Also see the reviews of Grateful, 3HREE, and Solitude Lessons
Jonathan: Welcome to Talkin' Broadway, John. I'm so thrilled to be interviewing you, as I have been a fan of your work for years. I think the first song of yours that I ever heard was Barbara Cook's version of "Sweet Dreams." I must say, you have been having quite the year!
John: Thank you! It's been quite the amazing ride these past few years ... it's just been breathtaking. Imagine pulling a slingshot back and back and back for thirty years and finally letting it go; that's what the last two years have felt like. I jokingly refer to the CD Grateful as the retrospective of a career that never existed (laughs), because some of those songs are twenty years old.
JF: And unless one has gone to a cabaret show or bought a copy of an increasing number of performer driven CDs, most people wouldn't be familiar with your songs. How did Grateful come to be?
JB: I have a deal with the publishing branch of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization, which is called Williamson Music, and since more and more people were singing my songs, they wanted to put out a songbook. Well, I don't read or write music, and so I wasn't quite sure how to do that ...
JF: I can not believe that you don't read music! It just astounds me because your songs, and more importantly the piano parts to your songs, are so complex and full. At least I assume you create all the arrangements ...
JB: Absolutely. I'm very meticulous, which made making the songbook that much more complicated. I don't know what we would have done if we didn't have computer capabilities. The other big issue to my not reading is that I'm always improvising the arrangements, so one of the tricky things about creating the songbook was standardizing the songs.
JF: Well, I'm thrilled that there is finally a book available. Several of your songs have floated my way from various sources, but it's nice to have the 'official' versions!
JB: The problem is that there are only 16 that are written out! And it's getting to the point where I'm afraid that people are going to get sick of those 16 songs! I worked with a Brazilian composer who moved to New York and makes part of his living working with people to write out their music. It took us about a year and a half to put out the songbook, with me playing things into his computer, and then the editing process took an enormous amount of time. Halfway through the process, I had an idea ... I had always wanted to do a compilation CD. I thought that since we were doing the songbook, maybe if we recorded the songs from the songbook on a CD they would help to market one another. I had spoken in the past with someone named Bill Rosenfield at RCA who loves my songs, but was always reluctant to commit to a recording project; especially a compilation album because he had concerns about whose name to put it under. Since nobody knew my name, where would you put it in Tower Records? And frankly he didn't think that I would be able to get the people that ended up on the CD.
So I thought I would hit Bill up again, since now there was going to be a songbook as well. As an added insurance policy, I called the people who are on the CD and literally said "Look, I'm going to pitch this project to this guy at RCA. Can I use your name if you are willing to participate?" And every single one of them, without conditions or expectations on their part, said "Absolutely! We'll be there and do whatever you need us to do." So armed with my list of names, I called Bill up. I mentioned wanting to record the CD as a companion to the songbook. I also mentioned that I had commitments from Judy Collins, Michael Feinstein, Art Garfunkel, Liza Minnelli, ... I went down the list of these wonderful performers. And suddenly, he was kind of interested!
JF: Funny how that works!
JB: Isn't that amazing? (Laughs) So we decided to make the CD. There was some discussion originally about hiring a producer, but I said "No." First of all there wasn't enough money, and second of all, I wanted to produce it. It was something that I had dreamed of since I started writing songs back in High School; getting a record contract and the support that comes from working with a major label. Amazingly Bill let me do it, and other than visiting the studio a couple of times, he pretty much left me to my own devices. And it's doing exactly what I hoped, which is bringing what I do to a larger audience. Plus, in an uncharacteristically farsighted move, I registered my domain name and RCA agreed to put the website on the CD. It's incredible! People come to the website to talk about the CD, and I get a very clear image of how far reaching it is! I have people sign the guest book from Eurasia and England and Australia; all over the world! And I can sell other products, other incarnations of my work.
JF: Such as your CD, Solitude Lessons. Was it recorded before Grateful?
JB: Yes. I have a little four track reel to reel tape recorder at home and I recorded Solitude Lessons as a cassette demo eight or nine years ago. The Grateful CD exceeded the amount of money that RCA had budgeted, and I had to come up with the rest of the money myself. Since it was a pretty substantial amount of money, I decided to spend a little more money to have Solitude Lessons remastered by the same person who did Grateful so that I could sell it on the website and help defray the total costs. It still has an intimate, homemade quality to it, but it sounds a whole lot better than it used to. It's a very pure, intimate glimpse into how I hear the songs being presented, since I'm singing and playing all the instruments on all the songs.
JF: You had mentioned that you've been writing songs since High School. What's the earliest song on Grateful?
JB: I think it's "That Smile."
JF: Has songwriting always been your passion?
JB: Yeah. When I started writing, I wanted to be a singer/songwriter/piano player ala Billy Joel or Elton John or Joni Mitchell. My fantasy was to make recordings of my work, and go around with a band and perform them. That obviously, so far, hasn't happened. But because of the exposure that Grateful has given me, people are calling me up to do solo concerts. I had done some here in New York and a few other cities, but an increasing number of people are wanting me to come and perform my songs, which is great.
JF: I noticed on your website that you now have three musicals out ... Artist at 40, Urban Myths, and now a third of 3HREE. Is writing musicals something you were always interested in doing?
JB: Well, The Artist at 40 was something that somebody put together and was one of the most impossible things to ever attempt to do; create a musical with a throughline using pre-existing songs that weren't written to tell the story ... and do it with no dialogue! How insane is that???
JF: Was "Grateful" in that? Or was that song strictly in Urban Myths?
JB: No, "Grateful" was written to be just a song, but part way through the writing of it, I realized that it could be a closing number for one of the chunks of Urban Myths that hadn't been written yet. My brother died of AIDS in 1992 and I wanted to create an urban myth which was an AIDS story ... a story we would like to see perpetuated into an urban myth. I wrote a song called "Not a Cloud in the Sky," which is the song I sing on the Grateful CD, and the line "You're not really about to die" just came out of nowhere; I didn't know it was coming! But once that line came out, I realized it could be the opening number for the AIDS myth. Not too long after that I wrote "Grateful" and I thought "Oh my God! This could be the closing song!" Then we had the difficult task of deciding what was going to happen between the two songs and who the characters were! That section turned into a beautiful story about a man who's dying of AIDS whose lover, the one who sings "Not a Cloud in the Sky," is very clenched and in denial about the situation. Towards the end of the piece, when his lover asks, "What do we have to be thankful for," the man who's covered with lesions and dying sings "Grateful." So it's pretty powerful and makes his lover cry for the first time during the story. The piece is called Last Supper and the man who's dying has requested a meal of all of his favorite foods, after which he's going to kill himself. And what happens is that his lover's tears fall into the food and it miraculously cures him.
JF: Is Urban Myths published so people can produce it?
JB: It's not. The trick with Urban Myths is figuring out how to link the myths and I don't think that we've cracked that yet. The show's on the back burner but I got a lot of good songs out of it. Four songs from it are on the Grateful CD; "Grateful," "Temporary," "Not a Cloud in the Sky," and "Dancing" from the story Lavender Girl and which was is now in 3HREE.
JF: Is 3HREE going to be moving to New York?
JB: One can only hope. It's going to the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles. We start rehearsals April 3rd. The first preview is April 17th and the show opens April 25th and runs through June 10th.
JF: Is it the same cast as in Philadelphia?
JB: Of the nine-person cast, seven are the same; two couldn't make the transfer to Los Angeles.
JF: Are you going out to participate?
JB: You betcha! There's not all that much work to be done on it, so I'm not sure how long I'll be there. I'll certainly be there for opening night; I wouldn't miss that for the world!
JF: Isn't LA your old stomping grounds?
JB: Yeah. I was born in Philadelphia but we moved to the Palm Springs area when I was twelve. And then I moved to Los Angeles after college to seek my fortune, pounding the pavement looking for a record deal and writing a whole bunch of songs. And not finding a record deal ... until now! Sometimes it takes 25 years!
JF: Until I checked out your website, I didn't realize that you were the composer for the direct to video follow up to Prince of Egypt, Joseph King of Dreams. I've been meaning to rent it ...
JB: It just won four awards. There's a new award ceremony for direct-to-video things called the Video Premiere Awards. It's done by the video magazine Video Business that is put out Variety. It's kind of a big deal.
JF: Is a CD going to be released of the soundtrack?
JB: No. Because it was direct to video one hasn't been released.
JF: Now if it were a Disney film there would have been one! Heck ... Little Mermaid II has a CD, and it only has four songs!
JB: Well, we beat out Little Mermaid II for the Best Animated Film, so ... (Laughs) We also won for Best Screenplay, Best Director, and I won Best Song for "Better Than I," which David Campbell sings on the video and on the Grateful CD.
JF: Well, I'll have to rush out to the video store and rent it.
JB: You should ... it's mighty good ... he says ever so humbly! (Laughs) But I'm very proud of it. So that was a nice thing to happen this week. And I also just found out yesterday that I won another fabulous award ... The Kleban Award!
JB: Thank you. It's given to one or more people each year and it's a big, big, BIG chunk of money. It's my ticket out of debt, basically ... which will be the first time in twenty years. Even with all this great stuff that's been happening, it hasn't been generating all that much money. So these awards really help grease the wheel and make living and writing a lot easier!
JF: That is so great! So, what's your next project going to be, now that you're debt free?
JB: That's a logical question, isn't it? I honestly don't know. One thing I definitely want to embark on is to put together ... I hate to say revue ... but some kind of theatrical context for mostly pre-existing songs of mine. I'm working with a playwright that I really admire and we are at the preliminary stages of brainstorming and trying to figure out how to do it. I'm always writing songs, so I'd love to do another CD; I'd love to record a really well produced CD doing what I had always dreamed of doing ... just me singing my song with great back up musicians. And other than that ... I'm waiting for the next project to come along and inspire me.
One thing that I wonder about is whether I am suited to writing full-length musicals. There are short story writers and there are novelists, and I might just be a short story writer; best at writing individual songs rather than a big theater piece. I haven't tried writing a full-length book musical, you know. Urban Myths was a series of short pieces, and Lavender Girl is a short piece.
JF: Out of curiosity ... Sally Mayes included a number of your songs on her Story Hour CD. I already knew "Sweet Dreams" but was unfamiliar with "Painting My Kitchen" and "Once Upon a Time." And, in addition to "Unexpressed" and "This Moment," which I knew through Grateful, Patti Lupone recorded "Playbill" on her recent CD. Did you write those songs specifically for them?
JB: I wrote "Once Upon A Time" specifically as an opening number for Sally's show and CD. The others are among the hundreds of mostly unperformed songs I have that I would love to get out into the world. I have close to thirty years worth of songs either in my head or on demo tapes. I was enormously pleased and surprised that Patti chose "Playbill;" it's just an arty, obscure song that I like, but ...
JF: But I love it! It's one of my favorite songs on the album ... I find it oddly hysterical.
JB: Well, thank you! I've been brainwashed by every record company or publisher who ever rejected my stuff and said that if a song didn't sound like whatever was on the top forty radio at the time, or wasn't melodically catchy and accessible, then nobody would ever want to record it. That's been the blessing of living in New York. While the pop world in Los Angeles wouldn't give my songs a second look, here in New York, because of the sophistication of the people who listen to theater and cabaret music, they actually like what I do.
JF: Just keep writing those great songs for us cabaret folk to perform then!
JB: Yeah. As long as the writing keeps happening the songs will find an outlet somewhere. If it's in the context of a musical, great! I am honestly just catching my breath and reassessing, especially after coming off of this huge work cycle and having a lot of stuff coming to fruition, so ... now I'm just waiting and trusting and seeing what will come along that feels right and resonates for me.
JF: Well congratulations on your recent successes, and I look forward to hearing whatever you write next.
JB: Thank you.