Funny you should suggest the challenge is in the absence of lyrics. For This Bitter Earth, you focus on the subtext of existing lyrics which, conceptually, is its own challenge.
I’ve been singing 18 years professionally, and only about 10 years of that I’ve actually focused on lyrics. I was always around instrumentalists growing up. I was into Bach, how he would go from key to key, his voice leading and counterpoint. Lyrics didn’t occur to me. I think that comes from maturity, as well. The older you get, you start understanding these lyrics—the subtext of these harder-to-understand emotional contexts. Once that clicked for me, lyrics became a whole new world. It’s like a playground. But the story has to come first. Always.
It’s interesting to hear your use of certain grooves on older tunes. There’s a sense of inevitability in a march, which feels compelling on Lee Adams and Charles Strouse’s “How Lovely to Be a Woman.” How did you approach this component and some of your other arranging ideas for the recording?
What I love about playing with the arrangement, musically speaking, is that you can convey something different. The vocalist’s interpretation could be the same, and yet, with the arrangement underneath, it could be a completely different song. For that song specifically, the idea of the march came from Steven Feifke, who did the string arrangements for this record. I was thinking: Suffragettes. “How Lovely to Be a Woman,” for me, was always sarcastic. The arrangement kind of tells the story of the woman’s battle throughout history. But also, I love singing that song because I remember being a teenager. Those feelings are true. There’s that fantasy, as well. It’s kind of ambiguous, which is the point I was trying to get across with this record.
These arrangements are almost like found objects. Were you worried your intention would be misunderstood?
That thought is always there. But this circles back to what we were saying about truth. The thing is, I’ve been through some of the experiences on this record. It comes from a personal place, how I’ve felt. There’s so much more ambiguity, especially with the personal content. The songs of abuse. I wanted to represent people that maybe didn’t know what they believed. I didn’t want this to be a record that stood for a movement, per se. There are lots of people—men and women—who are in these kinds of [abusive] relationships that want to be in them. It’s easy for us on the outside to say, “You need to get out,” but it’s a lot more complicated. Musically, I wanted to convey that, as well. [Gerry Goffin and Carole King’s] “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss),” there’s a sweetness to the music—there’s joy. It’s gut-wrenching. It’s painful. But this is something that a lot of people feel, and we can’t really talk about it.
“There’s the process that makes you an artist and the one that makes you a musician, and the two don’t always go hand in hand.”
Can you talk more about how your musical choices address that complexity?
That guitar line is from a Rammstein song—I’m a metalhead. On the subway, I heard that line. I said, “I have to do this.” And I had it as duo [because] it’s between two people. It’s myself and Armand Hirsch, beautiful player. He came in and sat down with me, played it live right there. Then there’s the key change, which is part of the original song. Since it modulates up, it brings you to this place of hope, like, “This is the dream.” That’s the ideal we focus on: “But it can be good.” And then it modulates back down. It’s stripped, minimalist, to just the guitar line and me singing like, “This is the reality.” That’s the shortest track on the album, but it takes you on the longest journey.
Not everyone is gonna dig it and I get that. This record touches on some pretty intense stuff. That’s why I [included] songs like “How Lovely to Be a Woman” and [Sammy Cahn/Jimmy Van Heusen’s] “Everybody Has the Right to Be Wrong” that [offer] levity, but there’s still irony. My sense of humor is still there.
You’re a receptive artist, constantly responding to what you’re hearing from your collaborators and yourself. Has having fewer opportunities to engage in fortifying bandstand conversation during lockdown had an influence on how you interact with fellow artists?
I had to put in the work to keep interacting. Some people checked out, and I get it. I would come up to New York once a month and be around the scene. I had a couple gigs—my first gig at Smalls, actually, and one in Italy that was huge: orchestra, full-on production. That was the real deal. So I was still in it, despite not working. I was collaborating more. You didn’t have to text people and say, “Where are you gonna be on this date? Let’s try to find a time.” None of that. I had all these charts and ideas that usually I have to do at soundchecks because no one has the time. Everyone’s working. This was beautiful, to actually feel like a band, to build something.