Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Presenting: Ann Hampton Callaway

Imagine pulling a random assortment of words out of the air and handing them to a songwriter, with the instruction "Make a song that rhymes, makes sense, is musically sound... and includes all of these words".

I could write that song, in six months. Other better songwriters might be able to turn that around in a week. Ann Hampton Callaway can sing that song for you instantly, in a voice as warm, sweet, and dark as buckwheat honey, arranged and accompanied by a sensitive piano player - herself.

I have never met anyone as relentlessly creative as Ann. She has a catalogue of songs recorded by some of our finest vocalists, including Streisand. She is a delightful collaborator, as I well know from my experience of singing a benefit concert with her in 2008, and is also one of the most enthusiastic colleagues I know, who, like Amanda McBroom, is quick to appreciate and encourage the talent of others.

Ann is also on my short list of favorite singers no matter what she is singing, because of that beautiful instrument, but also because of her emotional integrity. She knows what words mean, and and so when she sings a song it has layers of meaning. She can wrench your heart, and then make you laugh. Finally I deeply appreciate her positive view of life. She does not wear rose-colored glasses - she knows that bad things happen - but she doesn't wear grey ones, either, because good things happen, too, and we can make more of them happen if we join together.

I am delighted that Ann agreed to tackle the Redhead Questionnaire - read it, and get to know her a little better. Visit her website at Then give yourself the gift of her beautiful new CD, "At Last".

So (cue fanfare!), here is Ann's take on our questionnaire:

What is your current State of Mind?
I am presently a bit jet lagged from my recent trip to Spain and France and concerned about some cold symptoms showing up but in a calm, contemplative mood.

What was the first song you ever performed in public? My first solo was at J.H.S 141 in Riverdale where my music teacher Miss Morris had taken a special interest in my talent. The piece was "Sempre libera" from La Traviata, the English translation. The first line was “Ever free to take my chances, ever free to follow my heart” and was somehow very appropriate for my 12 or 13 year old spirit. I still have the sheet music I used to learn the piece and my signature looks quite innocent to have sung all those runs. I remember what I wore- a purple polyester full length dress with 70’s mod flowers on it. My hair was long and parted down the middle and I must have looked like a passionate hippie dressed up for Verdi.

What was the first musical act you ever saw in person?
I saw Ray Charles at The Westbury Music Fair around the age of 11. I was blown away by his music and asked my parents if we could try to get his autograph. We waited backstage for some time but were informed that Mr. Charles did not give out autographs. I think it was then that I developed the I’m-Too-White-To-Sing-the-Blues Blues which I later wrote a song about.

What is your idea of perfect musical happiness? Every time I let go with an audience, and truly allow myself to be a vessel of love, is perfect musical happiness. I feel this state more and more as I get older.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of musical misery? Hmmm, maybe singing with arrogant, bored musicians who do are butchering my charts for a loud, inattentive audience while I am navigating through vocal difficulties due to a sinus infection that won’t stop and the sound man has forgotten to turn the main speakers on and there’s feedback from the monitor that ruins our hearing while a music great who could decide my future is in the front row, an ex is heckling me and it is the only show being recorded for a live CD.

Name three composers you wish would write a song for you?
Stephen Sondheim, Stevie Wonder and Joni Mitchell would be living ones.

What virtue do you consider essential for every musician?
Emotional honesty.

What Profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
It would thrill me to produce a truly fine work of fiction. I think in shorter forms- songs and poetry- but novelists who build vast and believable universes have my greatest admiration.

What profession would you not like to attempt?
I would never want to do a job, for instance be a soldier or an armed policeman, where I would be required to possibly kill someone. Life is the most extraordinary and precious gift and I am grateful to have a profession that can celebrate this truth and rekindle the humanity and love that it takes to protect and uplift our brief time on this planet.

What is your greatest extravagance?
I own a signed Picasso created the year I was born. I had no business buying it but it gives me great joy. As a child, Picasso’s expansive creative spirit, which seemed to know no boundaries, gave me inspiration to pursue the myriad facets of my imagination.

Who are your real life heroes?
Everyone who wakes up in the morning and has the courage to be their true self is a hero to me. I see heroes all around me and I am especially happy to see one in the White House...”At Last.”

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