OK, Lina Koutrakos is one of the most 360-degree talents in the cabaret world. As a performer she straddles the worlds of rock and cabaret, maintaining both a long-standing cabaret partnership with pianist Rick Jensen as well as fronting a separate rock group. Moreover she is one of the most in-demand cabaret directors in the country (forget just New York). As a teacher she is a fixture nationally, not only conducting three regular New York series, but teaching regularly in New York, St. Louis, Chicago with drop-in appearances in other luckly cities (DC and Las Vegas this year). Oh yeah, she’s also a songwriter whose song Bury Me Deep just won the John Lennon Songwriting Contest in the Gospel/Inspirational category.
And that only scratches the surface of this magnificent performer. Hope this interview gives you more!
And if you don’t have her amazing recent CD/DVD of The Low Country, why not?
Please describe a “perfect” cabaret experience that you’ve had.
There’s many “perfect cabaret experiences” that I’ve had. First of all, I’m a director, so I see the nuts and bolts of every cabaret show when I’m sitting in an audience….Since I am a director I enjoy seeing the nuts and bolts of a cabaret show, I’m not saying it’s a bad thing – I like it. But then what happens is that as a singer and director in the audience, by the third or fourth song all of sudden… we’re at the end of the show and I realized I stopped seeing the nuts and bolts. That is a rare and perfect cabaret experience for me.
2. What is a recent song you’ve been struggling with? Have you won yet?
Okay, I think it just came up in the last few days. We’re just starting to learn some new songs, Rick (Jensen) and I cause we’re going to do a new show in St. Louis and we’re going to do a show at Davenport’s in Chicago and then in October we’re debuting at the M bar in Hollywood, California. So that show’s going to be a very important hybrid of everything we do. So we’re just trying to look at new material for it as well as old stuff. So I don’t know, I think I’ve nailed everything I’m already up to. Oh golly, I think I’m stumped.
Okay, this is odd, we’re taking a look at, I think it’s George Harrison, the Beatles’s While My Guitar Gently Sleeps. And Rick keeps playing it like an old Billie Holliday song. We’re both taking a look at it as though it were just a comment on the world, but blue. And it’s funny, when Rick, who I’m lucky enough to work with, arranges something, or even pop music, and takes it and takes out all the pop clichés and really breaks down the lyric, too. “I look at you sleeping, while my guitar gently weeps…” What the hell does that mean? But you know what? It means plenty – so here we go! And no, I have not won yet. But it’s a very exciting challenge!
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?
Okay. Well first of all, I’ve been very lucky. I’ve had two cabaret musical director “marriages.” My first “marriage” was a long one, about twenty years, with Dick Gallagher. We got “married” young, so we found our way together. I think it benefited both of us to work out our singer/musical director stumbles together. He went on to play for Patti LuPone quite exclusively. And I heard that just the other day, I believe she was at the Kennedy Center, and she just dedicated, yet again, over three years after his death her show to him. So he certainly knew what he was doing.
And I ended up working, while exclusively with Dick doing my shows and arrangement, I ended up just doing piano bars to make a living. So four nights a week I was with a different piano player. What I know is that they stretched the hell out of me, which is great! Look, I don’t know, but when you’re young and certainly when you’re a girl tjhere;s a little bit of magic about your musical director. You know, your faux lover until you find one of your own; and he’s making music with you. As important or more important than someone making love to me. So, it was a big, big, thing. And every time I’d go to a piano bar four nights a week, and I didn’t get to sing with Dick (which felt like I was getting into a bathtub, it’s so comfortable and exciting) – hell, it’s everything you want in a lover.
And there were the people who were stretching me at the piano … and there was a kid (we were all kids then) who played on Saturday night and wrote his own music, and his name was Rick Jensen. And there was another guy who stretched me a whole other direction, and his name was Chris Marlowe. I think what happened too, was that we had two seconds in piano bars to talk to each other. You’d run up and hand a piece of music like “Natural Woman” to Chris Marlowe and he’d go, “you just want this the regular way?” And I’d say, “even more gospel-ly, if you can, and there’s this key change.” So I think the idea of not having a lot of time and being in front of a live audience really got me over my fear of talking to musical directors. I used to think that I didn’t have a right to tell them what I wanted or speak to them on their level because I was not a trained musician. But these guys were so great and so interested in the collaborative dance that I absolutely got carte blanche from them years ago to explain to them anything any way I wanted. Then it’s like an improv… you throw an emotional and musical ball back and forth.
Now I’m exclusively in the cabaret world, not in the pop/rock world; I have lots of different musicians, wonderful piano players. But when I’m doing my shows, creating “Torch” or doing cabaret things, I work with the man I teach with most of the time, Rick Jensen. And he is my, uh, second “husband”; I’m probably his second or third “wife” (if that’s how you want to talk about it). We’ve known each other in and out of the pop world, clubs, directing other people’s shows, and just as friends and family. We both lost Nancy (LaMott) together, and all that stuff. So we have a language together that doesn’t need words. And when we need words we both love them so much as songwriters, we throw them around with great, matched ease, if you will. It’s thrilling.
So don’t be afraid. What you have to say as a singer is incredibly valid, especially in cabaret because your interpretation of what you’re going to do is the key to everything with the piano player. And most of the men in New York City who do this for real and get accolades for it, they are phenomenally interested in this back and forth (That was a lot,huh?)
4. What is a particular image that you can rely on to be an effective sense memory when you’re performing?
Well, the first thing I was going to say is “anger.”
Yeah, it’s funny because I’m not an angry singer or performer, I would never say that about myself. I would say “dramatic” if I was going to lean toward that, or “passionate,” even. But I wouldn’t say anger. But anger is an easy one. And I often use it with students when I can’t really get them to understand subtle connections which I am so happy to be able to do now. I mean the subtleties of how I get sense memories now is fantastic, may it never end. May I continue to discover them all. I even discover some in front of an audience; it’s just so much fun.
But the easy one and the first one that’s easy to get to is anger. It’s also a tough one to get to. Especially as women, we don’t have a natural permission to be angry in front of people. We’re supposed to still be “ladies.” We don’t get angry. But to spotlight it and do it front of people takes a lot of guts. But I’ve always been a bit of a rebel and I like that sort of thing, and I’m Greek, so it all comes very easily to me.
5. What is the most pressing need the world of cabaret has today?
Boy, I’m not going to be popular here.
The realistic one? It needs a little bit of more light shined on it because there ought to be more cabaret rooms in more cities and people should to know what cabaret is, first of all. There is a need to get what we do out to the general public. It is a very valid and very rooted art form and a lot of people, especially if I’m travelling a lot more now out of town — if I’m not with the local city’s that I’m in cabaret community, they think cabaret is a host of different things. Even if they get past that it’s a strip club, it’s an old woman in a boa singing “Come Rain or Come Shine” period. Or they think it’s, unfortunately because Mr. Simon Cowell who up until this year would snarl and say “Oh, that’s so cabaret,” he really helped alienate the entire pop world. And I’m a rock and roll singer with a very valid rock and roll band, singing in really very valid rock and roll clubs. It is not a cabaret act when I sing my own music. And the ONLY reason I think that I am good at doing that authentically is because I learned how to it naked at the piano and my own feelings. So I think one pressing need is to educate the general public about cabaret. And how great it is to see somebody up close like that. Metaphoriacally as well as physically.
And the other pressing need which I’m not going to be too popular for, is we really have to stop touting mediocrity in cabaret as greatness. That’s really pissing me off. The bar has to be set a little higher amongst us. And I don’t mean to say that the people who are in it should stop being in it. They should learn the craft of it. And obviously I have a vested interest because I teach the craft, and hopefully I keep practicing what I preach.
I think the bar for cabaret should be set higher and we should stop touting mediocrity in cabaret as greatness. Which goes hand-in-hand with the pressing need of alerting the rest of the world to this artform. If we keep touting mediocrity, then it’s no wonder that Simon Cowell (sneers) at us.
6. How do you deal with being a brand?
I like it. I like it. I’ve always like it. Which is why I’ve always straddled both the cabaret world and the rock and roll world. I like it and I think I like it because I truly believe at this point in my life, my brand is “authenticity.” So it works for me because I get to be spotlighted for who I am on purspose. And I’ve always like that. I’ve always wanted everybody to take a look at me. I think it’s very, very intelligent of God that he blessed me with some chops because I wouldn’t be in the spotlight without any talent. But I like it; it’s what I always wanted. I’ve always wanted to be a rich and famous pop star my whole life, so the idea that I’m a teeny bit branded makes me feel like I’ve arrived at a piece of my goal. And I think the good news is that I’m not twenty years old when this sort of thing starts to happen to me, so I’m happy that the brand is that I’m for real. I like being on stage almost more than being anywhere else, and I’m comfortable with almost anybody, anywhere. But the truth is, onstage, I’m very much myself. I’m almost more myself than I am anywhere else. At the very least, I am the best parts of myself and it’s a wonderful place to be! So I kinda dig it, as long as I keep what I do on-stage as real as possible. It would be exhausting if it were a “persona.” I don’t like seeing it in people on the cabaret stage and I would sure as hell hate doing it.
+1 It fascinates me that somebody that I first saw as a “Southern rock chick” is one of the top directors for Porter, Gershwin and all this Broadway material. So how does the one influence the other?
I came into the city to be a rock star. I wanted to be, you know, rich and famous, and I was always a pop person. The only musical I ever paid attention to as a kid was The Sound of Music. And after that I grew up and I was only interested in was Janis Joplin, Led Zeppelin, Elvis Presley. Aretha Franklin, okay Motown, and definitely electric guitar rock and roll. And I wanted to come in and become more Janis Joplin than anybody else. I had a band when I first moved into the city. I worked three jobs, I cleaned office buildings in the middle of the night, I waitressed, and I had a 9 to 5 job to pay my band’s cab fare. I did really well for somebody in New York City that didn’t know their ass from their elbow. But Dick Gallagher at the piano, and he was also a cabaret person, and that’s when I needed to start making a living in the piano bars. I started hearing songs from musicals and I knew the American songbook because of my parents, they would listen to Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra (and Frank covered the gamut, you know?). So I knew these things, I knew every pop song and who wrote every one. So I’m working in the piano bars and every time I’d hear a song, I’d go to the piano player and say, “Who wrote that? “Who wrote that?” Mostly for me, the people I ran to the piano for were Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen. I started falling in love with these things, and I always had a lot of respect for them because I knew them inside-out since being a kid. And I had to make a living. And I had to sing. And because I couldn’t afford the band anymore. I was hungry. And Dick Gallagher and I started arranging pop tunes., I think we could have been one of the first to get on the map arranging pop tunes with just a piano and a vocalist. And I wont he Best Female Vocalist of the Year award from MAC a long, long time ago and that sort of solidified that I was OK to be doing the pop. So I think I kept both going. And my dream was always to write my own music and sing the Southern rock that I grew up with (I was a Navy brat, I grew up mostly down South.) And then I started getting a lot of notoriety and reviews in cabaret – the world was a lot smaller than the big pop/rock world, and I rose to the topof it pretty quickly.
One day Dick Gallagher said to me, “Honey, you’re doing a lot of this pop stuff. You just won an award. Why don’t you start to teach?” And I cried for two hours because all I heard in my head was “those who do, do, those who can’t teach.” And I was mortified. But I realize that now when I stand in front of a plugged in audience of sold out crowds at B.B. Kings or the Mohegan Sun or the Bottom Line, or Joe’s Pub, the reason I am riveting as a center stage singer with six plugged-in screaming guitars, et cetera is because I have learned how to do this with just a piano. I have learned to find my feelings, to couple it to the music to relate to the audience, and to put it anywhere. And since it’s something that excites the shit out of me, I teach because I need to pass it forward. And every time I tell somebody something, I learn more and I can’t wait to get out there again.
It’s like, look, are you going to get dressed up and go to a black tie affair, or are you going to wear your jeans and go hiking? I like them both, I can do them both, and I’m SO tired of the idea in my youth that it used to be that I couldn’t tell the rockers I’m a cabaret person and I couldn’t let the cabaret people know I was a rocker. You know what? I’m old, time is ticking. I’m not apologizing for being able to do a lot of things. And I’m really grateful for the opportunity to do them well.
*OK, technically it’s now “6+1” since I’ve added a new question to the line-up.