When you’ve excelled in a career that stretches back more than 40 years, scored major chart gains and earned the esteem of both your colleagues and fans, it would seem you’d have very little left to prove. For Melissa Manchester, however, simply emphasizing past glories isn’t really an option. Despite her list of early accomplishments — a songwriting stint with Chappell Music while still in her teens, her discovery by Barry Manilow and early apprenticeship with Bette Midler, 1975‘s enduring Top 10 hit “Midnight Blue” and subsequent successes with “Don’t Cry Out Loud,” “You Should Hear How She Talks About You” (which netted her a Grammy in 1983, beating out Linda Rondstadt, Olivia Newton-John, Juice Newton and Laura Branigan) and a remake of “Walk On By,” along with several notable acting credits (a stint on “General Hospital,” occasional stage success and starring on screen with Bette Midler in “For the Boys”) – she seemed to drop out of sight throughout much of the ’80s and ’90s. It’s wasn’t any mystery really. Ten years went by before the release of her aptly named 2004 album “When I Look Down the Road,” and another decade has transpired prior to her new offering “You Gotta Love the Life,” preceded by its first single, “Feelin’ For You.”
Indeed, it’s not that Manchester hasn’t been busy. In fact, she’s rarely stopped working. She currently teaches music at the University of Southern California – no wonder, since she herself studied songwriting at New York University with a distinguished professor named Paul Simon – and has a much anticipated musical in the making. Yet the fact that her music hasn’t been circulated in the broader marketplace might have given some the false impression she’s dropped out of the business entirely.
The new album, mostly written by Manchester (including a notable co-write with the late, great lyricist Hal David) along with four exceptional covers, attracted a host of A-list guest stars, among them Al Jarreau, Dave Koz, Keb’ Mo’, Dionne Warwick, Stevie Wonder and the late Joe Sample. The singer herself has never sounded more vibrant or enthused, and given the upbeat optimism she imparts overall, “You Gotta Love the Life,” true to its title, ought to be just the thing to bring Melissa back to the masses.
Here, then, is Manchester on her own mantra . . .
GOLDMINE: You seem to have a habit of taking long breaks between albums. So the most obvious question is . . . why?
MELISSA MANCHESTER: Well, the first time was because I left the industry to raise my kids. And the last time? Well, I think the answer is that the industry changed so radically. I needed to get my bearings, and I guess by divine design, I started teaching at the Thornton School of Music at USC. My students would show up with their CDs, and I would ask them how they got them done, thinking they were with an independent label. And they taught me all about this funding method called Indiegogo. They said, “You should do this.” One of my students became my project manager, and several other students assisted me overall. It was amazing. It was a phenomenal adventure, a new adventure in a new land to make this album. At the same time, I really wanted to go back and reclaim that feeling of making an album with great musicians. So what you’re hearing are real players. We recorded it at a college that had a teaching studio, with an engineer who was actually a professor of recording art. While we were recording, we had students who came in to learn and had never seen live musicians making music. So this adventure really started breathing. It was incredible! It was the most exciting adventure of my life really.
GM: You have some top-notch names contributing to this album. How did you bring them into the mix?
MM: Many of the musicians are members of my band or beloved friends I have worked with over the years. I didn’t want this to be a duets album – it really isn’t – but I do have some beautiful guests, and I have history with every one of them. Dionne Warwick I’ve known a very long time, as I have Al Jarreau, Dave Koz, Stevie Wonder and Joe Sample. So it was really so touching when those folks said yes.
GM: How did that collaboration with Hal David come about?
MM: I met him at a New Year’s Eve party a couple of years ago. He was a very dear man. I asked him if he was still writing, and he said he was. So a short time later, I went over to his beautiful home. I asked him how he writes – all writers seem to have a different approach – and he said, “Well, how do you write?” And I said, “I don’t know, I just talk about ideas or sometimes somebody just has their ideas.” So naturally, I asked him if he had any ideas. He said, “Just a minute,” (laughs) and he shuffled out of the room and then he shuffled back into the room and he brought out three lyrics. We ended up using one that was basically a finished lyric. I sat at his piano and looked at the three ideas, and this one, “The Other End of the Phone,” started to sing itself to me. I asked him to let me go home with it and let it marinate. Then I just sat with it and I started to hear Dionne Warwick singing it in my head, and so I sculptured the melody to fit her. She does this unique thing with breath and she just finds spaces that suit her. That’s part of her talent. He was very pleased, and the day I sent the demo of the song to Hal, he called me, and because I wasn’t home, he left the sweetest message. And I still have it on my phone. It’s been two years.
GM: Your career now encompasses more than four decades. Yet there are folks who may have lost track of you and remember you only from your early hits. Do you feel there’s been any kind of lapse in terms of your connection with your fans?
MM: Not so much anymore. Mostly people yell at me for not making any more music. (laughs) The way music gets out now represents a sort of democratization of music, because anybody can release a song and anybody can post something on YouTube. But my platform for music is an album. That’s just what I do, and for me, albums are events. It gives the listener a chance to see what the artist has been up to. While I understand the importance of singles, it takes awhile to put an album together. It doesn’t need to take 10 years, but the truth of the matter is, this album showed up exactly when it needed to show up. I learned exactly what I needed to learn to attract Terry Wollman, who’s my wonderful co-producer, and to attract all the beautiful guest artists . . . The timing was just . . . perfect. So now, it unfolds. We’re out of the studio and we’ll see how the world welcomes us, welcomes the work.
GM: Are you planning to tour behind the album?
MM: Oh, sure. [Tour started in January.] And I have a spiffy new website, melissamanchester.com, and it’s quite beautiful and very user-friendly. So people can see where my tour will go and check the various dates. I’m thinking of doing a blog, and I’m finding it all very interesting. I find it interesting to see how interested my fans are in the process of making music. [They are] almost as interested as I am. Those who contributed to the actual making of the album, they had a proprietary interest in the project. While I had hoped to release it this past September, I was able to post on Facebook “You know, guest artists have been showing up at the last minute and so now I have to delay it until February.” Everybody said, take your time and do it right. (laughs loudly) They were really supportive and really lovely.
GM: The new album has an interesting choice of covers, including “Be My Baby” and a medley combining “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” and “From This Moment On.” Did you ever consider doing the typical standards set that so many artists of your generation have opted for in recent years?
MM: I still hope to be able to have that opportunity to do that. The reason those songs are standards is because their compositional value is impeccable. That’s why they last and that’s why they keep getting rediscovered by new generations. I did an album called “Tribute” in 1989 which was dedicated to the women singers who meant so much to me. I would like to also do an album focusing on the men who have influenced me. That would be a lovely companion piece.
GM: It’s a little known fact that you co-wrote the song “Whenever I Call You Friend,” which was a massive hit for Kenny Loggins and Stevie Nicks. Did you ever regret that you didn’t first record that yourself?
MM: : I had tried but the president of my record company didn’t think much of the song.
GM: Do you still act? Do you still have an interesting in doing more acting?
MM: I do have an interest but I don’t really pursue it. I have written a musical, however. It’s called “Sweet Potato Queens,” and I’ve been working on that for awhile. So I will update you on any future action on that front, news which hopefully will come soon.
GM: Speaking of musicals, we have to ask you about this bit of trivia. One of your first gigs was doing the voice of Yoko Ono in the “National Lampoon Radio Show”…
MM: (Laughs) Yes?
GM: So we’re wondering if Yoko ever commented on your performance?
MM: (Laughs) No. Yoko and I have yet to meet. (laughs)
GM: Looking at the cover of your new album, it doesn’t appear you’ve aged at all.
MM: That’s what 63 looks like. (laughs)
GM: Your voice still sounds superb, totally vibrant and exuberant.
MM: Thank you. I am all those things. I really do have the same passion I did when I was 17. The good news for me personally is that I have grown into myself, and for an artist, that is a very deep truth to finally access. And for a human being, that’s also a very deep truth to finally access. I do think it’s reflected in the tone of my voice and the quality of my songs and the quality of the artists that have been attracted to participate in the album. So thank you very much for that compliment.
GM: Has this journey of yours taken shape along the way, or was this album more or less the culmination of that discovery? The title of the album – “You Gotta Love the Life” – certainly seems to say it all.
MM: I think so. The timing of this album and the kind of journey that we’ve been on to get this album done reflects the fact that there really are no accidents. I think that it showed up in its way at the perfect time, and yes, it is the culmination of the steps – all of the millions of steps that got me to this point. GM