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Tuesday
Oct262010

One man's passion keeps the torch singers glowing bright

 

Piers Ford

 

UK based freelance journalist Piers Ford has a twenty-year experience with interviewing an array of cabaret and musical theatre luminaries such as Julie Wilson, Elaine Stritch and Maria Friedman. He’s also a passionate supporter of cabaret as well as a fierce advocate of female torch singers and quite an aficionado of the subject. So much so that he started a blog ‘The Art of the Torch Singer to cover the artists who sing about love and loss. Piers has put his pen, paper and tape recorder aside and donned the interviewee hat for this article, then delved into his thoughts on torch singers, his ongoing book project and many memorable cabaret moments, both as a journalist and an audience.

 

Your blog ‘The Art of the Torch Singer’, features female torch singers and their work.  You started it after interviewing those singers for 20 years. What prompted you to transfer that vast experience into the cyberspace?

You can’t make a living from writing about such a niche area of show business and while it does spark the occasional commission, it’s actually very difficult to get features editors interested in ideas about female singers who aren’t the latest thing to arrive on a tide of marketing hype.

On the whole, torch singers – at least the type of performer who interests me – tend to draw on life experience so, not to be ungallant about it, they’ve been around for a while and don’t fit that particular bill. Also, there is so much new material emerging all the time that never gets reported. I just got very frustrated and a blog was the obvious solution – although it took me a long time to wake up to the idea. It gives me a platform to cover the sort of music that appeals to me, to shamelessly stretch and adapt the torch-singing genre, and to write about a lot of great performers whose work you’ll often find reviewed respectfully in the new releases sections of music magazines or national newspapers, but who rarely make it into the interview or profile sections. And they’re worthy of so much wider coverage. Plus, after meeting and speaking to so many singers over the years, I feel I’m in a position to make intelligent observations about them and their material, and put them into some kind of context for anyone who happens by.

 

Why not male torch singers?

It’s a valid question but the simple fact is that I’ve been a fan of what you might call the “bruised” type of lady singer since I was a child, long before I knew or understood what I was responding to. Male singers have never moved me in the same way, which is not to say that I don’t think there have been some remarkable male torch singers. Some of Sinatra’s late night jazz would certainly qualify. Much of Jacques Brel’s work has that edgy, dramatic bleakness. I’d even offer Elton John as an example of a singer/songwriter who at his peak, is quite capable of carrying a yearning torch! But the men who probably come closest for me are Marc Almond, Antony and the Johnsons, and the great British jazz singer Ian Shaw. He can really move you with a phrase. Perhaps I’ll post about them some time but for the moment, I’m finding plenty to say about the women and I can’t afford to turn it into a full time job!

 

While a torch singer is not limited to a particular genre, quite a few renowned cabaret artists feature on your blog, including Barb Jungr, Mari Wilson, Caroline O’Connor and Dolores Scozzesi. What do you think are the similarities between the art of torch singers and the art of cabaret singers?

Definitely the ability to tell a story in song, with emotional conviction. Singers like these can hold a room in the palm of their hands, make the audience identify in a single note or word with the experience that they are singing about. It’s a very rare gift and not something that comes simply with being a professional singer. Acting comes into it, to an extent, but it’s also about using experience to render the lyrics authentic in that particular moment. I really don’t think you need to have experienced the clichéd excesses of a Judy Garland-style life to be an effective torch singer or cabaret performer, or even to have gone through the actual dramas that you might be singing about. But what the singers you mention – and many others I’ve encountered - all share is an ability to draw on their own life experiences to render a song “real”. Of course as the listener, you may or may not know something of their private lives. Sometimes that knowledge will make a performance more poignant, and obviously that’s what a lot of people are tuning into when they listen to the great torch singers – Garland, Holiday, Piaf. Perhaps it’s also partly why people turn out in droves for a Whitney Houston arena show, or why a low-key Amy Winehouse gig in north London excites such interest. But mostly, in the more intimate setting of cabaret where the torch singer really comes into her own, you’re responding to the honesty and clarity of an interpretation in the moment rather than the singer’s back-story and I think that’s where torch singing and cabaret coincide.

 

What initially drew you to cabaret as a genre and an art form?

Cabaret is a very exposing art form. For the performer, obviously, because the venues are intimate, often fraught with distractions – people eating, drinking, chattering, texting – and there has to be something powerful and fascinating about a singer who can work with all that, shut the audience up, create a world and draw them into it. Every gesture, a wrong note, an expression or aside, the relationship with her accompanist or band, is in the spotlight.

But it’s also exposing for the audience. You will never be closer to a singer. Emotions are triggered, something chimes with your own experience and it could be for better or worse. In a funny way, there’s nowhere for you to hide either. And then of course from a technical perspective, to see a cabaret performer at the peak of her form – Julie Wilson or Elaine Stritch, say – is to receive a lesson in the skill of the entertainer. They make it look easy, but what you’re watching is 60 years of hard-earned experience distilled into a set, and if you allow yourself to be absorbed by it, there is really nothing else like it.

 

What aspects of cabaret do you find most captivating?

The intimate relationship between the singer and the audience. I remember my first experience of cabaret – seeing Gogi Grant at Pizza on the Park in London. It was a foul night and an audience of about 20 had struggled through the elements – that was pretty feeble, actually. It would never happen in Manhattan, would it? But there might have been 200 in the room as far as Grant was concerned. She generated such a rapport, and if the voice wasn’t quite the instrument of those glorious records she made in the 1950s, she had lost none of that supreme ability to interpret the lyrics. I love the way cabaret allows a singer to develop and extend her career beyond the confines of pop or musical theatre, the way it gives a platform for singers who aren’t easily categorized by music marketers, and the fact that it doesn’t discriminate against age. As a genre it offers something that a pop career rarely does – namely, longevity. Cabaret will accommodate every texture and timbre and will forgive the inroads time makes on a voice if the story telling is compelling.

 

The top three most inspiring cabaret performances you’ve attended so far?

Photo by Peter James Zielinski

This is tricky, because there have been many. In no particular order, and for the range of experience, I’d say: Barb Jungr’s programme of chansons at the Almeida Theatre in London in the summer of 2008. The material was dark and raw, and she inhabited the lyrics so completely that they almost crystallized – like black diamonds – in the space between the singer and her audience; around the same time, I saw Elaine Stritch At Liberty at the Shaw Theatre. The woman is a show business phenomenon, one of the last of her kind. To hear her singing “The Ladies Who Lunch” with every ounce of the lacerating venom and power, plus some, that she brought to it when Sondheim wrote the song for her to sing in Company nearly 40 years earlier was unforgettable; most recently – and perhaps this will be a surprising choice for anyone who thinks you need to have lived a little to sing worldly lyrics convincingly – I was astonished by a young British singer, Jessie Buckley, at the much lamented Pizza on the Park in March this year. Buckley was a runner up in the television talent show I’d Do Anything, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s search for a Nancy to star in his West End production of Oliver! I’m not a fan of the format and although I’d subsequently enjoyed her performance as Anne in the revival of A Little Night Music, I was rather sceptical that at 20, a West End ingénue could bring much to cabaret, which I think is, at its best, a very adult form of entertainment. What I saw was an immensely talented, assured artist with an instinctive command of the room. She brought extraordinary maturity to “The Man That Got Away” and a host of other standards, with great flair and phrasing. It was a very moving evening. I think she can be a serious star if all goes well, but I hope she never gets too big to work her magic in smaller rooms!

 

As an audience, what do you expect from a cabaret show?

Truthfulness, commitment and honesty from the singer. The courage to look her audience in the eye and deliver a story from the heart – or “le tripe” as the French say, which I think is so appropriate in this context, although “guts” sounds even less appealing! A challenging choice of songs. An emotional roller-coaster that delivers laughs and wisdom, and exercises the tear ducts. Great inter-song show business anecdotes and tales from life, and small details about the songs that explain why they mean something to the performer. A generous atmosphere generated by the relationship between the singer and her band or pianist that also embraces the audience. In short, a collective, even collaborative experience that continues to echo long after the event.

 

What lead you to becoming a journalist?

I read Drama and English at London University but I graduated without any clear idea of a career. I was in my mid-20s before I felt the lure of journalism and started trying my hand at freelance writing. Once I had a few cuttings, I started applying for jobs and I got lucky fairly quickly, albeit not in a subject that I was particularly interested in! But it was great training in the disciplines and structures of journalism. I became a freelance journalist in 1995 because I wanted the freedom to branch out into subjects that I could get my teeth into – including, by that stage, music and the arts.

 

Was it a natural progression that you’ve become specialised in interviewing cabaret artists and singers, or was that because you had existing interest in the field?

 

I think both elements have been important. As I said earlier, the specific interest in female singers was always there, right from childhood. I always knew what I liked to listen to and from early on, had a sense of different voices and emotional timbres that would grab me when I heard them on the radio. Those were the days of the great British female pop singers. I loved them then, even at the age of 6 or 7, as I do now. I was obsessed for ages with Nana Mouskouri singing “Never on Sunday”. I got the Eurovision bug early – it’s changed so much these days, but the contest always used to be fertile territory for anyone who wanted a glimpse of some of Europe’s finest female singers.

I was fascinated by Julie Andrews, because my mother had a Broadway cast recording of My Fair Lady. I think you can see a theme emerging here! She also had The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night, but that never hooked me in the same way although today I really understand the greatness of some of those songs. But it was only in my 20s that this interest started to gel in a more cohesive way and I began to look at it with more – I suppose – academic eyes, exploring popular music and musical theatre, and getting to know more about the lives of singers like Judy Garland and Edith Piaf.

There was a seminal moment, before I became a journalist, when I read a review of the London production of Follies that described “Losing My Mind” as a quintessential Helen Morgan torch song. I hurried off to find out who on earth Helen Morgan was, and that sent me spinning off into the whole genre of torch singing. The interviews started when I was first thinking of writing a book about it, and I began to approach artists for comments. But of course many people will only speak to an unknown writer if they have a specific commission, so I soon realised that the best way in was through writing magazine and newspaper articles, which is a journalistic thread I’ve spent the last 20 years developing.

 

Out of all the performers you’ve interviewed, which ones stand out in your mind?

Again, there are many. Elaine Stritch was so memorable. We spent an afternoon strolling around Covent Garden, running various errands, before settling down to our interview. She was very funny, acidic, brash – and in spite of all that, and a reputation for not suffering fools at all – generous with her time. Julie Wilson hiked in from Jersey City, and bought me a curry in Manhattan when I was in New York, to speak to me for my book. There aren’t many people who would do that for an obscure writer. Both those women are giants of show business and cabaret in particular, and the stories and insights into their work just tumbled forth.

Margaret Whiting was another from that era – I doubt any singer knows more, at first hand, about how the great American standards were forged. Mariza, the Portuguese fado singer, was delightful and made such highly intelligent observations about her work (this isn’t always the case with singers – some of them don’t really care to, or just can’t, analyse their own art). Omara Portuondo was serenity and kindness personified. Barbara Dickson has impressed me in two interviews to date with her integrity and a staunch commitment to her music that burns through her more recent recordings with a force that wasn’t apparent during her MOR hit-making days.

And I have to mention Barb Jungr, who has long since become a friend – which might make some people question my objectivity! – but whose voice I admired long before I met her, and whose commitment to reinterpreting unexpected song choices and, again, whose integrity in developing a singing career according to her own instincts, are an inspiration to anybody following a creative path.

 

What are some of the joys and trials of covering, interviewing performers, reviewing shows and promoting the torch singers and cabaret?

The joy is in hearing new work for the first time or discovering a new voice, then working back through a singer’s catalogue to find out what you have (or haven’t, sometimes) been missing. With very few exceptions, it has been a great pleasure to actually meet or speak to singers who I’ve been listening to for years. It’s nice to make a personal connection, to tell somebody how much a particular piece has meant to you. But I’ve also learned not to expect too much – and that singers are often much less sentimental or even knowledgeable about their own work than you might be! As a journalist, that makes perfect sense to me because I know what I’m writing about today and tomorrow, but ask me to go back a week or a year and I’ll have erased it from memory. But it’s surprising when you want to talk about an album that must have taken many months of hard work, and reflects the best of a singer at that particular time in her career, and they are almost dismissive of it. Some singers are much more interesting talking about their peers or gossiping about the business – and that’s always fine, too, even if you can’t use it without consulting a libel lawyer!

The trials are mainly to do with the machinery that surrounds singers, particularly when their star is riding high. Many PRs and managers have helped me with arranging interviews through the years – and now it’s great that so many will send albums for me to review on the blog, even though it isn’t a major media brand. Equally, some have been indifferent – and occasionally dismissive to the point of rudeness– and that is frustrating, not to say hardly in the best interest of their clients. The other frustrating thing is catching the ear of arts editors and persuading them that they should be carrying features about torch singers. But I guess that comes with the territory I occupy!

 

When you go see a show or listen to an album to review, what are the things do you look out for?

A unique voice – it doesn’t have to be a great voice but it has to be interesting, intriguing, provocative in some way. It’s always great to hear familiar standards treated in a different way. That combination is what attracted me to Dolores Scozzesi’s new album, for example. I’d never heard of her before but I’ve been playing it so much on my Blackberry that she’s become a fellow traveller on my train journeys, and I still hear something new each time. She has such an interesting voice, full of surprises, and she phrases in a way that I really haven’t heard before.

With a cabaret performance, I’m looking for all of that – an affinity with the genre, a style that the performer has honed and feels thoroughly comfortable with. Plus great story telling and a generosity with the audience.

With a theatre show it has to be a great book, emotionally truthful songs, great performances. I’m a Sondheim fan, so this has been a fantastic year from that point of view, but I also like Kander and Ebb, and Harnick and Bock, and Maury Yeston who I think is often underrated. Jason Robert Brown has written some beautifully judged emotional pieces but producers are shamefully cowardly about committing to new work on the musical front, which is a major problem for the future of that particular genre.

 

Do you vary your method depending on your subject you’re interviewing, or is there a golden rule you always stick to?

I just remember to ask “Why?” It’s one of the principles of journalistic interviewing that is easiest to forget, but it always delivers interesting answers. Beyond that I just want to strike a balance between professional friendliness and, if it’s a singer I particularly admire, not falling prey to “fan” syndrome – going over the top with flattery and flannel. I always do my homework and try to be as freshly acquainted with their work as possible before the interview.

 

Who are some of the singers you haven’t you interviewed yet that you’d like to choose as your next subject and why?

There are some major American stars I would like to interview: Bernadette Peters, Betty Buckley and Bette Midler have all forged unique, fascinating careers as singers and actors, and I’d love an hour in the company of any of them to explore the challenges they’ve faced and the battles they’ve fought. Streisand, of course, would be another one – but how does anyone scale that fortress? She did some TV interviews over here fairly recently, none of which got much beyond a sort of fawning breathlessness on the part of the interviewers. Juliette Greco is coming to London at the end of November and I would love to interview her about her place at the pinnacle of the chanson, and what has to be one of the most fascinating lives of any singer.

And I would like to interview Julie Andrews in the wake of her London appearance, which was not, as I’m sure many of your readers will know, an unqualified success. I think “Why?” would be a very important question, but it would need to be asked with great sensitivity and respect.

 

What projects have you got in the pipeline at the moment?

My book, Body and Soul: The Art of the Torch Singer, is an ongoing project. I started it 16 years ago, tracing the genre back to its roots in vaudeville, chanson and music hall, and bringing it up to date through the decades of evolving singing styles to the present, answering the question: why do we still revere our torch singers in this cynical age? I’ve interviewed everybody from Margaret Whiting and Kay Starr to Polly Bergen, Cleo Laine, Petula Clark, Annie Ross, Ute Lemper, Jane Birkin and Marianne Faithfull. And while the feedback has always been good – that it’s well written, well researched, fascinating – I have yet to find a publisher prepared to take it a step further. That remains my main goal on the torch singers front. It goes without saying that if any publisher out there is interested in seeing more about this, I’d love them to get in touch! Meanwhile, I intend to keep developing The Art of the Torch Singer as the definitive blog on the subject.

 

You are currently based in the UK.  What are your thoughts on the local cabaret scene?

I live about 60 miles outside London. We don’t have much of a cabaret scene out here in the country, although I must make a plug for Jazz at the Fleece, which attracts world-class jazz and cabaret singers and musicians to the wilds of Suffolk every Friday evening. The cabaret scene in London is frustratingly fluid. We’ve lost Pizza on the Park – I went past it on the bus the other day and to see it as a shell covered in scaffolding was truly distressing; those walls held the memories of so many marvellous performances – and gained The Pheasantry, which seems to be settling down as a venue. Pizza Express in Soho attracts important singers. Ronnie Scott’s has been tarted up and in the process, according to some people, lost much of its original edge but at least it survives. Now, apparently, the 101 Club is under threat. There are other venues like Lauderdale House that offer cabaret, and the Delfont Room at the Prince of Wales Theatre keeps the tradition of post-theatre late night cabaret alive. But it always feels a bit stop-start. Cabaret isn’t part of London’s entertainment DNA in the same way that you’ll find in Manhattan, more’s the pity.

 

If you could morph into a female torch singer doing a cabaret show for one night, what songs would you choose and why?

That’s a cheeky question – I feel as if you were spying on me all those years ago when I’d use my hairbrush as a mic and perform to the mirror! But since you ask, my set would definitely include: “The Man That Got Away” – just one of the great torch songs of all time; “Losing My Mind” – Sondheim’s pastiche of a torch number, so specific of purpose in Follies but equally capable of flight outside the show; “Not a Day Goes By” – Sondheim again, so perfect in his examination of longing; “Time Heals Everything” – another big, theatrical torch song about the futility of trying to forget; “Cry Me A River” – emphasizing the cruelty and life-stained disdain in the lyric rather than going for unsubtle overkill (yes, that’s you Michael Bublé); “Bill” – one of the songs that made Helen Morgan’s name when she starred in Showboat; “Je T’ai Dans La Peau” – a lesser known Piaf song, sexy and yearning; “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me” – because there always has to be a bit of Dusty Springfield; “Sweet Dreams” – Patsy Cline never sounded so exquisitely tortured; “I’ll Cry Tomorrow” – the theme from the Lillian Roth bio-pic, complete with moaning trumpets and a haze of Bourbon-soaked despair.

 

The Art of the Torch Singer: www.cry-me-a-torch-song.com

Piers Ford’s homepage: www.piersford.co.uk

 

Lena Nobuhara

Cabaret Confessional Associate Editor 

 

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