Jazz Diva Jane Monheit Gets To The Heart Of The Matter

Growing as a musician is often a balancing act of challenging yourself without alienating your fans. For jazz diva Jane Monheit, maturity has given her singing new depth, and has given her new confidence as a performer. Guest host Celeste Headlee speaks with the Grammy nominated vocalist about her latest album The Heart of the Matter.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

Evolving as a musician is often a complicated process. It's usually a delicate balancing act. On one side, pleasing yourself and, on the other, pleasing your fans. But, for jazz diva Jane Monheit, her success as a recording artist hasn't forced her to compromise her standards. In fact, the longer her career lasts, the more she broadens her musical range.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A GENTE MERECE SER FELIZ")

JANE MONHEIT: (Singing in foreign language).

HEADLEE: That's Jane Monheit performing "A Gente Merece Ser Feliz" from her new album, "The Heart of the Matter." The album's largely a selection of carefully chosen cover songs and it's available now. Here to tell us more about it is the Grammy-nominated vocalist herself, Jane Monheit.

Welcome to the program.

MONHEIT: Hi. Thanks for having me.

HEADLEE: You're quoted as saying this and I'll quote you exactly. "After all this time in the industry, after touring for 13 years, it's time to just be me with complete and utter freedom." But that implies that you haven't been completely you in the past. What was holding you back?

MONHEIT: Well, you know, I don't know if anyone is at the beginning in this industry. It's a difficult thing and I started very young, as well, so you know there's lots of people around telling me who they think I should be, what they think I should do. I'm totally green. I don't know what to do. I'm listening to different people. I'm trying to figure out who I want to be. I mean, I was fresh out of college and the idea of just being myself didn't necessarily seem like the right thing to do at that point. You know, I had to always say the right thing and be in the most glamorous dress and all of that, you know.

And now, I'm 35 and I've had a child and I don't care. I just don't. I'm so happy to just be myself, you know, whatever that means, whether it's the choice of the song or what I talk about or the fact that I wore sneakers to this interview when, 10 years ago, I would have worn five-inch heels, you know.

HEADLEE: Well, you might as well be comfortable. Right? It makes you more relaxed. But what's the difference between, say, a musician that never rises to the greatness of their first album and one that improves over time?

MONHEIT: Well, it's such a hard thing because you have your entire life leading up to your first record. Everything that ever inspired you if you're a songwriter, all of the music that you've written over the years - that's a really hard one. And then you have to make your second album a year later and all you've done is promote the first one and tour and you haven't had time to live and be inspired, you know, so it's very difficult.

For me, I take so much inspiration just from my everyday life that I'm able to sort of keep going and the songs find me and it's also easier for me because I'm not a songwriter. I'm interpreting the work of others for the most part so it's easier for me to put together a project because I don't have to write, you know, between 10 and 15 songs.

HEADLEE: Well, we're going to talk about the song that you did write. But first let's examine a little more closely covering someone else's music. And you've said that a big part of your selection is based on the lyrics, the story of the song. So want to talk about a song that was originally performed by Buffy Sainte-Marie. It's called "Until It's Time for You to Go." Let's take a listen to it first and then we'll talk about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNTIL IT'S TIME FOR YOU TO GO")

MONHEIT: (Singing) You're not a dream. You're not an angel. You're a man. I'm not a queen. I'm a woman. Take my hand. We'll make a space in the life that we'd planned. And here we'll stay until it's time for you to go.

HEADLEE: Out of the many dozens - if not hundreds - of songs you could've chosen, why this one?

MONHEIT: Well, you know, it's funny. It's a song that I always loved - especially the Roberta Flack version, I really love.

HEADLEE: Yeah.

MONHEIT: And when Gil and I got together to put the album together - Gil Goldstein, our producer and arranger - he brought some song ideas to me and he suggested this one and I hadn't thought of this song in a million years and I was so thrilled to have remembered it. I was so excited that he thought of it, so we recorded it. And it was a funny experience recording this because it's a love song, obviously.

HEADLEE: Yeah.

MONHEIT: But as I was singing it in the studio I had a total epiphany about what the song means to me. You know, I have a little boy, he's about to turn five, and I realized that that this song, it's really sort of about the end of his childhood.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNTIL IT'S TIME FOR YOU TO GO")

HEADLEE: (Singing) And though I'll never, never in my life see you again. Still I'll stay until it's time for you to go.

MONHEIT: And so I ended up having this really heartfelt interpretation of it because I'm singing about this little person they'll never see again, you know, he'll be gone forever. Of course, the man he'll grow up to be I hope I see every day of my life, but my little boy will be gone. And so that's sort of, well, really, what I was singing about when we recorded that.

HEADLEE: You know, you're on record giving a lot of credit to your producers. You just mentioned Gil Goldstein. Many people listening to this interview are going to have no idea what exactly a producer does and often rarely notices who produces a track, right?

MONHEIT: Mm-hmm.

HEADLEE: What is it about Gil that makes a difference? You say he turns music into magic. How does that work?

MONHEIT: Gil is a very hands-on producer. He's there for every moment. He's fully invested in helping you make the best record that you can and I love him so much for that. Whenever we make music together it always ends up being really honest and sincere and beautiful.

HEADLEE: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with jazz vocalist Jane Monheit about her new album "The Heart of the Matter."

You're talking about the process and, in fact, this album was recorded in only three days. That's incredibly quick, considering some contemporary artists take months to put an album together. I wonder how did you resist the temptation to keep tweaking.

MONHEIT: We didn't have any money for it.

(LAUGHTER)

MONHEIT: You know, it's like you have your album budget and that's what it is. And in jazz we don't have those huge budgets that pop singers have. You know what I mean? We have just enough to make the thing. And...

HEADLEE: So was that a pro or a con?

MONHEIT: Well, I look at it as a pro because it forces us to do our jobs, you know. I mean, Ella Fitzgerald was not taking months to make a record; neither was Sinatra, neither was anybody. They had to go in there and nail it and do their job and I take a ferocious pride in my ability to really be good at my work. Do you know what I mean?

HEADLEE: Yeah.

MONHEIT: Be a strong musician and be able to nail a vocal. And so we did all of the tracks in two days and then the third day I just went through and fixed some vocals and we've made some edits. We didn't even rehearse. I mean, we had like a very tiny rehearsal with just the trio because everybody knows how to do it...

HEADLEE: Yeah.

MONHEIT: You know, that's the point. We shouldn't need months to make a record, that would be ridiculous. I mean, when we get on stage live we have to nail it, so why not do that in the studio too?

HEADLEE: Well, let's get back to some music that, you know, when this guy was writing they also didn't take months to do an album. I'm talking about the cover you did of Robert Wells' "Born to Be Blue," the late composer and songwriter Robert Wells. Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BORN TO BE BLUE" )

MONHEIT: (Singing) Some folks were meant to live in clover but they are such a chosen few. And clover being green is something I've never seen 'cause I was born to be blue. When there's a yellow moon above me, they say there's moonbeams I should view. But moonbeams being gold are something I can't behold 'cause I was born to be blue.

HEADLEE: You know, when I listen to that track Jane, although you are your own unique vocalist, I hear the sweetness of like a Karen Carpenter voice in there. How do you decide how much to tinker with a classic? A song like that many people have heard a number of times, how much do you mess with it?

MONHEIT: I just do what comes naturally. I tend to not over-think that kind of stuff. And honestly, it's for me it's really about any sort of improvisational choices reflecting the lyric and not just doing them just to do it, and all that kind of stuff.

HEADLEE: Oddly enough, this goes back to what we were talking about earlier, in that as a vocalist gets more years under their belt, sometimes the music gets simpler. There's not the striving me to impress people with your vocals. Do you feel that?

MONHEIT: Absolutely. You know, when I was young, I moved to Manhattan at 17 to go to the Manhattan School of Music and, you know, singers need to prove themselves always to the instrumentalists. And so I was, you know, improvising nonstop, singing as much as I could, you know, here, I know all the changes, I know everything, I can do everything you can do all the time. And I've definitely simplified as I've gotten older because the lyrics are more important than a bunch of needless improvisation. I don't need to prove my musical knowledge. I need to make choices that tell a good story.

HEADLEE: Well, you did have some space on your album - as I mentioned earlier - for a song that you wrote. This is called "Night Night Stars," which I assume is written for your son. Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NIGHT NIGHT STARS")

MONHEIT: (Singing) Little boy now a little man. Growing up fast as you can. I will always feel your little hand on my cheek in the dark. Little boy, how sweet you are. Still small enough for mama's arms. Your little voice from the back of the car saying night, night stars.

HEADLEE: I wonder how your experience as a mother has changed your musicianship?

MONHEIT: Well, it certainly has, if for no other reason than just because I don't take myself so seriously anymore because now I'm preparing a person to be in the world and that is more important than anything I will ever do and any note I will ever sing.

HEADLEE: You've been touring for 13 years is something you mentioned. You often singing songs that you haven't just sung for 13 years but that you've been listening to most of your life. Has there ever been a moment for you when you thought to yourself this is more of a job than an art for me and I need a break?

MONHEIT: Oh, I think that in the airport.

(LAUGHTER)

MONHEIT: I mean, we think that when we're crammed into planes, you know. We always say we get paid to travel and we play for free. But no, I really love this because it's all I've ever been. I've been this, I've been a singer, I've known I was going to have this career since I was tiny. It's who I am and I'll never get tired of it. I get tired of certain songs and then I'll take them out of the show for a while, but I never get tired of singing. I never could.

HEADLEE: I want to play a comment for you that was made a few years ago on this program by Jae Sinnett, and he says, even in New Orleans jazz is dying out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

JAE SINNETT: It's a business. It has to survive. Jazz is a very intelligent, it's a highly intelligent very, very complex music, and to go in and expect a lot of people to come around and support this music, I don't think that's the mentality today. So you have a lot of other kinds of music like blues, for example, something with a repetitive beat that people can connect - more people can connect with, and that's what's happening in New Orleans. When I was - last time I was down there, which has been a few years ago, there was more blues than jazz, and you had some of the more traditional jazz down there that I was able to hear, but not as much as I thought that there would be.

HEADLEE: Jae Sinnett, a musician himself, but a radio DJ as well. Do you agree? Do you think jazz is no longer the same vibrant, living musical entity it once was?

MONHEIT: I think it is. I totally think it is. I mean, there is so much happening. It's just all like slightly under the radar, you know. It's not, it's just never going to be completely totally mega mainstream outside of your few singers who have broken loose. But there's so much happening. I mean there's just the strong current of innovation and it's exciting and there's so many wonderful young musicians, but it's never going to be mainstream. It's never going to be, you know, the musical guest on Leno. It's never going to be that kind of thing. That's OK. We're all so happy that we get to play. If we get to make a living playing, we're happy; and teaching and sharing our music in whatever way we can, it's all right. But we're never going to be big stars. We're never going to be rich and famous. And honestly, I wouldn't even want that, I don't think.

HEADLEE: Jane Monheit, Grammy-nominated singer and songwriter. Her new album "The Heart of the Matter" is available now and she joined us from our studios in New York City. Jane, choose a piece from the album for us to go out on.

MONHEIT: Ooh. You know what's a really fun one that I really love? The closing track on the album is a song by Joe Raposo that everyone knows from "The Muppets" and "Sesame Street." I've always wanted to record this song and I always knew I wanted to do it as a Brazilian piece and I'm so happy I did. It's just such an uplifting beautiful song and I cannot explain to you the joy I get from singing it. It's called "Sing."

HEADLEE: Jane Monheit, thank you so much for stopping by.

MONHEIT: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SING")

MONHEIT: (Singing) Sing, sing a song. Sing out loud, sing out strong. Sing of good things not bad. Sing of happy not sad.

HEADLEE: And that's our program for today. I'm Celeste Headlee and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We'll talk more tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SING")

MONHEIT: (Singing) Make it simple to last your whole life long. Don't worry that it's not good enough for anyone else to hear.

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