Hometown girl Judy Carmichael is about to charm the East End again as she presents Sexy Songs and Lovely Laments at Bay Street on Saturday, October 14.
We caught up with the Grammy nominated pianist, vocalist, and songwriter about her new show, the musical that she’s working on, her musical influences and more.
As a Sag Harbor resident, what’s it like to play at your hometown theater, Bay Street?
JC: It’s fantastic. It’s the best! It’s close by, unlike everything else I do, but more than that the energy is fantastic and I love that theater. I was the first music they ever presented there, so I always think of it as my spot. It had just opened and I think it was only about a year old and the Sag Harbor Chamber of Commerce wanted to do a benefit and I suggested Bay Street, which then was this new theater, and we did it there.
I love theaters. I’m a theater girl. I started out thinking I was going to go into acting and did a little bit in my late teens/early 20s, so I actually in some ways prefer theaters to concert halls because I love the vibe. Bay Street is fantastic because everyone has a good seat.
Do you recruit all of your friends and family to come and see you?
JC: A lot of my friends do – it’s funny. I get to see people that don’t get to see me on stage and I don’t see out of the context that I know them. I’m a big tennis player, I play every day that I’m home, so a lot of my sports buddies come and it’s great. My plumber came last year. It’s wonderful and it’s so warm – it is like hometown girl.
You’ll be performing Sexy Songs and Lovely Laments, a new show. Tell me a little bit about it.
JC: I’m going to do some tunes, some originals, which writing is relatively new for me – just in the last couple of years. It will be from my latest CD, which is called Can You Love Once More?, and just sort of focusing on love songs, which is why the show is called Sexy Songs and Lovely Laments. It’s sad and happy and you have a huge choice because practically everything is a love song. One of the songs from my CD is a love song to the planet Pluto and it’s sort of a metaphor for anything that’s different because Pluto is in a different, unexpected orbit and it’s smaller and it was demoted to not even a planet anymore. That’s sort of my version of My Funny Valentine. I’ll have my regular quartet. I have Harry Allen on sax, and he’s also my writing partner – he writes the music and I write the lyrics, and I have Chris Flory on guitar and Neal Minor on bass.
What’s your process for composing a new show?
JC: I do it both ways – sometimes I write the lyrics first and sometimes I write the music and the lyrics, but most of the time Harry will write a song, and he’s great with titles; he’ll have an image. I’d say 80 percent of the time he writes the song, he has a title, and then he emails it to me, and he also plays piano so he’ll send me a track. He’s such a clear composer that I almost immediately get a concept, either from his titles, sometimes I change the title, but very often a story comes to me and I write picturing a character on stage. So I write more like a person writing for a musical than a person writing for a jazz singer, per se. I really think of songs as short stories, which a lot of people don’t. They don’t necessarily have a beginning, middle, and end. Mine really is a concept. The way I look at it is it’s the ultimate short story. Every now and then, usually with the comedy songs, I will write the lyrics first and then send it to Harry and tell him what I want. So we go back and forth. It’s kind of unusual because a lot of people have a set process, but we think so much alike that he might send me something with music, I’ll write it and say hey we need a verse and I’ll write the lyric to the verse and then he’ll write the music.
What musicians have influenced your career?
JC: My first was probably Fred Astaire. I was completely obsessed with old movie musicals when I was a little kid. I’d watch these old ’30s and ’40s movies on TV and watch them over and over and memorize all the songs and dance. I thought I was doing the dances – I wasn’t, of course. I’d say early musicals – and Ginger Rogers – of the ’30s and ’40s were my first influence. Then my big inspiration, that changed my life and set me off in a direction to play like I play was a record someone gave me of early Count Basie – and that was really it for me. From there, back when you could go to record stores, I’d go in and say I’m a huge fan of Count Basie and there would be someone knowledgeable that says, ‘If you like Count Basie, you’re going to like Art Tatum or Earl Hines.’ So I have a lot of influences.
Your weekly NPR radio broadcast/podcast, Judy Carmichael’s Jazz Inspired, is now in its 17th year. Who would be your dream guest and why?
JC: It’s interesting you ask that because when I started the show my dream guest was Robert Redford, because I designed the show with the thought that – I hate to make a statement like this because I’m a jazz musician – but I think most people think they don’t like jazz. I think it’s because they hear one thing that they don’t like and they don’t realize that jazz is a very broad range of styles – all under the heading of jazz. I say this because people constantly say after a concert, ‘I hate jazz, but I love you. I didn’t expect to enjoy myself.’ That proves my point. One of the things that led me to the show was if I could have really accomplished artists that everybody loves talk about how much they love jazz, hopefully people would give it a chance. I had Billy Joel saying how great he thinks jazz musicians are and his favorite jazz, and I got Robert Redford – so that was a huge thing for me. And then he hired me for a concert as part of the Sundance Film Festival and he decided he wanted to have three trios between the films and I was one of the trios. I got to interview him and then we became friends and I’ve been out there a number of times because we have a very similar view on the philosophy of the arts and giving back and stimulating creativity. Anytime he has a new thing, he hires me, which is great! So I got my ideal guest there. I got Tony Bennett, Alan Broadbent. I wanted Clint Eastwood and then we could never schedule it because he kept winning Academy awards. Kevin Spacey is a huge jazz fan and I’m a huge fan of him because he’s so bright and interesting – so definitely Kevin Spacey and another one is Michael Connelly, the novelist. He always makes a mention of jazz in his books so I thought he’d be fun.
What are some of your favorite East End spots?
JC: I love all of it out here. I wish I could say that I did everything out here – that I went canoeing every day, bodysurfing, but I just don’t have the time. I’m always in between the radio show and now I’m writing a musical and practicing – just the things you have to do to run a career. I don’t have an agent so I do this all myself. What I do do is play tennis every day I’m home and I adore it. I don’t go very far from Sag Harbor because I travel about 200 days a year. When I get home, the big joke with all my friends is that it’s a big deal to get Judy to go to Amagansett. I really adore Sag Harbor.
When I was a little kid, I grew up in the urban sprawl of Los Angeles and I hated it. We would take cross country trips and when we would come home and going over the San Gabriel Mountains into the smog covered valley of L.A., even as a child I thought someday I am going to live somewhere that is as beautiful or more beautiful than anywhere I live and I knew I would travel – that was my first fantasy as a kid, even before music or acting. Every time I come home from a trip, I think of that childhood fantasy because just getting here, as soon as we get into the farmland and all of that when I’ve been running all around the world, it’s just so wonderful. The beauty of all of it is what makes me so happy.
You mentioned you were writing a musical. What’s it about?
JC: Well I can’t talk about it fully. The plot is top secret, but I will tell you that my latest CD, the songs from that are in the musical. A producer/director I know asked if I had ever thought about writing a jazz musical. At the time I hadn’t, so of course I said yes. Then Harry Allen said we should write a musical and I realized every tune I was writing I was picturing a musical and I had most of the music written. I had all the songs and instantly a concept came from there. So, if you hear the tunes you will hear some of the characters.
Do you know where it’ll be produced?
JC: I don’t know yet. I have people in London that are interested in it. Maybe Bay Street, who knows? It will start small, that’s how I’m seeing it, with a small cast. I’m not picturing this as Hamilton… yet.
Tickets to Judy Carmichael – Sexy Songs and Lovely Laments are $45 to $55 and the show begins at 8 p.m.
Bay Street Theater is located at 1 Bay Street in Sag Harbor. For tickets, call 631-725-9500 or visit www.baystreet.org.