Tuesday, July 7, 2009

ArtsPaper Interview: Maude Maggart, chanteuse

Maude Maggart.
(Photo by Monique Carboni)

Vocalist Maude Maggart may not be quite as well-known as her younger sister, pop singer/songwriter Fiona Apple, but that's because the two have always pursued music from different perspectives.

They were born two years apart in New York City in the mid-1970s to Broadway performers Brandon Maggart and Dian McAfee, who'd met while in in the Broadway musical Applause with Lauren Bacall. The sisters' grandmother, Millicent Greene, was a dancer in musical revues; grandfather Johnny McAfee a multi-reed musician and vocalist for the Harry James Big Band.

Apple forged ahead at an early age, writing brooding original tunes after her parents' separation and signing with Sony as a teenager. Late-bloomer Maggart, on the other hand, looked backward to the music of the Great American Songbook. She was influenced by the multiple styles of music being played at her household, including jazz, but thought her torchy, throwback soprano distanced her from the genre. Yet as a teen, when her relocated father took her to see singer Andrea Marcovicci in Los Angeles, something clicked.

The veteran cabaret star sparked Maggart's interest in the theatrical style of musical performance, prompting her to attend open-mic nights in Southern California. Another mentor, Michael Feinstein, introduced Maggart within the New York cabaret scene by having her make a guest appearance in his 2001 Christmas show. Her 2003 Manhattan debut as a featured artist --singing 1920s songs at Danny's Skylight Room -- formed the theme to her debut CD Look for the Silver Lining.

The Venice Beach, Calif., resident's subsequent releases, With Sweet Despair, Maude Maggart Sings Irving Berlin and Live, all reflected the themes of her preceding touring shows. At work on her next CD, Maggart's latest release is 2008's Dreamland, a collaboration with Brent Spiner. Her concerts now attract celebrities such as Philip Seymour Hoffman, Neil Simon, Lynn Redgrave and Garrison Keillor, who has featured Maggart twice on his weekly National Public Radio show A Prairie Home Companion.

Maggart has been well-decorated despite starting her recording career nearly a decade after her sister's. In 2005 alone, she won the Time Out New York Award for Special Achievement, the Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs (MAC) Award for Best Female Debut, and the Back Stage Award for Special Achievement. She appears regularly at venues such as Feinstein's at the Regency and the Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel, both in Manhattan, the Plush Room in San Francisco, the Gardenia in Hollywood, and the Colony Hotel in Palm Beach, where she appeared on the first two weekends of last month.

Palm Beach ArtsPaper's Bill Meredith talked with Maggart on June 19 from the Park Lane Mews Hotel in London, where she was performing at Pizza on the Park from June 16-27.

Meredith: Do you feel that your parents encouraged you and Fiona toward careers in show business, or did you both venture in that direction on your own?

Maggart: Our parents were always very encouraging, although we weren't pushed or anything. We were just natural musicians. Fiona started playing piano and singing when she was quite young; I started singing quite young, and it was a natural progression.

Meredith: Was it obvious early on that you and your sister would take such different stylistic career paths?

Maggart: Maybe so, even though we've always had similar voices. But I never wrote any songs, and Fiona was always writing songs. We both loved all different kinds of music. Fiona was the one who started listening to Judy Garland first. She loved listening to her in her room. And I was listening to Madonna then! Go figure.

Meredith: So you weren't any kind of mentor to her?

Maggart: Oh no (laughs). No way. But we loved to sing together, and both just loved music. I liked Judy Garland, too, but Fiona was more into her.

Meredith: Do you recall meeting celebrities through your parents while growing up?

Maggart: Yeah, but they were mostly Broadway people. I do remember meeting Jerry Lewis and Sammy Davis Jr. But for the most part, I was so little that I didn't realize they were famous.

Meredith: Do you feel that you discovered cabaret, or was it more of a matter of it finding you after you listened to so many styles while growing up?

Maggart: It found me, I'm sure of that. When my father took me to see Andrea Marcovicci as a teenager, I didn't even have a thought in my head that I'd like to do that. But I did think it was a special kind of performance. I couldn't have imagined anything like it. It was so unique. Andrea and Michael Feinstein were the ones who encouraged me to put an act together myself. They both were very helpful. They're my mentors.

Meredith: What distinction, if any, do you make between cabaret and jazz?

Maggart: Well, I don't consider myself a jazz singer at all. But cabaret is a tricky word, because I do such a wide range of songs. If I were forced to give a definition, I'd say cabaret songs are story songs, where the lyrical content is key. In jazz, it's more about the melody and where you go with it, not necessarily the lyrics.

'I try to sing every song as if it were new.'
(Photo by Monique Carboni)

Meredith: But the two merge at the American Songbook, right?

Maggart: Sure. It's interesting, because a song like You'll Never Know can be performed both ways. And even Sophisticated Lady, which is a great story song. But it's Duke Ellington, so it's also really meaty musically. I started my cabaret career concentrating on songs from the '20s and '30s, but I've always tried not to make them sound dated. My voice can sound like it's from that era, but my sensibilities are clearly not. So I try to sing every song as if it were new.

Meredith: Did you have any formal musical instruction?

Maggart: I had voice lessons at LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts in New York City [the setting of the film and TV series Fame]. We were taught basic music theory, but overall, I had limited vocal training.

Meredith: Have you ever studied any instruments?

Maggart: I play a little guitar, but I'm mostly self-taught.

Meredith: Have you ever done any composing?

Maggart: A little. I was in this rock opera/ballet at the Ivar Theater in Hollywood about five years ago called The Garden of Reason, and I wrote some lyrics for it. But it was industrial rock, a very different kind of music from what I usually do. Which is exactly why I wanted to do it.

Meredith: Who are some of your primary singing influences?

Maggart: I have a wide variety of them. If this gives you a broad enough spectrum, I love Kathleen Battle, Jo Stafford and Bonnie Raitt.

Meredith: What was it like to perform with Garrison Keillor on A Prairie Home Companion?

Maggart: Oh, that was really a thrill. I did it twice, both times in 2004. The first time was at Town Hall, and I sang 42nd Street and Boulevard of Broken Dreams. It was really fun, first because it was A Prairie Home Companion, after all, but also because the Guy's All-Star Shoe Band was so much fun to play with. I'm used to playing with just a piano, and maybe a cello or guitar, but that was an entire band that was kind of bluegrass-rooted. My second appearance was at the Hollywood Bowl, where I got to sing Over the Rainbow. That was with just a dobro and piano, so it was an interesting arrangement, and really special.

Meredith: Do you ever notice the celebrities who attend your shows while you're onstage?
Maggart: Oh yeah. That's how I ended up meeting Garrison Keillor. He came to a show and sat right up front. There's no mistaking that face.

Meredith: How are the London shows going on the heels of your Palm Beach concerts?

Maggart: Lovely. Pizza on the Park is very nice, and everyone is very friendly and accommodating. It may be nowhere as fancy as the Colony, but it's the same format, with tables and a center stage, and they do have very nice lighting and sound.

Meredith: Didn't you also perform your Good Girl/Bad Girl show in London last year?

Maggart: Yes, and I also did that show in the United States two years ago, at rooms like the Colony and the Algonquin.

Meredith: What was more fun, the good side or bad side?

Maggart: That's the surprise in that show, that there isn't really either side. It's all somewhere in the middle. But having said that, it's still probably more fun to be on the bad side.

Meredith: Are you working toward a new CD?

Maggart: Yes, once I figure out which songs to put on it. It'll probably be somewhat of a compilation from the past two shows, Speaking of Dreams and Parents and Children. And I hope to have it available by somewhere around Christmas.

Meredith: Will you be back at the Colony Hotel anytime soon?

Maggart: Oh, I hope so. I love that room, and hope to perform there again as soon as possible. Maybe sometime during season.

Bill Meredith is a freelance writer based in South Florida who has written extensively about jazz and popular music, including for Jazziz and Jazz Times.

Maude Maggart on the Colony : 'I love that room,
and hope to perform there again as soon as possible.'
(Photo by Monique Carboni)

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