Melissa Manchester shares life lessons, new music in Lowell
By Ed SymkusGLOBE CORRESPONDENT FEBRUARY 21, 2015
Unless you were a regular at coffeehouses in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut in the early 1970s, the first time you heard Melissa Manchesterâ€™s voice was likely on Bette Midlerâ€™s debut album, â€œThe Divine Miss M.â€ Manchester was one of Midlerâ€™s backup singers the Harlettes.
But Manchester, whoâ€™s giving a series of master classes, as well as a concert in support of her new album, â€œYou Gotta Love the Life,â€ this week at UMass Lowell, soon left Midler for a solo career. She reached the Top 10 three times, with â€œMidnight Blue,â€ â€œDonâ€™t Cry Out Loud,â€ and the Grammy-winning â€œYou Should Hear How She Talks About You,â€ did a bit of theater, TV, and film acting, currently teaches â€œThe Art of Conversational Singingâ€ at USC, and has always made time for concertizing.
â€œThe stage is my office,â€ she says. â€œItâ€™s where I work.â€ Manchester, 64, spoke about her musical life by phone from her home in Los Angeles.
Q. Itâ€™s been a decade since you recorded â€œWhen I Look Down That Road.â€ Why so long between albums?
A. Iâ€™ve always wanted to make another album, but I couldnâ€™t quite figure out how to do it. The old paradigm was that you sign with a big record company, which is essentially your bank, and even after youâ€™ve made all their money back, they still own your work. That part was problematic to me. It wasnâ€™t until I started teaching at USC, and my students would show me their five- or six-song CDs, and I asked them how they got it done. They said it was through crowdfunding, and you should do that, too. I said, â€œWell, great! What is that?â€ (laughs) They explained it to me, and one of my former students became my project manager, then it just kept building.
Durgin Concert Hall at UMass Lowell, 866-722-8780.
Date of concert:
Saturday at 7 p.m.
Q. What goes on in your USC classes and your master classes?
A. I teach what I know, mostly to young singer-songwriters. We talk about song structure or performance or the life, because thatâ€™s what Iâ€™ve lived for 45 years. What I can reflect back to up-and-coming young musicians and writers is that, for instance, just because they wrote a song doesnâ€™t mean they know everything about a song. The song becomes the vehicle through which you reflect the deepening experiences of your life.
â€˜I always say to my students, â€œIf you have a suggestion of any other thing that you would like to do in life, I would strongly urge you to do that, because an artistic path is not for the faint of heart.â€â€‰â€™
Q. You studied songwriting with Paul Simon when you were a student at NYU. Is there anything he taught you that you are passing along to your own students?
A. I teach what Paul taught me and the seven other students in the class, which was that all of the stories have been told. Itâ€™s the way you tell your story which creates your stamp of authenticity.
Q. The title song on â€œYou Gotta Love the Lifeâ€ seems to be kind of a warning about how tough it is to make a living as a performer.
A. Thatâ€™s correct. Itâ€™s my addition to the short list of songs about show business. But from my vantage point I wanted to write about the day-to-day grit and the day-to-day joy of doing this. I always say to my students, â€œIf you have a suggestion of any other thing that you would like to do in life, I would strongly urge you to do that, because an artistic path is not for the faint of heart.â€ It is signing on for the unsteady, unsure, unsane, unsafe path. But itâ€™s such an interesting way to live your life.
Q. Could you have written the song early in your career, when you were going through what youâ€™re singing about?
A. I donâ€™t think so, because what I know for sure comes out of a very long and uneven, but very blessed career. The song came out of a discussion I was having with my daughter, who was considering walking this path. I said to her, â€œThe challenge is the focus of energy that gets you into the door. But you have to love this version of normal. Youâ€™ve gotta love the life.â€
Q. So did your daughter become a singer-songwriter?
A. No, sheâ€™s a yoga teacher (laughs).
Q. You began seeing success at a young age. What led up to you meeting Bette Midler?
A. I started doing jingles when I was 15, and thatâ€™s where I met Barry Manilow, who was another jingle singer. At the time he was music director for the then-unknown Bette Midler. He and Bette came to a set I was playing at a club on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I introduced myself after my set and asked her what she was up to. She said she was getting ready for her first Carnegie Hall concert. I said, â€œAre you going to have background singers?â€ She took a beat and said, â€œI donâ€™t know. Would you like to sing in back of me?â€ I said, â€œActually, Iâ€™d like to sing instead of you, but in the meantime Iâ€™d be happy to sing in back of you.â€ So Barry and I organized what became the Harlettes. It was a magnificent adventure, but six months later I knew it was time to move on.
Q. Whatâ€™s happening on your current tour?
A. I play piano and sing. My music director, Stephan Oberhoff, is a keyboardist, guitarist, and singer. Sue Holder, whoâ€™s also my manager, sings background and plays percussion. Itâ€™s three of us onstage, making a lot of noise. Weâ€™ll be doing some of the hits, and a lot of the new album. We sing and play live, but weâ€™ll also be performing to some of the [instrumental] tracks on the album because I want people to be part of that sonic experience.