A staff writer at Chappell Music while still attending Manhattan’s High School Of Performing Arts, Melissa Manchester has been a world-touring, hit-writing musical force for plenty more of her life than not. With multiple Grammy wins to her credit, Melissa first charted with 1973’s Home To Myself. Her 20th album, You Gotta Love The Life, came out earlier this year and its first single “Feelin’ For You” – a collaboration with Keb’ Mo’ – reached #2 on the Smooth Jazz chart of Billboard.
When not busy with writing or recording, Melissa spends a good amount of her time teaching. She is an Adjunct Professor at USC’s Thornton School Of Music. Interestingly, it was her students at USC that had introduced her to the idea of pursuing crowdfunding for You Gotta Love The Life. Aside from USC, she is also an honorary Artist In Residence at Citrus College.
Melissa returns to her New York roots with shows at 54 Below at Feinstein’s on Nov. 5, 6 and 7. Titled I Happen To Like New York, these shows will pay tribute to Laura Nyro and include stories from her Manhattan days; she had studied songwriting with Paul Simon and was one of Bette Midler’s founding Harlettes, so there is no shortage of tales to be told. The 54 Below residency will also include material from Melissa’s forthcoming Sweet Potato Queens: The Musical, as co-written with Rupert Holmes and Sharon Vaughn and based on the life of best-selling author Jill Conner Browne.
In support of these 54 Below appearances – of which there are two on Saturday the 7th — I had the opportunity to conduct some Q&A with Melissa, who can be visited online at www.melissamanchester.com.
Having grown up in the Bronx and gone to college at NYU, what prompted you to move out west?
Melissa Manchester: What prompted me to move to L.A. was that I was recording there. I was also enjoying the milder temperatures in January.
I know you get to perform in New York with some regularity, but what do you miss most about living on the the East Coast?
M: I miss the seasons, the fall colors, the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center, walking on city streets and actually getting somewhere.
What’s to be expected from your upcoming shows at 54 Below?
M: I shall be performing several of the songs from my 20th album, You Gotta Love The Life, as well as several of my hits. I like to tell stories about the process of writing and the people I’ve met along the way.
What do you remember about your first-ever proper live performance in New York City? Where was it?
M: My first gig in New York City was at Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village opening for Gen McDaniels. The place had a lot of history and smelled of beer.
How did the opportunity to be an adjunct professor at the USC Thornton School of Music come up?
M: I was invited to teach a master class at the Thornton School of Music at USC. I guess that went over pretty well as Vice-Dean Chris Sampson then invited me to fill in for Jason Robert Brown to teach a musical theater writing class for pop students, which was a fantastic experience. After that, they kept me on as an adjunct professor, and I created a class called “The Art of Conversational Singing.” The computer doesn’t like that title, so it simply states “Voice Lessons.”
Is it true that your students at USC inspired you to pursue crowd-funding for your latest album?
M: Yes, it was my students who opened my mind to the concept of “crowd funding.” The idea had been around for a while, but my students actually showed me how to take that first step into this new marketing paradigm. The reason I agreed to take the shot is that it was an adventure I simply did not want to miss.
Given the eleven years between When I Look Down That Road and You Gotta Love The Life, did you have any hesitation about doing an album with covers?
M: Actually, out of 14 songs only four are covers. An album is a platform for presenting to the listener what’s been on my mind, what I’ve gone through, what I’ve observed or learned. The collection of original songs reflects that and, hopefully, the four covers included have been re-thought enough to allow them to be experienced as fresh.
Do you have any new songs written for an EP in the near future?
M: I do not have songs written for a new album as yet, only thoughts about what it might be about.
As a songwriter who’s had songs recorded by major artists like Kenny Loggins, Roberta Flack, Tom Jones and Barbra Streisand, at what point in your career did you realize the benefit of not just singing songs but also writing them?
M: While I don’t recall any song of mine being recorded by Tom Jones, it is a great honor to hear one’s songs re-interpreted by great artists.
Is there anything you haven’t yet accomplished within your career but still hope to?
M: I’d love to record with Tony Bennett and Wynton Marsalis.
When you’re not busy with your career, how do you like to spend your free time?
M: When I’m not busy with my career I visit with friends or rest. I don’t have much free time.
Finally, any last words for the kids?
M: Find a way to pay your bills, stay healthy and strong and create a village of friends.
-by Darren Paltrowitz