Melissa Manchester is a singer songwriter in the truest sense of the title. In 1980, she became the first artist in history to have two songs nominated for Best Score at the Academy Awards. She’s acted on television (playing Blossom’s mother, no less), in film (alongside Bette Midler), and now writes for film and stage. To top it all, she is one of the most charming entertainers to chat to. Ladies and gentlemen, presenting the other Divine Miss M…
Interview by Antonino Tati.
Where are you living these days?
I’m in Sherman Oaks, California, where it’s nice and sunny.
Not many people realise this, but as well as a singer, you’ve been an accomplished songwriter. What are some of the highlights in your songwriting career?
Well, I wrote Midnight Blue with Carole Bayer Sager, and I wrote Whenever I Call You Friend with Kenny Loggins. And I wrote Come In From The Rain, which was covered by a few artists. And I’ve also been fortunate enough to have magnificent friends who have gifted me with their compositions, such as Don’t Cry Out Loud by Peter Allen and Carole Sager.
A beautiful song, that one. Now, some of your songs have been sung by the likes of Barbra Streisand and Dusty Springfield. How did it feel to have such gifted singers lending their voice to your lyrics?
It’s a magnificent feeling to be honoured with such giant talent considering and reinterpreting your songs: turning them inside out and exposing an inner life that you hadn’t even considered.
You started out by enrolling in a song course at college, which was lead by Paul Simon, is that right?
I sure did.
Was that surreal, going to school to learn songwriting?
It was surreal, mainly because at the time I was a very young singer-songwriter who was also singing jingles, yet I was totally immersed in the music scene in New York which included not only the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Stevie Wonder and the Motown sound, but also Laura Nero, who became my muse. And when I auditioned for the class for Paul Simon, he asked me to play a couple of songs, and said, ‘You’ve been listening to Laura Nero a lot, haven’t you?’ I said, ‘I do, every day.’ And he said, ‘Well it’s time to stop now’. But the perfect circle happened a few weeks ago. If you go on my Facebook page you can see my tribute to Laura Nero at Lincoln Centre in New York.
Then, just prior to becoming a fully fledged artist in your own right, you were a backup singer for Bette Midler? Did the Divine Miss M teach you a thing or two about performance delivery?
Well she did. She’s so brilliant. And I had a very interesting point of view. I was behind her, watching her transport this audience at the beginning of her career. Nobody could believe what they were seeing. Between working with she, and Barry Manilow, it was amazing times to cut your teeth in the industry. I don’t know about singer songwriters today but back then you could just stumble across some great people and have remarkable adventures.
Do you think today’s artists are a little too pre-packaged, even with whole talent quest thing on television?
Well I don’t know. The other side of some performers being too pre-packaged, is that anyone can go on YouT ube and hope to be Justin Bieber. I think the music wheel is still being reinvented, and we’ll see how it all turns out, and what it all means.
In your songwriting, do you find, or have you found, that you constantly draw on personal experiences. For example, a song like You Should Hear How She Talks About You, was that song in spite about one woman in particular?
That one was written by my friends Tom Snell and Dean Pitchford, and I don’t know what was on their minds. But when I’m writing, yes, it’s usually coming from a personal experience. I find if I’m coming from a deep, personal connection then my sense of language becomes very unique and authentic, and I really feel connected to what I’m writing. Which makes me want to sing it even more.
In 1980, you became the first artist in the history of the Academy Awards to have two songs nominated in the same year.
That’s right. It was a remarkable feeling to be wearing my first Bob Mackie gown and a high, high pair of heels, and singing two songs while walking down two flights of stairs with no bannister, in front of the world. When I look at that video on YouTube or whatever, my heart starts to bang against my chest because your body remember that feeling, you know.
You should also have been nominated for the category of Best Artist To Pull Off Such a Difficult Outfit in Challenging Circumstances. To another subject, you’ve done quite a bit of television and film acting, true?
Yes, I played the mother n the TV show Blossom for several seasons. And I was in the film For The Boys with Bette Midler. I also took over from Bernadette Peters, doing Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Song And Dance. I’ve also written for film, and wrote the score for Lady And The Tramp 2 and co-wrote a song for the film For Coloured Girls that Leona Lewis recorded. Oh and I wrote nine songs for a film called Dirty Girl. It’s a great film about two teenagers coming of age, and one of them, the young boy, is wrestling because he’s gay and he has no-one to talk to and his family is really dysfunctional…
Wait, wait, wait. I’ve seen that film, and I loved it!
[Squeals] I’m so glad! It’s fantastic.
It’s an obscure movie that you might just find in your local video shop here. But when I saw it, I thought, so many people need to see this great movie.
Well when the film screened here [in the US] at the Gay and Lesbian film festivals, people were just screaming with gratitude at the screen. One of the songs even made the first list at the Academy Awards so that was great.
Wow, I’m so impressed with your constant crossing over from music to television to film to now even the stage. You know, there’s a game in New York called Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, but I think there should be one called Six Degrees of Melissa Manchester…
That’s sweet but I don’t know about that… I just love all of these versions of creativity. It all comes from the same impulse: which is to express oneself in different ways.
What do you feel is the best element for how we are receiving pop culture today?
Well pop culture is just not simple to define anymore. There’s no ability to ponder the effect of it. You only get to ponder it in retrospect because everything is coming at us so fast, and so instantaneously. You know, people are becoming famous and they haven’t done anything; simply because they’ve been on YouTube more than anybody else. It’s a very thoughtful question but I’m not sure that I’m ready to answer it [laughs]. We’ll have to meet for a cup of coffee to discuss that one!
That would be great. And you’re touring Australia soon. What can we expect?
We’ll be playing some classics, and some new things. Some musings. Shooting some stuff for the [live] videos. It’ll be a lot of fun.
If you weren’t doing music and all the other performance artistry, what else would you be doing in this life?
Been a DJ. Honestly I’d love to be a DJ. The only thing I’d be terrible at is reading the news because the news is often so terrible that I get a terrible case of the giggles.
Then perhaps we’ll stick you in traffic and weather to start.
Melissa Manchester tours Australia from the end of October. Full dates and venues as follows:
Wednesday 31 October
West Leagues Club, Newcastle
Bookings: (02) 4935 1200
Thursday 1 November
Castle Hill RSL Club
Bookings: (02) 8858 4800
Friday 2 November
Southern Cross Club, Canberra
Bookings: (02) 6283 7200
Saturday 3 November
Bankstown Sports Club
Bookings: (02) 9722 9888
Sunday 4 November
The Basement, Sydney
Bookings: (02) 9251 2797
Wednesday 7 November
Regal Theatre, Perth
(with special guest Joe Longthorne)
Bookings: Ticketek 132 849
Thursday 8 November
Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide
(with special guest Joe Longthorne)
Bookings: Bass Ticketing 131 246
Friday 9 November
Souths Juniors Club, Kensington
Bookings: (02) 9349 7555
Saturday 10 November
Shoalhaven Entertainment Centre, Nowra
Bookings: 1300 788 503