Two of the most inspirational songwriters and performers of the international cabaret scene, ANN HAMPTON CALLAWAY and AMANDA McBROOM, will be appearing at The Pheasantry from 9-13 November. They will be accompanied by another wonderful songwriter and performer in her own right, Michele Brourman.
Fiona-Jane Weston caught up with Ann and Amanda to discuss their work ahead of their upcoming return to London.
Ann Hampton Callaway:
You are very well known in the States, but for those who don’t know you so well here, tell us about you and your talented family.
I was born in Chicago to very artistic parents. My mom Shirley is a singer, pianist and highly esteemed vocal coach, and my dad John was a beloved Chicago radio and TV journalist, as well as a writer and jazz lover. My sister Liz and I were inspired by their example and by all the shows they took us to growing up.
Liz and I moved to New York to pursue our dreams and we feel fortunate to be doing what we love. My career has been quite robust and varied – in a given year I create and perform many acts as a soloist and as a collaborator with people I love, like my sister, Marilyn Maye, Michael Feinstein and many others.
I do one-woman shows at the piano, jazz and cabaret shows with my trio, big band concerts and many symphony concerts each year. My writing remains a passion and I am grateful to have made a contribution with performances and recordings by top artists like Liza Minnelli, Patti LuPone and Barbra Streisand. Dreams of doing radio, film and TV have come true and there is so much more in the works.
What do you love to sing?
I love to sing songs where the lyrics tell a story and create a world which I can live in and believe in completely as I sing them. I blend jazz and traditional pop stylistically and cover a wide range of material from jazz standards, the Great American Songbook, Broadway, blues, bossa nova, pop and my original songs. I also love to sing improvisations – making up something in the moment demands everything of me and I love to give my all for my audiences.
Did you ever feel you wanted to do something else?
When I was ten I wanted to be President because I wanted to inspire people. I wanted to be a published author. A career as an actress doing film roles and straight theatre excited me. And I thought if I couldn’t make it as an artist that I’d be a therapist or go into advertising, creating ads that promoted not just products but also important values.
You are a lyricist, composer, singer and actress. Is there a favourite in there?
I guess singing is my great love, which always involves acting, and writing songs is a close second.
You wrote for Barbara Streisand. How did that come about? Does she like to have a big input into the song as it is being created?
The first song I wrote for Barbra was a peace anthem she didn’t know about called ‘At the Same Time’. When I finished it I knew it was hers and I didn’t let anyone record it until she did. After numerous efforts to get the song to her, the turning point was Amanda McBroom telling Jay Landers, Barbra’s A&R man, about my peace anthem as Barbra was looking for songs for an inspirational CD. He heard it, loved it, passed it onto Barbra who loved it but wanted rewrites, and about 150 rewrites later she recorded her final vocal – ten years to the date I wrote it!
I loved talking to Barbra about what she was looking for in the tweaks. In a phone conversation she said: “Ann, I want it to be simple but profound.” I asked her what that meant to her. She said: “I want the listener to understand the lyric the first time they hear it, but when they hear the song again to feel different layers and meanings in the words.” I’ve used that advice ever since then.
You seem very close to your sister. How different are you from Liz? Not just artistically, but personally?
We look different, are wired differently and sound different. I always say she has a sunlit voice, I have a moonlit voice, and when we sing together we make twilight. I tend to go with my instincts, whereas Liz can take a while to process things. I’m very outgoing with people and Liz can be a bit more private. She likes to tease me about writing poetry and I like to tease her about being such a sports fan. I love our differences – I think they help us as friends and make our lives more interesting.
Tell us about the show you will do in London. What inspired it?
Amanda is one of my favourite writers and performers. We’ve done shows in the past and the Gods must have thought it was time to do get creative again. After a solo show in Massachusetts one night, I was talking to a producer who is a fan of mine and Amanda’s and when she asked if we’d put something new together I said ‘yes’ in a heartbeat. The result is Divalicious. When we premiered it this summer at Great Barrington Stage, one cabaret aficionado said it was the best cabaret act he’d ever seen. The response was amazing so we are excited to bring it to London and other upcoming cities.
What makes the show special to me is that there is this great soul mate energy between us and Michele Brourman, our dear friend, co-writer and accompanist. The show is a sparkling cocktail of standards by writers who have inspired us and our own songs, both humorous and touching.
How did you get to know each other?
Our paths have crossed numerous times through the years in the cabaret world. We love to go to each other’s shows, we love to hang out, we love to write and are excited to do the UK premiere of our latest song ‘Almost’. Amanda feels like family and what a reunion it will be!
Like Ann, you also come from a showbiz family, at least in respect of your father. Was your childhood steeped in being in shows?
Yes! My parents always encouraged me to perform, not in a pushy way, but they knew that I was stagestruck from the beginning. My dad did my make-up and my mom, the drama teacher, sewed the costumes for all my little plays. I started acting professionally when I was 10.
How did the show with Ann come to be born?
Ann and I had known each other for quite a while. I was producing/performing a series of concerts out here in LA at a great space called the John Anson Ford Theatre. Like a mini Hollywood Bowl. Ann and I split a bill in one of those concerts and had such a great time we always threatened to do it again. It only took us a few decades.
Is this the first time you have done a collaboration like this? Tell us how it works. Have you written together?
How it works? We pick some duets we like, choose an equal number of solos, try to make a dramatic arc for the evening, mixing and matching moods and styles, drink wine, sing, and script it out, and drink and sing some more.
We have written a song that is a peach called ‘Almost’ which will make its London debut at The Pheasantry.
I feel such a joy in sharing the stage with the finest jazz singer in the States, maybe the world, and the most wondrous musical director in Michele Brourman. And what could be more wonderful than returning to my favourite city on the planet, no joke, London! Best, smartest, warmest audiences anywhere.
Can we look forward to any new recordings?
Yes, I have a brand new CD of some of my favourite story songs, ala ‘Errol Flynn’, which will be released at the end of the year, called Voices. Something new for the CD table, yay!
Let’s talk about your songwriting processes – how do each of you start a song and see it through to the end? Do you have a particular writing routine or discipline? Or does it all come from sudden inspiration?
Ann Hampton Callaway:
My songwriting process is varied. Much of my songwriting comes from inspiration. Things brewing in my heart, a flash of an idea, an event that needs addressing, wanting to tell someone how much I love them, trying to process the anguish of lost love, etc. Sometimes my poetry improvs lead to a song. Sometimes an overheard conversation or a news article sparks something.
If I get an idea for a lyric, usually the music follows naturally as if it is waiting to be sung. If I get an idea for a melody, it can take ages for me to figure out what it is about.
Sometimes there is an artist I am writing for and that involves research on style, theme, tone, etc. A TV theme involves the most succinct understanding of who the personalities are involved and setting the tone for the whole series. Some songs pop right out and some songs germinate for years. Amanda and I tell a fun story about how we wrote our song ‘Almost’.
As for my improv songwriting – I believe the less thinking, the better. I dive in with a few anchoring intentions and let it all naturally happen. Sometimes it feels like I don’t write the song, the song writes me and that is a true gift.
I only write when I am inspired by a line, a story I read, a situation I see. I think of my songs as mini monologues, acting pieces. I usually know the end before I know the beginning. Working backwards seems to work best for me.
No discipline, I fear. They appear when they appear, and then if I am lucky, I will send them off to Michele and she will work her magic on them and we will come up with something exciting.
It has been a while since I have written anything on my own. I should get back to that.
* Ann Hampton Callaway and Amanda McBroom will perform at The Pheasantry in the King’s Road, Chelsea from 9–13 November (www.pizzaexpresslive.com)