Gay Marshall - 10 Questions Interview
Was there something (an experience) or someone in your life that was the "catalyst" for you to cover Leonard Cohen Tell us about it.
I had met an enchanting singer named Carol Lipnick at Pangea, our favorite New York room, who wrote a lot of her own material. I tried to catch all of her shows, and one night she sang “Anthem”. I was bowled over by it, and asked her when she had written that astounding song. She laughed and told me it was Cohen’s. I had never been drawn to him, partially based on the rather morose quality of his singing, and immediately felt I had to find out what I’d been missing. There followed and obsessional 6 month period where I did nothing but. I searched for every album, interview, book and concert I could get my hands and ears on, and was completely dumbstruck by the breadth and beauty of his lyrics and melodies. I had to sing him.
Let's get this out of the way. What is the CRAZIEST thing that has ever happened to you in your music career?
It would have to be taking the red eye from the West coast to compete in a Piaf contest in NYC. I was doing a show at the time, and was told I couldn’t leave town. So, I put my job on the line and went. I didn’t even know what the prize was, I just knew I had to do it because Piaf was my obsession and I just HAD to take part in that contest. Since I figured I better not regret going for broke, I sang No Regrets and I won! I got a magnum of champagne and a week for two in Paris at the Grand Hotel! It was an amazing trip (and the show took me back!).
What has been the high point of your music path?
I’ve been so lucky to have had a lot of wonderful high points, the latest one being collaborating with the brilliant Ross Patterson on Back On Boogie Street. His arrangements for the record far surpassed anything I could have imagined, and the joy of working with someone who has incredible chops, impeccable taste, is open to ideas and devoted to making them work, is heaven. Plus he’s a really nice guy - one of the most patient and kind people on the face of the earth.
So, how do you prepare to interpret music or what is your creative process like?
For me, it’s a delicate balance of making a song your own without losing the intent of the writer. First of all, I have to get the lyrics under my belt so I could sing them in my sleep, and then find the place where what they mean to me coincides with what I believe the author intended. Sometimes that can take a while! I have to kind of live in a song and visualize it - literally see a movie of it in my head - before I can perform it. Some songs lay it out for you like Murray Grand’s “Guess Who I Saw Today.” That song IS a movie. Others, like quite a few of the ones on Boogie Street, have more obscure poetic images that I really had to work hard on – especially “Take This Waltz.” It’s an adaptation of a Garcia Lorca poem that Cohen put to music, and the way it evolved as I rehearsed it startled me. When a melody repeats over and over, you have to find a way to build the intensity without being mechanical as in soft, louder, louder etc. I had been going over it for weeks and then one day something clicked – it was as if a door opened and all the strange lines like “and I’ll see what you’ve chained to your sorrow, all your sheep and your lilies of snow….,” made sense to my heart more than my mind. Suddenly I was IN Cohen and Lorca’s world and it felt like a gift. All I could think was – what if I had stopped delving, and simply sung the beautiful melody and words which sounded compelling but didn’t spring from my gut. What an opportunity lost that would have been.
What do you see as the biggest challenge facing Indie Artists today?
Promoting your music is a full time job, which, if you’re an artist is a bit of a dilemma.
If you could share the stage with one other artist , who would it be and why?
There are so many artists I admire or am in awe of that I can’t imagine being onstage with them. Let’s say you gave me drugs so I could get over myself, it could be anyone from Dinah Washington to Tina Turner, or hey – why not Pink? Someone with generosity of spirit and soul. OR an Elaine Stritch – now there’s someone who’d give you a run for your money and it would be worth it! Really I shouldn’t worry about being on a par with them because great performers always make other people look good!
What are your rehearsals generally like? Or, how do you prepare for a live show?
It’s a process I could describe as the agony and the ecstasy. It’s always been agony choosing which songs to sing and what order to put them in. I must have learned 40 Cohen songs and had to pick a dozen. It was agonizing! Once I’d done that, there was the question of how to string them together. What to say? I really love to make people laugh, and having read a lot of his poems and prose that I found funny and / or poignant, I realized that using excerpts of them could be the perfect way to pull the show together. The ecstatic part kicked in in rehearsals with Ross Patterson who came up with such beautiful underscoring for the spoken word segues and interjections. There really is nothing more exciting than hearing ideas and sounds come to life.
When I’m doing a live show, the nervous person I normally am goes off the charts. The only way I can make it to show time is to do nothing but work out, go over the lyrics and sing. I won’t even answer the phone. I figure out what I’m going to say to the audience without pinning it down exactly because I’ve always been put off by memorized patter, and keeping that aspect loose makes me even more nervous! A lot of times I’ll come up with something I really like, and then forget what it was the next time I go over it. Basically the day of the show I’m a semi-happy basket case; looking forward to performing and worried I’ll blow it.
Pick one song (from any project) that was your greatest challenge to sing. Tell us about it!
When I did Cats, in Paris, I sang “Memory” every night for a year. Since the audience has been waiting around 3 hours for it, the pressure is on to hit it out of the park vocally and emotionally, which is a challenge on a few levels. Playing Grizabella involved going into a kind of suspended animation because you’re backstage most of those hours trying to keep your head in the show with nowhere to keep your voice warmed up. Unlike a lot of parts in a lot of shows, here’s nothing that leads up to the intensity necessary to put that song over – you have to pop from your cozy dressing room on to the stage and crush it. Acting is such a big part of singing, and manufactured pathos is the worst, so you have to dig deep and BE that tortured vulnerable creature dying of loneliness while belting out an e-flat. And there’s no way to play it safe. If you plan the way you’re going to sing it and go for an effect, the song dies. It’s a challenge to hit those notes while trying like crazy to not listen to yourself, and deliver an emotionally honest performance.
What's coming up in the future?
Locusts??? Hey who knows. I’m having trouble imagining next week. When we’re able to be back on stage I want to be performing and working on the next project – hopefully with Ross!!
Is it true you’ve been stranded in Biarritz for a large part of the pandemic? Oh, don’t happen that can of worms.
About Gay Marshall Gay Marshall has released 3 independent CDs, and is a Billboard Top World Artist for her recording, Gay Marshall Sings Piaf, La Vie L’Amour. For the past 10 years she has worked mainly in New York City nightclubs and great halls, building a loyal following of downtown music lovers. She has performed at Joe’s Pub and Carnegie Hall as well as Pangea and Feinstein’s. She recently turned her attention to the poet and songwriter, Leonard Cohen, and released a collection of his music and poetry, Back on Boogie Street in 2020. Gay has been a guest of NPR’s Weekend Edition with Scott Simon and Sandra Bernhard’s Sandyland. Her recording, Go Back Where You Stayed Last Night, is a collection of early 20th C. Blues and Jazz.
Marshall began her music career singing in a small French restaurant in Cleveland once a week after returning home from London, where she attended the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. Her repertoire included French music and Dixieland blues and jazz, Broadway tunes and standards. She eventually made her way to Broadway and A Chorus Line, playing Diana Morales, and singing "What I Did for Love" every night. Marshall went to Paris to study French and fell in love with the city and her husband. She originated the role of Grizabella in the original French production of CATS, did Les Z'Années Zazous at the Folies Bergère, and created the roles of l'Autruche and the Petit Caillou in Emilie Jolie at the Cirque d'Hiver.
During the day, she dubbed a lot of films and cartoons. She also performed with English theatre groups and was the voice of beauty brand, Garnier Nutrisse, for many years. Her original show, If I Were Me… . had successful runs in Paris, and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival where it received rave reviews, and was declared by the Daily Express to be #2 on their Top Ten list of shows not to be missed. She wrote an original show about French icon, Edith Piaf, called “La Vie l’Amour” that played in Cleveland at the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival, in Dayton at the Victory Theatre and in Kansas City at the Missouri Rep. She now lives mainly in Paris and Biarritz with her husband, photographer Jean-Louis Blondeau.