solid song; but it was not the norm for me because I’m basically a troubadour. But I cut my hair off, lost lots of weight, glammed up, and ran it up the flagpole—and it worked! It worked all the way to a Grammy, which was kind of surprising. It was a lot of fun. I stopped singing it for awhile, because I needed a little perspective on it. But now I sing it again, and it’s kinda fun.
That success seemed to set the tone for you during most of the ’80s as a dance-pop artist, with songs like “Nice Girls,” “I Don’t Care What the People Say,” and “Mathematics.” Was that an artistic decision, or a practical move in terms of label security?
Management strongly suggested it, as did Clive Davis. I was getting more and more lost in the shuffle. That’s why, around 1995, I left the industry for awhile. I was just getting really confused and losing my way. I needed to gain some perspective, and I had kids to raise also; so I stopped for awhile.
I have to tell you, though, that several of my favorite recordings of yours came out of that time period: “Time,” a beautiful ballad you penned with Carole [Bayer-Sager] and Burt Bacharach; and the 1985 B-side track, “So Full of Yourself.” I wish those could have made it on to Playlist!
With compilations you can repackage the hits, but the fun part is to find those lesser known songs that really represent this very specific part of you. Part of the reason that I chose the songs that I did for Playlist is I wanted people to see that when I wrote by myself, the songs sounded quite different than when I was collaborating. The duets had a very different tone. I wanted to pay tribute to my very first band member who passed away this year, John Cooker LoPresti. When we recorded a cover of an old standard, “I Can’t Get Started,” in 1974, that was way ahead of its time. The two more recent songs were from films that I wrote this past year and a half, “Rainbird” and “I know Who I Am,” which is a live recording.
“Rainbird” is from the film Dirty Girl. Tell me about the genesis of that song, as well as your catalog being an integral part of the movie.
Dirty Girl was directed and written by Abe Sylvia. It’s a coming-of-age story that takes place in Oklahoma in 1937. It’s about two teenagers—a boy and a girl. They become friends, much to their chagrin, in a special-education class—because they’re incorrigible. They’re both on a journey, as are their mothers, who are played by Milla Jovovich and Mary Steenburgen. The film plays homage to my music, which is very touching. My music is the boy’s connection to the world. There are about nine of my songs in the film. When Abe needed an original song, Mary Steenburgen and I had just collaborated on a song about a week before we had gotten the script. We asked him if we might try writing an original song for the film, and he let us.
The song “I Know Who I Am” was recorded by Leona Lewis for Tyler Perry’s For Colored Girls. I wrote that with Joanna Cotten and Greg Barnhill, and Tyler chose the song for the end credits of the film. It’s a monologue of what I’ve come to know to be true. It’s wonderful to perform it, to stand my ground and sing those words.
In addition to touring, recording and writing, you’re also now teaching at the University of Southern California. Tell me about your work there.
Well, they move me around. But this year, I’m teaching Vocal Interpretation. It’s not really voice lessons. I’m mostly teaching young songwriters. The thing about being a singer-songwriter is that the gig is not up just because you show up and sing your song. If you want to have a long career, take care of your voice and really dig into the inner world of what you are singing about; there’s a way to do it. I love to teach. I give master classes. Last year I was teaching about writing for musical theatre for pop students, and it was wild. We created a musical. I have no scholarly qualifications, but I have 40 years of life qualifications. That apparently works.
Does this work inspire your own songwriting?
I suppose so. I always have my notebook with me, and I’m always working on assignments. The aesthetics of songs these days are very short phrases repeated over and over again. We do a lot of breath work. I introduce the students to some very old songs that were popular in their day. The aesthetic of older songs is that they had longer melody lines and lyric lines. [We look at] how that affects the body and the breath.
As long as you’ve been writing, do songs continue to come to you naturally, or do you look to different sources for inspiration?
When I’m collaborating with someone, it’s usually through the process of conversation. Out of that come ideas, and I start to hear music. Sometimes I write by myself; but it’s a more arduous process. I love to collaborate, because it actually gets done!
What can we expect from you in the near future?
I’m working on a musical with Rupert Holmes. I’m continuing to tour. I’m always busy. I wrote several scores for Disney, Lady and the Tramp II and The Great Mouse Detective. The adventure just keeps unfolding.
Do you plan to record any further albums?
Absolutely. I just recently had an article published on the The Huffington Post about the Susan G. Komen fiasco. i wrote a song in 2007 called “The Power of Ribbons,” supporting my friend Nancy, who was fighting breast cancer. It’s the only song of mine that’s strictly downloadable. All of the monies go to breast cancer research. I had thought that the Komen foundation would direct those monies wisely. But in their misguided decision to withhold breast cancer funding for screening, mammograms, and education from Planned Parenthood—even though they’ve rescinded their decision—I’ve decided to rededicate the song and redirect the proceeds directly to Planned Parenthood.