Melissa Manchester got her start in the ‘70s as one of Bette Midler’s Harlettes, learning the ropes from the outrageous star. From there she went solo, writing songs that helped define the era of the singer-songwriter. Her classics like “Midnight Blue” and “Come In From the Rain” were hits then and are familiar AOR fare today, proof that her music has stood the test of time.
Now Sony has released Playlist: The Very Best of Melissa Manchester, a rich compendium of Manchester’s material, which contains 14 songs hand-picked by the artist. The disc kicks off with her very first hit “Midnight Blue” and ends with “I Know Who I Am,” a previously unreleased live cut.
I spoke recently with Manchester about this new collection and her remarkable four-decade long career.
You have such a vast catalog. How did you decide which songs to include on Playlist?
Besides the hits that people want, which are lovely, I wanted to acknowledge my friend, Cooker Lo Presti, the fellow [with whom] I sang “I Can’t Get Started With You.” He was my very first bandmate. He recently passed away and I wanted to pay tribute to him. “Rainbird” and “I Know Who I Am” are both from films that were released over the last year and a half. “Rainbird” was written with Mary Steenburgen for the film Dirty Girl, that is now on DVD. It’s a wonderful film by my friend Abe Sylvia. “I Know Who I Am” had been recorded by Leona Lewis and was in Tyler Perry’s courageous film For Colored Girls. I’ve been singing it live and it’s the only live cut on [the CD]. I wrote it with my friend Joanna Cotten and Greg Barnhill.
I just wanted this [release] to have more of a flavor of an arc, a musical journey. Going from really early to really recent, including some compositions that I wrote by myself just to sort of underscore that songs are different when I write them by myself as opposed to when I collaborate or when I sing other people’s songs. So it’s a nice variety.
Do you have a favorite song on the collection?
Well, I’m fond of all of them. Sentimentally I’m drawn to “Midnight Blue” because it was the first and there’s nothing like the first. The only thing that’s harder than the first is the second.
Your songs have touched so many people. It’s a kind of responsibility, in a way. How does that make you feel?
That’s a very thoughtful question. I have come to a point where in acknowledging that this has turned into a very long and luscious career—it’s 40 years now—what I know that I didn’t know in the beginning is that songs are really precious currency. They have the power to change a nation or change a heart, change a mind, help people decide to fall in love, make a baby, whatever. They have the power to help people decide to not kill themselves. They have the power to restore sanity, help bring about clarity. It’s unbelievable. So that’s what I wrap myself around, the precious commodity of a song. I respect it and am touched by the power of songs, the world of songs more and more.
And when I teach my students, because I teach at USC, I teach songwriters about vocal interpretation, not only do I talk to them about their songs, these modern compositions, but I have them sing songs from [writers like] Gershwin and Cole Porter. So that they understand that the aesthetics of the popular music of those days were very long ideas: long melodic ideas, long lyrical ideas.
The aesthetic of today are short ideas that are repeated and repeated. I just want them to know the value of the journey of what the popular song has come from and what it has become. And that it is of value. Not all the time but occasionally songs can really move a heart. I think because I grew up in that first wave of singer-songwriters in the early ‘70s, I really saw that. When things were unadulterated, before electronic sound showed up. So that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Is there someone you’d like to work with who you haven’t yet?
Oh, sure. I would love to sing a duet with Tony Bennett. There are just tons of people who are very talented. There are projects still to accomplish.
In the ‘80s, you worked briefly with Bernie Taupin, Elton John’s lyricist. How did that collaboration come about?
It came through my manager at the time. We shared managers so that was an expedient way to get to him. He came to see me perform and liked what I did. We talked and he started sending me these lyrics. I tell you, his lyrics are real literature. They can stand alone without any music at all. Most lyrics are not meant to be read [but] his lyrics are real monologues and he gets so into the world of character and metaphor. It’s just really luscious to set them to music. Usually I do collaborate on lyrics. I sit in the room with the collaborator and we sort of hash out everything. But he sent me these magnificent lyrics “For the Working Girl” and the whole thing just sang itself. It was really remarkable.
More recently you collaborated with Mary Steenburgen on the song “Rainbird” for the film Dirty Girl.
Yes, Mary and I had just finished writing a song the week before when we’d both received the script for Dirty Girl. Totally unexpected. Mary at the time was a relatively new songwriter and a wonderful lyricist. I had no idea. We both got the script for Dirty Girl: she to be in it and I because Abe Sylvia, the director, placed nine of my songs as a Greek chorus in the script.
Songs from your catalog?
Yes, it was unbelievable. It’s a very wonderful film. It’s really smart and funny. It’s a coming of age film that takes place in 1987 and I and my music are the muse of the young boy lead. So Abe Sylvia needed an original song in the middle of the film and we asked if we may take a crack at writing the song. And we did! He accepted it and it was lovely. It made the first list of Oscar nominated songs this year.
Well, thank you. Unfortunately only two were nominated so I’m not sure what the hell happened at the Oscar nominations but it was nice to be acknowledged.
What do you think of reality shows like American Idol and The Voice?
Part of me says, “Why not?” It’s a form that has existed since The Ted Mack Amateur Hour in the 1950s. I know how hard those kids are working. It’s interesting because it’s at the very beginning of their journey on a massive stage as opposed to a club quietly in a corner someplace. I don’t know what it does to them psychically but I wish everybody well. You still have to learn how to take care of yourself if you want to do this for the long run.
What do you think about the music business these days? It’s changed so much.
Oh, it’s unrecognizable. The only thing that I relate to and the only thing that I teach is what I know and what I know that will not be changing is the live performance. That takes arduous work and real care and mindfulness to not only do it well but to stay healthy. A lot of it I don’t understand, I can’t follow, and I have a lovely team of people to help with the day to day comings and goings of the industry.
You’re on tour now. Do you still enjoy going out on the road?
I do. I still have the hunger for performing. I love what happens between me and the audience. I do my shows in two acts and after the performance I come into the lobby to sign albums and shake hands and give hugs. I’m at a point where I’m so touched to be a part of this journey and it wouldn’t happen without the fans.