Putting Julie Reyburn's CD, Fate Is Kind, into one's CD player is like slipping into your most comfortable clothes, pouring a cup of hot chocolate and reliving your favorite memories of childhood. A collection of songs about and inspired by childhood and growing up, the album is based on her debut show of the same name; a show that won her the MAC and Bistro Awards for Best Debut. As Julie is one of those artists who can't sit still for a minute and is constantly performing as a guest artist or featured performer practically every day of the week, I was fortunate to corner her for an interview.
Jonathan: Greetings, oh 'busiest person in cabaret.'
Julie: Stop! I feel like I'm not busy enough! (Laughs)
JF: One look at the schedule you have posted on you website, www.juliereyburn.com, would prove otherwise! Between your guest appearances and your full-length shows ... you keep yourself mightily occupied.
JR: I feel like I have to perform everyday, since that's how you stay shape; that's how you grow as an artist.
JF: When does your solo show open?
JR: It opens on August 29th at Judy's Chelsea and continues on September 12, 13, and 14. I don't have a name for it yet; it might simply be Julie Reyburn at Judy's. Mark Janas will be playing piano and Ritt Henn will be on bass.
JR: It depends. Sometime I'll find a song I'll want to do, and I'll go to Mark and tell him I have no idea what I want to do with it and then we'll start playing around with it. Because we've worked so closely for so long, we automatically come up with ideas. The other night we were working on a song and when we got to this one section, we both instinctively stopped, he did an instrumental break, then we both came in at the same time in perfect harmony.
JF: That's when you know you have found your soul mate accompanist!
JR: That's the way we work. It's great because we both know my key is B flat, and that the song will always come back to that key (laughs). He knows my voice better than anyone.
JF: Does your new show have a theme or are you providing a theme-free evening?
JR: Theme-free - I love that! Since we are doing the show around September 11th, I wanted it to be about healing and coming together as a community and as a family; that's the universal theme. But it's an overall throughline that acts as subtext, rather than being 'bang ya over the head' overt.
JF: Which also describes Fate Is Kind; at first glance the album seems to be about childhood, but when you look deeper you notice that it really isn't ...
JR: Exactly. In Fate is Kind I included a song Bonnie Raitt did, "The Glow," which is about needing a drink and not wanting to think too much. I did it right after "Steps of the Palace" from Into The Woods, signifying that the fairy tale got shot to hell ... which isn't exactly a childhood sentiment!
JF: But that sentiment helped win you the MAC and the Bistro Award for outstanding debut in 2001.
JR: Yes. Believe it or not, we opened Fate Is Kind at Judy's after throwing it together in two weeks. (Laughs) It was total luck and Kismet. I had been working with Steven Lutvak for about a month and a half previous to that, and was going, "I don't know what I should do with my life. I suppose I should do a show ... but I don't know if I'm a singer or a songwriter ... blah, blah, blah ... " I had been to the Cabaret Symposium two years before that in 1998, and it was so overwhelming and so life-changing that I had to wait two years to regroup. Cabaret sought me out and dragged me kicking and screaming into its world! (Laughs)
I took what I had been working with Steven to Mark and he commented that every song about had to do with the inner child and the journey one takes on the road to adulthood. I had wanted to read a section of The Velveteen Rabbit in the show, but he suggested I read the whole book and also do a song by Sterling Price-McKinney based on the story. So I picked out sections from the book that related to the song I was about to sing and it just happened to fit together perfectly.
We did it as a fundraiser for the vocal school I used to study at; we thought it would be a great way to workshop the show and see what worked and what didn't. The show turned out to be a hit and we didn't need to change anything. So we went to Judy's and auditioned the show for them. They mentioned that they had a slot open in a week and a half. Mark and I told everybody we knew via phone and e-mail and through word of mouth I was able to fill the room on the opening night of my debut! Sure, there were nights during the run when I was performing to two or three people, but 80% of the twelve performances were sold out.
At the time I had no idea what I was doing! People would ask if I belonged to MAC [Manhattan Associate of Cabaret and Clubs] and I would ask, "What's that?" Someone told me that Sherry Eaker from Back Stage was in the audience one night and I asked, "Why would she be here?" Then I got a call from them saying I had won the Bistro Award and I asked, "What's that?" (Laughs) I was totally naïve! "I have to do what to be considered for a MAC award?" There I am getting my MAC Award at Town Hall and I was like a deer in the headlights. Erv Raible had to remind me to breathe! It was very exciting.
JF: I'm sure it was ... especially since you used to be an usher at Town Hall.
JR: I remember ushering for the Cabaret Convention in 1998, right after I got back from the Symposium, and thinking, "Wow ... I wonder if I'll ever get up there!" Then last year, when I made my Convention debut at Town Hall, I got to tell the audience that in 1998 I was seating them up in the balcony! It was one of those magical moments.
JF: You returned to Town Hall this year to perform in The Broadway Musicals of 1940 ...
JR: That was very exciting. They were very good to me. I couldn't believe all the stage time I got!
JF: I think it was the strongest of the Broadway Musicals series so far, at least on disc.
JR: I'm glad you think so. And I even got to perform the premier recording of a song, "All I've Got To Get Now Is My Man" [from Cole Porter's Panama Hattie]. It was really neat doing that as well, since I had people come up to me after the show and say, "You're the one who used to be the usher here!" The House Manager likes to say that I'm the usher who made good and was the one who got out! I'll be at Town Hall again for the Convention year on Thursday, October 24th.
JF: Are you going to be doing a show around that time?
JR: I hope so. The problem is, dates are very hard to come by now that Arci's and The Firebird have closed. I'm going to try and get some dates at Judy's in October.
JF: You also are participating the show Mickey Writes It! the songs of Michael Holland, which opens on August 21st at Don't Tell Mama.
JR: Yes. We just did our tech and the show is going to be awesome! The songs are brilliant and he cast it perfectly; every song suites the singer's personality.
JF: What song are you going to be doing?
JR: "Surrender Dorothy," which David Gurland did in his Gurley Show last fall. Michael Holland saw me do a Janis Joplin number for the Dead Divas show at The Duplex this summer and he gave me the song to bring out my 'inner rock chick.' Since you don't get many chances to rock out in cabaret ... (laughs) I think that the powers-that-be in cabaret are starting to realize that the American Songbook doesn't end at 1945; it keeps going and that brilliant songs that are going to take their place in the Songbook are being written and performed as we speak.
JF: Right. You look at Eva Cassidy and one of her best songs is a cover of Sting's "Fields of Gold." And singer/songwriters like Elton John and Billy Joel have definitely written songs that should be considered by cabaret performers.
JR: I'm doing a song by Pete Townsend from The Who and one by Paul Simon in my new show.
JF: You got your start singing 'adult contemporary' songs at a very early age ...
JR: Yes; when I was four. My parents were a folk/rock duo and instead of having my aunt take care of me while they were off performing, they took me on the road with them. This was in the '70s when coffee houses were really popular and booked singers. A company called "The Coffee House Circuit" employed them and they would travel around the country playing small clubs and college campuses. It was a great experience since I not only got to travel with my parents but got to perform as well.
JF: Were they songwriters as well?
JR: Yes; they would do covers as well as their own numbers. They would do everything from Bob Dylan to The Grateful Dead to old blues numbers ... they did just about everything. They were into storytelling through intimate numbers, and I guess it's only fitting that I now do the same thing in cabaret.
JF: Do you find that your parents' music has influenced your own songwriting?
JR: Definitely. I write all my songs on guitar, like the rest of the folk composers. I write very emotional, stream of consciousness lyrics and the music is rooted in an earthy quality, as that's what comes naturally to me.
JF: Do you perform your own songs in your shows?
JR: I did last year. This year I was invited to take part in the New Mondays series at The Duplex when it goes up again in the fall. So I'll be doing my songs in that show this year instead of in my show at Judy's, as I want to keep it separate: I want my cabaret show to be my cabaret show and I want my songs to have their own showcase.
JF: Have you thought about doing a show comprised solely of your songs?
JR: Yes. I think that will come in the future, once I get my next CD done. I finished some of the songs for a demo; now I need somebody to help me finish the rest ...
JF: ... so interested financial parties can contact you through your website about how to send contributions!
JF: Is there a possibility that your new CD will be finished in the foreseeable future?
JR: I don't know. I just finished my demo in June ...
JF: Your album was one of the orphans of the Jerome Records debacle, correct?
JR: Yeah. It was half done. We had finished the rhythm tracks for the first seven songs and were going to go in and finish the vocals and do the overdubs when it all fell apart.
JF: Did you have to pay to get the tracks back?
JR: No. If I want to use them for commercial purposes I would have to pay for them, but as I am using them for promotional purposes ... Hopefully I will get a record deal out of it so that it will pay for finishing the CD and reimburse those who worked on it.
It threw my whole schedule off. I had the whole year planned: I was going to have an elaborate CD release party with a huge band and take the show on the road for a year. When it all fell apart, I was left scrambling. I was so into the mode of being 'singer/songwriter' Julie who was going to cross over, get into festivals, move beyond the circuit that I currently am in; not leaving it, but trying something new. My plan had worked up to that point like clockwork, and then 'poof!' And that's life; I learned lessons and it's not the end of the world, but ...
JF: ... but it's not beyond the realm of possibility for it to get picked up and continued ...
JR: I hope not. I believe in the demo. While there's more that can be done to it, I think it provides a good representation of me and reflects a style that is popular right now.
JF: I heard the demo and I enjoyed it. It's quite the departure from Fate Is Kind as it is more in the classic singer/songwriter vein of the '70s and early '80s. It's funny; the songs you wrote for it reminded me of Laura Nyro, and then you followed them up with a Nyro song!
JR:You can see where I get my influence. I would love to get signed with a small, independent label and get involved in things like the Newport Folk Festival and jazz festivals around the country. My soul is with all those songwriters who sit and sing their songs while they play on their guitars!
JF: It never ceases to amaze me how many of today's big female cabaret singers started out doing just that. The image of Karen Akers and Andrea Marcovicci in jeans strumming their guitars is priceless.
JR: And that's how I got my start in this city; doing forty-five minute sets in small clubs when it was just me and my guitar. I love performing in a cabaret room better, since the focus is completely on you as a performer; they are there to see you and are not sitting smoking and having loud conversations. And you also get to be the master of your own destiny, which is exciting. The wonderful thing about the folk community is that the more real you are and the more honest you are as a performer, the more you bring yourself to your performance, the more they embrace you. I think the same thing is true in cabaret when it is done well.
JF: Do you still act?
JR: Yes. I was in a play three weeks ago for The Women's Project where I got to play a nightclub singer ... go figure! It was fun; I don't act as much as when I first moved here. I still audition, but what is on Broadway doesn't inspire me as much anymore. Plus, I've gotten to a point where I realize that I need to make a name for myself as I don't have the powerful network below me so I have to do it on my own: I don't have a powerful agent and I didn't go to a powerful acting school. If I get on Broadway, great, but if I don't, that's ok. It's one of my big dreams, but so is performing at the Grammys or writing a kick-ass song and selling it to someone. There are other ways of feeding my art that are more fulfilling to me right now, such as working with amazing people on amazing projects.
JF: In addition to your solo show, you also are putting together a holiday show. What does that entail?
JR: Last year the holiday show was insane so it's going to be pared down a bit. (Laughs) I had two or three guest artists for each show, and while it was successful, it was overwhelming, what with the scheduling involved. This year, I have four dates booked, so if I don't get dates for my show in October, I might take two of those days for that and devote the other two as fundraisers for Broadway Cares: Equity Fights AIDS. I have to take into account that I'm a very busy person and have a tendency to bite off more than I should chew.
JF: Well, I'm looking forward to seeing your new show.
To learn more about Julie, including where and when she will be performing on any given day, visit her website: www.juliereyburn.com. To make a reservation for her show at Judy's Chelsea, located at 169 Eighth Avenue, NYC, call: 212-929-5410. To see her in Mikey Writes It! The Songs of Michael Holland at Don't Tell Mama, located at 343 West 46th St., NYC, call: 212-757-0788.