Musical Interlude: Interview with Actor/Singer John Corbett

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Bo Derek

Actor/singer John Corbett

Television audiences are likely to remember John Corbett as convicted felon/disk jockey/ordained minister Chris Stevens on the quirky and popular TV series Northern Exposure, or perhaps for his role as Carrie Bradshaw’s boyfriend Aidan Shaw in Sex in the City (as well as that show’s feature film outing Sex in the City 2), while moviegoers enjoyed his performance opposite Nia Vardalos in the hit 2002 feature film movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

What some people might not know, however, is that Corbett is an accomplished country music singer. In February, he released his second album, Leaving Nothin’ Behind, and just recently, Corbett finished an 18-city tour, all the logistics of which he painstakingly coordinated with a TV project he was working on at the same time. This second album was, in fact, the direct result of a prior musical venture.

“I made my first record in 2006 [the self-titled John Corbett], which was just a fluke,” notes Corbett. “It was the result of a trip to Nashville to be a presenter at an award show that I’d been asked to be a part of. My buddy, Tara Novack, who I sat around playing guitar with since 1986, had never been to Nashville, so I said, ‘Let’s go. I hear it’s a great town.’

“So we took this amazing trip that lasted for three days and met people interested in the same things as we were. In the old Hollywood circle that I’d been jumping around in forever, you meet some musicians here and there, but most people are concentrating on acting. In Nashville, however, there is everything we like to do, which is write songs, play music, have a couple of beers, go listen to music, etc. and we just gravitated towards that.

“At the end of the three days, we decided that we were going to come back to Nashville and make a record. It would just be something we’d make probably 100 copies of and give to our friends and family to say, ‘Look what we did.’ It was around Thanksgiving 2006, I believe, and we flew into Nashville on a Thursday in order to meet some people at the publishing houses there. We wanted to see if they had a couple of songs from their songwriters that we could add to the eight songs we’d written to round out our album, which we were going to record the following Monday.

“By the end of Friday we had, I think, no less than 40 songs from about six publishing houses that we thought were great. All of our songs ended up in the trash; they were just silly little rhymes compared to the stories that these Nashville songwriting pros had written. That night, I was sitting in the car with a pen and a piece of paper, and my guitar player was in the back seat. We had narrowed things down to 12 songs that we were going to put on the record. I now had to learn how to sing these 12 songs by Monday, because I didn’t want the guys who were coming in to play on this record to think, ‘Oh, here’s this guy from Hollywood who doesn’t know what he’s doing.’

“By the time we were finished with that record, we thought, ‘This is as good as anything playing on the radio today.’ So we decided to put a band together. I had a couple of bucks saved up from working, so I hired a radio promotion team along with a publicist and we just went at this thing full-force. Funnily enough, at that point in my life I’d never really sung in public before. Even though I’ve been doing it since I was a kid, it was usually just around friends and family.

“Cut now to last year. A friend of mine called me up from Nashville and said, ‘Hey, I heard you’re making a new record here in town.’ I asked her, ‘Where did you hear that? It’s not happening, but if I did, I’ve love to make a record with [singer/songwriter/musician] Jon Randall Stewart and sing all his songs. I’d met Jon during my second trip to Nashville, and he had just produced Dierks Bentley’s Up on the Ridge bluegrass album. Well, my friend told Jon, and two days later he called me up and said, ‘Hey, man, I hear you want to make a record. Why don’t you come back here and we’ll do it.’

“So that’s how that happened — it was sheer luck. We started work on the second album over a year ago—in fact, this past Christmas it was a year—and it just takes so much time out of your life. You feel like this record is the thing that’s going to be on your tombstone and it’s got to be right. It takes a lot of energy out of you and you think of nothing else.”

Corbett’s love of music is obvious in the way he speaks about it. Where does that passion originally come from?

“It’s funny, my mom and dad split up when I was two and I didn’t get to know my dad at all,” he says. “Even though his family didn’t live too far away from us—they lived in Ohio and I lived in West Virginia with my mom—we didn’t have ties. I didn’t get to know my dad until I left home at the age of 18 and showed up on his doorstep. He was a welder and I wanted to try to get a welding job in California because I didn’t go to college.

“When I got to know my dad, I found out that he came from a big musical family. We have pictures of the five brothers and sisters along with their parents, and from around the age of seven or eight, the children all had trumpets, French horns, tubas, pianos and drums. The last photos were probably taken around 1979 or 1980, and the kids were all grown up by then, but they’re still sitting there with their instruments. My dad played sax and the piano as part of a band when he was in the army, and, In fact, I still have his childhood saxophones as well as flute and accordion.

“Maybe I inherited some of his musical DNA, because from the time I was four or five years old, if something had strings on it or I could bang on it with a stick, I would play with it. I learned to play piano when I was nine or ten. A friend of mine had one, so I used to go over there and practice the chords. I’ve just always enjoyed making sounds that are pleasant to the ear.”

Corbett’s very first musical performance in front of a live audience (and on TV) was during an appearance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno. “If I have my dates right, it was 1993 or 1994 and a day or two before Christmas,” he recalls. “I was living in Seattle, Washington and working on Northern Exposure. It was really one of my first times being on a talk show, and I called The Tonight Show people up a couple of days before and asked, ‘Hey, can I come on and sing a rockin’ Christmas song with my band?’

“Back then I didn’t even have a band; there was just me and my friend and guitar player Tara, who still plays guitar in my band. They said, ‘Well, send us a record or something.’ I explained that I didn’t really have anything like that, so they said that they’d get back to me. That night I got a call back and they told me, ‘Look, we never do anything like this unless we know what we’re getting into. We’d love to have you sing on the show, but we have to do it under these conditions — you and your band show up and we’ll do a full rehearsal. If we don’t like what’s happening, and we have to be totally honest with you, you’re just going to be a guest and we’ll scratch that part of the show.’ I said, ‘Fair enough.’

“Tara called my buddy James Intveld, who’s an amazing guitar player and American artist and asked if he’d like to come play the bass. James then called his buddy Richie Weiss, who plays the drums, and the three of them got together and began rehearsing. I subsequently flew down from Seattle and we rehearsed in The Tonight Show parking lot on the day we were hoping to perform on the show. We did kind of a rockin’ Stevie Ray Vaughn version of the Elvis Presley blue-grass-ish song “Santa Claus is Back in Town” with everyone watching — including, I think, Jay Leno — and two minutes later they said, ‘Okay, let’s do this. It’s going to be great.’

“So they let us sing on The Tonight Show. I had never sung in public before, and it was great, man,” enthuses Corbett. “I was supposed to be the first guest introduced, and I asked them, ‘Could I please sing before I come out, because if I come out and talk with Jay, I’m going to be nervous enough, and then I’m going to have to get up there and sing. I’ll be a wreck.’ Fortunately, they were amenable to my little master plan and let me do exactly that.” That’s what I remember most about that whole experience, the fact that it was totally off-the-cuff and I’m still kind of amazed that they let me do it.”

Switching gears into Corbett’s acting career, like music, this was another part of his professional life that he initially had no inclination or desire to ever pursue. “I never thought I’d be talking to you or anybody else about any part of my life, not when I was younger or when I knocked on my dad’s door when I was 18,” admits the actor.

“I worked in a steel mill factory for six years. My dad was a heavy laborer his entire life and I thought that’s what I was going to do, which I was happy to do. In 1980, I had a job that paid me almost $20 an hour, and it was a union job, too. Here we are 33 years later, and I’m not sure I could go out and get a job paying me $20 an hour today. It was a great living and hard work, but at 18 years old I had a new car, you know? I never thought I’d ever sit in a living room and see myself on TV talking to Sarah Jessica Parker [Carrie Bradshaw in Sex in the City] and giving her a kiss. It’s just a bizarre thing that I still sometimes can’t wrap my mind around, the fact that I got lucky enough to be picked to do some of the things I’ve gotten to do ever since I decided to give it [acting] a try and see if I could make any headway in the profession.”

Having moved out to Los Angeles in 1986, the actor worked in the theatre over the next two years before booking his first professional TV job in an episode of a new TV series called The Wonder Years. “This was for a big guest star role, and Dan Lauria, who played the dad on the show, was reading with all the actors coming in to try out,” says Corbett. “He looked at my resume and knew some of the plays that I’d been involved in. I did my audition, Dan and I hit it off, and he said, ‘Well, come on, let’s do this.’

“I played sort of a rebellious college hippie, and at the time I had almost shoulder-length hair, so I looked the part. Dan really pulled for me to get this job, even though I had nothing on my resume, and I ended up getting a tremendous amount of attention out of it. That resulted in a lot more interviews and meetings for additional [acting] work.

“Two years later I got my other substantial break, which turned out to be a Jack in the Box commercial,” he continues. “I was the only actor in it, and I was talking about this delicious tasting cheeseburger in a sourdough roll that I was eating. In between bites, I’d look at the camera and just go on and on about how fantastic this cheeseburger was. Someone at CBS Universal saw it and brought me in for a meeting, where they told me, ‘If you can do what you did in that commercial for 30 seconds, we want to see what else you can do.’

“A couple of weeks after that I was on a plane up to Seattle to shoot eight episodes of Northern Exposure, which I think was the original series order.  Barry Corbin, who played Maurice on the show, was on the same flight, and I just sat there thinking ‘Wow, I get to be on a show with my hero from [the movies] Urban Cowboy and War Games.’

“When you’re young like that, you go to the set every day even when you’re not working just to watch and learn. I just remember seeing Rob Morrow, Janine Turner, Barry Corbin, John Cullum, everyone, working very hard. That was such a magical time. It was also a major life-changer for me after the show began to air. To have so many people come up to me and say, ‘Hey, you’re Chris in the Morning,’ was a really big deal for a guy like me. You’re only famous once and you never forget it.”

Besides the aforementioned Sex and the City 2 and My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Corbett’s other big screen credits include Dinner Rush, Raising Helen, Street Kings, The Burning Plain and Baby on Board. On TV, he has appeared in several made-for-TV movies and, along with Northern Exposure, had a recurring role on Parenthood and was a series regular on United States of Tara. The actor also played the lead in Lucky as well as the short-lived sci-fi series The Visitor.

The Visitor was an incredible experience,” says Corbett. “I loved working with [series creators/executive producers] Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich. I don’t see Roland that much any more, but I still see Dean every now and then, and we always do that Hollywood thing of, hey, man, we’ve got to do another project together. He and Roland are two very special guys, and although I wasn’t a producer on their show — I was simply an actor for hire — they went out of their way to make me feel as if I were a participant in the creative aspect of The Visitor on just about every level.”

Corbett recently guest starred in Red, a two-part episode of NCIS: Los Angeles and what is called a “backdoor pilot” for the NCIS franchise’s next spin-off, NCIS: Red.

“I play Roy, a former cop and agent who was shot in the line of duty and is now an analyst,” explains the actor. “Hopefully this will lead to him eventually becoming an agent again and being more hands-on with the cases. For the time being, though, the other guys do the legwork while he gives them his two cents about their findings. The Red Team’s function is to travel all over the U.S. solving naval-related crimes. They have a mobile unit that goes to the Mexican border, and ultimately in the outline of the show, they’ll be able to travel the world to places like Pakistan and Afghanistan.

“It’s a terrific premise for a series and I really love my cast, which includes Scott Grimes and Kim Raver, who plays my character’s kind of nemesis/partner. They have a past and, therefore, some conflict, which makes for good TV. I had a ball getting to hang out with LL Cool J, Chris O’Donnell and the whole team over there at NCIS: Los Angeles. They were incredibly welcoming and incredibly nice to us while we were shooting on their set.”

Please note: first four photos of John Corbett are by and copyright of Bo Derek. For more information about his music, check out his website.

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A native of Massachusetts, Steve Eramo has been a Sci-Fi fan since childhood, having been brought up on such TV shows as Star Trek and Space: 1999. He is also an Anglophile and lover of British TV. A writer for 35 years – 17 of those as a fulltime freelancer – Steve has had over 2,500 feature-length…

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