Idina Menzel is best known for her critically lauded roles in Rent and Wicked, but who knew she started out as a wedding singer and fronted rock bands in the bars of Greenwich Village? In this Starpulse Q and A, Idina reminisces about her nights as a teenage entertainer, driving illegally across state lines to perform at Temples and Reception Halls, what it took to channel all of her experiences and influences to make her latest album I Stand, and takes a stab at the age old question, "What is love?"
You worked with Glen Ballard on this album, who's best known for his work on Alanis Morissette'sJagged Little Pill. What was that like?
He's been on my dream list of people to work with for a while, so I was just happy to be there. I'd read about how he had worked with Alanis Morrissette and that he really encouraged her songwriting. When she was a teenager she had done all these different kinds of music, and he really allowed her to take a totally different path, spending all of this time and patience with her to develop a new sound. I knew that I needed someone like that who understood that I came from a theatrical background but also had other experiences, influences, and styles of expressing myself. I wanted someone who would know how to help me corral all those things into one.
What sort of influences?
Before I was in Rent, I was a wedding singer. When I was 15 or 16 years old I lied about my age and I'd go out and I'd front bands all around the tri-state area of New York. So I was singing everything from Motown to jazz and Bossanova. I had a versatility about myself, and that made me really wanna write my own music. Especially after having sung all the Aretha and Chaka Khan songs; I just got totally enveloped in that. And while going to NYU, I would play with rock bands in Greenwich Village.
How did you get involved with being a wedding singer?
My mother's friend knew someone who knew someone. To be a great wedding singer you have to know about 150 tunes. But to get by you could know about 10 songs, and at the time those songs included Tonight 'I Celebrate My Love For You', 'The Greatest Love of All', 'Wind Beneath my wings', the Dirty Dancing Song, and 'The Girl from Ipanema'. As long as you knew those songs you could get by at a gig. And I started to add to my repertoire. My first gig was in Oceanside. I wore a cute little black sequin dress. I don't remember what I sang, but that's what I ended up doing instead of working at the local clothing store or deli like most kids my age. I was driving illegally to the synagogue in Great Neck and singing wedding songs.
Did you ever get any song requests that you didn't expect?
I'd say the worst request that I ever had to sing was 'Stand By Your Man' by Tammy Wynette. It's the most sexist song you can possibly sing, about this guy that's totally abusive. But people just don't listen to lyrics. I used to sing 'Saving All My Love For You' all the time, and people don't realize that's a song about infidelity. (laughs) But that's what I love about songwriting- that you can write something about your own experiences and think it's completely specific to you, and then people can take away a completely different meaning for themselves. I really love that. I think you've been successful at writing a song when it has a larger life than yourself.
You briefly mentioned that you were driving illegally. What did you mean by that?
I was 15, and you have a junior license, so I think you can only drive until 9 at night. So I was driving at like 3 in the morning home from Temple Beth Shalom. (laughs) I still had a car, but I wasn't supposed to be driving late at night.
Is that sort of law breaking behavior something that you were fond of growing up?
No, I was just pushing the limit a little. It was due more to my ambition. I loved being a professional singer. At that age especially, knowing that I was making a living being a singer was such a coup. And I still feel that way. I look back, and think, "Wow, this is something that I've always wanted to do and now it's how I make my living." It's a pretty amazing thing to have.
When is it that you started performing in rock bands in Greenwich Village?
Ever since I was at NYU. I started meeting people and writing songs. They'd hook me up with their friends. I'd go to this place called The Bitter End on Bleeker Street, and start performing my music. It's really hard when you don't have a record deal to keep a band together because the good musicians will always end up getting better jobs and going on the road with people. I can't tell you how many times I had a show that I thought was really important, I was maybe gonna get someone from a record label down, and the drummer left the night before to go on the road. Then there's the amount of money you pay musicians just show up to rehearsals. It's really hard to keep that together. I just pounded the pavement so hard. Between that, and doing the weddings to make money, and then when I got Rent…I mean, I didn't think Rent was gonna solve any problems really, I just thought it was gonna be a cool departure for the moment. And then it just took off. The last wedding I did was during rehearsals for Rent.
When it came to performing in rock bands, what were some of the names that you went by?
It was always like my thing of course.(laughs). It was always Idina Menzel Performing Her Music. But it was whichever musicians I could get to stay with me for a couple weeks to do a couple showcases. So I never had names. It was always my gig.
So would you go around handing out flyers, trying to get people to go?
Yup, I found this artist on the streets near NYU who did these really cool portraits. He just, believed in me, and I believed in him, so he did this free portrait of me that I made into this cool flyer. We didn't use the Internet then, so you just tried to get it out to all of your friends and mailings, and, ugh, it was exhausting. I used to have this drawer in my desk that was just full of cards and people I was trying to keep up with. I had an internship through NYU at Arista Records at one point, and I thought, "Ok, this is it, I'm gonna meet Clive Davis." Meanwhile, I'm just making video copies of every Whitney Houston video that was out at the time (laughs). But I had this drawer full of cards that kept getting bigger and bigger and I'd try to keep up a mailing list. It would have been much easier if I had the internet back then.
Who was this artist?
I forgot his name, but it was a guy who would sell his stuff on the streets. You know, it's a college area, and there'd just be cool people selling stuff, and he had his paintings out there and, they were sort of Andy Warhol-esque things. I was like that. I was once an extra in a Bruce Springsteen video where they did a live performance video at Tramps. I forget the name of the song. And I saw one of the photographers taking pictures of him, and I just went up to him-I had such balls back then-I went up to the photographer and I was like, "Hey, I really need some great photos. I don't have a lot of money, but I'm gonna do really well, and if you'd just give me a chance I'd appreciate it, and I'll pay, I'll come out to LA ". And he said," I like your hutzpah, and if you can get yourself out to LA and stay with a friend, I'll do it for free." And he didn't come onto me, or want any sex or anything (laughs). So I did that and it was my first time ever in LA and it was years before Rent.
What other sort of little victories like that did you have?
A lot. I just had so much more confidence back then than I do now. I don't know what happened. I don't know if it's just the pressure gets higher, or the older you get you realize what's at stake, but back then I really just believed in myself. I knew that the weddings were just temporary. I could tell by the way the other musicians responded to me that they thought that I had something special, and they always liked to play and accompany me, and would give me music to listen to and educate me on different sounds and artists.
What sort of education did you get from your fellow musicians? Steely Dan. That was one of the a bands that one of the guys loved and hipped me to. Sarah Vaughn. That was another one that I used to drive around listening to, and then when I'd go to do standards and sing "My Funny Valentine" or "Someone To Watch Over Me", I'd try to emulate some kind of scale that she'd use in the song. It was a really great educational experience for me.
I went through different stages with my weddings. At first I was an excited novice, just making a 100 bucks a gig. I couldn't wait to go to the bank to cash the check. I was a professional singer and was all excited. And as it went on I got more frustrated and started to get antsy and wanted to get out there. And now when I look back on it, I look at is so fondly because I realize how much experience it gave me as a performer because I had to sing in front of people who weren't listening. (laughs). I sort of had to have stage presence under the worst situations. So now I feel so lucky to have had that experience.
Would you compare a wedding to the sort of scenario you sing about in Brave?
(Laughs). I don't know if I'd compare that to a wedding. Like I said, I was much more fearless back then. It's more now in my life that I find myself underestimating myself, or having to battle my own inhibitions and insecurities. Brave is just about a day that I couldn't get it together. I definitely use my music to kind of alleviate my stress and get me through specific moments in time where I'm just being really tough on myself.
Was that a particular day?
It's funny, I don't mean to be evasive, but that's the one song that I'm hesitant to be really specific about what's behind it because I'm finding from talking to so many people and getting responses and feedback about the song, and people are having such different connections and experiences with the song, that I almost don't want them to know exactly what I was thinking, because it's taken on a bigger life than my own little bad mood that I was in that day. Suffice to say that I was feeling really depressed, and had a hard time getting out of bed that day and went to the studio with Glen Ballard and we had actually set this goal of writing a great upbeat song together that day. Obviously I wasn't in the mood to do it, and I was forcing myself and nothing was really coming out. And he left the room for a minute and then I found myself at the piano and I just started coming up with this thing, and his assistant Scotty put a microphone in front of my face without me realizing it, and they kind of recorded it. And I apologized to Glen for what I thought was digressing, and he said, "It's all good," and we wrote that song that day.
Did you write the rest of the songs in a similar way on the album?
They're all different. A lot of times I bring in my own melodies and lyrics and chord progressions. Other times I let Glen sort of start it out, or sometimes we'd start from scratch that day and just kind of vibe on something. There are really no rules with Glen, which is what I loved so much about working with him. He really just encouraged my songwriting and made me feel like he understood me, where I've been, and who I am maybe even more than I did at the time. I just loved working with him so much. He seemed really inspired by my versatility instead of threatened by it, which a lot of people, without realizing it, are, so then they just try to pigeonhole you. It makes their job more difficult when you can do more things. But somehow, he just helped take all of these different facets of who I am and helped to create a very cohesive album.
And did I Stand also come about based on a specific moment in your life?
Sure. I was singing on the plane as I was coming out to work with Glen. I get a lot of melodies and ideas on the plane for some reason. I was singing this little melody, and the words "I stand" kept coming out. And I was like, "Oh, God, I can't write this kind of song." Would it be a political song? I'm not really a political person. But it's something that sticks with you, that you don't forget, and you try not to throw away because usually it's a good little nugget of an idea. So I wrestled with it, and got out my journal, and was writing in the car on the way to the hotel in LA, and I had a feeling that I had to write about all of these grand ideas that I stand for, what's really important to me in my daily life and the smaller things that I believe in. I went from there and just started writing a list, and that's kind of what the chorus is.
Do you find that inspiration often strikes you 8000 feet above the earth?
(laughs). Yeah, often in planes, in the shower, or New York City streets just walking around. Those are the 3 main places that I find myself singing into a little antiquated cassette recorder.
The opening of I Stand reminds me of the sort of questions one gets asked often growing up, "Like what do you want to do with your life?"
Right. For some it might be high school, but, for me, I feel like everyone's asked me that my whole life. Because, like I've said, I've done many different kinds of music. I was trained classically when I was a little girl, and then I got into Janis Joplin and Aretha Franklin, and then all of a sudden people knew me from the theater scene, and then trying to be in the music business, all those little cards I was telling you about and all the managers I'd sit with. They'd say, "Who do you listen to, what do you want to be, what do you want to sound like?" This is the first time in my life where I feel like all the elements have come together, and I guess I was, without realizing it, reliving the constant question that everybody kept gnawing at me with.
Kind of like the perfect world you describe in Gorgeous?
No, I wouldn't connect those 2 songs. See, I love that you even think of that, because I hadn't thought of that. For me, that was a more specific thing about loving a person that you're with despite your community, your environment, or what people may think otherwise. It's about being free to love whoever you want to love in this world.
There are a few songs on this album about love. Love is a very hard thing to pin down and I am amused by the fact that so many people must Google the phrase, "What is love?" which yields page and pages of results.
I had no idea. What is love?
Well, that's what I was about to ask you.
I have no idea. Don't do that to me!
It's already been done.
What do you say to such people who want to know what love is, or when they're in love?
I can only speak from own experience. I love my husband very much. I knew it was real true love because I felt like I could be myself around that person. Your true true innermost authentic self, the stuff you don't let anyone else see, if you can be that way with that person, I think that that's real love.
Now that we've got the meaning of love out of the way, what's next for you?
It's more of the same. Putting a band together, rehearsing, and going on tour and playing my music live. It's one thing to do it in the studio for a year and a half but now I'd love to kinda get up there. I miss being on stage, and I'd like to get in front of an audience and do my thing.
Are you going to be making the flyers again and passing them out?
(laughs) Yeah, but now I have a really cool record label that does them, and they look really professional, and they spend more than $10 on the whole thing, and (laughs) I have a little help, which I have to say is such a relief. It's so nice to have help. I really worked hard, and it's tiring doing that, and I'm so happy to have a partner in crime right now.
Interview by Ben Kharakh
Starpulse.com contributing writer
Special NY Event with Idina Menzel
Long Island native Idina Menzel-- Best Actress Tony Award-winner for her role as Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West, in the award-winning musical Wicked and original Broadway cast member of Rent-- has just been scheduled to appear at New York's 92nd Street Y, Tuesday, Feb 26!
Idina will be joined on stage by her legendary Grammy winning producer Glen Ballard to talk about her career as actress/singer/songwriter. Fans won't want to miss this!