A Conversation with Molly Ringwald
Mike Ragogna: Hi Molly, how are you doing?
Molly Ringwald: I'm great, how are you?
Ragogna: I'm pretty good and I'm really grateful to have this time with you. Let's get into your new album Except Sometimes. What inspired you to record it?
Ringwald: Well, mostly, it was because I was playing with these incredible performers. I put a jazz group together and this was around 2008--2009, and we just had a great time together. We were sort of gigging around town until I was, I think, about eight months pregnant. Then I took a little break and then picked up when they were about six months old--I have three and a half year-old twins. We picked it up and just decided it was kind of like now or never. While we were performing together, I wanted to really get a record of our sound and what we were doing. That's kind of how it happened. We made the choice to do it independently so we didn't have to go through all the meetings and people deciding for us what we wanted to do. Peter Smith and I--he's my pianist and musical director and arranges all the music--we just wanted to do it the way that we wanted to do it and then see after the fact who was interested. Nowadays, it's like you don't really need a label. We could've released it independently but we were absolutely thrilled when Concord Jazz really got behind it.
Ragogna: Who else joined you on this project?
Ringwald: What we consider our core group is Clayton Cameron on drums, Trevor Ware on bass and Alan Mesquita on sax. Then on a couple of other tracks, we have a man named Winston Byrd who plays the trumpet and Bruce Forman on guitar, and Charlie Owens who plays sax on "I'll Take Romance."
Ragogna: Now, this is not new for you, making music. What's your musical history?
Ringwald: Well, my father is a traditional jazz musician, so before I did anything else, my very first artistic endeavor was singing jazz with my father's band, The Fulton Street Jazz Band. I started when I was about three and a half. That's really where I thought my focus was going to be. Actually, I thought I was going to grow up and become a black jazz singer. My idol was Bessie Smith. That's who I really, really adored. That was the music that I listened to and that was the music that I sang with my dad. A couple of the lyrics, they sort of had to change a little bit to make it more appropriate for me, but I really thought that was what I was going to do because that's what my dad did. My father raised his kids as a jazz musician so I thought that was a really viable career. Then I became interested in acting and you know in the eighties I kind of felt like I had to make a decision. There weren't really a lot of musicals then and a lot of crossover and I kind of thought that I had to make my decision and I chose acting. But I kept singing. I kept singing kind of privately, with my dad's band or with a sort of alternative band. Then I did some musical theater. But I was really dying to get my own jazz group together. It was always something that I wanted to do. When it all came together, it sort of felt like my dream come true.
Ragogna: Let's look at some of the titles that you chose for this project. "Except Sometimes," let's go there, the title track.
Ringwald: I sing a song on the album that some people know called "I Get Along Without You Very Well," written by Hoagy Carmichael. I always thought it was kind of an interesting story if you've read anything about him. Amazing lyricist, amazing composer, and apparently the way the story goes, this is what it says in his biography. Somebody gave him a poem called "Except Sometimes" when he was at Indiana University where I believe he taught. I think he was from Indiana as well. He liked the poem and he wrote a song based on it, but then when it came time to publish it, he had absolutely no idea who had written the poem, and this is a time before internet, before Facebook, before YouTube. What do you do when you need this information? He really couldn't publish this song without the credit, because he's pretty faithful to the poem. He improved upon it, but he's pretty faithful to it. So he enlisted the assistance of Walter Winchell who went on the radio and said, "If you're the author of this poem, come forward!"
He read the poem and he said, "We'll tell your Uncle Hoagy and you can be famous," and a lot of people came forward and they couldn't be verified, but then the woman who actually wrote the poem did come forward, and she was a seventy-something-year-old widow in Philadelphia named Jane Brown Thompson. She was the one who wrote the poem, so in the original publication, it says "Written By Hoagy Carmichael and J.B." I don't know if they've changed that. We're trying to figure that out because I just saw the first copy of the credits on my album and it just said "Hoagy Carmichael" and I said "Hang on, where's J.B?" I don't know if the rule has changed over the years with the publication and all that, but anyway, that's where I got the title from. A lot of times, including on my album, it says "I Get Along Without You Very Well," and then in parentheses it says "Except Sometimes," and that's where I got the name from. That was a very long answer to a pretty short question, but there you go.
Ragogna: Nice, awesome history, thanks. Where did your track list come from? I imagine they're all special to you, but are there any which resonate with you on a really personal level? Did you sing any with your dad?
Ringwald: You know, most of these songs that I sing on the album I did not perform with my father because he's really a traditional jazz musician and my band was much more modern. I really sing more from the American songbook, but musically, I would say that they kind of fall more under the hard bop category. That's just not what my dad does at all. So when I perform with my dad, I do kind of more Dixieland--I sing more Fats Waller songs and then, when I'm with my band, I do these songs. So in terms of my song choice, it was really hard because there are so many incredible songs that my band and I perform together. But really the lyrics had to speak to me in some way, they had to be fun to sing. Sometimes the music is really great but the lyrics don't come together, for me it had to be all of it. "Sooner Or Later," which is a Sondheim song, I chose specifically as a little bit of a joke because I was up for that movie. My agents were called about my availability to play the part of Breathless Mahoney in Dick Tracy, and then I didn't get the part and I was so upset about it.
So, in my mind, I thought if I ever recorded an album I had to record that song. It's funny because Concord ended up re-sequencing the album from how I put it and they put that one first, so I guess they really like it. But that was kind of a little bit of a wink to Warren Beatty who I actually thank on the album because he's one of the people over the years who's actually been incredibly supportive of my singing and has always said I had to do something with it. Then there's the song "The Ballad Of The Sad Young Men," which I think is an absolutely beautiful song that I've heard Anita O'Day sing, but it's one of the ones you don't really hear that often. "The Very Thought Of You," you probably hear that song more than most, but I really love the arrangement that Peter did. That really simple bass line, [hums bass line] you know? It just kind of runs through the whole thing. When I first heard that I kind of fell in love with it.
Ragogna: "The Ballad Of The Sad Young Man" is a pretty challenging choice. You handled it perfectly, then again, you've been in so many movies with sad young men.
Ringwald: Yeah, yeah. I used to actually not be able to get through that song without crying. When Peter and I first started to perform that together, I could not get through it without getting overly emotional. There's a very delicate balance--the same goes for acting--you want to be able to communicate emotion but not get so emotional that you can't actually sing. I finally got it to that place where it should be where I was still on pitch and singing but still felt very connected to it. It's just an extraordinarily beautiful song. It was written for a musical called, I think, The Nervous Set, which was about the beat poets in the sixties. I've never heard all of the songs from that, which I would love to hear, but that's such a beautiful song.
Ragogna: Now you know where that leads us, to the album closer, the song "Don't You Forget About Me," your take on the Simple Minds anthem from The Breakfast Club.
Ringwald: Well, I really think the reason why we did it was because when we recorded the album, it really wasn't that long after John Hughes had passed away and he was on my mind a lot. I felt like I wanted to record that song but do it in a completely different way. It was kind of meaningful also for me to do it and show that you can do something like that in a completely different way; that time passes and time has passed for me and I wouldn't say I'm a different person, but I definitely have evolved. I don't really believe in reinvention. I believe in evolution. I thought it would be interesting to just hear that song in such a different way. The song was meaningful to me. I remember the first time I heard it, when I first heard the demo when they brought it when we were filming in Chicago and when Simple Minds agreed to record it. It was really exciting. So that's pretty much why I did that. It was the only song on the album really that's modern at all.
Ragogna: You were in so many classic movies, for instance we were just referencing The Breakfast Club. I guess you get asked this a lot, but when you look back at those years, what are your thoughts now?
Ringwald: What are my thoughts? [laughs] I have a lot of thoughts. It would be impossible to synopsize. I think things differently every day. Sometimes, I don't think about it at all. I guess my main thought right now is that I'm amazed that they're still so relevant and that people still care about them so much. I've always loved those movies, but it's kind of remarkable that they've reached the iconic status that they have. I'm also really looking forward to my kids seeing them. My nine year-old has seen Sixteen Candles, but she hasn't seen The Breakfast Club yet. I'm really kind of looking forward to that. I want her to see it soon because she's already seen the take-off, the parody that they did on that show Victorious. She's seen a lot of the jokes but actually hasn't seen the movie, so I feel like I really have to show her the movie.
Ragogna: Yeah, and of course, you'll also be showing her King Lear.
Ringwald: Oh, she'd never make it through King Lear. Or maybe she might be able to explain it to me, but I doubt it. I think that's something she'll probably study in a cinema course in college.
Ragogna: [laughs] Saving it for then. And in addition to your film career, you're also a writer.
Ringwald: That's right.
Ragogna: What inspired you to go into writing?
Ringwald: Well it's something like singing that I've done all along, I've just never necessarily thought that I'd do it professionally. It's just something that's always been very important to me. I've always been writing. Something happened I think when I turned forty where it just kind of kicked me into this super high creative gear where I felt like I just really wanted to do everything that I wanted to do. I just took it really seriously, so I sat down and wrote two books. The first one is non-fiction, much more "writer" style guide. It's illustrated, it's really fun, and the my second was a work of fiction, a novel in stories called When it Happens To You, and that was all along the theme of betrayal, which I thought was kind of a very relatable human theme.
Ragogna: There's also your Broadway career. Anything up on that front?
Ringwald: We moved to LA in 2008 and I haven't been back to do anything on Broadway. I'd like to, but it's kind of hard now with three kids in school.
Ragogna: Are they edging towards music? Do you find of them more musical and wanting to follow mom's path a little?
Ringwald: You know, it's really hard to tell. My elder daughter takes piano lessons and she's very talented. She doesn't like to practice, but she's really talented. My littlest girl, three and a half, loves to dance, and my little boy seems to be leaning towards the piano. So who knows? I think they're going to tell me what they want to do.
Ragogna: Beautiful. All right, so this segues nicely into my traditional question, which is what advice do you have for new artists?
Ringwald: You know, I kind of make it a policy not to give advice. I feel like everybody needs to follow their own path and really needs to listen to their own core, which I guess is a kind of advice. Not listen so much to what other people have to say. If you really feel strongly about something, then you just have to do it. I really think that's the most important thing, and getting an education. I think that really is a good thing.
Ragogna: Are you going to be touring to support the record?
Ringwald: Yes, yes absolutely. People will be able to check on my website, which is http://www.IAmMollyRingwald.com and there's a calendar section that we try to be pretty faithful about. I say "we"...it's my husband. He's much more computer savvy than I am, but we try to keep it updated.
Ragogna: Did you enjoy your gig at Fifty Four Below in New York?
Ringwald: Yeah, we had a great time. Yeah, it was really nice.
Ragogna: Nice. All right, Molly, thank you so much for your time, I really appreciate it.
Ringwald: My pleasure. Thank you.
1. Sooner Or Later
2. I Get Along Without You Very Well (Except Sometimes)
3. I Believe In You
4. I'll Take Romance
5. The Very Thought Of You
6. Exactly Like You
7. Where Is Love?
8. Pick Yourself Up
9. Ballad Of The Sad Young Men
10. Don't You (Forget About Me)
Transcribed by Galen Hawthorne