Michael Feinstein is a five-time Grammy-nominated recording artist who celebrates the Great American Songbook through music, creativity, anthropology, philanthropy and much more. He is bringing his show “Celebrating the Crooners – Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Bing Crosby & Others” to Broadway Center’s Pantages Theater in Tacoma on Friday, February 23rd (info and tickets here) and to Edmonds Center for the Arts on Saturday, February 24th (info and tickets here).
Mr. Feinstein took a few minutes to talk to us about his upcoming concert, life, music and new projects. Fun fact: did you know that Judge Judy officiated Michael Feinstein and his husband Terrence Flannery’s wedding? Check our our interview below:
Earle Dutton: Could you tell me a about the show you are bringing to town?
Michael Feinstein: The show is called Crooners because I’ve been noticing how singing is getting louder and louder and more histrionic in the world. I thought it would be fun to do a show that is a little more subtle in overall character. Not, that there aren’t a lot of energetic moments and variety in the show. There is but, I have always loved a more intimate style of singing that, to me, more directly communicates with the audience. Crooning is something that goes back to the 1920s when it was created by Tacoma’s own Bing Crosby. Who, came along at about the time the microphone was invented and sang in an intimate way that people felt he was singing directly to them. My whole job as a performer is to sing in a way that touches people and allows them to feel the sense of the song, particularly the lyrics and story that is being told. That is why I am doing it.
ED: How does it feel to bring Bing Crosby back to Tacoma?
MF: It is fun! I am too young to have known him but I know his wife and have always been a fan of his early work where he was an innovator. Later, Bing Crosby sort of became lugubrious with “White Christmas”. People kind of think of him as comforting like white bread or something sort of generic, but in his early days he was very jazzy. In his personal life, he was kind of profligate and it came across in his music. He was kind of dangerous in the way he sang. He worked with a lot of jazz musicians, but then he became homogenized when the record companies wanted to make him a superstar. It is that sort of early energy that attracts me to his work. So, it will be fun to be in his early stomping ground and pay tribute to him along with many other singers. Sinatra was a crooner, Nat King Cole and so many others along the way. There are still contemporary singers that are crooners like Michael Bublé. Even, Frank Ocean singing a new version of “Moon River” to me is an extension of the style of crooning.
ED: How do you personally battle against becoming that homogenized record company product?
MF: I have always followed my own path, musically speaking, which is a very unlikely one. When I was in my teens and twenties, I was singing songs that were classic American pop songs. Sometimes, I would get fired from a job because they wanted me to do contemporary music. I liked a lot of stuff that was on the radio then but I just didn’t play it well. It just wasn’t my strong suit. I just did what I love doing and an audience found me. I think the thing that people most yearn for today is authenticity. Judge Judy is a friend. She married me and my partner ten years ago. Her theory as to why she is so successful is that she has a point of view. She has an opinion and she is not afraid to voice it. I think people just want to see authenticity in life because there is so much artifice now.
ED: You have worked with Ira Gershwin and the Great American Songbook. What does it mean to you to be a musical historian?
MF: Everything I do came from passion and the love of it starting with playing the piano at the age of five. I just sat down and started playing it because I love music. I discovered I could instantaneously play the piano which isn’t as uncommon as it may seem to some people. Everything I have done has come from passion. For some reason, and I still don’t know why, classic music has held an attraction for me. Even though, intellectually I understand the attraction with the beauty of the harmonic construction and the indestructibility of the songs. They can really be reinterpreted for every generation, like I point out about Frank Ocean singing “Moon River”. The point is that I always did everything out of passion and I guess with the passing of time and attrition I became known as someone who preserves the Great American Songbook. This wonderful because, I started a nonprofit organization to educate high school kids in this music and have an Alzheimer’s program called Perfect Harmony. It is all part of the Great American Songbook Foundation. When I am performing, the most important part is simply entertainment. My friend Liza Minnelli and I are doing a show next month in Las Vegas. We were talking about how the art of just getting on stage and being a great entertainer, which she has done her entire life, is such a rarefied thing. Most people have all kinds of multimedia and just all kinds of stuff that can make for a great show, I am certainly not denigrating it. Yet, the ability to just stand up there, holding an audience and entertaining is sort of a lost art. It is what I love to do. For people who have not seen my shows, they are very funny because there are a lot of anecdotes and stories. They are very interactive with the audience. The music is all put in a context that is fun. I have been lucky that I have never had to do anything that I didn’t want to do, in the broad sense. I never take that for granted. To be able to make music for a living is pretty extraordinary.
ED: I read that you annoyed your first piano teacher by playing by ear and never reading the sheet music. Could you tell me a bit about that?
MF: Yeah! The teacher would put a book of music in front of me and then play the exercise. Then, she would have me play it. I was always listening and copying what she was playing while never looking at the music. After a couple of months, she put the music in front of me but didn’t play the exercise first. She said ‘play this.’ I said ‘I can’t.’ She asked ‘why not.’ I admitted that I had no idea how to read sheet music. She realized that I was just listening and never really learning how to read the music. She went out to my mother, who was waiting in the hall. She said, “Mrs. Feinstein, do you realize your son is playing by ear?,’ like ear was the nastiest word in the world. My mother knew but the teacher didn’t. I quit and just started playing by ear. For better or for worse, I am self-taught.
ED: You have also worked with one of our other local celebrities, Cheyenne Jackson. What do you enjoy about working with him?
MF: Cheyenne has one of the greatest voices on the planet. He has an incredible musical instrument in his being. He has extraordinary range and sensitivity. He can sing literally anything. He sings pop music great. He is a songwriter. The first time I discovered him, he was on Broadway in Xanadu. He was brilliant. He also roller-skated in hot pants which was kind of fun (laughter). He has a very strong work ethic and is also a devoted friend. I feel lucky just to know him. Just for sheer talent, he is one of the most talented people I have ever encountered.
ED: What would you say to young people interested in becoming musicians?
MF: The most important thing in becoming a musician is to look at history. You have to know about all the things that came before you. All of the great musicians that I know were influenced by something that came before them. When I met Elvis Costello, he was talking about his father who was a king band singer and how he grew up with all of those songs. Bill Joel, Elton John, Liza Minnelli and everyone else has been influenced by the past. They have found a way to take that continuum and personalize it and bring essence of that art and create something new with it. I think that is important. I think it is important to look backwards in order to create the new thing. When I listen to other artists, it inspires me greatly. It inspires me to want to make new music, and create something fresh. It is just like when I take a classic song and find a contemporary way to interpret it. To find a way to sing so it feels timeless to the audience. I get a lot of young people that come to the shows but don’t know the songs. They just like them because they like them. We live in a time now when there is so much opportunity to discover everything because of YouTube and all of the different streaming services. You can find all different kinds of music if you look for it or someone leads you there. It is deeply important because it helps us to express an essence of what is unique about this country. American popular music is our greatest export and the thing for which we are known all over the world.
ED: Who would you most like to collaborate with?
MF: Gee, myself (laughter). What I mean by that is finding parts of my inner soul that I haven’t expressed yet. I feel like there is a part of me that absolutely hasn’t manifested in creating some kind of new music or sound. That is what I am focused on right now. I love singing the classic music. As I expressed before about taking the past and creating something new, I feel like I am going into another faze that will give me the opportunity to express something new and unexpected. As far as collaborations go, there are many fascinating artists around. I feel that something interesting can come from any one of them. I am certainly open to anything, especially since I have had the opportunity to work with so many people. I’d just like to see where it goes. I can tell you that I am working on a recording now that is taking Gershwin songs and recording them with country artists. I think that country music has the last bastion of great singers of lyrics and storytellers. I have spoken to Brad Paisley about it. I hope to have some of the iconic artists from Reba McEntire to Carrie Underwood participate in the project. That is something that will be a great deal of fun.
Michael Feinstein is bringing his show “Celebrating the Crooners – Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis, Bing Crosby, & Others” to Broadway Center’s Pantages Theater in Tacoma on Friday, February 23rd (info and tickets here) and to Edmonds Center for the Arts on Saturday, February 24th (info and tickets here).