Cabaret icon Ann Hampton Callaway just released her 16th album, Jazz Goes to the Movies—renditions of songs from classic Hollywood films. On her way to New York to perform at Feinstein’s 54 Below, Callaway talked with DC Metro Theater Arts about her creative process, bridging popular film and jazz, and the precious experience of working with her mom in the early stages of developing Jazz Goes to the Movies. The album is a nostalgic throwback during “a bewildering time,” and she tells us that a part two might just be in the works…
DC Metro Theater Arts: You mention being “enchanted by the marriage of music and film” all your life. Can you recall your earliest memory of experience the impact that music can have in a film? What was the film and scene, and what did you feel in that moment?
Ann Hampton Callaway: My first memory of a musical moment in a movie was watching the annual airing of The Wizard of Oz. When Judy Garland sang “Over the Rainbow,” I was mesmerized into an aha moment. It felt so personal and so full of longing and dreaming, which was basically my state of being as a little girl. I wasn’t even five yet but I fell in love with the magic of singing and knew it was something I wanted to do.
You have an impressive song catalogue—explain how this album is symbolic of growth for you as an artist. How did it challenge you or push you, creatively, in new directions?
My intent, when I make an album, is to create a musical experience, a world that I am inviting people to live in for about an hour. In that world, there will be many moods, ideas, facets of the heart and what interests me. So, when it seemed I was exploring movie songs, I wanted to balance the nostalgic element of them with the relevance they offered in today’s troubled world. I wanted to honor these great writers and honor what they brought out in me. It took a while to get it just right, as I also wanted it to be an antidote to a time in history that was particularly challenging.
It was touching to read that you worked on arrangements for Jazz Goes to the Movies with your mother. I imagine you carry that experience as a fond memory. What impact did she have on specific songs or the project as a whole?
As you can imagine, it was a heart-wrenching thing to watch my beloved mother prepare to leave this world. So, finding any happiness with her, any delights in it all, was especially comforting. It made me feel even more grateful to music—how divine it really is—the ways it honors and expresses the heart. My mom enjoyed “This Can’t Be Long”–it’s a playful romp. And she liked hearing “As Time Goes By” as an uptempo, which relieved me because literally almost every recorded version is exactly like the original. She seemed to want me to tweak some of my unison scat lines which amused me. And “Long Ago and Far Away” seemed to transport her to a dreamy place. She was my loving barometer and when I sing these songs now that she’s gone, I feel like wherever she is, she can hear them. As I often tell my audiences, music is the bridge between heaven and earth.
What was it like to work with your mother, not only on this album but throughout your career whenever you had the occasion to collaborate? I know she was a singer, pianist, and vocal coach. How did her method of working differ from your own?
My mom was a less-is-more person, so sometimes we had differing ideas about music and performance. I would joke and say, “more is not enough.” But as a voice teacher and singer, her musicality, sense of phrasing, taste in songs, emphasis on the lyric, making craft so natural it becomes second nature and always singing from the heart—these are indelible teachings that have guided me in my life.
Tell our readers about the album and what inspired you to make it at this point in your career.
Well, first of all, as one sees the recording world shifting to singles, streaming, and crowd-funding, I was thrilled when my dear friend, Lisa Schiff, actually wanted to produce another CD with me. That is a brave and generous thing! Lisa has been my most fervent champion and I value her ideas and taste in music. She sent me a list of songs she said she’d love to hear me sing; I sent back the list highlighting my favorites and other songs I wanted to sing. We got together over the months and brainstormed. It was a slow process, but then we took it into high gear.
Explain your process for selecting songs for Jazz Goes to the Movies. How did you decide what made it onto the final cut, and were there any songs you wish could have been included?
What gave the record shape was that [Lisa and I] discovered that most of the songs we mutually loved came from films. That was the moment we had a concept to sculpt into something special. I sang through them and listened to iconic and obscure renditions to explore possibilities and as soon as I had enough must-sing songs, it started to take shape. We narrowed it down from “movie songs” to classic love songs of mostly the ’30s and ’40s, the golden age of American songwriting. I wanted to show various shades of love and romance.
One song I’m madly in love with didn’t make the cut as it was a ’60s-era song—“Two For the Road.” That, and other gorgeous, more contemporary gems might make for a lovely part two CD.
In creating new and revised arrangements of songs on Jazz Goes to the Movies, what was your aim? Do you consider it paying homage; did you try to pump up elements that most spoke to you; did you try to say something wholly different or frame the songs in a new way?
The way I approach a song is to immerse myself in the lyrics. Who am I in the story? How does it feel? What is the emotional arc? Then my imagination takes over and instinctively arrangement ideas come to honor the story and my take on it. I always hope when people hear my renditions of classic songs that they feel like they are hearing them for the first time.
I get surprised by things like wanting to take “As Time Goes By” in a brisk swing to convey the joy of universal things that endure no matter what. Arranging is one of my favorite things about being a singer. Just as there are endless ways to make a delicious turkey on Thanksgiving, there are so many personal and fresh ways to tell the story in a classic song!
You’re on a coast to coast tour to support the album that extends into 2019. Describe what touring is like at this point in your career.
Touring is exciting because more people have learned who I am and it’s like a family reunion when I return to a city I have history in. It takes a lot of stamina to deal with the road, so I am trying to take especially good care of my health. I am so grateful for all the great places and people I get to experience and share my music with. I live a very rich life and am blessed with wonderful fans and friends.
We heard that you recently relocated from New York. What is it like settling into a place like Arizona for someone who is so deeply connected to New York’s cultural, theater, and cabaret scenes? Anything you miss about New York?
Well, I’ve been traveling so much these last many years I feel like a woman of the world now. I bring the [New Yorker] in me wherever I go. And I take in the inspiration of my travels to be a more complete, ever-growing person. There’s great art and people everywhere. And even though I live in a charming, historic home with magnificent natural beauty all around me, I am still gone a lot. I’m in New York once a month and many other lovely places. You can never take the “New York” from me, it’s in my soul.
I miss being close to my sister, Liz, and her family and my many dear friends. But when I return it feels almost more special. Tucson is a sanctuary for me and there will be lots of songs born from the spiritual magic there.
Your new album came out on October 19. What does it feel like to have this project finally out in the world?
I am so happy that I get to share some beauty in the midst of such a bewildering time. The record has a wholeness to it and the musical friendship that I have with Ted, Martin, Tim, and Jimmy shines through. Sharing beauty that comes from love and friendship is a healing thing and I hope it will bring happiness to many people.