Kate McGarry: A Singer Inspired By The Spoken Word To prepare for her new album, Girl Talk, McGarry researched what her singing idols — including Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughan and Anita O'Day — sounded like in conversation.

Kate McGarry: A Singer Inspired By The Spoken Word

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If you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jacki Lyden.

And we've got one of this country's premier jazz singers today.


LYDEN: Kate McGarry has become her own jazz standard. Her latest CD is called "Girl Talk." It's her fifth for the Palmetto label, and she joins us from North Carolina with her husband, guitarist Keith Ganz. He's standing by. Kate McGarry, welcome. It's a real pleasure.

KATE MCGARRY: Thanks, Jacki.

LYDEN: I just want to talk about some of the research for "Girl Talk." You list Sarah Vaughn, Anita O'Day, Betty Carter, Abbey Lincoln, Nina Simone among your role models. I know you listen to a lot of their actual taped conversations. Tell me about what that was like.

MCGARRY: Well, it was the experience of actually putting their speaking voice and their thoughts about their lives and some of their experiences to the singing voices that I had known for so many years. You know a lot just from listening to their voice. But then when you just hear them speaking it, it really takes you to another level.

LYDEN: I want to play a clip for you. It's of the late Nina Simone, and here's an excerpt. And after we listen to her, we'll talk a bit.


NINA SIMONE: I'll tell you what freedom is to me - no fear. I mean, really no fear. If I could have that half of my life, no fear.

LYDEN: What does this clip say to you from Nina Simone?

MCGARRY: Well, this clip was so powerful for me because there's Nina Simone - this is the late '60s, early '70s, I believe, and as an African-American woman, a civil rights activist, she's there actually talking about just as an individual spirit, what it means to feel free in your own body just walking around on the planet.

LYDEN: Is there a song on this CD that says freedom to you?

MCGARRY: Yes. That would be "We Kiss in a Shadow," a tribute and a celebration of the time we feel that people will be free to marry whomever they choose.

LYDEN: I'm not good with memory. This is the one from "The King and I."

MCGARRY: That's right.


MCGARRY: (Singing) To kiss in the sunlight and say to the sky behold and believe what you see, behold how my lover loves me.

LYDEN: And so you repurposed and rededicated this whole concept. This is not Deborah Kerr and Yul Brenner kissing in the shadows.


MCGARRY: No, it's not. Yeah. I feel like that's one of the great things about jazz singing is you have an opportunity to make the songs relevant today and to yourself and to the situations that you're living in now.

LYDEN: Kate McGarry, let's talk about the title track. "Girl Talk" was written in the 1960s by Bobby Troup and Neal Hefti. And Michael Feinstein, the singer, called it the last great male chauvinistic song of the 1960s, although I also think that song about, you know, hey, little girl, fix your hair, touch up your make up is a good contender for that as well. Why revisit this? What are you doing with it? You're playing with it.

MCGARRY: Yeah. I think that's kind of the point of the CD was to honor how the great women jazz singers were not restricted at all or defined by the lyrics of a song. In fact, they would take a song like that and totally bring a different sensibility to it.

LYDEN: Let's hear a little bit of how you interpret "Girl Talk."


MCGARRY: (Singing) We all meow about the ups and downs of all our friends, friends, friends, the who, the how, the why. We dish the dirt that never ends. We're the weaker sex, the speaker sex you mortal males behold. Though we joke, wouldn't trade you for a sack of gold. My plan, so take my hand, please understand this girl talk.

LYDEN: You know, I love that because it sounds gutsy compared to what men have done with this song.

MCGARRY: Yeah. That's - I guess that is the point of it.

LYDEN: You've been performing a long time, Kate, and have given so much spirit to the work that it seems to me that, quite natural, that you ran across another great spirit in music, and I'm thinking of Bobby McFerrin. And there's a great story about the two of you meeting years ago.

MCGARRY: Oh, yeah. When I just graduated from college - it was way back in 1985 - and he was giving a workshop about freeing the voice, and I wanted to go so badly. And I called, and they said: It's totally full. You can't come. Forget it. And I wrote him a letter just saying, like, please, you know, and sent it to his record company and said: I'll sit outside. I don't care. I've got to be there.

And I never heard anything. And I kept checking, and they said: No, you can't come. So I just let it go. And the Sunday afternoon of the workshop, I got a call from him. He just said: Hey, this is Bobby. And I was like, what? And he said: Hey, man. Where were you? You know, I thought with a letter like that, nothing would keep you away.

And my heart just like, oh, my God. You mean, I could have gone? It would've worked out just because I wanted to? You know, it just helped me understand that if you really want something, just go and do it and things will work out. It doesn't matter if somebody tells you no. And I actually got to put that into practice.

He was at the Blue Note with Chick Corea celebrating Chick's 60th anniversary. And my friend had gotten us tickets, and we just sat right in front, and they started playing a song called "Smile." I felt like he looked just right at me, which I don't know why he would - he didn't know me from Adam - and just said: Anybody know this song?

This weird feeling came over me. I just felt this strong yes, you know, just go through my body like an electric current. And my hand shot up, and he just walked over, and he gave me the lyrics and - although I'd never really actually sung the song before.


MCGARRY: But I felt like I knew it, and I just started to sing it. And it felt so beautiful. All I could feel is that yes, like, just say yes to life and things will work out.

LYDEN: Wow. That is a great story. I bet people thought, oh, he's got a ringer in the front row. But...


LYDEN: Well, don't feel put on the spot, and you certainly don't have to, but do you want to sing any of "Smile" right now?

MCGARRY: Oh, sure. I love that song.

LYDEN: That'd be great. And Keith might...


LYDEN: ...accompany you.


MCGARRY: Oh, I'd love to.

LYDEN: Thank you, Keith.


MCGARRY: (Singing) Smile, though your heart is aching. Smile, even though it's breaking. Although a tear may be ever so near. You must smile through your pain and sorrow, smile and maybe tomorrow you'll find the sun shining through for you.

LYDEN: Makes me choke up. That is just beautiful. Thank you so much.

MCGARRY: Thanks for asking. That's - I love that song.

LYDEN: You can hear a track from "Girl Talk" plus Kate McGarry singing live with guitarist Keith Ganz exclusively at nprmusic.org. And for Sunday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Check out our weekly podcast. It's called WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. You can find it at iTunes on npr.org/weekendatc. Guy Raz is back next weekend. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great week.

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