Abby Lee: Born to Sing

Victor L. Schermer By

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The early development of jazz singers tells us a lot about them. Often, they struggle until they are finally recognized. Jimmy Scott was unknown for many years. Billie Holiday took whatever jobs she could get until she made her first recordings. Ella Fitzgerald's childhood was uprooted and traumatic, and music helped her find her way to a better life. They all were bit by the singing bug early in life, but it took time until they achieved real success. Their early singing and difficulties influenced their style, choice of songs, and musical presence.

Abby Lee is a versatile superb singer (until recently known by her married name of Mosconi -her husband is the grandson of the great billiards player, Willie Mosconi, whose story was told in the film, The Hustler). She is jump starting a career as a vocalist after spending her young adulthood wondering if she would ever have the courage to get up on stage. When this interviewer heard her as a guest artist at Mary Ellen Desmond's 2017 Christmas Concert at St. Luke's Church in Philadelphia, he was floored by Lee's powerful chops and impeccable technique and phrasing. He felt he was in the presence of a rising star. He was fascinated by the way in which a really fine singer develops at an early stage of her career. What are the struggles and joys of starting out on a path of uncertain outcome with a lot of dreams at stake? Besides, he wanted a "scoop"! If Abby Lee gets her name in lights, he can say he was there at the beginning. Readers and audiences might feel the same way. So he cornered Lee for an interview. Here is how the conversation went.

All About Jazz: What music do you like to listen to and who are some of your musical influences?

Abby Lee: I grew up on Linda Ronstadt. My mother really liked her, and I was obsessed with her voice. It was crystal clear, and so powerful. I also listened to mom when she played piano, and she had a wide variety of tastes from the Beatles, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, Etta James, Broadway musicals and 1970s rock. I think there was a wide range of influences. My husband is really into Heavy Metal. I've learned a little something from everyone. I got a lot out of listening to popular singers' versions of jazz standards: Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett. I've always especially loved Ella Fitzgerald's interpretations. And I listen to a lot of musical soundtracks. My favorites are A Chorus Line and Miss Saigon. And I love Barbra Streisand. She's done it all and is so spot on. She seems impossibly confident, while I've always had terrible stage fright, but then I learned she also has stage fright. I love Carole King, especially her album Tapestry (Ode Records, 1971) . I don't usually sing all those styles. I stick to jazz and Broadway for the most part.

I do realize a lot of my influences were fairly mainstream. I didn't have anyone to really expose me to, or help me discover lesser known talent, or things that weren't on the radio. I found jazz to be somewhat intimidating at first because of that. As I began singing at the piano bars in NYC, people would recommend songs and artists I'd never heard of that I should look into. That's when my world began to open up.

AAJ: What made you decide to become a singer, and how long have you been singing professionally?

AL: I've only been singing professionally for about a year.

AAJ: That's a very short time! But apparently you were very exposed to music in your childhood.

AL: My family always had music playing. When they had parties, they played Squeeze and Meatloaf. But they always were listening to music, and I would stay up and listen past bedtime. And we all love to dance. Whenever there's a party, we are always on the dance floor. I always loved to sing, and when my mother would accompany me, I'd always want her to be playing more swinging, more jazzy. Even from a young age, I always knew how I wanted the music to feel to me.

The Roundabout Path to a Singing Career

AAJ: It's a sign of real sensitivity from a jazz standpoint when a singer gets that rhythmic beat going the right way. It's a real gift that you could hear that swing even when you were a kid. By the way, where did you grow up?

AL: I grew up in northern Vermont. My parents were originally from New Jersey, but they wanted a change of scenery so they decided to try Vermont and settled around Burlington. So I was raised in Vermont, and then went to college at 17. I moved around colleges from the University of North Carolina to the University of New Hampshire, and then I went abroad to study in Florence, Italy. Then I came back home, and before I finished college, I moved to New York City. I always wanted to sing, but I just wandered for a few years until I found singing again.

Now, looking back, I feel a career in music was always what I was meant to do. When I was in New York, I tried to audition for shows, but I had crippling anxiety. Every couple of weeks I'd go Marie's Crisis, the piano bar in Greenwich Village. I realized I really wanted to sing in a small club like that with a raging piano. I wanted the pianist to do his thing well, so that I could go wherever I wanted to with the song.

But the anxiety made me quit trying to be a singer, so I ended up going into advertising. I moved to Austin, Texas, where they had all indie music and blues. I went to grad school and got my masters degree. Looking back, I think I was just trying to be a so-called normal adult, get a degree, get a job, go to work for the next thirty or forty years. But I was feeling miserable and suffocated in my chosen career, and growing tired of Austin, so my boyfriend and I (now married) decided to go back to the East Coast. So we moved to Philadelphia, and after I had an advertising job for a while, I said to my husband, "I really want to sing." He never heard me sing, but he encouraged me.

A friend of a friend suggested that I hook up with the New Voices Cabaret run by Larry McKenna [song writer and producer, not the saxophonist. -Eds.] I auditioned and got a slot at the Cabaret. Ironically, the night of my show, my husband got laid off his job, and I got strep throat! But despite the fact that he lost his job, my husband was very supportive and insisted I do the show. We both rallied, and went there. I was so nervous, I thought I was going to die. But then I went on stage, and I never felt happier. It's amazing what adrenaline can do. I pushed through, did the set, and I've never looked back since. Ever since then, my total commitment is to being a singer.

AAJ: The anxiety you describe is not so unusual. Some of the great actors, singers, and musicians feel that trepidation every time they go on stage. However, the reason I wanted to interview you is that I was very struck by your voice, which is so stunning and impeccably attuned, with beautiful phrasing. You sing like someone who's been around for a long time. Have you had any formal musical training?

AL: I had a little bit of voice training by a local voice teacher. When I warm up, I still think of things he taught me to do. But when I got back into singing, I felt I needed some more training. So I more recently got a voice teacher who was trained in opera, Chloe Olivia Moore. I love working with her. But mainly, I practice a lot on my own, and I really listen to myself. I've always known how I wanted a song to feel, so I'll practice and record myself, and critique myself until I get it the way that I want it to sound. Mostly, I would say that I'm self-trained.

AAJ: That's remarkable. You must be a really good listener.

AL: Thanks. I've always had a pretty good ear for music. But I'm also fairly obsessive, which has it's downsides. I think sometimes I learn music by either listening or practicing obsessively. Then it's like the words and notes are locked in a vault in my brain. I'm not sure how that happens, it just does.

A Natural for "Cabaret" Singing

AAJ: Earlier you referred to cabaret venue. That term is very wide-ranging. What is your own definition?

AL: I've been surprised to find that when many people hear "cabaret" they think of burlesque. For me, cabaret singing is singing in such a way that it expresses your beliefs and personality. I love telling stories and jokes between songs. I love the connection with the audience and that I can feel a close bond with them. I try to feel my way into my audience and respond to them. I try to adjust my music and stories to what will resonate with them. And with cabaret, I can use many different genres, not just one style.

AAJ: It sounds like for you, cabaret is performing in an intimate setting where you are close to the audience and have some freedom to be yourself and choose what you sing. You're not referring to specifically to 1920s-30s German cabaret music or the musical Cabaret.

AL: That's right.

Where to Go From Here

AAJ: What's your wildest dream for your career? What would be the ideal job for you?

AL: It's interesting you would ask, because I just recently wrote down a wish list for myself. When I was younger, I just thought it would be nice to have some regular singing gigs, just to make a living. Now, it's more that I'd like to sing my own way, the way that's right for me, to do my thing. Also I'd really like to record an album as soon as I can.

AAJ: If someone offered you a great job in a less intimate stage setting like a Broadway musical or a concert hall engagement, would you do it?

AL: Yes. But right now I'm happy doing gigs at places in New York like the Cornelia Street Café. It'd be a dream to sing at 54 Below or Cafe Carlyle. And I'd love to hear people say, "I'm excited to go hear Abby Lee tonight." I like when things come up spontaneously, like when Mary Ellen Desmond invited me to do some duets with her. I'm really excited to find out what the next thing will be for me without necessarily planning it in advance.

AAJ: Have you gathered around you some people in the music business to help you out?

AL: So far, it's been mostly the local musicians, like saxophonist Larry McKenna, bassist Lee Smith, pianist Tom Lawton, and drummer Dan Monaghan. I also have two dear friends in New York, Matt Frey and Stuart McMeans, who play piano and write music who want to do cabaret with me. One of them got me the job doing his music at the Cornelia Street Café. The show went so well that I pitched them on coming back to do my own solo cabaret and they booked me for Feb 23rd.

Little by little, I'm building up connections on social media, and so on. I'm still trying to learn the ropes, and I'm really grateful to people like Mary Ellen and the Larry McKenna who runs the New Voices Cabaret who are guiding me through the process and inviting me to work with them. Larry has asked me to do some shows at the Mt. Gretna Music Festival.

My main focus right now is to really get into the music on a personal level. I used to learn a song's melody, harmony, etc. Now I'm trying to go beyond that and get into the personal meaning the song has for me.

AAJ: Like Charlie Parker said, "If you haven't been through it, it won't come out of your horn." Find your own voice and message, come from some place deep inside yourself. So, let's say that somebody calls you up and says, I've got a great band, and we'd like to sing with us at a club, what songs would you pick out to do with them?

AL: That's a great question. What comes right into my mind is the musical Ain't Misbehavin'. I like to do the song, "Keepin' Out of Mischief Now." It has a lot of soul and the satisfying brassy belting that I love. I love jazz and show tunes, and I really like to mix the two. I'd probably do "Someone to Watch Over Me," "With a Song in My Heart," "I'll be Seeing You (in All the Old Familiar Places)," and Carole King's own version of "Natural Woman." There's a song called "How 'Bout a Dance" from the musical Bonnie and Clyde. And I like the song "Love Will Come and Find Me Again" from the new musical Bandstand. Those are what I might start out with. They come from different genres, but collectively they would have a similar vibe throughout the show.

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