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For Audra McDonald, Experience And Raw Emotions Make Better Music


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News, I'm Michelle Martin. Now we're going to hear from one of the biggest voices in American theater, Audra McDonald. Last month she racked up her sixth Tony Award for her role as Billie Holiday in Lady Day Emerson's Bar and Grill. That means she is now the most decorated actress in Broadway history. Apart from Broadway though, she's also a recording artist in her own right. Last year she released an album called, "Go Back Home." And when I spoke with her about it, I noticed it had been seven years since her previous album. So I asked her why she waited so long.

AUDRA MCDONALD: I had tried a couple of times over the past seven years to - to get an album out and I just wasn't - it wasn't coming, you know? It wasn't coming. And I thought, well I'm not going gonna do an album till I have something to say and when I look back on at that now I realize because life was happening and I was living life and sometimes people say, you know, as a performer you go out and you give everything out you have on stage or whatnot, and then you have to go fill-up again. And, you know, for good and for bad I - I think life filled me up again. When I started putting songs together, it happened very quickly. A lot of it was songs that I had been singing for a while and had never recorded, like, "The Glamorous Life" and "Somedays." And others were songs that I had just learned from wonderful crops of new composers are out there, and new musical theater - just wonderful stuff that I think - I'd love to get out to the public. And then it all sort of started to take on the theme of - a very personal theme of sort of - I think songs that I were drawn to or songs or things sort of - like- that have been happening in my life over the past seven years. Like being away from home or being away from my daughter. And then - kind of - ending with make someone happy, which is just where my life has come after losing my father in a plane crash, and going through a divorce and remarriage, and you know, so the reemergence of a happier maybe, more seasoned for sure, person.

MARTIN: Well, you know it is true that you have a lot to say in this - in this album. I'm just going to play a little from "Married Love."


MCDONALD: (Singing) Married love, married love. Here's my strategy of married love. If it seems your hopes are growing thin, don't forget that you chose him. Don't forget that you chose him, so he must be wonderful.

MCDONALD: That song - is a - it's a wonderful song written by Michael John LaChiusa and it was written for one-woman musical that he's written called "ABC," which is based on a book by Marlene Dietrich. And in that book she - it's basically -some people refer to it as Marlene Dietrich's dictionary. She just goes through the alphabet and just has random words for each letter of the alphabet and then her thoughts on that particular words. And one of those words is married love. And a lot of it is just sort of her musings and her thoughts on marriage and her thoughts on partnership and - and relationships and how we as women must sort of do what we must do to be in relationships. You know, mind you this was written in the fifties. And it's not necessarily specific personal experience of my own but just the whole institution of marriage and - and everything that it brings about and everything that tests in a person.


MCDONALD: (Singing) Go back to a time before you learned how to bait, and then humiliate, and went to delegate the blame. You were young and felt your love, and it was wonderful. He noticed that you loved him and yes, he was wonderful. You didn't demand your second-guess or thought in terms of more or less, the heart put on its Sunday dress and you forget to fall.

MARTIN: You know, I was thinking about our conversation and listening to the album - one word kept coming to mind over and over again, and the word that came to mind for me was raw.


MARTIN: This album has so many raw feelings and ideas in it. I mean, it just - and even the way you talk about in the liner notes about why you chose each song. I mean, you know the song about the glamorous life which is a song about - you know- a little girl thinking about her mom who's an actress. And you are a mom, who's an actress and a performer. And you have a daughter. That's raw.

MCDONALD: Yeah, absolutely.

MARTIN: You know, did it feel raw when you were putting this together?

MCDONALD: Absolutely, and these are certainly songs feel raw when I sing them. And songs - like I said- that I have a deep personal connection to.

MARTIN: Less just play a little bit of "The Glamorous Life."


MCDONALD: (Singing) Ordinary mothers lead ordinary lives. Keep the house and sweep the parlor, mend the clothes and tend the children. Ordinary mothers, like ordinary wives, make the beds and bake the pies and wither on the vine. Not mine. Dying by inches, every night, what a glamorous life. Brought on by winches, to recite, what a glamorous life. Ordinary never get the flowers, and ordinary mothers never get the joys. Ordinary mothers wouldn't cough for hours, maintaining their poise.

MCDONALD: Quite admirably - I could say this over and over about this album - if someone were to write the Broadway show about my life over the past seven years, this would be my soundtrack - it really would be. And - which is probably why it ends up sounding a bit raw because it's all - if not, you know specific within the lyric, the idea of the themes that I'm exploring in this album are all very, very, very specific and personal and very fresh.


MCDONALD: Ordinary thrive on being private, and ordinary mothers somehow can survive it, and ordinary mothers never know their just standing still, with their kettles to fill, while their missing the thrill. Oh the glamorous life.

MARTIN: I do want to say, I'm sorry about your dad.

MCDONALD: Oh, thank you. It was hard.

MARTIN: Just, just - under any circumstances - I mean- losing a dad is hard, but a plane crash - I mean your dad was a pilot, as well.

MCDONALD: Yeah. It was really difficult and it happened so, you know, on a bright sunny day in California and they still don't really know what caused the crash and it was a bright sunny day in New York and I just finished doing a matinee of "110 In The Shade." and I got this phone call from my step-mom saying, your dad's gone. You know, and so I realized it really was the catalyst that sort of forced a lot of change in my life and going through that trauma and grief and learning how to mourn and realizing that I was morning, it changes, it really does.

MARTIN: How do you think it changed you?

MCDONALD: I started to take stock in my life really quickly and look at my life and say OK, who am I, what do I really want, what am I missing, what do I need Because I realize that life is short and it's easy to kind of get cocky and forget about that, you know, when you're young and just sort of trapezing about your life and doing what you got to do and then something like that happens, especially when it's, you know, my dad was, you know, 6 foot 6 and strapping huge guy, I mean, you know, there was no better picture of like a big healthy 62-year-old man and he lifted weights every day. To lose that sort of security, you know, I lost my daddy, I lost the person who I think if, you know, if something really were wrong and I really needed help and I needed him to beat up someone for me, or whatever, you know as a little girl losing your, all of a sudden that was gone. So, It forced me to look at life and try and live it more presently and more fully and more honestly and for better purpose.

MARTIN: Which is why I don't know how you get through, "I'll be here." I don't know how you get through it. It's from "Ordinary Days" a play which is inspired by 9/11.

MCDONALD: Some days I don't get through it, I have to say - some days when I'm singing it I don't get through it. For me it certainly has a personal meaning, in terms of losing my father really quickly, but also it's kind of a tribute to my stepmom, watching my stepmom have to like, get her life back together and find her life too, losing the love of her life and then all of the sudden, how do I move on. And watching her deal with that and try and pick up the pieces and there's some very specific lines in that that correlate directly to her. Like, take off my ring and you let yourself smile, you know, all those things that I've watched here go through and thought, well - that's why this song I think, you know, resonates with me.

MARTIN: It's such a beautiful song. I hate to give people - and it tells such a story - and I hate to give people. But I just want to play a little bit of it, even though I feel bad because I'm not doing it justice, by playing the clip of it but here's just a little bit of it.


MCDONALD: (Singing) I'm sorry, I don't mean to ruin your evening by bringing up all of this stuff. You're probably wondering why I even called you tonight. Well, today something happened that spooked me all right, I saw this storm cloud of papers fall down from the sky. And I thought of that day, and I started to cry, when sure as I breathe I heard John clear as day. Saying hey, you're allowed to move on. It's OK because I'll be here, even if you decide to get rid of my favorite sweater. Even If you go out on my birthday this year, Instead of sitting at home, letting all of life's moments pass by. You don't have to cry because I'll be here, when you start going back to the places we went to together, when you take off my ring and you let yourself smile. When you meet someone handsome and patient and true, when he says...

MARTIN: It is remarkable isn't it, that something so beautiful can come out of something so ugly. Which is like a lot of your work, like "Porgy And Bess" for example, it's so beautiful and yet it's about a lot - there's ugliness in it, you know...

MCDONALD: So much pain.

MARTIN: ...Pain, racism. It's about so many pains. I was curious about that. When you think about the beauty of your instrument and what you're using it for and then the kinds of stories you want to tell, you know what I mean? I'm just wondering how you think about that.

MCDONALD: Well for me, you know, the way I've been drawn to music is always been something that moves me and something that sort of reflects something that I want to say or something that I feel or something that I believe in, or story driven things especially. And so, the voice is very important but the meaning behind the voice and, you know, just the fact that you use the voice as the means to communicate the story, the feeling, the whatever, that's what's most important to me, which is probably why I didn't connect so well in the operatic world because I was always willing to sacrifice the sound if it, you know, made a moment better. And that's, I mean, what is done in Opera and I love Opera and I wish I could do it. But it's a different thing in opera where the voice, the beauty of the voice is what's most important, you know.

MARTIN: The theater has been a home for you and has been good to you. Do you think the theater is doing what it should be doing for our society? Is it telling the stories that it needs to tell?

MCDONALD: Yes. I think if you look everywhere that there's theater, I think if you look just on Broadway then you won't necessarily see all the stories that are needing to be told because they're not all there, I mean for many reasons, whether it's, you know, commercial or - I don't think it's that they're not being written because I think they are being written but they're not being brought to that huge visible commercial level. You know and all the wonderful work that's being done in underground theaters and off-Broadway, off-off-off Broadway and regional theaters all around the country, it's there, it's absolutely is there. As it has been since, you know, the ancient Greece. I mean, it's there, it's commenting on society and commenting on human nature and what not. And I think it's absolutely there, It's just maybe not necessarily in the most commercial and visible places that we would like it to be.

MARTIN: That was singer and six-time Tony winning actress Audra McDonald. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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