Cabaret


Interview with Philip Chaffin

by Rob Lester

Philip ChaffinHe must have lots of writing in his well-worn appointment book. When Philip Chaffin isn't singing somewhere in concert or in a stage role, he's in a recording studio listening to someone else sing—or donning his business hat to do the planning and promoting and press and pressing of the discs, in his role as partner with Tommy Krasker in the PS Classic records label (whose just-wrapped recording projects include the cast album of Road Show, one of several Stephen Sondheim projects they've worked on). The company is based outside New York City, up north a ways, but it's way down South where Philip's roots are, and it's there he also found reconnection and inspiration for his third solo album, When the Wind Blows South.  Philip is taking time from his schedule to play a Manhattan nightclub in his cabaret show of the same name, appearing on Wednesdays this month at the Metropolitan Room on West 22nd Street, the popular club which is celebrating its third anniversary this week. He shares some thoughts on switching gears from head of Artists & Repertoire to just being an artist himself and choosing his own repertoire.

Like some other singers doing shows or albums in 2009, Georgia-born Johnny Mercer is on Philip's mind, since it is the 100th anniversary of the birth of that songwriting giant and performer (who was co-founder of a record company himself—Capitol Records). "Tommy and I took a road trip to Savannah, Georgia in 2006," Philip recalls.  "We did a city tour that included a visit to Johnny Mercer's gravesite, and we started to think, maybe my next CD should be a Johnny Mercer album.  But while we were planning it, I started to think about other songs with a Southern flavor. I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and spent a lot of time growing up at my grandparents' farm in Mississippi.  I wanted to do an album that evoked those memories, and it all sort of evolved from there.

I didn't want the album to just be Southern songs, or songs by Southern writers.  I wanted it to feel like the South.  Eventually, I settled on material—and a sound—that evoked my own memories of the South: the pace, and the space—and the heat, too. And the feeling that wafting through the air at any time could be the wail of a harmonica, or a plaintive fiddle.  There's that line in Jerry Herman's 'Loving You' [from the film version of Mame and included on Philip's album]: 'Gazin' at the lazy summer skies/ Fireworks reflectin' in your eyes.'  That to me feels so Southern, or at least the South as I sort of remember and probably romanticize it."  He also said it was a challenge to convey the musical ambience he wanted to collaborators who were not Southerners themselves. "I remember when we got together with Larry Hochman to talk about the arrangement for 'In a Sentimental Mood,' I said it should sound like I'm beneath someone's balcony on a hot night in the French Quarter.  And of course, no one listening to the album would know that that was my image, but Larry came back with this amazing chart—I think the tempo marking was 'with a touch of Delius'—that felt warm and sultry and lazy." 

The album/act's title song, "When the Wind Blows South" and "Pardon My Southern Accent" were the first two chosen and set the tone about "memories calling you home, an unapologetic nature of Southern living."  The only song choice that created an argument was "Is It Too Late?" from a musical whose score the label had recorded, My Life with Albertine.  Partner Krasker and music director Sam Davis didn't see it as the best fit.  "They thought I was crazy."  The lyric about losing love, wondering if you'll be taken back—it's like a great country-song lyric.  And I kept asking them to try it as sort of a dramatic pop ballad." 

When I ask Philip about what I experience as a refreshing guilelessness and ego-free sincerity in his singing and wondered if that was conscious and perhaps a part of his Southern upbringing, his reply is likewise free of solipsism.  "I don't think I'm aware of it! But the truth is, I love singing, I always have, and maybe that just comes through when I perform.  I was the youngest of six kids growing up, and my brothers and sisters were really talkative, so I grew up very shy.  The joke in my family is they tell people I didn't speak until I was a teenager—and I say that it was because I couldn't get a word in.  But I used to love to go out in one of the pastures on my grandparents' farm and cut hay, and while I was riding the tractor, I would sing and sing at the top of my lungs.  It was liberating for me, it was my one chance to open up—I guess maybe some of that boyish enthusiasm still comes through when I perform."

How does he juggle being a performer and having so many time-consuming responsibilities with the record company?  "It's hard. Sometimes job offers [to perform] come in, and it's at the worst possible time—we're putting four albums to bed, or we have big studio dates coming up, and I have to say no." Sometimes he can squeeze something in, like a Christmas show at Bristol Riverside Theatre or playing the bandsinger in the musical Ballroom in Virginia during the time he had planned as a hiatus in the PS Classics release season.

Being so involved with the record company has given him a stronger sense of how some songs might work just fine as pure listening experiences but might be static on stage, or how some effective-in-a-show moments might not translate to recordings.  He applies that to his own act.  "Doing cabaret is so different from doing a CD." He says his album has "a couple of mood pieces that held a tone really well on disc, but I didn't feel there was enough there to sustain a live performance.  And conversely, I'm doing some specialty material in the show that's tied to stories about growing up in the South and dreaming of going to Hollywood, and I never would have put that material on an album—I think it's a lot of fun, and I hope audiences will enjoy it, but once you've heard it, the novelty's gone."

He compares the choices he's making with deciding on material for the album produced for the married couple theatre stars Jason Danieley and Marin Mazzie, after seeing the show they have toured with.  "They do this amazing opening number—it's like a compendium of two dozen famous duets, and it's a riot.  But it's a novelty—it depends on an element of surprise, and on a certain amount of audience response."

Tommy Krasker's background as an archivist and Philip's shared affection for long-lost songs by famous writers tempt them to want to include more and more buried treasures on Philip's own projects.  "On the latest album, 'I Got Out of Bed on the Right Side' was one out of Tommy's files, and I took to it instantly. So was the title song.  I fell in love with that one right away." Sensing the show and act needed the balance of well-known theatre songs, they included "Old Devil Moon" from Finian's Rainbow, planned before the recent Encores! Production that will be moving to Broadway.  "But I have to keep reminding myself not to get too 'out there' with my song choices."  He's put in the standard "Love Walked In." "My mother would know it, and she's always saying to me, 'Why don't you do more songs I know?'  And it worked perfectly."

"The One I Love" by Michael John LaChiusa from Hello, Again is another favorite.  He says, "Although Malcolm Gets [who sings it on the cast album] told me that Michael John actually intended it as a parody of a pop song, it always felt to me like the real thing.  I wanted to do it gently, with a guitar-based arrangement, and something that felt like you might be sitting and singing and strumming it on a quiet evening on the front porch."  It's a new feel for the song, "a specific feel and sound that made it sound fresh.  We sort of turned Michael John into a Southern boy!"

Philip Chaffin can be found bringing his Southern charm to The Metropolitan Room, 34 West 22 Street in Manhattan on Wednesdays May 13 and 20. Phone number for reservations: 212-206-0440 or see www.MetropolitanRoom.com and www.PSclassics.com.