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PATTI AUSTIN 2011 SOULMUSIC.COM INTERVIEW
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Patti Austin has been recording for an incredible four decades-plus having started as a pre-teen back in the '60s. She's built up a truly impressive recorded legacy and in more recent years, she's focused on performing in a variety of different venues, expressing her diversity as a multi-genre artist of the first order. Her latest CD, "Sound Advice" reflects her undeniable artistry as David Nathan (who's been interviewing her since 1976) reveals...


DN: This is David Nathan at SoulMusic.com and I am delighted today to bring to the site a lady who I have known since 1976 when we did our first interview on the Island of Antigua at a convention, a disc jockey convention no less, and I’ve spent many hours over the years talking with her. She is very funny. She’s very smart. And she’s very talented. That’s what we call a triple threat. I’m really happy that we’re talking today about her brand new album, a great album, called ‘Sound Advice’. In interest of disclosure, I should let you know that originally this was meant to be a bio interview, an interview for her bio for the album, but it was so good I asked her if it would be ok if we included it at SoulMusic.com. Of course, she graciously agreed. So there’s no usual intro where I say, “hello, this is David Nathan” and she says “hello, this is Patti Austin” or I say, “welcome Patti Austin”. That’s not there. But what is, is some great insights into the new record and her career. So here we are, this is me and Patti Austin.

David Nathan: Well, I guess the first obvious question is, why is it called ‘Sound Advice’?

Patti Austin: Because all of the tunes lyrically are giving some kind of advice, in some sort of a way, either in an introspective way or they’re just kind of telling you what it be like. Or what it can be like. Or what it should be like. Or what we wish it could be like.

DN: Is that a concept that you’ve had for awhile or it just came together for this particular project?

PA: No, there’s an irony build into this because the concept came from one of the people who ran the last label I was on which was Dave Koz’s label. It was suggested to [my manager] Barry that I do this, you know, “why doesn’t Patti do a record called ‘Sound Advice’?” We had no idea what the material was going to be at that point, but the title resonated with us and we just said, “wow, what a great idea that is; that’s something that sounds marketable.” I’m certainly old enough to act like I might be able to give helpful advice at this point so that’s why we came to use the title and kind of break it down from there.

DN: Did you then choose the songs that resonated with that title? I’m assuming that’s what happened.

PA: Yes. Now the kind of weird back story on this: we had been, in our own sweet time, working on material but not for anything specific, but it ended up being a project that we thought would be a piano/vocal project. And some of the material that we had already done for that, we felt would be applicable for this, so some of that ended up on this project. And there were also a couple of other things that we went in the studio (to record) in the last couple of years. There’s a tune I wrote called “Grace of God” which is on the record, which was kind of an inspirational thing that came to me. We wrote it and gave it to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, kind of as their anthem. And we decided to include that because it was applicable. We had also done a version of “Lean On Me” that was just kind of an idea of “let’s run in the studio and see how that sounds” and that ended up on the project. So there are actually four cuts that were there from various other things we had been kind of doodling around with. And we needed them for this.

DN: What were the other two? There was “Lean On Me” and “Grace of God”.

PA: “Vincent” and “My Way”, which were the two piano/vocals on it.

DN: To go back for a moment to “Grace of God”, which was one of your compositions, was there something specific that inspired that?

PA: Yeah. This is going to sound so cheesy, but it was actually an “Oprah” show, which I did not know was an “Oprah” show. I was flipping the dial and saw this woman who had been horribly disfigured by her significant other. He shot her in the face. And Oprah’s show that day was about people who had survived really extreme situations. A guy fell out of a plane and his parachute didn’t open and he lived, that kind of thing. So this woman was shot in the face. She staggered out into the street and a patrol cop found her and got her to the hospital before she bled to death. She is disfigured for life. She had, I don’t know how many, corrective surgeries to try to improve her face aesthetically. But they’ve told her that’s not really going to happen. Probably, the only thing that’s going to fix her at this point is a complete face transplant, but you know, that’s incredibly expensive. In the meantime, she has gone on to work with women who are involved in domestic violence and I’ve been working with this organization as a spokesperson.

So I was watching the show, I was listening to her talk and she was just remarkable. When she finished speaking about what had happened to her and her resolve and how she gets through the day and how she functions at this point, Oprah said, and that’s when I found out it was the “Oprah” show because they put the camera on Oprah and Oprah said, “girl, you are here by the grace of God.” And I got up from my chair and went to the piano and literally wrote the song in like fifteen minutes. It was like a channeling thing. In fifteen minutes, the song, the lyrics, everything was there. And I had been doodling around in the studio with Greg Field and Shelly Berg on this piano/vocal thing and called Greg because we were going to be in the studio that week because Shelly was around and I said, “I think I might have written something that would be cool for us to do.” So that’s how that came about. And then after we finished the song, Barry said, “well let’s not just let this sit around, let’s find a purpose for it and why don’t we find a purpose that ties into why you wrote the song in the first place.” We started checking out the organizations that were working in domestic violence and National Coalitions seemed to be the most effective of them all and we called them and volunteered my services. They were like, “thank you, thank you, thank you” and I been with them ever since.

DN: That’s great. And “Lean On Me”?

PA: “Lean On Me” was part of an idea of doing cover tunes and, in the name of my brother Luther (Vandross), “Lutherizing” them. You know how Luther used to take a great standard that belonged to somebody else and just make it his signature piece. So we were trying to do that with songs that everybody would groan when you’d say the title of it. Let’s do “Feelings”. Uuugghh, God! No, come on, let’s really do it, let’s turn it out. So I said to [producer] Greg Phillinganes, “Greg, we’re going to do ‘Lean On Me’” and the groan came. He’s like, “oh God it’s been covered by so many people, so many ways.” I said, “yeah, but I want to do it like, I want to take it somewhere else.” I said, “think operatic and think gospel.” He walked away from me for about fifteen minutes and came back and started playing the intro and I started singing and that’s how that happened.

DN: And you said the song had also been used for another purpose?

PA: Well, what happened was, after Greg and I cut it in the studio, first we did it just piano/vocal and then we decided we wanted to put a rhythm section on it. Then it just kind of sat there. I had been asked to produce the entertainment for an event given by ASCAP to honor Quincy (Jones). Greg and I put the thing together and at the end of the night we gave Quincy a party at the Carlisle [Hotel] in New York City. Everybody asked me to sing and Greg was there and we looked at each other and said, “why don’t we do ‘Lean On Me’”. It happened to be Quincy’s birthday. So I sang “Lean On Me” and a friend of mine was there that night. Her name is Sandy Bachom and Sandy is kind of like a guerrilla videographer. She doesn’t go anywhere without her video camera. So she was filming everything unbeknownst to everyone at this party. And she filmed me singing “Lean On Me” and put it up on YouTube with no fanfare. She just thought it was a great thing. It’s been up I guess a year and a half, maybe two years and in that time it’s got, I don’t know, a 150,000 hits from nowhere, just people checking it out. So we figured, gee, if that’s what happened when nobody knows about it, maybe we should put it on the record. In the meantime, Haiti happened and I had done Larry King’s show, a couple of times for various reasons. Sadly, the last time I had done it was when Michael died. They were doing a special on Larry King for Haiti to deal with the whole thing and they decided they wanted a song to close the show and they had seen “Lean On Me” on YouTube so they asked me to come on and perform for them. I ended up performing it on Larry King under very sad circumstances, but nonetheless sang the song. So that has an interesting history that accompanies the project.

DN: And you mentioned two songs that had their genesis as part of a vocal/piano album?

PA: Yeah, a piano/vocal album which we’re probably still going to do, but these two songs seem to work rather nicely in the context of the record because we were really trying to go back to the pop/R&B roots but we also wanted to have some tour-de-force vocal; just straight-up, “here’s the voice” kind of cuts on the record as well to keep those that love that stuff happy. So this was also part of that whole thing with Shelly Berg. And when we were working on the project, the idea was that Shelly and Greg Phillinganes were going to be the accompanists. Ultimately we’re going to do that record full-blast, all piano/vocal, and we’ll probably do maybe two of them: one will be with Shelly and Greg, and then we plan to ultimately do another one with great pianists—everybody hopefully from Herbie Hancock to whoever. We’ll try to get David Foster in there; Aretha, this is a message to you: I would love you accompany me! So some kinds of interesting choices of pianists. But when we started the whole idea, again I was going with “Let’s do these songs that people never cover, or if they do they certainly don’t do them this way.” So “My Way” immediately came to mind and I mentioned it to Shelly and it was another one of those, Shelly sat down and came up with a road map and we just literally did that in two takes: one to figure out how we wanted to do it, and the second one is the one that’s on the record. And we had taken that stuff and played it for Alan and Marilyn Bergman at some point in time—I don’t even remember why, I think they were just saying, “What are you up to?” and I played it for them and they went completely ballistic and said, “You have to put this out—this has to come out.” And at the same session we decided to do “Vincent”, which most people know as “Starry, Starry Night”.

DN: Which seemed like… when I saw it on the list I was like, “Hm, that’s an interesting choice.”

PA: Yeah, it was kind of a weird, sideways choice, but to me the lyric of the song transcends being about Vincent: to me it’s about the artist, the tortured artist. And how on the lyric tip—because I was saying, “Is there any kind of advice in this song?” And to me the advice is that you cannot expect to be understood when you transcend earthly things. If you’re artistic and creative, nine times out of ten the world is not going to get you till you’re long gone. So make your art and fuck it! See who you are and let the chips fall—

DN: Where they may, yes. Well, I don’t want to belabour the point but obviously if you’re going to say something like that I have to ask you, has that been your experience of your own career?

PA: Very much so. And this record, in a way, is reflective of that. Not that I’ve ever really been about, “Oh, my God, I’ve gotta win a Grammy.” I hear people say stuff like, “I must win a Grammy and a Tony and an Emmy and an Oscar…” And there are some people who’ve done that and it’s a magnificent thing, but I’ve never been a person that has gone after that. But once I was validated by winning a Grammy, it was a very pleasant experience and it certainly raised my profile and it was kind of like a notch in my gun, but at the same time it was doing performing in a form that my largest audience was not really familiar with. And so while I was out on the road doing lots of symphony gigs and working with Basie’s band and Ellington’s band and the Big Phat Band and other configurations of big bands, doing jazz at Lincoln Center and really being in the what I call classical jazz world for the last five years, I was getting a lot of pull and tug from fans to go back to that eighties “Baby, Come to Me” R&B/pop person. But I was being pulled because of the Grammy win constantly back into the straight-up jazz genre and I just said, you know what? I think I need to go back to the other thing, if only for one night, as the song goes, just to appease that audience and to make sure I still keep that shop well oiled. So I started doing B.B. King’s [club] and those kinds of venues, doing club dates and bringing in five, six-piece bands, three background singers and kind of going back to my old Bottom Line [club]—

And people were just freaking out—they loved it. We were doing wild stuff, opening the show with a Rod Temperton medley of stuff that I either sang backgrounds on or recorded myself—“Razzamatazz” and “Give Me the Night” and “Stomp” and that kind of stuff—and then we’d go out of that to “Hey, Joe”, straight-up Hendrix-style, and then go into a Brenda Russell tune or an original tune with a Latin groove… and we were just all over the place, and people just absolutely loved it. And then for the straight-up jazz people I’d throw in “How High the Moon”. So we got great feedback from it, so as a result we said, “We need to do a record that goes there again.” And that’s really why we decided to do the lyric concept, so that it could be thematic, but also to go back to my musical roots that I still have a very large following wants to hear.

DN: That people know you from; absolutely. All right, let’s talk about some of the other songs. You mentioned Brenda Russell—there’s a Brenda Russell song on there… “A Little Bit of Love”.

PA: Yeah, one of my favourite Brenda tunes. It’s probably very obscure to most people.

DN: Now this is testing my memory so I’m not sure, and I’m sure you’ll tell me if I’m correct, but isn’t that on her first album, So Good So Right? And so you did it because it’s always been one of your favourite of her compositions?

PA: I just love the song. It’s just one of those happy songs. And when I heard it, it was what I call one of my anthem songs: I would get up in the morning and play it every day to get me started. And I thought, what better time to have that kind of a song out there in the atmosphere? There aren’t a lot of really happy songs. I think that’s why Katy Perry is huge, because she makes those goofy, happy records that nobody else is doing, and it’s just fun to hear now—it’s just mindless fun. And yet this song was written at a time when people really tried to write substantive lyrics, so the lyric is actually saying something pretty cool, but in a fun way.

DN: I was a little bit—how can I put this?—surprised at your treatment of a Rolling Stones’ anthem, “Can’t Always Get What You Want”.

PA: Yeah. Well, we just wanted to rock something out, and that was pretty much what we decided to do. And I had never really understood what the hell Mick Jagger was saying when he sang it!

DN: And do you now?

PA: Kind of. I kind of created my own interpretation, actually with the help of [my manager] Barry’s daughter, who is kind of always my barometer for the youth—or as we say in New York, “the yout’.” And she had a very interesting read on the lyric. She was like, “I would want to hear you sing this like you were singing it to a girl, to a younger woman. This is something my generation has yet to comprehend, because your generation kept telling us that you can always get what you want—that you can have it all.” And of course now we know that’s a crock of shit. We knew it then, but we wanted to lie to ourselves. So we did. We lied ourselves right into a hole.

DN: Let me think about this for a second—hold on, let me just think about what you just said. We did say we could have it all, you’re right.

PA: Our generation was very much about it, and if you were turning Oprah on, she was telling masses of women every day, “You can have it all.”

DN: You know what? That’s very true.

PA: Yeah. You can work, you can have a baby, you can have a husband, you can have a family, you can be everything.

DN: And was she lying? I don’t want to say she was lying—

PA: She was wishing out loud. And a lot of people followed her to their doom, and a lot of kids got screwed up and a lot of marriages didn’t make it, and a lot of women ended up sitting somewhere scratching their head trying to figure out, “What was I thinking?” And something has to be sacrificed when you have no focus.

The thing you focus on gets done really well and the stuff you don’t doesn’t, and so we’ve had a generation of people who think that you can always get what you want. And so suddenly that song, to me, resonated in a totally different way. And the story, to me, is whatever happened to Mick in the course of a day: he went to the drugstore and he hung out with a friend. But bottom line is—

DN: Hold on—he went to the drugstore, but not to the drugstore that you and I… not a pharmacy. Not a chemist!

PA: Not the chemist! But bottom line was, the reality kicks in for him that it doesn’t always work out the way you want it to, but if you try—and my mom always used to say that: “Never pray for what you want, pray for what you need, ’cause that’s what you’re going to end up getting, anyway.”

And what you need is not always what you like, because a lot of times the universe will serve you what you need and it’ll whip your ass, but that’s because you need your ass whipped so you can wake up and deal with something you need to deal with. So that’s one of the reasons that we decided to do—on the lyric tip, the meaning of the song—that’s why we went for that. And then musically, we just felt like seeing if we could take that somewhere.

DN: Is that a song that you actually grew up with? Were you familiar with it?

PA: Pretty much everything on the record is stuff that I grew up with either liking or…

DN: Well, since we’re in the world of Britain, in terms of the Rolling Stones, let’s go to “You’ve Gotta Be”, which of course is from a completely different era. And just tell me a little bit about what… it’s an obvious song for this.

PA: Yeah. “You’ve Gotta Be” is also something I recorded awhile ago for an album called Church. It was already out. And Church is a compilation album, and the concept of the record was to take secular music and do it in a gospel style. And everybody’s on the record, from Patti LaBelle to Maya Angelou to Chaka Khan—a lot of great people on the record. And we all got to pick what songs we wanted to do. I picked that song because I’d always loved the song. Again, I was working with Greg and I said, “Greg, let’s find another way to rock this,” and so that’s how we decided to do it. And then I started doing it in my show and started closing my show with it—and people just fricking loved it like crazy, so we said “Okay, that has to open the record.”

DN: It’s a great song.

PA: Isn’t it? Yeah. And we just had a lot of fun doing it live.

DN: Now I did listen to “Let ’Em In”, which is not one of my favourite songs but that doesn’t matter—it’s just not one of my favourite songs; I just don’t particularly like it.

PA: You either like it or you don’t.

DN: It never did anything much for me, but anyway. But I notice—now I’ll let you verify this—but it’s almost like you became another character vocally on how you did that song?

PA: Yeah, I kind of did that with a lot of stuff on this record. I kind of took a cinematic approach to these songs and performed them like they were all little movies—they were all little TV specials. And my feeling was that they all needed to be done in a different voice and that the voice needed to resonate with whatever the song was doing. And my visual on “Let ’Em In”, and one of the reasons we did “Let ’Em In” other than the fact that… this is a song that Greg and I came up with just from doodling around in a soundcheck one day, and he just started playing this little thing and I started singing along with it, and I think it was one of those ballroom gigs, so they had waiters and people were around putting tables together, and by the time we had finished they were all clapping and they loved it, and it was great. And we just looked at each other and said, “We need to record this at some point in time, because obviously people love it.”

But one of the reasons that I put it on the record is that I have a whole visual thing going on in my mind about this song: to me, this song represents an issue that we’re dealing with in the States now. And I don’t really know what McCartney’s mindset was when he wrote it—he was probably writing about exactly what the lyrics are saying: somebody’s knocking—something that ludicrous. But to me it represents the whole immigration issue in this country, and that’s the way I am looking at it. When I’m singing this song, that’s what I’m thinking of. We’re going through a kind of isolationist mentality in a lot of states in this country: there’s a whole thing about Mexicans coming in, and immigrants coming in—and of course, all the people they don’t want to come in just happen to be people of colour in a country that is totally… the foundation of this country, this whole basis of this country is about immigration. If you didn’t come here as a slave, you came here as an immigrant.

DN: That didn’t escape my notice.

PA: Yeah. And so I find it fascinating that our memory of how we got here is so short that we now want to undermine the very thing that created this place and made it as wonderful as it is, and continues to make it as wonderful as it is. So my vision is always seeing the Statue of Liberty telling everybody, “Open the door, let ’em in. Cut the crap. Stop the nonsense. They’re gonna come in anyway, why not embrace each other?” So that’s really the mentality behind that.

DN: I also have to say that listening to “Serve Somebody” was the first time I really, really paid attention to the words, because I’m not a Bob Dylan fan and I don’t listen to Bob Dylan because his voice—

PA: Is not one of the better voices of out times.

DN: It drives me crazy—

PA: He’s not a singer.

DN: —and I don’t understand how come millions of people the world over have idolized him, other than the fact that I understand that his contribution as a songwriter is what allowed that to be.

PA: Absolutely; absolutely. The lyrics are remarkable.

DN: And I’ve never listened to them as closely as I did, so I just want to let you know I appreciate you doing the song so that I can actually hear the words.

PA: And that’s exactly why I did it. When we were looking for material, Barry and I just made a list of all the stuff we liked, and so we sat down one day and just started listening to it. And I didn’t even remember “You’ve Gotta Serve Somebody” being a Dylan tune, for some reason.

There was so much other stuff that he wrote that resonated with me. But at sixty, “You’ve Gotta Serve Somebody” resonates with your ass. And when the world is in the shape that it’s in now, it really resonates. So when I was listening to the song I was like, whoa. This is like you’ve got every moron in the ring with you that you’ve ever wanted to punch out, because everybody gets on that list. And the list is deep because so much of what he’s talking with on the list is stuff that we’re dealing with now. Again, we go back to that whole generational thing where we’ve walked around with our head up our bums thinking that we’ve got it all, we can do it all, we can have it all; and again this song is saying, “Hey, I don’t care who you are, you’re gonna be kissing somebody’s ass.” And I think again that that’s really important that we hear this stuff now. Because it’s where I go when I start to reflect on, well, how did I come through this part of my life to this point? What have I learned? What would I like to share with everybody? And maybe it’ll make a light bulb go off somewhere for somebody, or maybe you’ll just enjoy the music, but that song was really about getting that lyric out there and understood. When I started understanding the lyrics I was like, “Damn, Bob!” [Laughs]

DN: It’s a very serious song.

PA: Absolutely, absolutely. And again, we wanted to see if we could rock it out; if we could take it someplace else. And I have to jump a little bit to the level of musicianship that we were dealing with, because we did “Serve Somebody” and “Can’t Always Get What You Want” on the same session—that was kind of our rock-out day. And we had these amazing musicians: Trevor Lawrence, who works with everybody—he’s out with Herbie Hancock now and does all of Emimem and Dr. Dre’s stuff, and he’s just amazingly versatile; and Ian Martin, a great bass player, a young guy who’s worked with everybody from Foster to Barry Manilow; and then Paul Jackson Jr., who is amazing. So both of those songs are really kind of like jams; we just went in and did two takes of each thing—

DN: All right, well let’s turn to a song that I don’t know at all called “Enjoy the Silence”.

PA: “Enjoy the Silence” is a Depeche Mode tune.

DN: See, I have to be educated too!

PA: Yeah, and a very popular, very popular Depeche Mode tune. We wanted to just bring a more organic feel to that, kind of like what I had done with “Ability to Swing” when we took that tune and made it more organic from the original version. So we did this thing, and Greg had the idea actually to do that tune. We had a lot of fun trying to figure out how organic and how minimalist to make it compared to the way Depeche Mode had done it.

DN: And were you already familiar with the song?

PA: Yeah, I knew the original version. And I loved Greg’s idea to turn it around and make it more moody, because they were very electronic in the way that they approached it. And it was interesting, because originally we weren’t going to have any rhythm on it, and I decided to try to see if we could put some rhythm on it. So Trevor tried playing drums on it and it was really not happening—it was much too intense to go along with what the rest of the track was. It was very funny because we were at his studio, which is where we did the mixing and all the percussion and overdubs and stuff, so he said, “Just a minute,” and we heard BOOM, CRASH, CRASH!—for like five minutes we heard percussion stuff being flung from one end of the room to the other. And suddenly he comes out to the middle of the recording studio, and he’s got this box and he sits on it and he says, “Okay, bring a mic in here.”

And they brought the mic in and he starts playing this box which comes from Chile—I can’t remember the name of what the instrument is—but that became the source of the rhythm on the tune. He built up the percussion track from that, and it hit just the right texture and put the rhythm in it. We wanted it to kind of be tribal in the way that it came out and I think we did a good job of that, mostly because Trevor came up with this wonderful way to put the rhythm into it without being over the top.

DN: We’ve got two more to talk about: “Give It Up”, Michael Jackson?

PA: “Give It Up”: we’re in the studio working on the record, had no intentions of doing “Give It Up”; Greg starts playing the song—he’s doodling between takes and I say, “What’s that song?” He says, “Oh, you don’t know that song.” I said, “Yes I do, and it’s driving me crazy. What is that song? Why do I know that song?” And he said, “I’m telling you, you don’t.” I said, “I’m telling you I do. Play me the whole fricking song.” He starts playing me the song and I go, “I know that song! Why do I know that song? Who is that?” He said, “It’s the Jacksons.” “Right!” Oh, my God, I used to play that record every single morning. That was my other anthem song. And I hadn’t heard it since it came out it in maybe the seventies or sixties, something like that.

And I was like, “God, I love that tune.” And so Greg said, “Well, I arranged that tune.” I said, “You’re kidding me. Why don’t we do that tune? We need a piece of advice that’s totally on the sexy side. So let’s do that, ‘Give It Up’.” So we decided to do “Give It Up”. And also, I wanted to do something Mike-y that wasn’t known that much—that was more obscure. So that was also a little bit homage to my brother.

DN: And then finally, only because this is where we got to, we have your own composition, “Round and Round”.

PA: “Round and Round” is something Greg and I came up with in a very… I’m laughing because it was kind of an insane situation. We were in Sardinia on the yacht of a friend who was having a birthday party and he asked me to come and perform for the birthday party along with James Ingram. And Quincy was there—Quincy and I and my friend are mutual friends. And he said to Quincy, “I’m having my birthday party in Sardinia, and you’re here, and I want music,” and Quincy said, “Well, then you’ve gotta call Patti and James.” It was around the time that Michael had just passed and Quincy was in a bad way emotionally. We were all kind of still spinning out from it. So he got on the phone and said, “You need to come to Sardinia and sing and we need to be together and hang. I need my family around me. And besides, it’s my friend’s birthday, so come on out here and do this thing.” So we went. And we were doing a soundcheck on the top deck of the yacht, and Greg started playing this groove and I started singing on it, and that’s how the song got started. We didn’t finish it until we went in the studio; then we finished up the tune. Because we didn’t have a bridge for it—we had the hook but we didn’t have a bridge. So when we got in the studio to start working on the album, we finished the melody and then I went home that night and wrote the lyric, and then we cut it the next day. So that’s the long-ass story of how we did “Round and Round”. And it was actually very funny because what most people don’t know is that where yachts dock, it’s kind of like a trailer camp. They’re usually parked very close together, and you can literally look from one deck onto your neighbour’s deck. So while we were jamming on this tune there were crews on other yachts next to us—the people who cleaning the decks or doing whatever—and they were all dancing around. so once again, I think if we had a dance-meter on a lot of these tunes at soundchecks… we should have called the record Soundchecks, now that I think of it. And people were grooving, so Greg and I looked at each other and said, “Maybe we’ve got something here, because the crew on the yacht next to us and on the other side are digging it.”

DN: Now of course a lot of people, unless they know your work, they don’t necessarily know you as a songwriter. And then there are those of us who do. I went right back there for a moment to End of The Rainbow, which was of course my first—well, it wasn’t the first time I ever heard you, but it was certainly the first album that I can remember. It’s funny, I’ll just share with you a quick memory—it’s really, really funny. I don’t know how this came up, but I think I was writing about living in New York in 1975—and I can’t remember, but whatever it was, but I was writing or telling somebody—I think it was writing—about the first time I went to Media Sound—

PA: Oh, wow [whistles].

DN: —on West 57th Street.

PA: Bring back a memory, why don’t you?

DN: Well, why don’t I? And I went to a session that was produced by Bert DeCoteaux and Tony Sylvester for Martha Reeves; she was making a record for Arista. And as I walked into the studio they had this big board that said who was coming in to do whatever, and it said “Patti Austin CTI”. And I don’t know why certain things stay in your memory the way they do, but that was imprinted on my memory, seeing that on the board. And you weren’t there at the time when I was there. : And it would be a little while before we actually came together after that, but of course I do remember End of The Rainbow, and that is what you were recording in 1975.

And I remember of course what was so significant—and I even remember in the interview that we eventually did, I think about a year later—about that, and you talked about your fear of presenting the songs to Ralph MacDonald and Bill Salter and you’d say, “Oh, no, these are little songs I did in my New York apartment on the piano, and they’re not really good…” And they were great songs like “You Don’t Have to Say You’re Sorry” and—

PA: I was just terrified. I was sitting on them for a year, literally and figuratively sitting on them in a piano bench—the songs were sitting.

DN: So the point I was making in a very roundabout way was that I do know you write songs, but most people don’t.

PA: No, most people don’t.

DN: So I know you’ve written songs since then, of course. But are there people who will look at the record and go, “Oh, she wrote these?”

PA: Probably, yeah. I’m sure there will. My diehard fans definitely know that I’ve written. Certainly my agent and my European fans know, because that’s just the way they roll—when they like you, they know you. And they want to hear me do those tunes. I just got back from Japan, and if I didn’t do “Say You Love Me”, which I couldn’t because I lost my voice. I thought they were going to bomb Pearl Harbor because they were not happy with my ass because I couldn’t do “Say You Love Me”. Because it’s rangy as hell—I wrote it when I was eighteen. I was like, “Give me a break, guys.”

DN: You didn’t do it?

PA: There were a couple of nights I couldn’t do it because I had a horrible [cold]… I got there, and right after the first night my throat started giving me trouble. I finally ended up going to a doctor there and I found out that I had a very bad infection, which I’m still just getting over. My voice isn’t still quite back yet. So thank God for my operatic technique—I had to do a lot of singing around the warts there; it was rough. And thank God I had great background singers with me, they were helpful: “You cover that note tonight, because I will not be going there.” For a couple of shows I did do “Say You Love Me”, and boy, the melody was virtually unrecognizable. It reminded me of, I went to see Chaka one night and her voice was gone; she did everything down the octave and it was the funniest thing. It was hysterical. You only really noticed if you were a singer, but boy, it was like, “Oh my poor baby, I know how she’s suffering.”

DN: But you didn’t whistle [on “Say You Love Me”]?

PA: I definitely whistled, but you know something? When your throat is messed up it’s very hard to whistle, because you’re blowing all that air over your vocal chords and they’re raw to begin with. So yeah, I did a little bit of whistling—’cause I’m doing all the whistling on “Let ’Em In”. So we were doing “Let ’Em In” and boy, I tell you, it was like torture to do. I did eight bars and that was it, and then the synthesizer took over real quick. So there will definitely be people who will I think perhaps be surprised that I have written. And that was another thing, I was trying to get a lot of things accomplished on this record: I wanted to have some original material, some cover stuff, some just pure vocal stuff; and we also worked really hard to keep the production and instrumentation thing as simple as the material would allow. We didn’t want to do really, really lavish productions, so everything on there is rhythm section. The only thing that’s a little bit elaborate is “You’ve Gotta Be”, but generally speaking it’s four pieces. So that was also part of the plan.

DN: And I know that most of it was produced with Greg Phillinganes. Was that the choice you made at the outset, or it just kind of evolved that way?

PA: It was kind of a choice that was made at the outset. Gregg Field and I had worked together on the piano/vocal stuff and I wanted to include Shelly [Berg] as a producer, because I always have this debate that I go through when I work on projects, whether they’re mine or someone else’s, where I see arrangers come in and totally create what ends up happening on the record and they never get production credit and it drives me crazy.

So I was very determined on this project to make sure that the people that really contributed to making the songs what they were be a part of the production team, because they are in fact, as far as I’m concerned, producers. If you don’t have the right arrangement on the tune it doesn’t matter what the producer says about singing that line over again—you ain’t gonna have the material the way you want it. So that’s one of the reasons that I’m sharing production credits with Shelly and Gregg. You think, “God, it’s just a piano-vocal thing,” but those arrangements are so key to how those songs ended up getting done. Gregg and I decided that we wanted to work together as producers because, as we like to say, we grew up in “Q.U.,” which is Quincy’s world, and learned so much about producing from just being in the same room with him that we wanted to see if we could apply that.

DN: And I know you’ve worked together many, many, many times.

PA: At least twenty-five, maybe thirty years now we’ve been working together. So we wanted to get in there and see if we could do something.

DN: Well, now that it’s all done, how do you feel about it?

PA: I’m very happy with it. I went through a lot of ups and downs about how it was going to flow and what the material was going to be and if it was going to be cohesive and if it was going to have any kind of overall spirit to it and overall point of view, musically, lyrically, thematically; if it was going to work, if it was going to be cohesive in any way—because I tend to be tremendously eclectic and all over the place.

DN: No! Not you. Not you, darling.

PA: [Laughs] This has been both my curse and—

DN: And your blessing, yeah.

PA: Yes, exactly. But when it was all said and done and the tension was off and I got to just sit and listen to it, I’m really enjoying it at this point and having a lot of fun performing the material, which for me is… no matter how advanced we’ve become technologically—I find almost the more advanced we’ve become—the more people want to see you live. The one thing I know about this material is it works live.

DN: And that’s really important—really, really important.

PA: Yeah, people really love it, and I’ve tested the material in so many different ways. I just had a marvellous trip to Beirut; I did a jazz festival there and got a tremendous reaction. Lot of young people there at the show; a lot of them asking for the pop stuff when I was doing my straight-up Ella show. And they went wild, and I had to do an encore and we didn’t really have anything else left. I was working with musicians from Germany—a trio from Germany—and the keyboard player, we sent him “My Way” not expecting to do it; and he transcribed Shelly’s piano part which he absolutely loved. So the audience is going crazy, we don’t have anything else and he said, “Why don’t we do ‘My Way’?” I said, “Do you know it?” and he said, “Well, your manager sent it to me and I transcribed it and yeah, we can do it.” And we did it, and the audience applauded after each verse. They went crazy. And so it as like, okay, we know this works in Beirut.

DN: If it works in Beirut it probably works everywhere.

PA: It probably works everywhere! So it’s been that kind of thing with this material. We did “Let ’Em In” when we were in Japan and the people just went absolutely bonkers, yeah. So it’s something that I think is going to play well and that I’ll be able to keep in my repertoire for years, and that people are going to enjoy. And I think we kind of hit everybody a little bit: you might not like the whole record, but you’re going to find something on it that is me and that you know me for. So I think everybody will walk away…a little bit happy, yeah. Exactly.

DN: Well, I thought I had two questions; I’ve got three more questions. Number one—it’s kind of hard to ask this question because you’ve probably got a lot to say— but what would you say would be the highlights of the last few years since your last album? What are some of the things that you look back on that you’ve done in the last few years that you want to make sure are included in the bio?

Just I’ve been doing a lot of concertizing Lots of working live with a lot of different kinds of audiences. I did a gig this past year… God, I can’t remember where the heck this gig was. I think it was Virginia or D.C. or one of those places: outdoor venue, afternoon, all senior citizens—busloads of senior citizens—a senior citizen comic opened the show. I came out and did my Ella show—and you know I do a lot of humour with my show.

DN: Well, you’ve been known to be funny at times.

PA: So I am doing my usual body, double-entendre style humour and I’m doing these Ella Fitzgerald tunes with a great pickup band—wonderful group of musicians; eighteen-piece band—and my rhythm section killing the Ella stuff, just the whole audience white-haired. It looked like the snow-capped mountains of the Alps, which was my opening line after I sang my first song. And it was an amazing show. It was absolutely amazing to sing for an audience that appreciative, that nostalgic about the material. And then a few months before that, did B.B. King’s and was thrilled to have people wrapped around the building—they had to turn people away. We just did this knockdown, drag-out R&B pop “medley of my hit” show, and people just screaming and freaking out and loving it, and doing two encores. So it’s been that kind of wild swing between these different styles of music and different kinds of audiences. And I got into production work in the last few years because I’m trying to get into producing, so I got to produce some live events, which I found really, really magnificent. I really enjoyed doing it and I’m going to do much more of it. So that’s been a really exciting addition to what I already do. I love putting on a show—I love saying “I got a barn—let’s put on a show,” and figuring out who should sing what and who we should book and—

DN: Sort of like being a producer.

PA: Exactly. So I’ve been having great, great fun doing that and have gotten really wonderful reactions to the few things that people have called me to do, and I’ve been very honoured by the people who’ve called me in to do that kind of work lately. So it’s been that whole range. And working all over the world—working with an international audience. I did a very fun gig this year that I was telling you about in Australia, which was a tribute to Nina Simone with Dianne Reeves and Lizz Wright and Simone. We had a ball. It could have been a nightmare and yet it was not: it was four girl singers in love, and we bonded and had the best time. We had amazing audiences in places that I didn’t think anybody would even show up.

DN: I saw that show in London; when they brought it London with Angelique Kidjo was the person that you were in place of, so to speak.

PA: Yeah, exactly. So that was fun. Whenever I work with the producer that does that series, I always have a great time. He’s very creative and just a great person to work with. So I did that. And let’s see, I’m trying to think of some other highlights. And I’ve kind of gotten into participating… this year one of the things that I did which I’ve really enjoyed, I was asked to be a judge for the vocal competition for Thelonious Monk Institute, and that was just amazing.

DN: That’s serious.

PA: It was so cool. It was me and Al Jarreau and Dianne Reeves and Dee Dee Bridgewater…

DN: I wouldn’t have wanted to be one of the people that was being judged.

PA: And Kurt Elling, that was the panel. We were waiting to go to the first auditions and I looked at Dianne and I looked at Al and I said, “Would you want to have to sing for us?”

DN: No, absolutely not.

PA: I said, “I wouldn’t want to have to sing for us, I’d be pissing my pants.” Then we did a whole show with Herbie Hancock and George Duke and just incredible musicians, and all of us sang. And then the finalists all performed. It was a four-day weekend of my life; it was an absolutely amazing experience. So I’ve been doing a lot of those kinds of things and those have been just remarkable. One of the most amazing things about those situations has been that if anybody thinks that jazz is not going to survive and that there’s no one holding up the mantle anymore, forget it. There are amazing, incredibly talented young people out there dedicated to keeping this form alive that are on it. And that was one of the most exciting things about participating in that, was hearing just incredible talent, ballsy kids out there, they’re doing it. So that was big fun.

DN: What I find it ironic, in a sense—and this kind of leads us to our final question is that my thoughts about the early part of your career—when I say early I’m referring to your recording career, not your career prior to recording, because I know you performed before you recorded—that for many years I think people thought of you as primarily a recording artist who occasionally performed. And now it would appear that in some strange twist of fate you have become a performer who records.

PA: Yeah, I didn’t even think about that but you’re absolutely right, that’s exactly what has happened. What have happened here? [Laughs] But that’s what happened. And the reason that I left the jingle business when I left it, the main reason that I left was because I wanted to start performing again. And that was reallywhat I started out doing. When I was a kid, that’s what I was doing—I was performing. I grew up in that school of performing, of the Dinah Washington—Dinah Washington’s my Godmother—of the Sammy Davis Jr.’s of doing variety TV: when I was a kid I was on three different variety TV series. So that’s the Petri dish that I was spawned in, and that’s really always been the root of who I am. Whenever I have to fill out a… what the hell do you call it when you’re trying to get a…

DN: A visa?

PA: Yeah, a visa form—they always want to know what is your occupation. I always put entertainer; I never put singer. I always put entertainer. As a matter of fact, I get insulted when somebody calls me a singer because I think I’m so much more than that—I hope I’m so much more than that. : And I’ve really spent the last, I would say, ten years, but certainly the last five focusing on being that person—being that entertainer; being that person that people want to come and see and hear for two hours and be entertained. My highest compliment is always when someone comes to see me that hasn’t seen me perform live and have them say, “Wow, I didn’t know you were going to be funny; I didn’t know you were going to be so entertaining. I didn’t know I was going to hear more than just songs.” So to me, that’s what you do when you get up on a stage—you have to serve that. You have to serve somebody [laughs].

DN: The other thing I was going to say was, in a sense then one could say that you’ve actually come full circle—you’re doing now what you started out doing before anybody knew you as a recording artist.

PA: Right, exactly. It’s very true. I hadn’t even thought about that, but it’s very, very true. I’ve been chasing my tail for fifty-five years and I finally caught it!

DN: So you’ve gone back to your roots.

PA: I’ve gone back to my roots, yeah.

DN: Well, you never really left them—I just mean that I think that even the fact that that people would make a comment, “Oh, I thought I was just going to hear you sing some songs” is really a reference to the fact that I think for a lot of people, they had thought of you as primarily a recording artist. And obviously that’s no longer how people think of you, which must be gratifying.

PA: It is very gratifying and it’s so much fun. To kind of go back to the last question, I’d say the thing that I’ve really done the most in the last five or six years has been I’ve just been having a lot of fun—with forethought and malice, I might add. And I’ll say in the last ten years, when I turned fifty I called Barry. I literally made a phone call to him and I said, “Barry, we’re not doing anything now unless it’s fun. There’s gotta be an element of fun to it or I just don’t want to do it. I don’t care if it pays well—every day can’t be a payday. But every day, dammit, better be a happy one, ’cause I’m just getting too old for this shit.” It’s got to have a purpose, and right now my purpose is to bring as much joy to myself and hopefully other people as I possibly can. And I know I’ve certainly been successful on the personal tip, and I hope I’ve been successful with people that come to hear and see what it is that I do when I perform…and get to feel something. I certainly have enough people coming up to me after shows blaming me for hordes of children and lots of orgasms, so I guess that’s good.

DN: Well, I guess we should stop there, shouldn’t we, really?

PA: [Laughs] It’s probably a good place to stop.

DN: Well, at least stop the recording.

PA: That’s too much information.

DN: No, we should stop the recording there. I originally had intended that this conversation only be for the bio but there’s so much good stuff in here that I—

PA: Uh-oh.

DN: —I have to use it on our website.

PA: You are more than welcome. And I know that whenever we talk it’s always gonna be, ’cause you’re always going to ask me stuff that nobody… I was just saying to Barry, “I can only talk to David about this because he knows me.” And whenever we talk it’s always the most fun because you know me and you ask me questions that I find thought-provoking. It’s kind of like a combination interview and a therapy session because I’ll be talking to you and I’ll go, “Wow, I wasn’t even thinking about that. That is so true. Oh, gee, okay.”

DN: Should I send you the kind of bill that a therapist would send you?

PA: You can send me the… I’m in treatment [laughs].

DN: That way I won’t have to work for the next month!

PA: Hey, you know, they got all this reality TV—perhaps we have a series here and we just don’t know it. “Celebrity Therapy”.

DN: Exactly. Well I most likely should, in the interests of disclosure, since I wasn’t planning to do this but I probably will now, use much of this for our website, SoulMusic.com because there’s so much good stuff in here and I think that whereas certainly there’s aspects of this that are exactly for your bio, I think that people hearing you talk—giving real insight into not only the songs but how you feel about your career and what you’ve been up to—all of which couldn’t possibly go into a bio because it’d be ten pages long—and also, they’re not paying me to write a ten-page bio. Anyway, that’s beside the point. But I think it’s too good not to be shared, and since you’ve been on good behaviour—

PA: Thank you.

DN: —and you actually have not used any expletives that I can remember—

PA: Oh, man—I’m definitely not awake yet.

DN: So with that said, I’m going to not terminate the phone call but I am going to stop the recording for a moment—

PA: You got it.

DN: —and we can just finish talking. But I just want to thank you for all that you have shared because it really is great stuff. And I know people are going to be excited about the record, having had a chance to hear it myself, and that I think it really does fulfill on the title, because as you pointed out in the beginning, it’s about sound advice, and there’s some sound advice on here.

PA: Oh, yeah.

About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.
  
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