Melissa Manchester talks about her incredible career and the influence LGBTS have had on it

By : Stephen J. Miller
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It’s hard to pin Melissa Manchester’s style down—that’s what becomes immediately apparent in her newest album, You Gotta Love the Life. The Grammy-winning, Oscar-nominated singer-songwriter isn’t scared of shaking it up. With over four decades in the business, Manchester has embraced the new and crowd-funded her latest work, loaded with many musical styles.

“It’s about show business. The challenge is the key component of an artistic world. You’ve got to be okay with this version of normal—the unsteady, insane and unsure path. I am, and I’ve always been,” says Manchester, who’ll turn 64 on Feb. 15.
Manchester—famous for her hits “Midnight Blue,” “Don’t Cry Out Loud,” and “You Should Hear How She Talks About You”—will play several dates in Florida. The two dates in Central Florida include the Mount Dora Music Festival which runs Feb. 19-22—she performs Feb. 20 (MountDoraMusicFest.com). She’ll also appear at Clearwater’s Capital Theatre on Mar. 5 (RuthEckerdHall.com).

Manchester spoke to us about her career from her California home:

WATERMARK: Tell me a little about the wide variety of styles on your new album You Gotta Love the Life.
MELISSA MANCHESTER: My experience in the music industry is that people like to pigeonhole an artist. It’s in order to help market them, but it’s still categorizing what you do. The evidence of my life is that, on stage, I do all kinds of music, and I’ve yet to hear of anybody needing to be carted away in an ambulance from the shock of that.

So what I wanted to do is to reflect to wide variety of my musical tastes. That’s what I did; that’s one of the perks of being an independent artist. You are your own record company.

You have stated that you’ve had gay and lesbian people around your entire life. Is that because your parents were in the business?
Yes. My mother was a famous fashion designer and my father worked for the Metropolitan Opera [playing bassoon]. I never thought much about it, because gay people were just part of our extended family. It always seemed natural to me.

What important life lessons do you teach your current music students at University of Southern California?
I try to tell them that, just because they wrote a song, that doesn’t mean that’s the best version. They have to be willing to test it out and run it past others.

One of your own first teachers was Paul Simon, right?
Yes. It was thrilling to be taught by him, because at the time Bridge Over Troubled Water was No. 1 all over the world, and he was a guest instructor. He taught a very core principle that I carry with me and teach to this day; all the stories have been told, but it’s the way you tell your story that truly matters.

What’s one of the most memorable moments you had as being one of Bette Midler’s back-up singers, The Harlettes?
I was with her at the beginning of her career. I played at the [famously gay] Continental Bathhouse, and I saw her perform, and I quickly saw how brilliant she is up close and personally.

You know, in a historical context, that was most illuminating to me—how she spoke to the marginalized gay community. She gave them a sense of community, a voice and a sense of belonging when very few people would.

One of the songs on my new album—“You Are My Heart”—was written for my dear friends Steve and Bill, who weren’t able to get married because of DOMA. When they got married in August, I performed that song. It just shows how far we’ve come.

Your first two albums—even with work by Carole Bayer Sager—cracked the Top 200 but not the Top 100. How did you feel about that? Did you expect more or were you excited you got that far?
I really didn’t pay attention to that stuff in those days. I was working so hard. I was a coffeehouse performer, so I had no expectation that someone would find me. I was a singer-songwriter trying to work at my craft, so I wasn’t thinking of singles and charts. Now, when “Midnight Blue” took off, it clearly changed the direction of everything.

Did you know “Midnight Blue” was that good?
Thank you! I thought I had something special, but you never know. I remember I realized it when I was playing New Orleans, and I started the opening refrain on the piano, and the place went nuts! I really didn’t know till then it was getting so much airplay over the radio. It also created a pressure, how a song affects people’s lives and changes their hearts.

Besides promoting the new album and touring, what are you working on now?
I’ve written another musical with [Tony-Award winner] Rupert Holmes and Sharon Vaughn called The Sweet Potato Queens. It gets a staged reading in March. We’ll let you know how that turns out.

You have several dates here in Florida February and March—what are you most looking forward to?
I’m really looking forward to reconnecting with my fans and making a few new ones. I want to put these new songs out there, share them. I also can’t wait to have time to walk around and get to know Mount Dora and re-acquaint myself with Clearwater.

MORE INFORMATION:
WHO: Melissa Manchester
WHERE: Mount Dora Music Festival, Feb. 20; Ruth Eckerd Hall, March 5
TICKETS: MountDoraMusicFest.com; RuthEckerdHall.com

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