Thursday, July 5, 2012
Deeper Dish with Lee Lessack
I first saw Lee Lessack perform way back in 1996 at Toulouse, an intimate cabaret bar in Chicago. Now the MAC and Bistro Award-winning recording artist is returning to the Midwest with his brand new concert, Chanteur, in which he traces the influence of the Great French Songbook from an American perspective. Lee will be singing at Davenport's - another intimate Chicago cabaret - for one night only on Thursday, July 12, and I am delighted to have the talented man here on the Dish to discuss his career and answer a few pop culture questions.
Let’s begin with Chanteur. What was your inspiration for creating the show?
Well, honestly, I knew that it was time for a new concert. And I worked very closely with another artist by the name of Brian Lane Green, who actually has a little bit of a Chicago name. Several years ago they did a run of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the Royal George Theatre and he played Joseph. He's also a Tony Award nominee and a good friend for years - and we have a trio show that we tour with called 3 Men and a Baby...Grand. And so we were actually doing a concert on a cruise to Antarctica and I said, "I need a new show", and I just could not figure out what the concept could be. I've done several composer tributes and things like that and I just wasn't sure. And Brian came up with this idea and a structure that really made sense. I was not all that well-versed in the Great French Songbook. I certainly was familiar with many of the composers, but I hadn't sort of tied it all together. And so I then started collaborating with him on Chanteur and that's how it happened.
Can you share a few of the songs that you will be singing?
We do some Michel Legrand like "Pieces of Dreams" and "The Summer Knows". We do some Aznavour - "She" and "Le Temps" - and Gilbert Bécaud - we do "What Now My Love" and a song called "The Importance of the Rose" that he wrote. "Yesterday When I Was Young." "Windmills of Your Mind." The whole concept of the concert is the influence that the great French songbook has on the American singer - how does Aznavour influence Sinatra's career kind of thing.
Now let’s go back to the very beginning. Did you always want to be a singer?
Yes. My mom was an opera singer. I grew up in Philadelphia and she sang with the Philadelphia Opera Company - she was under contract for like 20 years. I was always fascinated by it and I always liked music and singing. It took me awhile to find my voice. As a youngster and a teenager, I could always carry a tune - but I think my voice developed late so I never really felt that special vocally.
What was your very first cabaret performance?
That was in 1990.
And do you recall what you sang?
Oh my gosh, I don't remember what I had for breakfast.
Where was it at?
I do remember that. It was at the Rose Tattoo in West Hollywood, California, and when I first moved to L.A., I landed a job as an assistant to Henry Winkler. That was kind of a 24/7 kind of job. A friend of mine said, "You should come to an open mic night" - I didn't even know what that was but I went and I got up and sang. And I'll never forget the pianist was Michael Orland, who's now the musical director on American Idol. And so I sang a song and the manager of the club came up to me and said, "Would you like to do your own show?" and I was like "Sure. What's that?" So I hooked up with Michael and he created a show with me. It was all kind of standards and Broadway and a couple of original tunes that he had written, but the place was packed with Henry and his friends so the club loved me.
I went to a temp agency - I had to pay my rent. Actually they placed me with a producer of the ABC Movie of the Week and she really liked me. I was just filling in because her assistant was getting married and on her honeymoon. So when I finished my 10 days with her, she said, "Give me your resume." And I gave her my acting resume and a business resume and she said, "I'm going to help you." And I'm like "Okay." A few weeks later she called and said, "I have a very good friend who's looking for an assistant. He's a celebrity and blah-blah-blah." I didn't even meet Henry for months because he was doing a movie so I met his business manager and his wife and then did my interviews and got hired. Literally I was there for three or four months before I ever even crossed him.
How long did you work for him?
You must have enjoyed the experience.
Yeah, they were like my family - and they still are. I spent every holiday with them and every Mother's Day with them. It is a full-time job and so that is kind of the reason that I got into doing my own concert work because every time there was an important audition for a musical or something that I would have special permission to have the morning off, it was always a disaster. My pager would be going off. So I thought, "Well, this is something I can do on my own time - whatever is left of it", so it just kind of worked. And then I just sort of found a home there.
In 1995 you founded your own record label, LML Music. What made you decide to do this?
When I left the Winklers, I recorded an album and I pitched it to a producer in New York who's a songwriter and who was producing recordings for a phenomenal vocalist, Nancy LaMott, at the time. And Michael Orland - my musical director - had met him at a party in New York and he said, "You should call him. He's a really nice guy", so I did. And he was about to open the out-of-town Broadway tryout of Beauty and the Beast. He was the vocal supervisor for Disney for all their animated features. So he said, "Listen, I'm going to Houston for five weeks. Send me your demo and when I get back, I'll get in touch." So I FedExed him a demo cassette tape that I had made and he called me the very next day and he said, "You know I get a lot of promos from people and you're really talented - this is something. Is there anything that you need right away? Otherwise we'll get in touch when I get back into town." I was like, "Well, I would like to record these three songs that I wrote and I would like you to distribute my album." And he was like, "Sit tight and I will meet with you when I get back." Then he was out in L.A., called me, came over and he was great. He said, "You know what, I'm not trying to expand my little record label beyond Nancy LaMott's recordings. Why don't you create your own label?" And I was like "Okay." And he's like "I'll help you. I'll advise you so you don't make some of the natural mistakes that one would make trying to figure it out." He said, "You seem like a smart guy and I think you could do it." So I started my own label - and I got really good distribution and so immediately other artists started to call me. I never thought about it being a label for anything but my own recordings. And every six months I would think, "Well, if I'm calculating royalties for one CD, I guess I could do it for two or four" - and the next thing I know I have 150 releases.
Who was the first person who signed up with you?
Brian Lane Green - oddly enough - he was the first one.
What performer has been the most fun to work with over the years?
None of them! Gosh, who was the most fun? I've had a lot of big ah-ha moments in my recording career because I've gotten to record with who I never thought I would get to. Probably the most fun I would have to say would be Susan Werner. She's a Chicagoan now, originally from Iowa. One of the fiercest singer/songwriters EVER, and I was like a huge fan of hers. I went to the movies here in L.A. and there was a Virgin Megastore next door and I got there early so I went in and she was doing an in-store - had never heard of her. She blew me away. Bought her album and it was like the same listening experience when k.d. lang's Ingénue came out - every song was unknown to me but it was more brilliant than the next and the entire journey of the album was unbelievable. So I was like a stalking fan. And then on my second album I licensed one of her songs and recorded it - but all through her record label. Sent copies to her record label, of course, but never heard anything. So that was like 1998. In 2005 for the 10-year anniversary of LML Music, I did a duets recording where I recorded with 17 vocalists and I get a call from Susan Werner because a mutual friend of ours - who's a musical director in Chicago - had given her my CD that had her song on it and she called to thank me. You would have thought that Oprah had just rung my doorbell. I said to her, "Would you like to record a duet with me?" and she was like "Sure!" So that was probably the most fun because I was such a big fan of her writing. We met in New York 'cause I recorded half in New York and half in L.A. I think she could tell that I was a complete spaz cadet and was so nervous. And she was great - she was just like "Come here, Lee, come here, Lee, hold my hand" and we just laughed through the whole session. It was fabulous.
You recently celebrated your 20th anniversary with your partner, Mark. What is the secret of a successful relationship?
Drugs! No, I think patience is the key. I think my parents must have told this to me, but in the back of my mind there's always been this voice that's like "all relationships are the same." At the end of the day they are all the same and you have to learn how to get along. You have to learn how to navigate. You have to be accepting and understanding. And oddly enough in the world, nobody is identical to you, and as human beings, we do spend most of the time - especially in primary relationships - trying to change them to be us because we're better. And it just doesn't make sense. So it's really all about patience and understanding. It hasn't been like all bells and whistles, but it's actually been pretty easy and mild - and now he's so old, I just wheel him around.
If you could go back and give your 19-year-old self a wise piece of advice, what would it be?
That's a really good question. I would probably say, "Embrace your fears." I think that we tend to let our fears stop us from taking certain risks or steps or advancements - and if we embrace them, they're really our friend and our guide because fear could just mean "be careful" or "step with caution" or what I've learned is that the feeling of fear feels exactly the same as excitement - it just has a different name tag on it. So it could be that you're just excited and you're assuming that it has that name tag on it. So I think I would probably tell the 19-year-old to "embrace the fears".
In high school I was:
My favorite comfort food is:
When I was growing up, I never missed a television episode of:
The Partridge Family.
Today I never miss a television episode of:
The very first record album that I purchased with my own money was:
Oh my God, Bobby Sherman with the fold-out poster.
If I was stranded on a desert island for a year, I would want to listen to:
Susan Werner and Jason Mraz.
Three of my favorite movies are:
The Devil Wears Prada, The Talented Mr. Ripley - I liked that one a lot - and probably Funny Girl.
If I was asked to choose the Sexiest Man Alive, it would be:
Ryan Kwanten from True Blood.
If I could have anyone in the world – living or dead – be a guest at my dinner party, I would invite the following three people:
Oh gosh, I love that question. Oprah Winfrey, Ella Fitzgerald - and who else would round out a dinner party? They have to be white 'cause otherwise it just changes the whole mood. Susan Werner! No, let's say Ann Hampton Callaway - she's very topical - not that Susan isn't.
I'll let you invite all four of them.
There you go.
What’s next for Lee Lessack?
I'm really excited about this new Chanteur concert because I've spent much of the last few years touring with other people. I do a lot of tour dates with Linda Purl, the TV actress - I adore her, I love her as a person and I love sharing the stage with her because I think she's a really dynamite actress. And I tour with 3 Men and a Baby...Grand, which is really fun - but I haven't done like something solo for awhile. This past season as I've been performing with the show, I almost feel like I'm a grown-up for the first time. I don't know why - I think it's new territory - and it's probably the most difficult concert I've ever done. It's a lot of singing and it stretches the range of my ability, both vocally and emotionally. I've also got some really exciting new artists that we've recently released on LML Music and some that were about to release. We released albums for Lea Salonga this year and Lucie Arnaz and Tom Wopat so I'm getting some bigger, more recognized names. So I think it's going to be an exciting year.
Thank you, Lee, for getting Deeper with us here on the Dish. To learn more about Lee Lessack, check out his website at www.leelessack.com. You can also become a fan on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.
For reservations to Chanteur on Thursday, July 12, at 8 pm at Davenport's (1383 N. Milwaukee Ave), call (773) 278-1830 or go online at www.davenportspianobar.com. Tickets are $25 with a two-drink minimum.