Michele Lesko interviewed Lorraine Feather for IthacaLit in September of 2019. Feather generously gave her time in a lively conversation by phone.
Michele Lesko: Thank you, Lorraine, for taking the time to answer these questions. Your work in the jazz world is highly regarded, garnering you a Grammy nomination in 2011 in the Best Jazz Vocal Album category. Your next release and my favorite, a Gothic collection of fables entitled Tales of the Unusual, earned a 2012 nomination for co-writer Shelly Berg’s arrangement of the Feather/Berg X Files song “Out There.” Your 2013 release, Attachments, was nominated for Best Jazz Vocal Album, and your fourth and fifth nominations (Best Jazz Vocal Album, and Shelly Berg’s arrangement of “Be My Muse”) came in 2015, for Flirting with Disaster.
ML: Your trajectory is fascinating. You have a thriving jazz career, coming from your immersion early on in your family’s musical network. Please share some of that early music career with our readers.
Lorraine Feather: My career developed in fits and starts. I never considered that I had much of a voice and had no ambitions to be a singer. My father was a famous jazz writer, and legendary jazz figures were in and out of our Manhattan apartment all the time when I was a tot. I did write poetry as a child; my first effort was entitled “The Ocean of Death!”
I didn’t start writing lyrics until I had been bouncing around in the entertainment business (and the food service industry) for 15 years. I had been a singer but seemed to find my own voice, literally, once I became a lyricist.
ML: It’s interesting to see the connection between jazz lyricist and poet. Would you give our readers a little of the back-story that led you to the intersection with poetry as a jazz musician?
LF: I don’t play an instrument or read music, but I have always found it natural to write in rhythm and rhyme. I’ve written poetry on and off for a few years but recently realized that I’m better suited to the “formal” kind; it’s more like creating a lyric.
ML: During your career, have you set aside lyrics that you considered better as, in and of themselves, poems rather than lyrics?
LF: The short answer is, never! I used to write lyrics to the music of departed legends, Duke Ellington and Fats Waller, and that was words-to-music of course. For some years I have been working with living writers—primarily Eddie Arkin, Russell Ferrante, and Shelly Berg—and I almost always bring them a completed lyric. By the time I’m done with it on my end, I either have a groove in mind, or I simply know that my collaborator will create the music that best suits it. We sit in a room together and they experiment with different melodies and chord changes.
ML: The title of your latest album, Math Camp, came about in what seems to be a holistic manner as the numerical thread began to rise from within different song lyrics. When writing music, do you consider the poetic to appear first in the melody?
LF: I start out with a general idea, then words pop to mind. It’s not the same as “thinking” per se, or considering what I’m going to do. Lines present themselves, sometimes going from the middle of the lyric outward. The only thing I plan out as I go along, is how long it’s turning out to be and how many sections the song has, whether I want to talk, add vocal harmonies, that kind of thing.
ML: What prompts your writing, poetry and music, in your day-to-day? How did your poem “Ding” come to be?
LF: My lyrics have always been a mishmash of real life, things friends have told me about or that I have read about, and my own inventions. In writing poetry, which is fairly new to me, it’s the same way. Many of the details in “Ding” are made up; the basic story was taken from a relationship I had that ended very traumatically, though not with a phone call as the poem describes.
ML: When writing poetry, a fairly solitary art, do you miss the connection with others in the creative world of music - that intimacy of minds in concert?
LF: I’m something of a hermit, but I do love the connection of working with somebody in the same room, or even working together long-distance. I’ve been collaborating with the composer Nan Schwartz on a musical for over a year, and the whole time, I was on the East Coast and Nan was in LA. We’re going to be together in Paris for a showcase in November.
ML: Lorraine, the struggle in the creative arts is constant. How do you manage that flux?
LF: My albums have been a calling card for me as a lyricist at different points in my career, but the music business is hard. Joni Mitchell famously said that she was ashamed to be part of it, and when Joni was coming up, the business was a lot less corporate than it is now! I try to keep writing all the time, appreciate my friends, my cat, the beauty in the world, and the art that is always blossoming in different quarters.
ML: Can you offer any advice for those new to writing?
LF: Keep going. Always find a way to come back to it.
ML: The sound, guitar riffs and haunting bass, in Tales of the Unusual, brings about a fairytale tension of heading into dangerous territory. “Off the Grid Girl” with its “sting you in a snap,” carries forward that metaphorical thread bringing to mind a contemporary Red Riding Hood. What can you offer up in terms of finding the blues in that song?
LF: I was living in the San Juan Islands when Eddie and I wrote “Off-the-Grid Girl.” The tale sprang from something I read about Waldron Island. A commercial logger was trying to clear hundreds of acres of Douglas fir and ship it off the island; the 80 residents thwarted him at every term, and one morning there was a drug bust by federal agents, that they assumed he arranged to harass them. When I was living on Orcas and read about this, I looked up waldronisland.com and found a description of Waldron as being a barren place overrun by rats and rattlesnakes. I’m assuming it was just a middle finger to all outsiders. I thought I’d write a lyric about a woman on such an island, off the grid, who’s in love with a guy who lives on the mainland (what those in the San Juans refer to as “America”).
ML: Lorraine, thank you for taking the time to interview with IthacaLit. Anything you would like to share about the writing business will certainly be welcomed by our community of readers and artists.
LF: My ex-husband, Tony Morales, once told me that life was all about finding the thing you do best and doing it to death. That made sense to me. I try and figure out a way. Every day.