J: Have you ever thought about writing? Either songs or lyrics?
M: I'm so picky about lyrics that it's gotten to the point where the best punishment for me would be to make me try my hand at writing, because I demand so much from lyrics.
J: Who are your favorite lyricists?
M: Johnny Mercer! Cole Porter. The Bergmans. My favorite contemporary lyricist is David Cantor. I recorded four of his songs. I find him to be a brilliant lyricist.
J: He wrote "Slow Boat to China," which is the song we are featuring with this interview. I wasn't familiar with him before hearing your CD.
M: He kind of falls between the cracks. He was a playwright who started writing music and lyrics. He's played more in the downtown clubs, the fast-folk kind of places. A lot of the critics who have written about my album, and his albums as well, have referred to him as "the Cole Porter of the 90's." I really don't think that's an exaggeration. I find his stuff to be very intelligent, very topical, and he doesn't overstate his lyrics.
J: When you perform, do you do a lot of patter or conversation during the show?
M: Personally, I don't like to sit in an audience and listen to a singer talk too much. I think that patter is a useful tool that can be used to set up a song. But to sit down and just chat with the audience ... I feel that it just drops the energy. I think patter is important, as a way of guiding the audience through your material. Everything doesn't have to be letter perfect or scripted, but it should be treated like an acting speech.
J: What's up next for you? Are you putting together a new show?
M: I've always been interested in women composers and women writers. I think Peggy Lee is a dazzling lyricist and I've been investigating her material. I just got a private gig at the Harvard Club in October. I'll probably be going in there with guitar and bass. And since Peggy Lee wrote a lot of songs with Dave Barbour, who was a guitarist ...
Mostly, I'm just experimenting with using instruments other than piano as the main voice. I've also been listening to a lot of Nat King Cole. I'm a big John Pizzarelli fan, and I love the combination of piano, guitar and bass without drums.
J: You have no problem with being classified as a cabaret artist instead of a jazz performer?
M: There's an incredible prejudice in the jazz world against cabaret singers. It's made performers like Wesla Whitfield and Ann Hampton Callaway aggressively distance themselves from cabaret and refer to themselves more as jazz singers. It's better for them, because as Erv Raible said, "Cabaret isn't just seen as the ugly stepchild of Musical Theatre, it's the ugly, UGLY stepchild." And that's sad, since there are a lot of jazz singers who would learn a lot from watching cabaret singers, and vice versa.
I think that the cabaret world has been very kind to me and very supportive, especially when I took cabaret audiences to places they may not have been comfortable going ... twisting lyrics or phrasing, or turning a tried and true standard on its side. There's no reason for me to bite the hand that has fed me so well.
J: From what I heard on your CD, it's not as if you do anything to really warp the lyric or phrase beyond where it could go. You have a reason behind it, and a justification. You don't just fly all over the place because it's fun, even though there's no basis for it in the song.
M: That's where the acting comes in. You've got to have a root and a motivation for anything.
J: Do you have any gigs coming up?
M: The Heavenly Band will be at Swing 46 on August 4. We're also going to be in the Sheepshead Bay Yacht Club. I will be back at Don't Tell Mama's on September 21 and 28, and the Cabaret Convention October 1 at Town Hall. For you Ivy Leaguers, I'll be at the Harvard Club on October 22nd.
J: Have you seen any performers you have enjoyed recently in cabaret or jazz?
M: I went to see Michel Legrand recently. He's a songwriter, so I'm not sure if he counts. He did a couple of nights at The Blue Note and I went to see him on July 4th. I didn't even know he was still alive! And what was so wonderful was that he sang a lot of his hits in French; "Summer of 42," "Windmills of your Mind." He did a song from Yentl, which I didn't even know he wrote the music for. And it was so different hearing him, this older French Guy, sing "Papa can you hear me." I've always enjoyed listening to composers sing their own material. Bob Dorough is another one. He's in his 70s and he finally got signed with the Blue Note Label after all these years. This is the guy who wrote "I'm Hip" with Dave Frischberg. And he made his claim to fame writing for School House Rock. And he's a kicky composer, who has written with several different lyricists, and his arrangements are dynamite.
J: I loved the School House Rock stuff! Got me through high school! I'm going to have to look into more of Bob's music ...
Do you have plans for doing another album?
M: If a label comes along and says "we will back you," I will go into the studio tomorrow and start working on one! But if it's another one of the ventures where I'm going to be putting it together, I won't be going back into the studio until I feel I have another CD falling out of me. I think that it's important that there is growth between CDs. I felt like I learned so much from the first CD, that I don't want to do another one until I feel like I have something definite to say.
J: Did you enjoy working in the studio?
M: I loved it! LOVED IT! I thought it was so terrific, because you have an incredible amount of privacy. And since you can't be seen, your job becomes communicating a living environment with only your voice, and that's an incredible challenge and I enjoyed it immensely.
J: Were most of the tracks in one take?
M: I would love to tell you that they were, but they took multiple takes.
J: Good! You've made me feel much better about my CD now!
M: Oh no! It took several takes!
J: It really sounds like the four of you went into the studio and just did it.
M: We worked in a very small, intimate studio, which was good. We also had performed together before, which also helped, so it wasn't like four strangers doing the material. And then with stuff that they coughed up, it demanded that the vocals be redone. Because there were suddenly new layers and dimensions, and I would go "OK, that is a rather tepid vocal line, I should go back and do something a little more interesting!" So for me, it was like painting a picture.
J: Do you usually perform with the same four people?
M: I'd like to. It isn't always possible. Bill Mays is on the top of the food chain. When he's in town and I have a gig which pays enough to pay him, Bill is the first person I'll call. I love working with Jeff, because he's my arranger and we have a great time whenever we work together.
J: Do you usually work with a combo versus just you and a piano?
M: I sometimes work with just me and a piano, but I prefer the added dimensions the other instruments bring. I know it makes it more expensive on my end, but it allows me to have more texture. When I won the Hanson Award (given to outstanding newcomers in cabaret) and got this cash prize, I thought "Now I can afford a drummer!" and then I was hooked! It makes it so a singer doesn't have to work so hard. Also, we need to remember that people have turned off their VCRs, got a baby-sitter, got dressed up for a night out, and we have to serve them up something that is more interesting than what television could give them. I don't like to take my audience for granted.
J: Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
M: In the studio, please God! Singing bi-coastally. Typing less and singing more. The office skills came in handy, though, when it came to producing my album. Because all of the business smarts that I acquired in survival jobs helped me tremendously in recording an album.
J: You produced your CD yourself?
M: Jeff Klitz was the musical producer, but in terms of rights, and the paperwork and permissions, the purse strings, that came out of me. I AM Mock Turtle Productions!
J: Is the CD available in stores?
M: It's in Tower, HMV, Barnes and Noble. It's totally available over the internet at Amazon.com, Footlights and CDNow.
J: Thank you Mary. It was a pleasure talking to you.
For more information on Mary Foster Conklin, visit her website at http://home.earthlink.net/~psychlone1/
1) Crazy Eyes (David Cantor)