In the ‘Mix’: an interview with Patricia Barber
Published Thursday, 06-Nov-2008 in issue 1089
On her marvelous new CD The Cole Porter Mix (Blue Note), out jazz diva Patricia Barber pays homage to her “songwriting idol.” The 13 tunes, including three originals, are, in Porter’s words “easy to love.” Barber and her band will leave you lightheaded on “I Get a Kick Out of You,” do snappy things to “Just One of Those Things,” sharpen the focus on “I Concentrate on You,” and put “In The Still of the Night” into motion. Barber’s reading of “Miss Otis Regrets” is darkly dramatic and her expansion of “You’re the Top” simply soars. We spoke with Barber about The Cole Porter Mix at Anteprima in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood.
Gay & Lesbian Times: Have you ever been approached about having a song of yours included in a movie?
Patricia Barber: Yes, I just did that for a movie called Grey in White and Black. It’s by (I.) Michael Toth and it is just brilliant. We’re just finishing up and I did the music for it. I didn’t do incidental music; I don’t do that. I don’t want to learn how to do that because I think that I would be betraying my better instincts. I told him (Michael) that I would do songs and so what he did was put a lot of action in a clip where I was me …
GLT: Oh, you’re in the movie?
PB: I’m in the movie, yeah, but he gave me another name and made me a little bit more of a floozy. He actually wanted cleavage! (I said), “Oh, Michael, please! Come on!” You can see great clips online if you search “Life is a Dream Productions,” and it is just a brilliant film. I did about three or four songs for that movie. It was a lot of fun!
GLT: Speaking of movies, did you see the Cole Porter biopic De-Lovely, and if so, what did you think of it?
PB: Just couldn’t watch it; I just knew it was going to be bad. I know too much about Cole Porter. I have read his biographies. I have notes on top of notes. I have notes in the books, notes all about Cole Porter’s music.
GLT: When you approach a set of Cole Porter songs that have been recorded and performed countless times by various artists, as you do on your new album The Cole Porter Mix, what do you hope to accomplish?
PB: I just wanted it to be a pleasant record. With respect to Cole Porter, he’s been my songwriting idol for as long as I can remember. I wanted to do him justice, but I didn’t want to over-complicate it. I wanted to make it pleasant and fun because his music is pleasant and fun. It’s even a little dark sometimes, and even when he’s dark, he’s funny, and I write dark and funny, but it’s hard for me not to be funny when I’m writing a sad song. I have to consciously go, “Don’t put that line in there, it’s too funny!”
GLT: You added new lyrics to “You’re the Top.” What was involved in that process?
PB: Here’s what I’ll tell you: I’m hoping Alice Waters is going to get a hold of me and I’ll be at her restaurant (Chez Panisse) constantly.
GLT: The benefits of name-dropping.
PB: Cole Porter did that all the time! What is interesting about writing like Cole Porter or trying to emulate him a little bit is that you get a topical flavor – and that part I love! So what I simply did was update “You’re the Top,” and so you have the Kevlar armor and we’re in a war and you have the “Hill” and the “Bill” – the Clintons. When I sing that now, I just switch it to “Obama” and “drama,” and it works. “Alice Waters” has to do with the food thing. That I love about Cole Porter; some of the allusions he makes, a lot of people just don’t understand anymore. I’ve always loved looking it up and I’m sure a lot of people just sing the lyrics and don’t look it up, but I’ve always loved looking up the allusions and finding out the historical context.
GLT: The album contains three original songs – “I Wait for Late Afternoon and You,” “Snow” and “The New Year’s Eve Song.” Did it come easily for you to write songs to fit in to that Cole Porter framework or was it more challenging than you had expected?
PB: It was intimidating. It was certainly intimidating; how could anything be more intimidating (laughs)? That hubris in a certain way, I certainly understand that. I could tell you the rhyme schemes for a lot of Cole Porter’s things; I’ve counted many syllables. I’ll be up at 3:30 a.m. and leave the bedroom and go into my study and go; “It can’t be! It can’t be 7/8ths!” I’ll get out the Cole Porter … he was that exact, it was like science! In particular, I could tell you about “I Wait for Late Afternoon and You.” It’s an incredibly difficult rhyming scheme. If you look at it, it’s nine syllables, and there are rhythms that have to go vertically and horizontally and if you just chart it, you’ll see that it’s just … what a puzzle I created for myself. To try and make something musical out of it, I just thought I was going to kill myself! After you start it, you can’t stop it!
GLT: Cole Porter was a Midwesterner and as someone from the Midwest, did that help strengthen your connection to him?
PB: Maybe. He went from Nebraska to Ohio to New York, but there is no way my life is anything like his. He was wealthy to begin with, and then he became wildly wealthy. But concerning the fact we do the same thing and we love nightclubs and bars, I love that milieu, just love it. I love to write about it, to be in it, to see it.
GLT: People often talk about the Midwestern work ethic. Do you feel like you are a product of that?
PB: He [Cole Porter] had a very strong work ethic; I wish I worked like he did! He would work on music 11-4 every day! But I am a self-starter and I do work hard; I don’t know if that’s a Midwestern thing or not.
GLT: Porter was also bisexual – as a queer artist yourself, do you think there is a creative advantage to being a part of the GLBT community?
PB: I do notice a quality about Cole’s music that is that of the marginalized, the observer. It’s a very acute perception because I think you’re outside. Now, I do think that if you live in nightclubs that you also have that perception; it’s not just about being gay. I also find that from the stage, I feel like I can see more of what’s going on – as much as they can see me.