Thursday, April 24, 2008

Barry Manilow talks about how he makes the songs his own

The Kansas City Star

Barry Manilow didn’t write all the songs on his recent album, “The Greatest Songs of the Seventies.” But each track has something in common with the others.

“They couldn’t just be songs we all liked,” Manilow told The Star recently. “Clive (Davis) wanted them to be so popular and well-loved that they’ve gone No. 1.”

But even more important: “They need to be very melodic. (Clive) wanted a CD filled with melody, filled with comfort, filled with memories.”

The “Seventies” album, released in September, was the third in a series of cover albums for Manilow. The first two mined the hit charts of the ’50s and ’60s. All three landed in the Top 5 of the Billboard 200 chart; the “Fifties” album hit No. 1.

Manilow said there’s a basic reason all three albums are popular: The songwriting and arranging are so good.

“I think the craft of songwriting is dying,” he said. “Now it’s all about the craft of making a record. It’s all about the sound of the record, then they put a song on top of it.

“When I write songs, I don’t rely on machines. I know how to work the machines, and I love them and I respect them, but when it comes to writing, I write the way I was taught: melody first, then words, put them together, and then go to the machines.”

His “Seventies” album includes material from a wide variety of champions who perfected the craft: Carole King, Paul Simon, Elton John, Lennon/McCartney, Bacharach/David and the Gibb brothers. It closes with four songs Manilow made famous, including a couple he co-wrote, such as “Even Now.”

Covering his own material, Manilow said, made him practice another craft: arranging and rearranging songs.

“If you ask what I think I do best, it’s not songwriting or singing, it’s arranging songs,” he said. “I’m a great arranger. I really know my way around that. It’s what I would have been if I hadn’t lucked into this performing career. I would have been an arranger for other singers.

“When I produce songs for other people, like Bette (Midler), or when I worked with Rosemary Clooney … I know how to take someone else’s songs and redo them for other people and make them their own.

“I did the same thing for myself on my solo records. My goal was to keep the originals in mind but make them sound like they were mine. You can only do that if you’re an arranger. Can you do that if you’re just a singer? Maybe. Can you do that if you’re a songwriter? Maybe. But you really need to be an arranger, to take someone else’s song and help you make it your own. It’s complicated.”

Is arranging a dying art, too?

“Yes it is,” he said. “It is. Well — you know, I really don’t know. These musicians glued to their drum machines, sequencers and Pro Tools — they may be able to do something like that, maybe not the way I do it: sitting at the piano and walking around the room. Maybe they could do it on machines. But I bet you they can do it. So, no, it’s not over.”

On the “Seventies” record Manilow faced a unique task: rearranging songs he’d made famous three decades ago, including a couple he co-wrote.

“I couldn’t ignore them,” he said, “but it was a big challenge: to redo, ‘I Write the Songs,’ to redo ‘Mandy,’ to redo ‘Copa’ and the others. I thought it would be easy. I thought, ‘Here’s one way of doing it: I’ll do unplugged renditions of all these songs. … Boy, it wasn’t that easy. It took months to figure out how to redo those songs. It was really complicated. I sat at the piano when I started to do ‘Mandy’ and thought, ‘What the heck am I going to do now? I already did this.’ I wound up feeling that way for every single song.

“After a while, with the help of musicians and co-producers and Clive, we came up with a way of doing it, but, boy, it was a challenge.”

Asked whether he has ever been impressed by a straight cover or dramatic rearrangement of one of his songs, Manilow was frank: “Not many people have ever done it. But when they just cover them, they usually ruin them. Name me one, and I’ll tell you whether I like it.”

Told that Kylie Minogue was covering “Copacabana” on her new album, he said: “She’s very talented. That could be great. I always thought Ricky Martin should do ‘Copacabana.’ ”

And when Dolly Parton’s name comes up, he said: “Dolly is so talented. I’m sure she could sit with her guitar, take ‘Mandy’ and turn it on its ass and make it her own. She could do it. She’s very talented.”

The next logical release in the Manilow catalog, it would seem, must be a collection of “Eighties” songs. Are there enough well-crafted songs from that era, songs he deems worthy of his rearrangements? Apparently, yes.

“I thought there weren’t, but I was wrong,” Manilow said. “I was surprised. I have about 20 songs with good melodies and interesting lyrics: Cyndi Lauper’s ‘Time After Time’ and ‘Careless Whisper,’ ‘Arthur’s Theme,’ ‘Every Time You Go Away’ … ”

“I forgot songs like that were there, songs with melodies you can’t forget and lyrics you’ll always remember.”

Manilow show Barry Manilow performs Saturday night at the Sprint Center. Tickets cost $49.99 to $159. Smooth jazz/funk instrumentalist Brian Culbertson opens. Show time is 8 p.m. About the show, Manilow said: “I’ve got 10 or 11 semi-trucks. There’s a lot of stuff on stage. The show is a blown-up version of what we do in Las Vegas; it’s not the same, but it has the same feel of the show we do in Las Vegas, but we can do more in these arena shows. In Vegas, we’re allowed 80 or 90 minutes so people can leave and go to the casinos and throw their money away. In the arenas, we can stay on longer and do more songs.”