Jazz singer Jane Monheit lets life guide her voice

Over the last 20 years, Grammy-nominated vocalist Jane Monheit has been one of jazz music’s great singers.

Lush and nimble with an incredible sense of swing, she interprets a song like very few. She has released 11 albums over her career, the most recent being The Songbook Sessions: Ella Fitzgerald.

Monheit joined us for a conversation about her career in music, and how life experience changes the way she sings a song.

Scroll to the bottom if you’d like to listen to the full audio of the interview.

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Do you mind if I ask where you are right now?

I’m at home under a blanket of senior rescue chihuahuas in Los Angeles.

I see on social media that your dogs figure prominently in your life.

They do. I think all of us really love our pets, and I’m on the road a lot, so when I’m home with them it’s great to spend time with them. We’re really serious about animal rescue in this family, so I post them a lot because they’re adorable rescues and I want other people to rescue, too.

You were 17 years old living in Long Island when you moved to New York to go to the Manhattan School of Music. Do you think back now that as a 17-year-old, that was wild and crazy, or does it seem perfectly normal?

I hear the number 17, and I look at my 11-year-old son and I go, oh my God, they left me alone in New York City? But it was under the umbrella of college, you know, so it was safe. And I had grown up… I don’t know exactly how many miles from the city, but I was there all the time going to concerts, shopping, all those kinds of things. So, I knew the city really well.

I get the sense that you really mowed through that experience at a high level. You took it head-on and you were really successful. Did that come easily to you, or did it come with a lot of blood, sweat and tears?

It’s funny, I look back and I realize that I was working super hard but never thought of it as work for a moment. I was learning my craft and chasing the dream. I was in New York City in the 1990s, which was such a golden age for this music. The scene and the city at that time was unreal. We were out every night until dawn, hearing the icons of this music, and then studying all day. It was a really intense time, but I look back and I remember nothing but having the time of my life. It didn’t feel like work.

Do any shows jump out at you?

Oh, zillions of them. Everything. We saw everybody at the Vanguard. We saw everybody at Oggie’s? before it was Smoke. We saw everybody at Small’s. My husband would just be playing gigs with Brad Mehldau at local clubs. It was an insane time.

Your husband is your drummer, right?

He’s been my drummer for over 20 years. We had home-schooled our son until he was eight years old, and so my husband stayed on the road with me. But now he’s in school, so Rick plays locally in Los Angeles and I have to use sub drummers on the road.

Has that been an adjustment for you, musically and professionally?

I’m really lucky that I have a lot of incredibly amazing drummers in my life who are also dear, dear friends. But of course, it’s like, that’s my husband. I miss having him on the road with me. He’s my musical soulmate.

There’s a quote you have here, you said, “As a singer, you get used to having your heart on your sleeve. It’s about accessing all of it and having that ready to go.” When you say something like that, it seems to me that that could be bruising over time, that you’re having to put that heart on your sleeve every time you perform. Do you find that it does take some tread off the tires as you move through your career?

A hundred per cent, in a very big way. I think all of us deal with our mental-health issues on different levels. That’s not a single one of us that isn’t affected in some ways by something that messes with our head a little bit. I’m definitely one of those people, and I have to access it all the time to be good at my job. It’s OK, because it helps to provide other people catharsis.

Has the way you’ve interpreted songs changed over time?

Definitely. As you get older, that happens. Somewhere Over the Rainbow when you’re in single digits, and then Somewhere Over the Rainbow as a dreamy teenager, and then Somewhere Over the Rainbow as an angry twenty-something, and then Somewhere Over the Rainbow as a new mother in her thirties, and then Somewhere Over the Rainbow as a woman in her forties who finally feels like an adult — those are very different songs.

Do you ever look at a young singer taking on a song that may be slightly beyond them, and say maybe that isn’t the right choice — that you do need to have some of that life in you before you take on a certain tune?

Absolutely. There are certain tunes that I’ve just started singing in my forties. It doesn’t mean you have to be a certain age to sing them, it just means you have to have a certain amount of life experience. It’s a matter of when that time hits in your life. Billy Strayhorn wrote Lush Life when he was 17 or 18 years old, and God only knows the life experience that led him to write that then, but I can only sing that now, at 42.

And you know that by reading a lyric, or by actually singing it through? How does that honesty come to you?

Both. I can read it through and know that it’s right for me, but then when I sing it it’ll start to take form. The act of singing is a very emotional experience, so that will bring more things out, and I’ll surprise myself sometimes with where tunes will go, emotionally.

That must be really gratifying, when it surprises you that way.

Sometimes it’s in a joyful way. It’s not always a dramatic interpretation. So many times at the end of a tune, I’ll burst out laughing because it was such a joyful experience.

Outside of being a professional, do you think that everybody has the ability to sing? Sometimes you meet someone who says, “I can’t sing at all,” and I’m not so sure about that. What are your feelings about someone having the ability to access musicality on some level?

We’re all born singing and dancing. Every single little baby in this world loves to sing and dance, and then it gets socialized out of us as our joy gets killed, as we move toward adulthood and all of those basic human joys get socialized out of it — especially boys, it’s terrible. So yeah, I think singing is for everyone, the same way I think dancing is for everyone. Yeah, there are varying degrees of ability … but I think it’s for absolutely everyone to enjoy. It feels wonderful to sing.