Last year I fell in madly in love with Jessica Molaskey through her incredible CD, Pentimento, which was one of my most listened to albums of last year. Her smoky timber and intelligent rethinking of classic depression-era tunes was so soothing and appealing that it rarely left my various music machines. It turns out that I had loved her work for years and not known it, due to the fact that she possesses an incredible voice and acts like a vocal chameleon, shifting style and timber depending on the project.
So I was thrilled to receive word that she was releasing a new album, A Good Day, which does for the '50s what Pentimento had done for the '20s and '30s. This also gave me an excuse to talk to her about the new album and her extensive theater career.
Jessica: Well good! Thank you very much.
JF: So far I'm enjoying it as much as Pentimento, which as you know was on my Top Ten Vocal Albums of 2002 list.
JM: I know and I thank you so much for that. When everybody was pushing me to make a record, I couldn't figure out what I wanted to do. I knew I didn't want to make one of those typical 'Broadway' records, because I find that most of them are great to listen to once and then I never put them on again. I wanted to make a record that I would want to listen to over and over again. So I took the knowledge on how to interpret a lyric and work my way around a song that I got from doing Broadway shows, but put that style of singing aside.
When I first started recording Pentimento, I was convinced I was doing something wrong; it felt like I wasn't working hard enough because it was too easy. Broadway singing is so virtuosic. I just got back from doing a new Ricky Ian Gordon show at Sundance and the singing is so unbelievably difficult. So singing "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows" with my husband, John Pizzarelli, and his trio feels like I'm doing nothing in comparison. It isn't nothing, of course, because it's a lot of work to be that precise and small while staying in time and tune.
JF: And that's what I find wonderful about your two solo CDs; they are simple and spare in the very best of ways. There are no extraneous frills, just you and the songs.
JM: The way Broadway has become, I feel that every time I walk into a room to start rehearsing a show, I have to unpack my bag of 'tricks.' And there's something to be said about 'less is more.'
JF: I agree. I was recently forced to watch American Idol at a friend's house and I was horrified! Nobody was connecting to the lyric, much less trusting that it and the melody were interesting and to be trusted. It was all tricks and style with no substance.
JM: Exactly! And so much of Broadway has become that. The talent out there is so profound, but so many people feel that they have to do a trick every two seconds. And the reality is that it's harder to sing straight and sustain a note rather than swooping up to it and screaming all around it. Also, when you work with great composers ... I don't want to mess with what they have written. Even with jazz singers ... I keep wanting to say, "Why can't you sing what Gershwin wrote, which was beautiful?" Maybe it's because I've been in the same room with so many great composers ... and when they are sitting there you kind of want to sing what they wrote!
JF: Or they will slap you down! (both laugh)
JM: I have to say that we had quite a journey getting Pentimento released. It originally was going to be put out on Concord and then that fell through. And then there were a number of record companies that wanted it but right when it was about to be put out they would merge with someone and shift their focus onto hip-hop or something. I had people at two major label companies tell me that I would be killed if I released the album; that it was a stupid record and that nobody wanted to hear songs by Irving Berlin. So I was petrified to release it. But it received the loveliest of notices. The timing was right and the music was soothing and comforting to a lot of people; you can never underestimate the power of that kind of writing. Thankfully we didn't listen to anybody! And thank God for Tommy Krasker [at PS Classics] for supporting this kind of music, since he's keeping this style of music alive.
JF: Amen to that!
I find it interesting that you mention in the liner notes that A Good Day is influenced by Peggy Lee, as that is not readily apparent. You're not singing her signature songs like "Fever" or "Is That All There Is," for instance.
JM: Well, I wanted to do something that you could listen to on a Saturday morning while you clean your house and think, "Yay! That was breezy and fun!" I kept thinking of those fun albums that Peggy Lee had made and my father would play in the living room on Saturdays. I was always a big fan of her and that style of singing; the way she sang so in tune and so in time. So we wanted to make an album that captured that feel rather than make a 'Peggy Lee' record.
JF: It's lovely, but as I said, I find it more perfect for a lazy rainy day or a romantic Saturday evening ... if I were to clean house to it, I would relax, get lost in the music and never get anything done!
JM: I'll take that! (Laughs) There are a lot of rhythm tunes on the album that are fun but they don't go that deep. Musically they do, since they have a swing, but otherwise ...
JF: They aren't necessarily the most lyric-driven or angst-ridden of numbers ...
JM: Although we have a few of them on there.
JF: Oh yes. I enjoy your version of "Small World" on the album, for instance ...
JM: Thank you! I've always loved that song ... and I didn't realize when I recorded it that the revival of Gypsy would be running when my album was released!
JF: I really enjoyed the songs you and your husband [famed jazz guitarist John Pizzarelli] wrote for the album. Until I cracked open the liner notes, I thought that most of them were period tunes.
JM: Well great! John and I tried to keep our frame of reference completely in the '50s for the songs we wrote for the album. I had a review in Time Out yesterday that said that they wouldn't have known that one of my songs was written in this century except for a reference it had for the Cooking Channel. We tried to keep our references amorphous and not too present. On the song "All The Cats Join In," I wrote two new verses because it's such a short song, and it was a challenge to give what I wrote a similar feel ... it's fun to see if people can tell which verses are mine.
JF: "Adam And Eve" is the song I would never have guessed was one you two wrote.
JM: We sort of set out to write a Larry Hart-type number on that one. I was having problems with the last verse and went to see The Boys from Syracuse and thought, "Well Hart really went for it with his lyrics!" He would almost go for the groans! So I came up with the lyric "So what if we're not the kind of couple people gasp about/Like Anthony did when Cleopatra left her asp about" because I thought, "Larry Hart would have written that!" John and I enjoy thinking of what Cole Porter or Larry Hart would do when we write ... and toss in a touch of Dave Frishberg.
JF: I saw the two of you at Feinstein's in New York last year, which was a wonderful show, and now I hear you're coming back there with a new show.
JM: Yes. We open on Tuesday, May 27th and run through Saturday, June 21st. It's a family affair: me, my husband John, his dad, Bucky, my brother-in-law, Martin ... and Ray Kennedy, who is the honorary Pizzarelli.
JF: Is the show celebrating the release of your new CD?
JM: Partly. John also has just released a new CD. I'll be doing probably five songs from A Good Day. We just decided today that we want to do something more romantic than anything we had done before. In this day and age, let's celebrate togetherness!
JF: I can't wait to see the show.
JM: We love doing them; it's like our 'date' time! We get to go to the library next door and spend time together ... we both perform so much all over the place it's nice to have time together. The first time we did it, our daughter was one year old and I was so sleep deprived I didn't know what has happening, so it was our time to get together and catch up. (Laughs)
JF: How did you meet John?
JM: We met doing that big hit show, Dream, on Broadway. And the minute we heard each other sing we both looked at each other and thought, "Oh! We're both cut from the same cloth."
I had seen him on the Jay Leno show when I was doing Tommy in San Francisco. I was making dinner after the show and raced from the kitchen when I heard him on TV. When they offered me Dream and they told me he was in it, I asked myself something I will never ask myself again: "How bad can it be?" Whenever you ask yourself that question ... you find out!
JF: At least you got something out of that show ...
JM: Oh ... I got a lot of things ... .
JF: At least you got something positive ...
JM: I did. I got a daughter and a husband.
JF: Do you two have any other performances lined up after Feinstein's?
JM: There's a new Feinstein's in LA ... the old Cinegrill space ... and we're going to be there for three weeks during the summer. Then my daughter starts kindergarten in the fall so I'm going to be home! I'm chanting for a nice play at Lincoln Center or Playwright's Horizon or something (laughs). I may do a solo show next fall; I'm just trying to figure out where to do it. I'm thinking of doing it in a jazz club versus a cabaret club.
JF: It's funny ... in going over your bio today I realized just how many times I have heard you sing and never realized it.
JM: The funny thing about me is that people see me do a million things and never recognize me! (Laughs)
JF: Well, one major reason is that you are such a vocal chameleon - you sound so different on every album. If you were to make a mix CD of your theatrical work, people would think it was a multitude of performers rather than one artist. For instance, I would never connect your work as Mrs. Phagan in Parade, where you sang "My Child Will Forgive Me" in such a raw, guttural manner, with your light, sensual vocals on Pentimento and A Good Day. Even the numbers you did on the original cast album of Songs for a New World, "Stars and the Moon" and "Surabaya Santa," don't sound like they came from the same person.
JM: That, and I usually look so different in each show!
JF: One show that I was surprised to see on your resume was Weird Romance. I love the CD but hadn't looked at the cast list in ages.
JM: The one show of Alan Menken's that didn't turn to gold and I had to do it. I almost didn't go back to the WPA to do Songs for a New World because of that. The score was cute ... but no more science fiction musicals! You can't do them ... or Biblical musicals any more either, for that matter. The only good science fiction musical was Little Shop of Horrors, which succeeded because it was brilliant, and nobody has been able to do another once since. You end up on stage in funny costumes with nothing funny to say.
JF: Why am I flashing onto Metropolis right now?
JM: I saw that! Judy Kuhn was great, but ...
JF: I have a thing for big ol' flop musicals.
JM: Then you must know me well! (Laughs)
JF: Songs for a New World wasn't a flop at least.
JM: Nobody came to see it, though. We made jokes about it at the time ... when only three people would be in the audience ... that when the album was released and the show was done around the country we'll be famous. We were kidding, but it happened! It was a fantastic experience.
JF: It gave you the opportunity to be the first person to record "Stars and the Moon."
JF: Do you listen to all the multitude of people singing and recording it now and think, "Been there, done that ... first!"
JM: Sometimes. I have little desire, really, to sing it again. I think Jason Robert Brown would like me to sing it at Feinstein's in one of my shows, but so many people have done it ... once in a while I'll sing it at a party and forget all the words!
All of Jason's songs are impossible. I would have flop sweat every night doing Songs for a New World. There would be four people in the audience and it would be Stephen Sondheim, Andrew Lloyd Webber and two WPA theater subscribers in crocheted shamrock hats. They had the wildest subscribers. I remember one night we were doing a show and it started to rain and this woman had an origami newspaper hat on her head. I find myself waxing nostalgic for the WPA whenever I walk by 23rd Street. They had a great eye for young talent; Little Shop of Horrors started there.
JF: Speaking of science fiction musicals, how was your experience with Time and Again?
JM: It had such a wonderful cast ... I loved singing with Rebecca Luker, who was the old-fashioned girl in it. There were some wonderful things in it, but ... it was disappointing. It was a very difficult story to tell. It was actually three stories, and I'm not sure it's doable on stage. Also, the book, which is wonderful, is brilliant in allowing the reader's imagination to conjure up New York and making the shifts between times. And that's something you just can't put on stage; it's too literal. It's like doing a stage version of Roman Holiday. I think Hal Prince is the one who said you could never do it because you've got to have Rome; it's what makes the show so special.
Time and Again was one of those many shows that I spent years working on that were supposed to go to Broadway and never did. Which is one of the reasons I started recording and started going somewhere else with my career. I just talked to someone at a radio station in LA that has been playing my albums and he had no idea that I am also an actress, which is something I had been keeping kind of quiet about. My biggest fear when I released Pentimento was that the jazz magazines would kill me and say, "Why does this Broadway girl think she can sing jazz?" Thankfully nobody did, so ...
But live theater is my true love. I did Man of No Importance last year, where I had a teeny little part, simply because I missed the smell of going to the theater every day. But you have so little control as an actor in terms of what gets produced that I felt I had to put my energies and intellect into something that would give me something back. And subsequently, it's allowing me to actually do the theatrical projects I want to do.
Man of No Importance was such a fun show to do. I felt that given everything that was happening in the world, the spirit of the show was what I wanted to be associated with. Joe Mantello is a fantastic director, and working with Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens and Terrence McNally ... who wrote my liner notes ... wasn't that sweet? He's such a musical aficionado and it comes through in all of his work. Even in Frankie and Johnny, there's that thread of how important music is in their lives.
JF: Speaking of shows that were supposed to have transferred to Broadway ... What did you do in 3hree?
JM: I mainly did non-singing character stuff. I got to wear a fat suit and play a hideous shrew in the first piece, The Mice, and got to play a man in the last piece. It was a lot of fun.
JF: I was surprised to read that you were in Cats.
JM: I was one of the first replacements. I was almost in the original company, actually. Somebody else got the part, but I got a letter saying I was first on the list of replacements. You wouldn't believe the people who were in the show at the time. Robby Marshall was a Cat ...
JF: It's less the show than the fact that I didn't realize you were a dancer ...
JM: Well ... I've always been the girl they stick in the third row. I have good feet and I can get by. I danced for Agnes DeMille, thank you! My first show when I was nineteen was the revival of Oklahoma! that she choreographed. During previews she pulled me aside and asked who hired me. And I said, "I think it was you, Miss DeMille!" (Laughs) She realized I wasn't quite the dancer she thought she had hired!
JF: Do you have anything coming up theatrically?
JM: I just finished the Ricky Ian Gordon piece I mentioned, which hopefully will continue to be developed.
JF: What is it called?
JM: It doesn't have a title yet. It's being referred to as 'The Family Project.' It's based on the book Home Fires, which was written about Ricky's family. His family went through what he calls going as far to the edges and back as possible without dying. I played the sister who started Rolling Stone magazine and was heavily into the women's movement, and one day went to write about Janis Joplin's band for Rolling Stone and became a hopeless drug addict and prostitute.
JF: Sounds like quite the cheery musical!
One of your more intriguing credits is doing those wacky commercials for Saturday Night Live.
JM: I did that for one season when I first moved to New York. I would do things like "The Qaddafi Look" and sing back up for the various musical guests that would come in. I got to meet Miles Davis. I was there when Jennifer Holiday came in to do something from Dreamgirls. I still do jingles ... John and I are doing the Foxwoods commercials. I'm on radio and he's on TV ... he's cuter than I am! (Laughs).
JF: Well, that's debatable. Thank you and have a wonderful run at Feinstein's. I'm looking forward to seeing it.
JM: Thank you!
Jessica will be performing at Feinstein's at the Regency (540 Park Avenue, New York, New York) Tuesday, May 27, through Saturday, June 21, with The John Pizzarelli Trio and Bucky Pizzarelli. For reservations call 212-339-4095. For more information on the show visit www.feinsteinsattheregency.com/. For more information on Jessica visit her website. And visit PSClassics.com for information on "A Good Day."