Mary Ellen Desmond and Meg Clifton: The Dynamic Philadelphia Songstress Duo
In the past, there were my friends at art school who recognized my musical talent. I recently ran into one of the people who at that time said, "You should take voice lessons and go to music school." I thanked her.
Most importantly, my husband, Michael, has been extremely supportive. I've learned a great deal from him, and he helped me come out of my shell. He encouraged me to network and develop my career.
AAJ: We're leading into the next question: how did your musical interests and career develop?
MED: I grew up in Westfield, NJ and started singing in front of people when I was in third grade. My dad did play banjo and guitar in society orchestras in the forties and fifties. His name was Tony Berodyn. He was always playing music around the house. I sang in choir and musicals in high school. My dad encouraged me, but he passed away when I was sixteen. As a result, I got very depressed and stopped performing in school productions.
In college, with my friends' encouragement, I took voice lessons at the Philadelphia Music Academy. Later, I attended The Philadelphia College of Performing Arts for two years. Then, in the early eighties, I studied privately with operatic soprano Judith Rosenfeld and simultaneously began listening to Ella, Armstrong, and Sarah Vaughan. But I developed severe stage fright and went through a period where I was terrified to sing in front of people. To force myself out of that I asked some friends who shared an interest in Country and Western music Patsy Cline and Kitty Wells, etc. if I could join their Country review. That gave me invaluable stage experience. From there, I went on with their guitarist and bassist to learn and perform jazz standards.
MC: I didn't sing before the public until I was in high school. My parents were always playing music around the house: Ella, Miles Davis, from jazz to Billy Joel. My mom sang around the house. My dad plays a little piano. I was very shy, and I would only sing in the basement (laughter!). I would make up songs on a little tape recorder and think about sending them into Star Search, but I never did that. Finally, my dad was like, "Well you need to audition for a musical at school." So I finally tried out for "The Little Shop of Horrors." I was one of the three "doo wop" girls. I had a blast! The show had some "Motown" music, which was fun. I loved it. I found I loved singing in front of people. So I joined the choir. After high school, I spent a year taking voice and piano lessons at a community college and sang in a rock band.
MED: Meg and I realized on one of our road trips that we both liked the band "Squeeze."
MC: Yes! Squeeze is awesome! So after I took a year to study voice and piano, I auditioned for the University of the Arts here in Philadelphia, and got in as a vocal major and received my Masters degree in jazz voice and jazz studies. Then I joined the faculty, along with Annie Sciola, Kelly Meashey, Tim Brent. The head of the vocal department is Jeff Kern. I love teaching. I teach voice and an ensemble.
AAJ: I'd like to ask both of you, what were some of the key formative moments in your singing career?
MED: Three years ago, I was fortunate enough to go to Japan and sing. There were two nights at a place called Club Groovy in Nagano, that had a kind of "Ortlieb's Jazzhaus" atmosphere. I started out somewhat timid around these guys, and I could tell they were turned off. They were Japanese, and there was a language barrier. So I started to pick up the pace. By the second night, there was a moment when I was improvising, and I looked around the room, and there was such an energy with the musicians and the audience. My husband was there, and I looked at him, and we just knew wow! I had never improvised like this, and I would never be intimidated about this again. Such an exciting moment. I was so glad my husband could share this moment with me. I just came out of my shell. It was a high. The whole experience of having a bunch of musicians whose language I couldn't speak, giving them the charts, and having this chemistry happen.
MC: One epiphany was when I heard the vocalist, J. D. Wolter. I eventually studied with him and we became friends. He's amazing. He does a whole 'nother thing and takes the voice itself to another level. I remember thinking, wow, I wonder if I'll get there some day. I remember that feeling of being floored by him.
AAJ: What is it about him that's so special?
MC: He really stretches it. He takes his "instrument," the voice, to all these different levels, and really knows his instrument and how to use it, inside and out, vertically and horizontally. It's amazing.