By: Michael D. McClellan | French painter Henri Matisse famously said that you study, you learn, but you guard the original naiveté – that it has to be within you, as desire for drink is within the drunkard or love is within the lover. Melissa Manchester, the Oscar-nominated, Grammy Award-winning artist behind such classics as Don’t Cry Out Loud and Midnight Blue, doesn’t so much subscribe to this philosophy as breathe it in and refuse to exhale, her unbridled passion for music stronger now than it was forty years ago, when she was backing up Bette Midler as a founding member of the Harlettes. At an age when many of her contemporaries suffer from creative rigor mortis, Manchester is liberated – an artist uncoupled from convention and unafraid to take risks, a musical tour de force driven by an unwavering commitment to her craft. The result? You Gotta Love the Life, an audacious, 14-track outpouring of life and lessons learned.
“The album is my testimony of what I know to be true, and not anyone else’s version of what a good idea would be – my own hard-won sense of who I am, what I’ve been through and what I’ve learned.” – Melissa Manchester
For Manchester, this album – her first in ten years – represents a creative fork in the road, a decision point on whether to stay the course or try something new, to settle or to innovate, to capitalize on a proven formula or to follow her internal compass and create something utterly unlike anything she’s done before. Thankfully for us, she chooses the latter. The finished product is, in a word, intoxicating. One moment we’re reintroduced to the blues. The next, samba. The next, daring duets. Then soulful, soaring ballads. Without question, You Gotta Love the Life has its mojo working from the album’s title track to its a capella conclusion, its understated star turns – including songs with Stevie Wonder, Al Jarreau and Dionne Warwick – expertly done.
“This is an adventure I wouldn’t have wanted to miss,” she says. “You do have to pinch yourself when you’re working with your musical heroes and heroines.”
Heroes like legendary bluesman Keb’ Mo’. A three-time Grammy Award-winner whose songs have been recorded by everyone from B.B. King to the Dixie Chicks, Keb’ Mo’s fingerprints are all over Feelin’ For You, and his guitar is at its bluesy best.
“Keb’ and I are old friends,” Manchester says. “I wrote this song with a young lady named Sara Niemietz, and then I sent it to Keb’. He agreed to co-produce it, which was wonderful, but when we went into the studio we were both tiptoeing around the fact that the song was very simple. At dinner I said, ‘I think I need to tell you the story behind the song.’ That’s when I told him about the night a drunk approached me in a Mississippi Delta juke joint – I could instantly tell that he was twelve sheets to the wind [laughs]. He stumbles over and asks me if I’m married, and I reply, ‘Yes, very’. He looks at me and says, ‘Oh, that’s too bad, ‘cause I got a feelin’ for you.’ At that point I immediately knew how to write that song.
“As soon as I told Keb’ that story everything clicked. It came alive for him in a way that revealed how interesting the song could be, which is why I called and asked him to produce it. I knew he would recognize its potential. He worked with every musician tenderly and individually when we were recording it, which really got the energy flowing. It was an incredible experience. He is the dearest soul, and so talented. I’m so excited that he’s gotten so many Grammy nominations, because he has had a beautiful career.”
Like Matisse, whose career spanned decades and whose genius reputation was built on a restless need to innovate, Manchester has proven herself to be every bit the avant-gardist – as You Gotta Love the Life so clearly illustrates. One listen and you can appreciate Manchester’s fearlessness, which is equally evident in the stripped down simplicity of Feelin’ For You, and in the decision to pair herself with the incomparable Dionne Warwick on Other End of the Phone.
“If I had recorded this song with a man, it would have been lovely and sort of standard fare,” Manchester says of Other End of the Phone. “But by having Dionne sing opposite me, I got the unexpected quality of two women singing to each other. It was a decision that transformed the song into such an interesting, dramatic work. She was more than willing to take that chance. I really appreciate that quality in her.
“I just love the weariness in her voice, because it matches the lyrics and the music so perfectly. As the listener, I can identify with that weariness. And I love that somebody I’ve worshipped and admired so deeply was showing up to be a part of my project and grace me with her art. Dionne Warwick is such a dear person.” – Melissa Manchester
Other End of the Phone is noteworthy for another reason: The song represents the last writing credit for legendary lyricist Hal David, who, along with Burt Bacharach, penned such timeless classics as Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head and I’ll Never Fall in Love Again. What was it like for Manchester to collaborate with an icon such as Hal David?
“I get chills just thinking about that,” says Manchester. “I had run into Hal at a party – he was well into his nineties at the time, and I asked him if he would consider writing a song with me. He agreed immediately, so I visited him at his lovely apartment and asked him about his collaborative process. Hal said that he didn’t have a specific method, and then he turned it around and asked me the same question. I explained that I sometimes start from a conversation, or that sometimes I start from an idea that somebody brings into the room.
“Hal shuffled out of the room. When he returned, he had three sheets of paper with three different ideas, and this one – Other End of the Phone – was the most succinct. I immediately started to hear the music, and that’s when I took the paper back home and really sort of breathed into the shape of his lyrics.
“That was an important part of the process for me, because Hal writes in a very spare manner – so much so that I asked if these were the completed lyrics, or if this was something still in development. He said that he studied journalism in school, and that his writing was very spare and to-the-point. That was good enough for me [laughs]. So I continued breathing the lyrics in, trying to hear Dionne singing them, and when I finally called her and explained that these were Hal’s last lyrics, it was an easy sell. I just reminded her that she’d built her career on Hal’s lyrics and that the great Joe Sample would be playing piano. She said she’d be right over, and that the next thing you know we’re in the studio, recording the song [laughs].”
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Melissa Manchester may have learned her craft from a who’s who of music royalty, counting names like Bette Midler, Barry Manilow and Paul Simon among her mentors, but no less important was a piece of Digital Age advice passed on to her from a most unlikely source – her music students at the University of Southern California. It was they who encouraged her to take a chance, to step outside of her comfort zone, to do something completely off the Manchester Reservation.
A posthumous duet with Tupac?
A collection of Spanish tunes to tap a new audience?
As enticing as those ideas might be, her students went another route, insisting that Manchester consider a 21st century approach to releasing her first album in ten years, out of which emerged the independently-produced, crowdfunding-backed You Gotta Love the Life. For Manchester, this marked a radical departure from traditional record-making, no small feat considering that most artists in her age demographic are, to coin a phrase, technology averse. All of which begs the question: How did Manchester find herself lecturing to a group of college students in the first place?
“This whole teaching experience, I didn’t see it coming,” Manchester says. “I was originally invited as a guest speaker, but then they invited me back to teach a class, and then they just kept inviting me back [laughs].
“The thing is, I learn so much from my students – maybe more than I teach. Time becomes fluid for me, because I can see that they are at the beginning of their adventure, and I remember the beginning of my own adventure. So I’m coming to them from the very long shadow of a very long career.” – Melissa Manchester
The thought of You Gotta Love the Life being concocted in a USC lecture hall, with money raised from an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, seems at odds with a sixty-something singer whose first hit came way back in 1975. But spend any time at all with the energetic Manchester and you quickly appreciate her propensity for pushing the envelope, especially at a point in her career when few would fault her for resting on her laurels. Others of her stature might tune out their students. Manchester? Are you kidding me?
“They would come into my studio every couple of months with a new EP,” Manchester says, “and it would look so professionally done. It would be shrink-wrapped, and have lovely photographs and credits, and it would contain five beautifully produced songs. Well, I had been thinking about making another record, so I asked them how they created their CDs. I expected them to say that they worked with various independent labels, but that wasn’t the case. They said that they were doing it through crowdfunding, and suggested that I should do the same thing. I said, ‘Great!’, and immediately followed that with, ‘Wait – what is that?’ So my students taught me about crowdfunding, and they taught [my manager] Sue Holder about it, and that’s how we got started.
“One of my students became my project manager, and several others stepped up to become part of the creative team. They worked with me note-by-note, and step-by-step, and showed me how to do this. It was amazing. Everything about this adventure of making this record became part of a breathing entity, including the fans who contributed funds toward the making of this album. It allowed them to lean into the process and have a sweet, proprietary interest in the process – I never knew that anyone outside of myself was interested in the process of what was being created. Some of them who donated enough actually spent a day in the studio with us, and it was incredible. To have the fans and the students show up made it more alive, and it helped me experience how crowdfunding can turn something like this into a living, breathing adventure.”
Would she do it again?
“Absolutely,” she says, smiling. “This is such a new way of thinking for me. For my students, it’s their version of normal. It was so fascinating on so many levels. It’s exhausting. It’s exhilarating. It’s a new paradigm, and underscores the fact that we’re in an industrial revolution where the wheel is being reinvented, and doesn’t necessarily end up being round.”
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That so many A-List singers and musicians would eagerly step up to perform with Manchester on this record speaks volumes. The lady has serious street cred, the kind that opens doors and gets calls returned. In 1983, she won a Grammy in the Best Female Pop Vocal Performance category for You Should Hear How She Talks About You, and she’s certainly no stranger to making Top 10 hits. But it goes deeper than that. There are other equally decorated singers who wouldn’t stand of chance of landing legends like Stevie Wonder and Al Jarreau on their records. To use a Red Cross metaphor, Manchester is the universal blood type, the kind of person whose energy and passion is compatible with everyone.
Talk about compatibility; in Big Light, Manchester and Jarreau reunite, bringing back memories of their beautiful duet from the Out of Africa soundtrack all of those years ago.
“Oh my goodness,” Manchester says, wistfully. “Al is just the world’s largest elf [laughs]. He is so dear and so precious to me – he and I have toured together a couple of times, once as part of the Colors of Christmas Tour, and then together on our own tour. He is such a loving spirit.”
How did these old friends reconnect?
“Lenny Castro, who is our percussionist and a magnificent friend, called me and said, ‘Missy, somebody wants to talk to you’. And then he put Al on the phone! Al said, ‘I hear you’re doing a record – can I sing on it?’ Just like that, he came to the studio ready to work.
“I thought Big Light would be a wonderful cast for him, because the meat of that song is so close to his nature, at least based on the songs that he’s written and chooses to record. After he recorded his part, I went into the studio and thanked him. I gave him a hug and he held on to me really tight and started crying, and he said, ‘Thank you for doing this and thank you for letting me be a part of this.’ It was a beautiful moment for me, and one that I’ll never forget.”
Having so many artists at her fingertips could be both a blessing and a curse. Did Manchester write the lyrics with specific artists in mind?
“The songs on You Gotta Love the Life weren’t created for specific artists,” she explains. “But when it came time to reach out, and to create a stage for them to perform, that’s when it became clear who the choices should be. I believe that’s when the truth of the song shows up. And then it’s about taking chances and hoping that the artist will want to be part of it all.”
Truth and chance. Twenty albums in and Manchester is still listening to her inner voice, still trusting her gut. She refuses to be pigeonholed as a balladeer; how else can you explain her decision to bury the soulful ballad I Know Who I Am – easily one of the standouts – at the end of the album’s playlist, the thirteenth of fourteen tracks? And she refuses to succumb to creative atrophy; how else to explain the inspired decision to collaborate with actor Paul Reiser, he of Mad About You fame, on the witty, tongue-in-cheek No There There?
“Paul and I have toured together,” Manchester says, adding quickly: “He wasn’t performing with me, but rather opening for me by doing standup. He’s a very sweet person. I hadn’t seen him in a long time, but I did have an opportunity to see him at a concert where he had co-written a lot of the music. I thought that was so interesting and unexpected. So when we got together I talked to him about this idea I had for a song, and I asked him if he wanted to help me write it.
“No There There is interesting because a lot of my students had never heard of that expression. It actually comes from the writer Gertrude Stein, whom I used to read a lot of when I was a teenager. The song is quite personal, because I’ve gone through some fundamental changes in my life over the last couple years.” – Melissa Manchester
Like Keb’ Mo’, Joe Sample brings his distinctive style to Manchester’s record. Famous for his piano work with everyone from Tina Turner to Marvin Gaye to Joni Mitchell, Sample’s résumé stretches on for days. What was it like to finally collaborate with the late, great Joe Sample?
“I’ve been trying to work with Joe Sample for thirty years, but he was always just so busy,” Manchester replies. “So you just sort of change your focus and you hope for the best. My co-producer, Terry Wollman, knew Joe and had worked with him in the past, so there was a relationship already in place. That got me excited. Just the thought of being in a room with Joe Sample, and him playing on a song of mine – this would be as good as it gets. Terry helped make my dream come true.
“Joe wasn’t traveling much, due to some health challenges, so I flew down to Houston where he lived. We got into his studio and he played piano on Other End of the Phone. I still get chills. He started playing, and he has that distinctive style that doesn’t sound like anybody else. As an artist, I am always looking for that inner life, because that is where the song comes alive for me. That’s where I can get to the core of my understanding of the truth, and that is what dictates the style of the music. So when Joe put his hands on the piano, he couldn’t have been lovelier or funnier or more communicative. It was toward the end of his career and he wasn’t feeling well, and yet he was exuberant and so full of life. He was ready to meet his challenge, which unfortunately he could not overcome, but he was just a vibrant, beautiful person – another hero of mine.”
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It’s hard to imagine a musical Mt. Rushmore without Stevie Wonder, his face immortalized alongside icons like Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson. Equal parts national treasure and musical savant, Stevie Wonder receives a never ending stream of performance requests, as has been the case for a very long time, and he is naturally very selective in terms of who he performs with. To see him pop up on Manchester’s latest record tells you everything you need to know about her reputation within the industry. Think about it. This isn’t some run-of-the-mill pop star we’re talking about.
This is Stevie-effing-Wonder.
There has to be a story.
“Stevie Wonder, that was just unbelievable,” says Manchester admiringly. “I recorded most of the album at Citrus College, which is one of the greatest secrets in our nation. It’s a junior college, but their studio really rivals Capitol Records.
“When Stevie Wonder came it was spring break, so the campus was basically cleared, except for all of the security guards who knew who was coming. There was also one room that had a group of students who were rehearsing for their band practice. As Stevie was about to go into the studio to record for me, he heard the students in the rehearsal room practicing, so he goes in that direction so he could listen to them. Naturally we all followed. He listened to them for a while, and he was very complimentary of their performance. You should have seen the looks on the students’ faces when they realized the Stevie Wonder was interested in what they were doing.
“He came into my studio with his box of harmonicas afterwards, and he asked me what I had in mind. Of course I sort of deferred and said, ‘Whatever you like’, and he immediately replied, ‘No, no, no, what do you want?’ So I told him what I had in mind, and he was just so amazing about it. He played and played; he wanted to do it better, and then he wanted to do it in a different key, and then he wanted to try a different harmonica. It was truly unbelievable, just seeing how accommodating and down to earth he was during the process, and how invested he was in getting it right. And then we finally got it – actually, we got enough material for a thousand songs [laughs] – and after it was over, he stayed around and schmoozed with us for a long time.
“But when it was time to go, he heard the students playing down the hall again. If you can visualize Stevie Wonder running toward that sound, that’s what he did, and we were all running after him. He stood while they were rehearsing, and one of the young women asked him if he’d like to sing with them. Well, he said, ‘What do you have?’ And she said that they’d been rehearsing Superstition, and he said, ‘Oh yeah? Let me hear what you’ve got.’ He went to the mic in the center of the room, and they started playing Superstition, and he sung his head off [laughs]. It was unbelievable – I had tears running down my face. He left after that, and everybody was screaming and thanking me for bringing him in. It was an incredible moment. Monumental.”
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Melissa Manchester’s powerful voice has always leant itself well to sweeping ballads, and it continues to be the foundation stone of her legendary music career. I Know Who I Am is, in many ways, as much a love poem to her fans as it is a personal catharsis. It’s not unlike the great Matisse building the Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence, with its stained glass windows and three great murals, this after a career filled with saturated color and divine innovation.
“I Know Who I Am has had an interesting journey,” she says. “I wrote that song with Joanna Cotten and Greg Barnhill at a home in Nashville. It was part of Tyler Perry’s movie For Colored Girls, and was also used as part of a trailer for the movie The Butler. The song is a monologue, and it’s sort of the perfect moment for me to sing that song, because I know the inner world of it, and I know what every word means. I’ve lived to be able to say, as much as possible, ‘I know who I am.’ I could certainly sing this song at twenty or thirty, but at this point I have such a deep reservoir of truth for me to draw from. And to have the young singers from Citrus College as my choir, it blended young voices and older voices, and I found that to be really touching.”
I Know Who I Am gives us a glimpse into Manchester’s gift for songwriting, which has been influenced by the likes of Paul Simon. How has her storytelling changed through the years?
“I had the great honor to study with Paul Simon – he said, ‘The thing to remember is that all of the stories have been told. The way you tell your story is your stamp of authenticity.’ And I’ve found that to be true. I’ve held onto that piece of information forever.” – Melissa Manchester
“As I’ve gotten deeper into my life and my experience of being a writer, the craft takes over. You learn that it’s not enough to spew lyrics and set them to a pile of notes. You literally want to start shaping them, so that when somebody hears them for the first time, the words are deeply heard and felt.”
Paul Simon, like Stevie Wonder, is a giant in the music industry, the kind of artist who stands out in a crowd of artificially manufactured superstars. His influence can be heard and felt the world over, with A-List talent like Sting counting him as a mentor – with a select few, such as Sting, actually sharing the stage with him. What was it like for Manchester to develop such a close friendship with someone like Paul Simon?
“I was seventeen years old, and had gone to NYU for about ten months,” says Manchester. “Two of my friends signed me up for a record production course taught by Paul Simon. No one was for sure that this was the Paul Simon, because Bridge Over Troubled Waters was the number one song in the world at the time. Indeed, not only was the Paul Simon of Simon and Garfunkel, he actually did all of the auditions himself.
“At the time, my musical muse was Laura Nyro. I just couldn’t believe how talented she was, and I just listened to her all of the time. So I played a song for Paul, and then he asked me to play another song. And he asked me, ‘Do you listen to Laura Nyro?’, and I said, ‘Oh yes, all the time!’ He smiled at me and said, ‘Well, it’s time to stop now.’ And it was there that he started to talk to his students about authenticity, and about finding something that appeals to you, of course, but approaching it in a way that is yours. That’s why his songs are so powerfully constructed. I share that advice with my students today, as well as anyone who will listen, because it’s very true.”
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After Matisse conceived the Chapelle du Rosaire de Vence, he called it the crowning achievement of his entire career. This was an extraordinary thing for him to say, since he was first and foremost a painter. The chapel is an incredibly still and serene space, with stained glass windows designed by Matisse representing the tree of life. The light passing through the windows somehow seems to repudiate his depiction of Christ’s suffering on the opposite wall, and one can’t help but think: This is a man who spent his life foremost painting, yet in this place he leaves oil paints behind entirely. Instead, the substance he’s working with – the material – is light. It’s an innovative use of color that is both incredibly simplistic and something that you could look at all day. What else could you ask of a great work of art?
In You Gotta Love the Life, the substance that Manchester’s working with is lessons learned – from her personal and professional life, from those who have meant so much to her through the years, and from the students who teach her something new every day. She brings all of these voices together and they cohere expertly, giving us a work in which Manchester is at its center, yet equally willing to cede the spotlight and allow others to shine. It is, in a way, a reflection of the democratic nature of the creative world in which we live today.
And that suits the forward-thinking Manchester just fine.