By Jim Morrison
Jane Monheit grew up in the jazz scene, breaking in during the late 1990s right out of the Manhattan School of Music. These days, she’s benefiting from the experience of making her own way in the music business and balancing touring and family.
That experience led to her tackling one of her favorites, Ella Fitzgerald, with her most recent album, “The Songbook Sessions: Ella Fitzgerald” on her own label, Emerald City Records. Monheit brings her band and her emotive, rich voice to the American Theatre on Nov. 30.
During a phone call from her California home, she talked about growing up on Long Island, her recording plans, dealing with being Bipolar II, and finding her way in a tough business.
Veer: It’s been three years since your last album. Are you working on something new?
Monheit: No, actually, I decided to take some time in between albums right now. The first 15 years or so of my career, I was just pumping out records left and right, you know what I mean? And I was doing it mostly with record labels, except for the last one. And that was fine. But, you know, ultimately, I got to a point as an artist where I was tired of being told what to do by people and tired of having all kinds of limits put on me. So I did that one record on my own, but it’s outrageously expensive to try and make an album. And it’s also outrageously expensive to be a bandleader. So, in order to focus on touring and be able to afford keeping bands on the road, I haven’t been able to make a record in a while. But I am going to be recording very soon.
Veer: So you had a choice between recording and touring?
Monheit: There are all those expenses to keep a band out on the road. That’s what I want to be doing: live performances. That’s the heart and soul of jazz. That’s what we love most. That’s what this music is about, you know?
Veer: Are you going to be releasing on your own label again?
Monheit: I haven’t decided what I want to do next. I may just make a project and then shop it to a label. So you can release this if you want to, but it’s already made and you can’t tell me how to do it. That kind of thing. There are just so many options now. We have so much more control over our own destiny as artists. And it’s an exciting and confusing place to be, especially for me.
Veer: You were making records for labels for almost 20 years. Then you were in charge. Can you tell me more about that?
Monheit: I was lucky. I mean, I wasn’t terribly under the thumb of people. I always chose my own tunes. There are certain things that you’re pressured about, but mostly it would be just having ideas shot down. Well, I’d love to bring this person in to sing a duet on the record. No, we don’t like that person. No, you can’t. I’d love to hire this excellent player to play a couple of songs. No, we don’t like that person. That kind of thing. Like, what do you know? You’re sitting in an office wearing a suit. I’m on the bandstand. I know who the good saxophone player is. Don’t you tell me.
Veer: You also know who you have chemistry with.
Veer: What makes a song right for you?
Monheit: The story’s got to be talking about something I want to talk about to be sincere. It’s got to be telling the truth. There are a couple of tunes I didn’t start singing until just the last couple years because I felt like I was mature enough to and had lived those lyrics and understand them fully. It’s important to do that. I teach quite a bit and I tell my students to sing the songs that make them feel like they’re afraid to sing them. They’re like ‘Oh, man, I shouldn’t sing that. That’s going to be too intense for me. I may cry or something. I can’t do that.’ (I say) No, that’s definitely the tune you should do.
Veer: I wondered what events in your life have deepened your singing over the last two decades.
Monheit: I grew up over that time. Everything that changes you in your life changes the way you sing. At least it should. It’s my job to be honest with people. I feel like there’s kind of no point in singing some of the American Songbook. Like why would I get up and do some like rehashed Sinatra bullshit, you know what I mean? Why would I do that? The point is to be as sincere as possible and use the songs to communicate some sort of life experience. You want your listeners to have some kind of catharsis. So yeah, I choose songs very carefully, and I sing songs that are directly related to life experiences, and that’s why you’ll see me on stage breaking down because I’m not afraid of that. I don’t understand the other way of doing things where this music is worn like a freakin’ vintage costume dress.
Veer: Going back to that question, I wonder if there were specific events over the last 20 years that you reach for when you’re on stage?
Monheit: Well, to be completely honest, it’s not something I have to reach very hard for because I am a bipolar human. I have Bipolar II, which is not as severe as Bipolar I, but I’m very open about it. Because I find that people aren’t (open) enough. And when we are, it’s far, far healthier for us. And so I experience this a lot of that through my music and that’s a really positive thing to be able to do to have a creative outlet to express all the gigantic feelings that I have all the time. So that’s just wonderful. I really encourage anybody else who deals with this kind of thing to talk about it. Absolutely. It’s such a healthier brain state. I used to be very secretive about it. And now that I’m not, I’m a way, way better adjusted human being.
Veer: Tell me about music growing up. I think your father was a bluegrass and folk fan.
Monheit: My mother’s side of the family that was the music that we listened to. I grew up on Long Island and my mother’s parents lived maybe 20 minutes from us. So they were like, in my face every day helping to raise me. So their music was a huge part of my life.
Veer: Do you remember the artists you first fell in love with?
Monheit: I remember the first songs. My grandfather sat me down and had me listening. I remember they were “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Robbin’s Nest” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” I remember hearing all the greats from the time I was tiny. They were the soundtrack to my everyday life. But that’s true with bluegrass, too. So I sort of had this amazing wealth of music, but I was super drawn to Ella Fitzgerald and Judy Garland from day one.
Veer: You went to the Manhattan School of Music. Was that something you knew from a young age you wanted to do?
Monheit: I was never going to do anything else (but sing). There was never any other option. You could ask my elementary school teachers, my junior high school teachers and every teacher I ever had. Friends and parents that knew me. I’ve never even had another job. I’ve never even I never even babysat. I’ve never done anything else to make money except for singing or teaching other people to sing.
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An Evening with Jane Monheit
The American Theatre