Mary Foster Conklin has had a career as varied as cabaret itself. She started as a punk-rocker/classical actress in the late ’70s and has been evolving since. (The official bio follows below).
I was really blown away by her recent CD, Blues for Breakfast, a tribute to the songwriter Matt Dennis (Angel Eyes / Let’s Get Away From It All).
She’ll be featured in this year’s Mabel Mercer Foundation Cabaret Convention and is at work on a new show to premier in early 2009. And she has a MySpace page. And she still graciously made time to do an interview!!!
1. Please describe a “perfect” cabaret experience that you’ve had.
For me, a “perfect” cabaret experience includes the following: a juicy theme, clean execution with solid musicianship, an element of surprise, and some element of risk.
This summer I reprised Mirrors Revisited, an evening of theatre songs by rock and roll composers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller that I’ve presented several times over the last few years. The songs are dark and dramatic, musically challenging, rich in story and really run the gamut as far as musical styles. Rather than working within the confines of the original arrangements, my music director and I were exploring new directions to take the music, which required input from all the musicians involved. I had also added songs to the evening which still needed to be integrated into the existing program. Fortunately the planets lined up and the show went really well. There were no train wrecks and the musicians allowed me to take everyone on a wonderful journey. We did the show in August and I was relieved that people came out to see it and they really got it. It’s wonderful to be able to work on material that you’ve sat with for a while because it’s really a part of you.
2. What is a recent song you’ve been struggling with? Have you won yet?
I always keep a pile of material that I tinker with, but I see it more as a process than a battle. Songs are sort of like clothing that either fit or they don’t. I’m coming off a few years of singing solely one composer, so it’s been a challenge to once again open myself up to new material, especially blues and pop. I try to stay open and allow myself the permission to explore a new piece. I think it was Margaret Whiting who said you had to do a song in performance at least three times before you knew whether or not it was right for you and I agree with that.
3. The relationship between a singer and the musical director really is a “cabaret marriage.” What are the keys to making the marriage work? And for the times you need to work with a surrogate, what are the steps you take to get quickly on the same page?
While I believe that marriage is monogamous, I feel that in music it’s important to have multiple partners in order to stay flexible and in the moment. I work with both piano and guitar as my main instrument and each has its own set of challenges. The key to any successful musical partnership is solid preparation, clear communication and mutual respect. Really know your music and be prepared to read down a chart for a new pianist. Know what tempos you like and how to get there. When I work with musicians in California, I usually mail recordings of the songs that include metronome signatures. At a certain point in my career, it became essential that I know how to read music and be able bang out the chords in my arrangements – even learn how to write out my own lead sheets, which made it much easier to work with different musicians, because I had learned to speak their language.
4. What is a particular image that you can rely on to be an effective sense memory when you’re performing?
Everybody’s process is different as far as what works to bring a song to life. For me, if I can summon up a sense of the place where the song is, that’s enough to center me. There’s a number from the Mirrors show about the murder of Ramon Navarro that describes his apartment in great detail. I had a loved one die at home, so I usually focus on remembering the carpet and I’m there.
5. What is the most pressing need the world of cabaret has today?
Artists and club owners need to work more aggressively to present and promote programs that showcase interesting cabaret. The best example I can think of was the idea that Lennie Watts hatched a few years ago of people singing their favorite record albums called Under the Covers. I ended up going out to see a lot of people I wouldn’t have normally seen and was fascinated by the choices that were made. That particular program offered a good mix of standards and contemporary music, which also helped attract more people who were less cabaret-friendly.
+1 Could you please share some thoughts on your mission to mine some of the more obscure gems of the cabaret repertoire? And how do you manage the audience when you are presenting programs packed with songs that most don’t know?
It was never my intention to become such a music geek, but it’s becoming harder and harder to locate sheet music to much of what is the Great American Songbook and even some well known pop composers. My whole Matt Dennis project began because I’d called one of his publishers for a lead sheet and got some clueless person who said “Well, if Sinatra didn’t record it, why should we even have it on file?” Since then, I’ve made a point of including at least one lesser known tune in all of my shows because this music is fast disappearing and needs to be heard. As far as presenting programs of obscure songs, you have to try to size up your audience ahead of time, because you don’t want the evening to come off like homework or medicine. I’ve found that it’s helpful to mix and match with more familiar material and to use patter to set up the lesser known tunes, like a disk jockey.
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MARY FOSTER CONKLIN has appeared in theatres and clubs in the metropolitan New York area and throughout the United States and Canada. A New Jersey native who came to New York to pursue acting, she ended up working more as a vocalist. Her transformation from actor to jazz singer began when she joined drummer/composer Art Lillard’s 16-piece Heavenly Band and her song selections naturally shifted from show tunes to blues, Latin and bebop.
As a leader, her choice of songs has always been an eclectic mix of contemporary material and standards, with a hybrid sound that combines straight ahead jazz with traditional pop and cabaret. She also has a passion for discovering lesser known standards. Her recent recording, Blues For Breakfast – Remembering Matt Dennis (Rhombus Records) is a collection of songs by the late Matt Dennis, best known for his hits “Angel Eyes” and “Violets for your Furs”. This award winning album is a culmination of three years research which began at the Library of Congress and has since been performed on both coasts, to critical acclaim. The CD has been hailed by the press as “delightfully dramatic” (Jazz Times) “a work of art and heart” (powerlineblog.com), and “an overdue reminder of the honored place of Matt Dennis in American music” (Jazz Society of Oregon).
Conklin’s talents have earned her a place on the stages of The Metropolitan Room, Sweet Rhythm and The Iridium in New York, The Jazz Bakery in Los Angeles, and The Cultural Center and Park West in Chicago. She has been praised by The New York Times as “a highly creative singer whose style blends cabaret and jazz so thoroughly as to defy any easy categorization,” and was awarded a MAC Award for Jazz Vocalist by the Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs in 1999. Her debut CD, Crazy Eyes, was listed as one of the ten best CDs of 1998 by In Theatre Magazine, and won a Bistro Award presented by Backstage Magazine for Outstanding Recording. Her second recording, You’d Be Paradise, was released in September 2001 and was a jazz bestseller for two years on www.CDBaby.com. Visit Mary’s website at www.maryfosterconklin.com for more info.