Molly Ringwald and Jane Monheit: The universe knew what it wanted for us

Molly Ringwald celebrates her brilliant new album by talking Ella, Hoagy and motherhood with musician Jane Monheit

Published April 9, 2013 11:20PM (EDT)

Molly Ringwald, Jane Monheit
Molly Ringwald, Jane Monheit

This is how you know April is off to a good start: First, your fiction debut gets long-listed for the prestigious Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award. Then, days later, your debut jazz album arrives in stores. Who is this hot new wunderkind? You already know her: Molly Ringwald. Ringwald's "When It Happens To You" won raves last year and arrives in paperback next month. Her album "Except Sometimes," out today, is just as sensational -- a grand, sophisticated tour through the Great American Songbook which elegantly channels the spirit of Bessie Smith and Ella Fitzgerald. On the occasion of her new CD, we asked Molly -- a good friend of Salon -- to conduct a joint interview with another jazz sensation, Jane Monheit. Monheit's new album, "The Heart of the Matter," arrives next week -- and also includes a version of Hoagy Carmichael's "I Get Along Without You Very Well."

Molly Ringwald: Hi, Jane, how’ve you been?

Jane Monheit: Good. Really busy. I’m in Georgia right now, in Savannah. We’ve been touring a lot.

How much time do you usually spend in each place?

Well, it depends. If it’s a club, a couple days; if it’s a theater, usually one day. This is a festival, which is a weird situation because we’re playing a venue that’s been created just for the purpose of the festival. I meant to tell you, I’m so sorry I missed you at 54 Below. I was not in town and I couldn’t make it.

I’m playing the Iridium in New York May 8 and 9, but you’re probably not going be there then, either.

I might, actually. I’m not sure, but I’ll come if I’m in town.

But don’t tell me if you’re there, it’ll make me way too nervous. (laughs)

I was nervous when you were at the gig in L.A. Whenever there are other singers in the room you really want to sound good.

It’s funny, I don’t get nervous onstage when I’m acting. It kind of gives me fire and I very often think about the people I know in the house, but there’s something different about singing, in terms of confidence because I haven’t been doing it as steadily as acting. But you’ve been pretty steady just singing your little heart out for how long now?

Kind of my whole life. I guess I started professionally when I was a teenager. But singing is like the only time I’m confident. (laughs)

It’s the thing that empowers you.

And I have the exact opposite experience from you. Every time I have to act in an audition or anything, I’m just a mess. I’m terrified. It makes me so nervous.

When I came to your show at Catalina, I asked if you’d ever thought about acting and you mentioned that the one role that you’d really love to play is the witch in “Into the Woods.”

Oh, man, it’s my favorite show ever.

I think you’d be really good in that part. Your voice would be just amazing in it.

I hope that someday when I’m a little older and more experienced, I can do something like that. I grew up loving theater as much as jazz.

How did you come to jazz?

I just grew up with it. And you did too? 'Cause your dad is a jazz musician.

Yeah, that’s right. It’s my comfort music.

It’s like that for me, too. It just brings the wonderful warmth of childhood and all of that good stuff back to me.

Are you introducing the music to your son?

Oh, definitely. He hears it a lot, but it’s not a preference. He already has really strong opinions of what he wants to hear. He wants to rock all the time. Like, he wants to listen to '80s Van Halen records. (laughs)

And how do you feel about that?

I think it’s good. Of course I hate it when I put on something I love and he’s like, “Mommy, turn that off! I want rock!” But he likes jazz too. I’m glad he has strong opinions and feels comfortable voicing them at age 5.

My elder daughter loved jazz and we would always sing it together when she was little and then she went through this phase that started probably when she was around 5 or 6 where she wanted to listen to anything but jazz, because it was mommy’s music. I think I did the same thing when I was a teenager. But I can tell when I bring her to gigs and she’s around the musicians, she just loves it. She’s soaking it all in.

Yeah, it’s amazing how they do that. How sponge-like they are and how the things we expose them to when they’re so young stay important to them throughout their lives. My son’s on the road with us now, although we’re not bringing him to the venues because he’s at a weird age for it. When he was little, he was always there, and when he’s older he’ll be there again. And my bass player and my piano player are like his uncles, you know. It’s good. He has these strong musical influences in his life.

And how has it been having a child on tour? Has it changed things a lot for you from when you were touring without kids?

Oh, absolutely. It’s changed things completely. It used to be that going on the road was all about focusing on work and vocal health and going out to have a good time too. “Oh, big show tonight. Where are we going afterwards?” And now it’s like, “OK, hotel breakfast ends at 9:30” and “Where’s the park?” (laughs)

I did a long tour of “Sweet Charity” a few years ago and my daughter had just turned 3, so we brought her with us but we also brought somebody to help because my husband’s a writer and he wanted to get some work done too. But then we lost our person halfway through because she ended up wanting to hang out with the dancers all night … So for the last part of it, it was just my husband and me taking care of her. I think it was really hard on us and it was hard on me because I was going around – and I don’t know if it’s exactly the same with what you’re doing, but I had to go around and promote the show when I entered the city –

Yeah, I don’t normally do that.

That’s the part that’s exhausting. If I could just sing – I find singing energizing, but it’s the press part that I find exhausting.

You know, I hear you. It’s a lot. I normally do promotion ahead of time, because promotion in jazz – it’ll be like pieces in the arts section of the newspaper. It’s not a whole lot of morning television. It was for a minute in the 2000s, the first decade, whatever we’re supposed to call that: the aughts. There was more of that happening for jazz musicians. And although we’re not getting as good promotion as we used to, it’s better for me, because waking up for all that stuff – lack of sleep is devastating to your voice, you know?

And talking. Doing what we’re doing right now. (laughs) A lot of people don’t realize that talking is one of the worst things you can do if you do a lot of it, particularly at night!

Oh, yeah, absolutely. After the show, the strenuous singing and talking – and I always go out and do CD signings afterward, because I want to say thank you and hi to everybody, but if they’re in a loud room and everybody’s talking at once, I feel it the next day.

Does this ever happen to you – that you’re performing somewhere and you feel like part of your voice isn’t there, that part of your range is gone?

I do lose my voice pretty frequently because of the amount that I tour, and have for so many years – my voice is so delicate. You know, chords differ from person to person – some people have really tough, resilient chords and some have really wimpy, delicate chords and mine are of the wimpy variety. (laughs)

Well, they don’t sound that way at all! Every time I’ve heard you, your voice sounds so strong and your singing so effortless. You have the most beautiful mix outside of Ella Fitzgerald – it’s really the most incredible instrument.

Oh, thank you. I’ve had some great teachers and I was able to learn some incredible technique. But yeah, if I get into a situation where my voice isn’t right I think, OK, I have a different instrument today. How am I going to do this one? How can I use this to express these lyrics maybe in a different way, approach the melodies, maybe approach improvisation a little bit differently? Do you have any voice problems or are you just tough on it all the time? (laughs)

You know, I grew up singing with my dad and I was really like red-hot mama belting it out, and I went from that to doing musical theater, when again I was just belting it out. But now my vocal style has changed: On my album there’s almost no belting at all. But it’s a lot harder for me because all of my early training was with the belting. It’s where I feel the most comfortable, but I don’t think it’s the most interesting. So it’s much easier. I did Sally Bowles on Broadway and I can boast I never lost my voice.

Man, that’s amazing. I would have lost my voice playing Sally Bowles.

But the mix – what you do, I think it’s harder and more delicate and requires a lot more care than just belting it out. I really find that I have to be so much more careful with my voice and I’m still learning how to do that. I also do that thing where if I feel a little insecure about something I’ll automatically revert to the belt, because I know I can do it.

Oh, totally. I tend to sing out when I feel insecure, too. For instance, someone’s on their cellphone or something and it’s driving me nuts, and I feel disrespected by it or something. I’ll start singing out, really using my voice.

I feel like people come to concerts and they think that it’s background music, because they’re used to listening to stuff at home or on the radio. I experienced that a lot with theater, where I would think, “Oh, they think they’re at home watching television, and they don’t understand that I can hear what they’re saying.” (laughs)

Oh, yeah. Forget about it. And it’s really bad in jazz clubs too, because there’s always a small portion of a jazz club that says (adopts Valley Girl accent), “Let’s go to a jazz club. It’ll be fabulous. Just like it is in the movies.” And in the movies people talk in jazz clubs. They talk and smoke and – (laughs) it’s never, ever represented in the media as a listening situation, ever.

Do you ever talk to people about it?

(laughing) I’ve done all kinds of different things throughout the years. I mean, mostly I’ll stare them down until they stop. And if people are being very loud, the band starts playing very quietly, so everyone around them can hear them talking, and then they stop. It’s a neat trick. But I’ve had people – like once at the Blue Note in New York I had a guy stand up – the aisle runs right down the middle of the room, parallel to the stage – so someone’s standing in the middle of the aisle and blocking the view while holding a camcorder.

Oh my God. Really?

I stopped a tune. And I said, “Look, dude, you’re in front of these people. They’ve paid money and they can’t see. You can’t – I mean you can’t. You’re not supposed to be recording anyway, but I’m trusting that you own my DVDs (laughs) but don’t do that, that’s not cool.” And he got mad and left, and I got a round of applause.

When people get angry, does it bother you or do you feel it just kind of – you got the audience on your side and you energized things?

They’re always on your side if you handle it right. If they know you’re defending the rest of them, because that’s really what we’re doing. I handled a guy on Twitter and at intermission said, “Hey man, I see you out there on your phone, but I don’t see anywhere you writing about how amazing I am.” (Laughs) He must have seen it and stopped. I sat down at a table of people who were really loud once at a club and sang them a ballad to shut them up.

I wanted to ask you about the new album, and about all your albums in general. I feel like in this relatively short amount of time, you’ve developed an incredible body of work. And you’ve recorded almost every song that I love.

We do seem to have similar taste in tunes. We both have “I Get Along Without You Very Well” on our new records, don’t we?

Yeah, we do! My album is called “Except Sometimes.” You know the whole story about how Hoagy Carmichael wrote that song? Hoagy Carmichael wrote “I get along without you very well” after a poem that somebody gave him that was called “Except Sometimes.”

And she passed away, didn’t she, before she got a chance to hear the song?

Yeah, I don’t know how much of it is mythology. I mean, it’s such an amazing story and I read two different versions. But they did find the woman, Jane Brown-Thompson. She was a widow in Philadelphia. And when you think about it, that makes the song even more –

I never thought of it that way!

Oh, that’s going to change the interpretation. Right? When I first heard the song, it just sounds like a romantic song. You automatically think breakup, but the woman who wrote the poem was dealing with a real loss of someone who had just left her life. What other songs did you have on your album?

Well, this album is kind of weird because it’s not all standards. I mean, I’ve always mixed it up, but this one is maybe only four or so standards. In addition to “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” I have “Barnaby Blue,” “Little Man Has Had a Busy Day,” “What Is the Rest of Your Life” is in the bonus cuts, but that might be it for standards. I mean, I’ve got a Beatles medley, I’ve got a Buffy St. Marie thing, I’ve got a Randy Newman, I’ve got a Joe Raposo thing. It’s just a bunch of songs I really liked – I chose them for the lyrics.

Do you always choose them for the lyrics or does it depend on the album?

It’s different all the time. And the album theme happens later. We put together all the songs we really love –the band always has a lot of influence there, and they’ll suggest things because they’re my best friends – and then we’ll find the sort of marketing angle within the stuff we’ve already loved. How did you choose your tunes for the new record? What was your process?

When I first started to work with Peter [Smith], who’s my pianist and musical director, we had a couple of days where I would ask him to play everything I knew and he would play songs that he thought I would like and then we put the band together. I never really knew I was going to record anything. It was just performing together and it was great and I wanted some kind of record of what happened, and that’s what we ended up doing. I didn’t want to go to a label and have them tell me who I was going to be. Know what I mean? I wanted to figure that out on my own first before I went the traditional label route and I’m glad I did.

Oh, yeah, that is just so smart.

And then Concord ended up picking it up. Isn’t it crazy when you think that the music we like to sing was originally the pop music of its day?

Oh, yes! Frank Sinatra wasn’t a jazz singer, you know? It’s just what it was. And I always wonder, man, I wonder how different my life would be if I lived decades ago. What would be different from now?

Well, I really admire the route that you took because when I was little, it’s what I thought I really wanted to be, a jazz singer, before the acting took over. But I remember thinking to myself, as I got older, the kind of music that I want to sing – there is not really an audience for it. And then along came singers like Diana Krall and Madeleine Peyroux and you … I think, you guys must have considered that the kind of music you were singing wasn’t necessarily going to make you Lady Gaga money but you just stuck with it and created this niche for yourself, which is pretty fantastic.

Yeah, I feel really lucky that it’s worked out. But when I was a kid, I just never really doubted that it was going to work. And I think also growing up on Long Island, going into the city all the time, there’s just a huge – it’s the jazz center of the world. So there’s always gigs, whether it’s going to be weddings and restaurants or clubs and theaters. I knew I was going be able to support myself and I actually never had another job. I’ve never been paid to do anything but sing.

Not even baby sitting? (laughs)

No, I was way too wild of a kid. Nobody thought it would be a good idea for me to baby-sit.

You know, there’s not that many of us. I never had another job either. Other than acting, writing and singing, those are the only three things I’ve done. I’ve played waitresses, I’ve played doctors, but I just never knew how to do anything else.

I guess it’s like fate. The universe knew what it wanted for us and that was it.

Do you think that’s changed now? I remember when Harry Connick Jr. exploded on the scene and I thought, wow, he’s really done it. He’s really done the thing that I didn’t think was possible, and he did, and of course Diana Krall and also Norah Jones.

Norah came up in the same group of musicians as I did and was really a pretty dedicated jazz musician. Her piano teacher used to tour with me sometimes before I had my current band, and when she made her record with Blue Note, it was like, “Oh, we’re gonna try this out” … I mean, “Don’t Know Why” was a demo. That was a demo release that took over the world. That’s why she’s wonderful. Because she’s such a great musician and she’s put in the time her whole life.

Great person, too. From everything I’ve heard.

Yeah, she’s just the nicest. And so beautiful in real life that you can’t even … (laughs) she’s so gorgeous.

So what singers are you inspired by? Do you go through states – because I know sometimes I’ll be really into one singer and then I’ll move on to another singer, but is there a north star for you? In terms of singers that have really influenced you the most?

Ella and Judy Garland.

Oh, interesting.

How about you? Who’s your major main hero?

Well, Bessie Smith was my first one, when I was really little, because after my dad introduced me to her, that’s who I dressed up as on “Famous American Day” in second grade. (laughs)

(laughs) That’s so awesome!

I dressed up as Bessie Smith and sang “Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer.” I went to a progressive elementary school when I was at that age. And then, as a preteen I moved on to Ella, and she was the first singer that I really tried to pattern myself after. But I don’t scat sing at all, like she did, and like you do. That’s never been something that I’ve felt comfortable doing.

You know, I don’t do as much of it as people think I do. My show is featuring a lot of it right now, but I don’t really consider it a mainstay of my singing. And honestly, I think improvising with the lyric is much more interesting.

I think it’s an amazing skill to have, and I don’t know if maybe I could do it. I just never have done it, it’s just never been something I gravitated toward, but it’s something that I admire in people that can do it, and do it well. I heard that Ella, actually, rehearsed all of her scat singing before, like everything. If you listen to “How High the Moon,” it just sounds – I don’t know if it’s true or not, and I don’t know if you’ve heard the same thing, but apparently she rehearsed things like crazy.

Oh yeah, I have. Yeah, I’ve heard that she, you know – and you can hear on different recordings, she’ll sing things the same way. Ben Webster did that as well, a lot of musicians have sort of rehearsed solos. And I’ve done that; I’ve written solos, you know. I don’t really think there’s anything wrong with that, it’s just a different way of approaching – I mean, for me, I’ll improvise something a bunch of times and then I’ll hit on something where I’m like, “Oh! That’s what it has to be. That’s the right way. That’s what works.” And then I’ll sing that from then on. Everybody has a different process, you know. And for me, as long as it’s lyrically driven – unless it’s just, like, the occasional really fun swinger where it’s just sort of all fun and it’s not such a heavy thing. It’s just got to be in the lyrics, I think. And for you, as an actor, that’s got to be cake.

Yeah. For me, it’s all about the lyric and I think that’s the thing – I mean, not all, it has to have a melody that I respond to as well – but for me the most important has always been the lyric. What moves me, and what I feel like I’m able to convey. Because I approach everything, everything as an actor. (laughs) You know, everything.

Yeah, absolutely.

You said that Ella and Judy Garland are your main singers. I would say that mine are Ella, Blossom Dearie, Anita O’Day and Susannah McCorkle. She had a really big influence on me.

I went to hear Susannah before I did my first cabaret show to sort of, like, learn the ropes, you know, and she was so amazing. I’ll never forget sitting there and watching her show, just transfixed. Just, “Oh man, can I do that to?” I think I was 22 years old.

Her voice is just incredible. She didn’t even have the range that you have, or that other singers have, but what she managed to express with her voice was just remarkable.

She was amazing, and she had just a beautiful presence too. She just … she was just a lovely human being. It’s just too tragic, what happened.

You’ve really proven that you have incredible longevity which I think you should feel really good about. I think that you’re really going to go down as one of the greats.

I’m just glad that I’ve been able to keep going. I’ve had lulls too, where it’s been like, “Oh man, what’s gonna happen? Do I need a Plan B? OK, maybe I should think about getting a teaching job at a university or something like that.” But I also really love to teach, you know.

I’ve read about that, that you do masters classes.

I do, I’ve been doing a lot of them and they’ve been really rewarding. I’ve become a better singer because of them, I think. I feel really lucky that I’ve been able to become established to a point where I feel, “OK, I’m probably going to get to keep doing this, and thank goodness because I don’t want to do anything else!”

Do you write at all? Do you write music?

I don’t usually. I really love to write lyrics, but I don’t usually write songs, although there’s a song I wrote on the new record. I’m still a little bit like, “Why did I do that? That’s too scary!” I have such high respect for singer songwriters, because it’s just not what drives me. Do you write music at all?

I wrote one song with Peter that’s actually on his album. I feel a little bit the same way, in that I don’t feel driven to write music at this point, because I’m still really enjoying interpreting all these incredible songwriters. If it gets to the point where I’m not able to find a song that says what I want to say, then I guess I’ll write my own. I just haven’t gotten there yet and I’m very focused on writing books too, so I can’t …

I don’t know how you do it all. I really don’t. I mean, three children and multiple careers … it’s amazing. I think I would just crumble under the pressure.

[laughs] Yeah, it’s a day-to-day negotiation, in terms of balance and figuring out what I’m going to, and what I can do and what I can’t. Because I want to do everything. And I have so much respect for these people who wrote these songs.

I think there’s an unfair amount of pressure on singers to write our own songs. I was confronted about that in an interview the other day, and I was just like, “You know what, I’m a great musician and interpreter and I don’t think that it detracts from my musicianship that I don’t choose to write my own melodies. I think that’s an unfair pressure that shouldn’t exist.”

I think so too, and I really do think that for a while people had forgotten the Great American Songbook, and there’s a lot of songs that people in our generation or generations to come, who need to know these songs.

They’re national treasures.

By Molly Ringwald

Molly Ringwald is the author of the novel in stories "When It Happens To You." She is also the author of "Getting The Pretty Back." Molly's writing has appeared in The New York Times, Parade, Esquire and the Hartford Courant. Throughout her extensive career, she has worked with such directors as Paul Mazursky, John Hughes, Cindy Sherman and Jean-Luc Godard.

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