Interview: Idina Menzel
Thu, 31 Jan 2008 18:19:03
Talent is being able to make a green-skinned, so-called wicked witch into a character so sympathetic that she wins you a Tony award. That's exactly what the multi-talented performer Idina Menzel was able to do with her defining turn as Elphaba in the Broadway production of Wicked. Not to mention her status as an original cast member of the highly popular musical Rent, for which she was also nominated for a Tony. Theater credentials don't come much more solid.
Having attracted a nearly cult-like following on the stage, she's now decided to once again turn her attention to popular music, recently releasing her third solo album, I Stand. She enlisted super-producer Glenn Ballard for the occasion, and the two crafted an album of soulful, uplifting songs sure to please her older fans and indoctrinate a few new members into the Church of Menzel. The star was kind enough to chat with ARTISTdirect about her wedding singer past, her need to still prove herself and her understandable aversion to backup dancers.
You've had a lot of success already; you're Broadway royalty. What is it about popular music that keeps drawing you back?
I've always just fit in my own music. When I was young, like 15-years-old, I started as a wedding singer, and I had to learn all the old Motown stuff and every top 40 song of the year and of the time. I had my own rock bands all through college, and it wasn't until after college that I got Rent and went on that path. It's always been in my body and in my soul, and I'm just glad that people have given me the opportunity to express myself in this way.
It seems like you had the rock star dreams before you had the Broadway star dreams.
Yeah, I've always been interested in all different kinds of music. I was trained classically when I was a kid. My parents brought me into New York City from Long Island to see Broadway shows, which I loved. And then, like I said, I got influenced by all the great singers like Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan and Janis Joplin, when I was learning my wedding stuff. Just kind of had eclectic interests, which mirrors the way that my career has gone. I'm relishing the fact that I have this multi-faceted career. I hope that people will go on this departure with me, and support the fact that I have some new things I want to say and put them in this context.
I think they definitely will, because people who love you are real fans. You can look at the internet for half an hour and see that.
Theater fans are the best. They are just so loyal and supportive. Being from Rent and Wicked, there's a surprisingly young audience, which my record label is very excited about. I think that people assume that if you're from theater, you're gonna have an older audience, but I have a very young, sophisticated audience, which is good for doing more mainstream music.
It's good that some of your more high-minded theater fans are willing to make this jump with you.
I think that people just like good music. I think that I try to be as authentic, and real, and organic as I possibly can. With everything that I do, I try to be honest with myself about who I am. That's what I wrote the album about. Hopefully people can respond to that. That's sort of the common denominator throughout my stage, film and recording work.
How is your preparation for popular music and stage singing different?
It's a very similar preparation. I work really hard with a voice teacher that I've had for the last 17 years. I've done the same exercises. I always warm up before I sing. I sing every day. So that when I am touring and doing theater and doing eight shows a week, I have lots of endurance and stamina.
That makes sense. You said that you've always written songs, is this your third album?
Yeah, I did one right after Rent, and it didn't do very well. One I did on my own, and released independently; it's just a six song EP and I sold it at the theater when I did Wicked. It did relatively well. I was struggling during that time to get the music business to recognize me. After Wicked, this wonderful A&R man, who is responsible for Josh Groban and Michael Buble's success helped me. He's inspired by hybrids who kind of cross over. He picks people that do many things, and I knew I was in good hands when he signed me.
Looking at how well Josh's last album did, I'd say you're in great hands.
He's original, you know. He has many different genres that influence his music. Coming from the theater and being influenced by R&B and rock music, in the past people may have had to decide on one or the other. Now, I feel like I'm a combination of all these things. This is where I've been living my life, in lots of different arenas. I'm working with Glen Ballard, producer, songwriter extraordinaire. He, along with the label, really embraced the idea that I have versatility. You just have to put yourself with the right people, so that they can make a real cohesive sound for you.
It's great that you have the cache at this point as an artist to have a label and great people like Glen Ballard to back you.
It's unbelievable, because the business is really tough these days. I'm really grateful to them. They're really supporting me, and they've gave me a lot of creative freedom. They said, "Use your voice to its best capacity, don’t hold back." Which, I might have done if they hadn't told me that. Because a lot of people from the theater get the bad rap that we overly emote, and that we're too theatrical in our singing. I sort of, you know, I really revere Annie Lennox, and people who have these huge soulful, emotional voices. There's still theatricality and a drama to their music, but they maintain the integrity of a true songwriter as well. I kind of used her as my example, and gave myself permission to negotiate those boundaries.
I think that when you have a powerful weapon like yours, you should be allowed to wield it anywhere you want.
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