Bobby Belfry is blessed with a supple light tenor voice, a sharp lyrical understanding and an intelligence that pierces into the heart of a song. Those blessings also extend to his talent as a songwriter as can be evidenced in his cabaret shows and his CD, Imperfect Rhymes. I talked with Bobby as he was gearing up for a new show about to open at The Duplex.
Jonathan Frank: Welcome to Talkin' Broadway. This is going to be fun, since while I'm familiar with your CD, which I love by the way, I don't know much about you. So let's start out with the 'getting to know you questions.' You're a native New Yorker ...
Bobby Belfry: Born and bred!
JF: Where did you go to school?
BB: I went to college on Long Island at CW Post, where I studied art and voice.
JF: But not songwriting?
BB: No. I started writing when I was in high school. Actually, I remember writing something even earlier than that, and my sister laughed at it and I thought, "Oh! I can't do this!" And she's my younger sister - I should have smacked her (laughs). When I was 16, I started to write and never stopped, really.
JF: Who would you consider your influences to be?
BB: There are so many ... Billy Joel is probably my greatest influence ... being from Long Island, if you didn't like Billy Joel growing up, it was thought you were basically going to hell! (Laughs) Rodgers and Hart ... Sting ...
JF: An interesting trio of songwriters; I don't think I've ever heard anybody group Rodgers and Hart with Sting or Billy Joel! But they are all so lyric and story driven.
BB: Absolutely - and they are not afraid of going to those dark places that don't necessarily sell records. Right now I'm feeling so encouraged by Nora Jones' success. Finally, teenagers are listening to songs with strong lyrical content from someone who isn't selling millions of records by baring her midriff! It gives hope to us all.
JF: How would you categorize your musical style?
BB: I'm somewhere between Nora Jones and John Mayer; I do a jazz/rock-and-roll/country fusion.
JF: I know you primarily collaborate with other songwriters. Do you provide the lyrics or the music, or a bit of both?
BB: I write the lyrics and a melody, and whomever I collaborate with fleshes the music out.
JF: So when you write a song with, say David Friedman, you present him with lyrics and a melody?
BB: Actually, with David it was one of the few times that I just wrote a lyric and asked him to do something with it. I had written a poem, which I originally didn't consider turning into a song. I just felt like writing the words down, and afterwards thought, "Hey, this is good! I should give it to David." We had talked about writing for years, and he came up with a really great song.
JF: Your world seems to be set firmly in the so-called 'pop' realm. Do you have a home in the theater as well?
BB: I'm an actor when asked! (Laughs) I've done a lot of regional theater. I really don't pursue it. I've auditioned for Les Mis and Rent about ten times collectively, but other than that ... I remember doing summer stock in 1992 and thinking, "You know what? I really don't want to do this. I want to write." I'm sure I got something out of the experience, but overall I felt like I was wasting my time. I wanted to write my own stuff.
JF: You are about to open a new show at The Duplex called Rented Realities. Does it strictly contain songs written by you?
BB: Yes; all brand new songs. The oldest song is one I wrote two years ago with Mark Hartman, and the title of the show is taken from a line in that song. The show is running at The Duplex on Wednesday nights at 9pm, March 5, 12, 26 and April 2.
JF: You haven't done a show in a while, have you?
BB: It's been almost two years. My CD came out in 1999 and I spent two years promoting it in New York and across the country. The summer of 2001 I was offered the chance to do Jesus Christ Superstar in Boise, Idaho. I was there when 9/11 happened and a lot of the songs in this show came from that time period. I've been doing a lot of revues and appearances, but this is my first full-blown show in almost two years; I'm exhausted and sick but I'm really excited about it! And it's directed by two time Tony winner, Thommie Walsh.
JF: Out of curiosity, how important do you feel it is to have a director for a cabaret show? Especially when the show contains material in it is written by the performer?
BB: I think you need an objective outside eye, especially when you are so close to the material. I could have put it together all by myself and it would have been fine. But Thommie has come up with a lot of great ideas that have brought out a lot of good stuff from me.
JF: Does he suggest ways for you to interpret the songs?
BB: He hasn't once questioned my imagery or connections to the songs ... how could he since I wrote them? (Laughs) But he'll call me on all those traps singers fall into, like looking at the floor during a musical break, which always drives me crazy when I see others do it (laughs). And of course, he comes up with ideas on staging and on how to use the audience and the musicians.
JF: How many musicians do you have?
BB: Three: piano, bass and drums.
JF: Whom else did you collaborate with for the show?
BB: In addition to David Friedman: David Budway, Mark Hartman and Steven Ray Watkins.
JF: Of the people on that list, the one I'm not familiar with is David Budway ...
BB: He's an incredible jazz musician who's played for Wynton Marsalis. He works at Brandy's, as do Mark Hartman and myself.
JF: What do you do at Brandy's?
BB: I sing and bartend there three times a week. It's a lot of fun.
JF: Do you try out your own songs there?
BB: I do; it's a really great way to see how songs work in front of people before I do them in front of an 'audience.'
JF: Do you usually seek out your collaborators?
BB: Yes. I usually have an idea of who would be most suited for a song, such as when the number is jazz or reggae driven.
JF: Do people ever come to you with a melody for you to write lyrics?
BB: No, they haven't, darn it! But they are all lyricists in their own right, so ...
JF: Do you enjoy working with a variety of collaborators?
BB: I do. It's not really by choice, though. The people I write with, like Christopher Marlowe and Mark Hartman, are so busy and in demand that it's hard to pin them down. So sometimes I have to go elsewhere, which has turned out to be a good thing. I wrote a lot of the songs in this new show with Steven Ray Watkins and he's such a great talent. Not only is he a wonderful pianist and musical director but also he's a great singer/dancer/actor ... I almost feel guilty having him behind me! (Laughs)
JF: Have you ever thought about writing anything other than lyrics? Say a book or play? Or do you want to attach music to all of your writings?
BB: Well, the poem was a rare exception. Usually the music and the lyric inform one another.
JF: Which begs the immortal question: which comes first in your mind, the melody or the lyric?
BB: The lyric, but the melody usually arrives a few seconds afterwards.
JF: Do you have any aspirations or inclinations to write a full-blown musical?
BB: I have something in the back of my head that I am working on. Whether or not it will come to fruition, I don't know, but I'm flirting with the idea. But it's too soon to talk about it yet.
JF: Is Rented Realities a solo show or do you have guest artists?
BB: It's just me; I don't do the cameo thing! (Laughs)
JF: You do quite a few 'cameos' yourself, though. You seem to be involved in a great many revues and 'one-nighters.'
BB: I am, which is a great way to have people know who you are.
JF: I just read something about the MAC Grammy event that you took part in ...
BB: Yeah ... I sang "I Dreamed a Dream" for it. All the guys did girl songs in that show (laughs).
JF: You have won a MAC Award ...
BB: Yes, in 1999 for Best Pop/R&B Vocalist.
JF: Your website mentions a Kennedy Center performance ...
BB: I've actually done a number of performances there. The last one I did was with Christopher Marlowe on the Millennium Stage. It was a two-night show for 1,000 people each night during Christmas time. It was right around the time of the Bill Clinton impeachment hearings and I was so afraid he was going to be impeached on the day of one of the performances, because no one would be up for a fun Christmas show in Washington DC if that happened! (Laughs). But it didn't happen and we had a great time each night.
JF: Do you have any shows planned after your run at The Duplex is finished?
BB: I'm hoping Rented Realities will be extended and run for the rest of the year. It's a great show and really powerful. And hopefully my next album will be done by Christmas.
JF: Great news! Is it going to be based on Rented Realities?
BB: For the most part, yes.
JF: Well, I can't wait to see your show and I'm looking forward to the new CD.
For more information on Bobby Belfry, visit his website: www.bobbybelfry.com. To make reservations for Rented Realities call The Duplex at (212) 255-5438. Imperfect Rhymes is available at Amazon.com and CD Universe.