Marsha Malamet :: Nods to the Past, Looks to the Future
Twenty years ago at the March on Washington in April 1993, performer, writer, and activist Michael Callen, at that time already an eleven-year AIDS survivor, stunned the Washington Mall crowd with his angelic rendering of his new song, "Love Don't Need a Reason." Within months, Callen died, but his legacy lived on. The song became an unofficial anthem at Gay Pride events and AIDS Walks since then, and has been recorded by over twenty-five artists and choirs around the world.
Marsha Malamet co-wrote the song with Callen and Peter Allen. Her own history, from the time she was signed to Decca Records for her own album in 1969, mirrors the gay rights movement. She has had dozens of songs published and recorded by the likes of Barbra Streisand, Patti LaBelle, Sheena Easton, Diana Ross and Luther Vandross, among many others.
Recently, she has worked with Jason Gould (Streisand's son) on his soon to be released debut album, and their song "Morning Prayer" is on his EP, currently available.
EDGE spoke with Malamet, born and raised in New York but who has lived in Los Angeles for many years, about her colorful past and still-burgeoning present and future.
slug>EDGE: I was thrilled to find out you’re a Brooklyn girl! I live in Bay Ridge myself.
Marsha Malamet: I grew up in Bensonhurst and went to Lafayette High School!
EDGE: It must have been exciting to grow up in the ’60s in New York.
Marsha Malamet: When you’re there it doesn’t seem like a big deal, but in retrospect I revel in all the things I grew up with.
EDGE: It was such a time for up-and-coming songwriters like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell.
Marsha Malamet: At that time, I never really followed the folk stuff and I wasn’t into the whole hippie thing. My thing was theater, and my heroes were Aaron Copeland and Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim. The first time I realized there were a lot of songwriters around was at the Brill Building-people like Carole King and Neil Sedaka, who were about ten years before me. And then when Joni and Laura Nyro became popular, I flipped. I began listening to them 24/7. But the one who inspired me most was Barbra Streisand. Having her voice in mind helped me to write songs.
EDGE: You yourself were signed by Decca Records in 1969 and released an album.
Marsha Malamet: Yes, ’Coney Island Winter.’ You can still get it on eBay for about $4.99! I was studying at HB Studios in the mid-’60s, and I had a teacher who introduced me to Robert Lissauer, who became my producer for that record.
EDGE: You were right at that time when female singer/songwriters were coming into their own. Were you disappointed you didn’t make a bigger splash?
Marsha Malamet: I can’t blame Decca. I had stage fright and stopped performing. I loved the record but I couldn’t go out and promote it, and the company didn’t put any money into promotion either. So that’s what happened.
EDGE: 1969 was also a watershed year in the gay rights movement. Did you consider yourself to be an activist then?
Marsha Malamet: Not at all. I knew I was gay and my friends knew, and I was even out to my family. But I was not political; I just wanted to get out there and do my songs. I knew who I was and it wasn’t a big deal, but it wasn’t in my consciousness to be politically out. I was excited about Stonewall, but I didn’t make it my identity at the time. [Laughs] But the new material I’m releasing this fall will make no bones about it!
EDGE: I know you were part of the scene at Reno Sweeney’s in the ’70s. I hear so much about it. What was it like?
Marsha Malamet: The whole milieu was so intoxicating. There was no other time like it in New York-it was like Paris in the ’20s. Monday night was an open mike showcase. So many of us who wrote songs were there and everyone schmoozed. Just the architecture of this place on 13th Street. And even the posters they did were artistically incredible; they are collectibles now. A lot of classy acts and anybody who was really happening performed there. You walked in and opened that curtain and it was magic.
Knowing Peter Allen
EDGE: What made you decide to move to Los Angeles?
Marsha Malamet: A lot of my friends had moved out there. I was an only child, and my mother was ill, so I was conflicted. David Lasley asked me to come out there for a visit because he wanted to write with me. David was signed to Almo-Irving Publishing [part of A&M Records]. I came back to New York and then the president of the company called me and offered to sign me. It still took me a little while, but I knew I had to get out there. And then that’s when I met Peter Allen, who was also signed with Almo-Irving. I knew him from Liza and I think he had just written ’I Honestly Love You’ for Olivia. Then I met Michael Callen. So all these connections and synchronistic things kept happening.
EDGE: You’ve collaborated with so many incredible people. Can you say a few words about some of them? Let’s start with Peter Allen.
Marsha Malamet: A complete gentleman. He had old school class like Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire. He would breeze into a room. He loved that piano. He was warm and had a great sense of humor. We wrote ’Impatient Heart’ together and I debuted it at Reno Sweeney’s and then he joined me onstage. It was quite a thrill.
EDGE: Howard Ashman?
Marsha Malamet: Dripping with talent, even then. We wrote a funny musical based on ’The Tempest’ and did it at the WPA Theatre in 1976. I knew he’d have great success. He wanted me to work with him on his next show but I was under contract with A&M and they wouldn’t release me. But I did suggest someone to him . . . Alan Mencken. [Laughs] I don’t know if it was just my suggestion, but it all worked out and was meant to be. Howard was a spectacular talent.
EDGE: And of course, Michael Callen.
Marsha Malamet: I still miss him to this day. He was all-encompassing. His smarts. His activism. And then to have that voice! He lived his truth without one ounce of fear. He made an impact. [Laughs] He loved that I was a lesbian. He loved women and worked to get more lesbians into the movement.
EDGE: You lived through that era when so many of your contemporaries died of AIDS. That must have been horrible to live through.
Marsha Malamet: Horrible. I lost a lot of friends. It became surreal. You couldn’t quite wrap your mind around what was going on. But I also saw such heroism, activism, and bravery. Michael was at the forefront of that. It brought out these people who came out with their whole heart and soul. The only response to something like that is to go all the way-to fight and feel good about yourself. ’Why God? Why this?’ we’d ask ourselves. It created an amazing movement. After Peter and Michael died, I took the baton and started singing the song at funerals and fundraisers. I was happy to share it, but it was with a heavy heart.
EDGE: You are a little unusual, I think, in that you collaborate almost exclusively, and with so many people. Do you write lyrics or music, or both?
Marsha Malamet: I’m primarily a composer. If I write lyrics, it’s because I’m flush in love or I’ve just broken up with someone!
EDGE: How does the process work?
Marsha Malamet: If there are three or more of us, I’ll sit at the piano and one person might be throwing out words and another might be trying to come up with a melody. I’ll play the chords and arrange it as it goes. I have written with a lot of people, but when I got signed to another deal in 1991, I was introduced to Liz Vidal, and she’s now the go-to lyricist I prefer. She’s the best experience I’ve had writing one on one.
EDGE: What was your biggest thrill as a songwriter in terms of having someone record one of your songs?
Marsha Malamet: There were two. In the early years, it was Barbara Cook. She performed at Reno Sweeney’s and knew who I was. One night, she dragged me back to her apartment on West 86th Street with Wally Harper, her musical director. Wally told me they wanted to record one of my songs. They invited me to the studio. It was huge, like a barn, and I was a little late. I open the door and this 40-piece orchestra was playing my music. Then Barbara started to sing, this voice of a lifetime from theater and cabaret! I remember thinking, ’Marsha, remember this moment.’
Then Barbra Streisand decided to record my song ’Lessons to Be Learned’ in 1995. When she wants a song, she holds onto it and you don’t give it out to anyone! When the album was released [’Higher Ground’], there was this big promotion at a store in L.A. and I waited in line with a friend. When I got to the cashier, I bought three copies. The cashier said, ’Boy, you must really love her.’ I was speechless and just pointed to my name on the CD and my friend told him that I wrote the song. Then he called all his friends over to meet me. Later, I went home and turned the lights off and listened to the song and just cried. It was the culmination of all my dreams. Then to have her son ask me to work with him. You live for these moments.
Marsha Malamet: It has been a paradigm shift because of the internet. It’s all about individual songs now. I think the CD is on its way out in the next ten years. When I was coming up, the songwriter was signed. That doesn’t happen anymore. It’s very producer-driven and track-driven. What’s great about it is that there is music for everyone. It’s all about YouTube now. If you can sing with a guitar in your bedroom and put it on YouTube and it goes viral, the rest is history. There are now only three or four big labels. It’s getting more difficult to be just a songwriter.
Do you know how much money we lose on YouTube alone? I counted my songs on YouTube, and there were a total of 350,000 hits. That translates to a loss of a lot of money. Perhaps that will be addressed at some point. But you have to do it for the love and obsession of it.
EDGE: What advice would you give to an up-and-coming songwriter?
Marsha Malamet: If you love it, if you breathe it, if you live it, then continue writing. If it’s about the money and the people you are going to meet, or you’re a weekend songwriter, forget it. It has to be part of your DNA. You have to be driven to do it for the right reasons, to share your art with someone. The competition is fierce; you have to love it. The ones who are more calculated about it never quite make it, because it’s not intellectual. But if you are driven, you love it, and you are good, then things will happen.
Working with Jason Gould
EDGE: So tell us a little more about working with Jason Gould.
Marsha Malamet: Jason is another class act. He’s a bit of a reluctant artist. To have a mother who is one of the music superstars of the 20th century. Hello? He waited until he was forty-five. He had everything at his disposal, but now he has the burning desire and he is driven beyond his fears.
He and I hit it off at a Marianne Williamson lecture, and he said he wanted to work with me. I brought in my whole team. So far, he has put out an EP, and we co-wrote the first song, "Morning Prayer." I think he’ll release an entire album when he gets back from touring with his mother. I’m honored and blessed to be part of this project.
He inspired me to come out with my own material. This fall, I’ll be releasing two EPs and one CD-a re-release of a CD I did in 2003 that was released in Japan. I’ve been a reluctant artist too. But my voice has never been squelched. We can come out as artists when the laws of the universe are in alignment. It is never too late.
To learn more about Marsha Malamet, visit her website.