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Catherine Russell Sings The Standards
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Catherine Russell Sings The Standards
Catherine Russell Sings The Standards
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SCOTT SIMON, host:

Catherine Russell sings the music of the 20th century, and the earlier the better.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. CATHERINE RUSSELL (Singer): (Singing) Outside it's sunny, but in this heart of mine the world is gloomy, the sun refuse to shine...

SIMON: She's especially fond of the music that bookends the Great Depression. But the postwar classic American songbook from the '50s finds a home with her too. Her second album, "Sentimental Streak," was critically acclaimed. Her new album features songs by Fats Waller, Harold Arlen, Howlin' Wolf and Duke Ellington, all performed in her intimate contemporary style.

"Inside This Heart of Mine" is Catherine Russell's latest collection. Catherine Russell joins us from member station WBUR in Boston. Thanks so much for being with us.

Ms. RUSSELL: Well, thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

SIMON: What do you love about this period in music? 'Cause you've explained, we'll explain, you've sung backup for Al Green, David Bowie, Roseanne Cash, Steely Dan.

Ms. RUSSELL: Yes. Jackson Browne, Bette Midler, a number of people. Cyndi Lauper. I love this period of music mostly because it just reminds me of a time of romance, maybe a little simpler time in certain ways. It also reminds me of the dance floor, when people met each other and started, you know, romantic relationships and different things while listening to music and dancing to it.

SIMON: I guess one day there'll be a song about: I read your text message and I knew you were - I saw you on Facebook and knew we were meant for each other, something like that.

Ms. RUSSELL: Yeah, you know, all of these tunes, I feel, have great stories. The lyric tells a great story and they all tell stories of the human condition, which encompasses many emotions in a moment, you know, basically. And I also love the chord structures of your earlier 20th century music. I think they're interesting and fun for musicians to play. And I love the melodies also of that time. So those three elements really help me choose songs.

SIMON: I want you to listen along with us to a song that's also been recorded by the great Howlin' Wolf, and Booker T and the MGs. Let's hear your version of "Spoonful."

(Soundbite of song, "Spoonful")

Ms. RUSSELL: (Singing) Well, it could be a spoonful of diamonds, could be a spoonful of gold. Just a little spoon of your precious love satisfies my soul. Men lied about a little. Some of 'em cried about a little. Some of 'em died about a little. Everybody fightin' about a spoonful. That spoon, that spoon, that spoonful...

SIMON: What were you trying to do with this song that's so well known?

Ms. RUSSELL: I'll just say that this song really speaks to me about personal issues, you know, turning into wars, basically. So I see it as just kind of a statement about what are we fighting over, really. When I hear this song, and I've been hearing this song for many, many years, it just seems like we're going to, you know, find something to disagree about, unfortunately.

SIMON: Can I ask you to talk about your parents?

Ms. RUSSELL: Yes. My mother - I'll start with my mom - Carline Ray, who is 85, is a bass player. She was a guitarist with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, an all-female orchestra during the Second World War, worked with Mary Lou Williams, appeared with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra a few years ago with Wynton Marsalis. And she's just an amazing human being. My father, Luis...

SIMON: It's irresistible to point out: Not exactly June Cleaver.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RUSSELL: No.

SIMON: With all due regard to June Cleaver, who is a wonderful mother.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RUSSELL: Not really, I know. They say, oh, what does your mother do? You know, when I was a kid. Oh, she plays the bass. And they were like yeah, right.

SIMON: And your father, Luis Russell, right?

Ms. RUSSELL: Yes. My father, Luis Russell, originally from Panama, in the year 1919 Daddy was playing for silent films in Cologne in Panama, won the Panamanian national lottery and got on the boat with his mother and his sister and came straight to New Orleans and ran into Louis Armstrong and Hoagy Carmichael and a lot of people down there. Formed his own orchestras, then went on to direct Louis Armstrong's orchestra in 1935 to 1943.

SIMON: I'm exhausted just hearing about your parents.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Goodness gracious. We're talking with singer Catherine Russell. He new album is "Inside This Heart of Mine."

Let's ask, I mean give a nod to the folks in our control room. I wonder if we can hear "Slow as Molasses." This was your daddy's tune.

Ms. RUSSELL: Yes, his arrangement.

(Soundbite of song, "Slow as Molasses")

Ms. RUSSELL: (Singing) Slow as molasses, that's how time passes. All the sleepy...

SIMON: Now, your father wrote this as an instrumental, I gather.

Ms. RUSSELL: Well, the tune is actually written by Spencer Williams, and my dad arranged it as an instrumental. And then we had the idea that not many of his tunes were meant for singers. You know, in those days the singer might have sung one or two tunes during a set of music and the rest of them, you know, the rest of the tunes were instrumental.

So in choosing this tune, a great contemporary lyricist named Rachelle Garniez put lyrics to this.

SIMON: What's it like to be singing music arranged by your father?

Ms. RUSSELL: You know, it feels like I'm home, really. I mean, I know that sounds funny but it just feels very natural to me. It feels like family. I just feel like my dad is watching over me and leading me, you know, guiding me with his music and his arrangements. So I love it.

SIMON: That brings up another song I wanted to ask you about, a song, "Just Because You Can."

(Soundbite of song, "Just Because You Can")

Ms. RUSSELL: (Singing) Well, you can push your luck with all your might, or give up without a fight, unleash a fire, so much fury and wrath, they'll smack down every sucker who dares cross your path...

Rachelle Garniez is a fantastic lyricist, composer. You know, she had done a demo of this tune, "Just Because You Can," and - with me in mind, which is like the ultimate compliment of a great songwriter, you know, because I'm a big -been a big fan of hers for many years. And so this is the first time it's been done, which is fantastic.

(Soundbite of song, "Just Because You Can")

Ms. RUSSELL: (Singing) ...just because you should, doesn't mean you can. Just because you should, doesn't mean you can. Boy, you can't make it, gotta lay back and take it like a man. You should live by the golden rule...

SIMON: So you're trying to put songs on this album that are in the style of a certain period, but they could have been written yesterday.

Ms. RUSSELL: Yes, and this is what I like about Rachelle's writing, is that she does write in an old style. So it kind of, many of her songs just remind me of, you know, Paris in the '20s or something. You know, you could be sitting at, you know, at an outdoor caf´┐Ż listening to this music.

(Soundbite of song, "Just Because You Can")

Ms. RUSSELL: (Singing) ...just because you can, doesn't mean you should...

SIMON: Ms. Russell, what a pleasure. How nice to talk to you.

Ms. RUSSELL: Oh, how nice to talk to you too. Thank you so much.

SIMON: Catherine Russell. Her new album, "Inside This Heart of Mine."

(Soundbite of song, "Just Because You Can")

Ms. RUSSELL: (Singing) Just because you can, doesn't mean you should. Baby, it won't do nobody, it won't do nobody no good.

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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