Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Q&A with Grace McLean

If you're a musical theater fan, you might know Grace McLean from her performances in musicals like Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812Bedbugs!!!, and Brooklynite. She'll make her Broadway debut in the fall in Natasha, Pierre, reprising her role as Marya D. She also has a career as a singer/songwriter, fronting the band Grace McLean and Them Apples. On Friday, April 1, she and her band close out Lincoln Center's 2016 American Songbook series. Last year, they opened the series after winning Prudential's Invest in the Future of American Song contest. She's releasing a new single in conjunction with the American Songbook concert and her first full-length album is out next year.
In college at NYU (after attending Orange County High School of the Arts in California), McLean studied musical theater, then Shakespeare at the classical studio, and then experimental theater in Amsterdam. "I think all of those things have really influenced the way that I work and have given me permission to be myself in the work that I do," she says. Read on to find out more about her influences, the pop opera that she's working on, and why she gives out goodie bags at her concerts.

Q: What can audiences expect from your upcoming American Songbook concert?
A: I have little goodie bags that I bring for my audience because I like everybody to be pleased with me when I perform, so [last year] I made them do little magic tricks and write down their wishes and blow bubbles. There's going to be more of that this year. I like to call these kinds of shows that I do Grace McLean lives in concert as opposed to live. Just add a little s there because it's alive. It's vibrant. I'm going to have my core band, Grace McLean and Them Apples--bass, percussion, and me and my looper. We're going to do some reimagining of some old American standards that we're maybe going to mash up with some American pop songs. I'm talking BeyoncĂ© and, like, Duke Ellington. I'm going to do a bunch of original stuff. I'm going to do some things from the musical that I'm writing about Hildegard von Bingen, who's this 12th century mystic who was a really powerful, amazing, medieval woman who I'm obsessed with. I'm going to tell some stories. We're going to learn some lessons together. We're going to make some big old wishes come true in a big musical, costumed way. 

Q: How did the name Grace McLean and Them Apples come about?
A: I thought it was funny. We were trying to name the band for my boyfriend at the time. We were looking for a name and a somebody. I think my roommates and I were trying to make each other laugh so "them apples" was out there, but also "these guys," which we also thought was funny. But Them Apples I just thought was so funny and cute and I just liked the idea of when you have your name and the people behind you. And I like it because, "How do you like them apples?" You probably will because they're quite good.

Q: When doing a show like this, how do you come up with the set list?
A: I definitely think of the arc of the evening and how the whole thing is going to work because I want to take everybody on a little journey. Months ago, I started making a list of anything and everything that I want to play and then I have to whittle it down because I don't have three hours to play to people. I just think about the different stories that I want to tell and how I can weave all of those things together, not only in terms of the arc of the set, but also how and when to get audience involvement, and it's not in a scary way. I give everybody a goodie bag and there are different points in the show where we'll do something together that relates to the song that's coming up next just so there's a communal context for everything. And then I also think about how I'm going to surprise people. At my 54 Below show, I had a flash mob of dancers for one song. Last year at the American Songbook, I had a whole horn section that came on at the end, so I'm going to have something like that this year as well. You've gone along for this whole concert, you think you know where you are, and then there's one other big, fun thing that happens that kind of comes out of nowhere.

Q: You've done a lot of musical theater. How do you balance your musical theater career with your singer/songwriter career?
A: It's working out pretty well. They're kind of riding side by side so far, which makes me quite happy. When I have a musical theater gig, that's where I'm focused and that's where my energy is going and when I don't, that's when I have more time for my music, which is pretty great because right now I'm waiting for Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet to start at the end of the summer, so I have a lot of time to put out these singles and get ready for the album next year. And the two kind of feed each other. It's great to be able to work on other people's projects as an individual in the whole cog and hone your one specific part and then it's great to be able to take that back when I'm looking at all of my work and being the director of things, making a whole album or a whole song or a whole evening.

Q: Have you learned anything about yourself as a singer/songwriter from the musicals that you've done?
A: I've really learned about succinct, clear storytelling. Sometimes as a songwriter, I really like to be quite personal and poetic and metaphorical and I think that works for songs sometimes, but then sometimes it's like, "How can I be as simple and clear about this moment and make it about one moment as opposed to five within a song? How can I stretch this one feeling over this whole arc and be very clear and have everybody understand really simply what's going on?" Working in musical theater, that has to be done. When I'm writing a song, sometimes that's a whole play. But inside of a whole play, every song has to be its own little moment and there's a little bit of different clarity of storytelling that's necessary. And it's been a good thing to learn that it's ok to do that. 

Q: When did you discover your sound?
A: It's always being discovered. I've been working with this looping station since 2012, which is a little box that records my voice live and then I layer harmonies on top of it or beats or whatever and it's sort of like a little one-man band situation. That's really shaped the direction that the band has gone. But before I had that, it was very pop singer-songwritery. I think you could hear Nellie McKay Regina Spektor. Since I got the looper, it's gotten a little more dance-y or fun and a little bit darker maybe. I'm also influenced by Joanna Newsom and her really idiosyncratic, long-form poetic storytelling. I love the lady storytellers. But also I want to be Robert Plant. I like a good scream sometimes.
Q: Can you tell me a little bit more about the pop opera that you're developing?
A: Also in college, I studied medieval art, just because I liked it and you can do those things in college. So I came to know this woman Hildegard von Bingen through her artwork. Once I graduated, I kept buying all these books about medieval history and she kept coming up and I was like I want to know everything I can about this woman and I started delving into her and her story. And she's just such an important woman that not a lot of people know about. You know about her if you're in the classical music world. In addition to the crazy artwork that she made, she wrote songs and poetry. She basically wrote the first opera in the west, predating others by like 400 years. She wrote the first mystery play. When you go to theater school, they say theater in Europe started in the church. She did that 100 years before anyone else was doing it. She just had a crazy, amazing, creative, abundant life. But what I'm writing is about the first 40 years of her life where we don't know that much about her because she was locked in a cell with another woman called Jutta von Sponheim. Jutta was an anchoress, which means she decided she was far too holy for this world, so she was going to live her life inside of her own tomb. 

Hildegard was given to the church at the age of eight. You're supposed to give 10% of your income to the church. She was the tenth child, so her family was like, "Just take our kid." And the church was like, "Great. Jutta needs a handmaiden. Go live in this cell with her." So they did. It was these two ladies in a tomb. There was one window through which they could participate in mass and get food and basically your open grave is in there and you just meditate on that and just hang out in there because your body is tied to this world, but as a nun, you're engaged to Christ and death is the best possible thing because you're going to be united with your bridegroom. And we know that Jutta really loved hurting herself, self-mortification, because that sort of pain and denial of the body brings you closer to spirituality. So Hildegard grows up around and becomes a women around this other lady who eventually died when Hildegard was in her early 40s. And Hildegard comes out and then she lives this totally explosive, individual life with this individual voice at a time when individuality doesn't exist. Nobody signs their name on anything. You don't know who anybody is. Especially if you're a woman. I'm interested in what happens in this period of time for 30-some years when these two ladies were together just being quiet and crazy and in darkness. I read this quote somewhere that I loved that Hildegard's life was one splendid vision of dying. And Jutta's was too, but Jutta's life leads her to a literal death and Hildegard's leads her to a life of creativity and celebration of death in life. 

Q: Where are you in the process?
A: I was just at the Johnny Mercer Writers Colony at Goodspeed Musicals in February and we finished the first draft of it. I have a concert on May 5 at Greenwich House for their Uncharted series to perform all the music as it is now to see what it sounds like all in context.

Q: If you could have anyone come see your American Songbook concert, who would it be?
A: Hildegard! My mom and dad are coming, so that's good.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Q&A with Rap Artist Baba Brinkman

Canadian rap artist Baba Brinkman creates one-man shows using rap and projections to educate and entertain about scientific or literary topics. His latest is The Rap Guide to Climate Chaos. He's been interested in the topic of global warming from a young age. It was dinner table conversation growing up, since his mother wrote a thesis on climate change. After debuting the show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last year, he performed it at the Paris Climate Conference. He just opened the show at SoHo Playhouse, where it's playing through April 24.
Baba Brinkman in The Rap Guide to Climate Chaos. Photo credit: Olivia Sebesky 
On the night I saw The Rap Guide to Climate Chaos, Bill Nye the Science Guy was a special guest for the Q&A portion, which leads into a freestyle rap performed by Brinkman. Each week there will be a performance with a special guest. The next will be Gavin Schmidt, NASA's chief climate scientist.

I spoke to Brinkman about the process of writing a rap guide, the effect Hamilton has had on audiences being more open to rap in theater, and more.

Q: What is your process like for writing one of these rap guides and how long does it typically take?
A: I was probably researching and reading for this one from March through June all last year. So it's probably three to four months of just reading climate change books and articles and blogs and everything I can get my hands on really. And then it took me about two months to write a draft for a script, so I wrote the script all through June and July and by the end of July I had a version I was performing, and then I probably scrapped about half of that. I'd say about 2/3 of the show that I'm doing Off-Broadway now was written since December, but it's based on the frame of something I wrote this summer, so that's usually how I do it. I'll do a version for an audience and treat that as a beta test and then go back to the drawing board on some of it and talk to people about what's clear and what's unclear. 

Also, the process includes this whole peer reviewed concept where I do actually send drafts of the script to scientists and get them to comment and send me back feedback, so then I can feel like I'm representing the scientific consensus view.

Q: What was the biggest surprise in your research for this show?
A: I think the scale of some of the dangers or tipping points I was pretty stunned by. It reinforced the whole we're playing with fire mentality. And also the Exxon knew revelation that Exxon was doing climate research in the '70s and their internal scientists are saying the results of this will be catastrophic for the planet and they turn around and fund climate denier groups and their public statement is that the science is uncertain. It's just a blatant lie and one of the worst examples of corporate malfeasance that I can think of, so I was pretty surprised. I talk to a lot of climate deniers and I give them the benefit of the doubt that they're actually sincere--that they really don't think that there's climate change. You can kind of forgive people that. People have their ideologies or their tribal views or they see the world through a lens and they focus on the data that satisfies what they're looking for. I start the show out with that. I get the crowd shouting along with me, "When I say confirmation, you say bias," just to keep that idea in mind that we're all doing that to a certain degree. But sometimes you get a really blatant example of something that is not just confirmation bias. It's cynical manipulation out of a profiteering motive. And when you look at it from the perspective, that's when it starts being permissible to get mad about it.

Q: Do you ever change your mind about something while writing one of these rap guides?
A: Yeah, I actually totally changed my mind about something. In the version of the show I was doing last summer, I came down pretty heavy that consumer action is not getting us anywhere. All this feel-good altruistic response is a total waste of time and all we need is a carbon tax and a legislative level policy shift. And the thing that I was surprised about in Paris, which I tried to convey in the show with more of a balanced multilevel perspective, is the degree to which other factors besides federal governments are playing a role in the response. Like the mayors of 1,000 cities signing up to commit their local economies to becoming 100% renewable by 2050 whatever the national policy ends up being. I was sort of surprised and inspired by that. Richard Branson was there in Paris and he was doing press conferences. He said, "I own three airlines. I speak for the business community. And we want carbon pricing. We demand it. We recognize the scale of the problem and we're going to move as business as quickly as we can towards decarbonization but clear regulatory frameworks are going to help us, so that's what we're calling for." But I didn't expect the business community to be there so forcefully on the side of the good. I went into the Paris conference thinking business is in the way of saving the world and my mind was changed there to some degree. 

Q: Do you worry about preaching to the choir? I think if you're going to see a show called Rap Guide to Climate Chaos, you're already concerned about global warming. How do you reach the skeptics?
A: I think the hard-core skeptics, the best you can do is quarantine them. I don't think you're really going to convert them. But you can innoculate other people against their views. I think there are a lot of people out there who care about climate change and there are a lot of people out there who know about it and know they're supposed to care, but don't really know why. I think that's the people outside the choir who I'm trying to connect with. People that are on the fence about whether they should care or if they do care, what they should do about it. I'm not so easy on the choir either, if the choir is the people who already believe in climate change and think it's a big deal, but what they're doing about it is riding their bike to work instead of driving a car to work, but not taking it seriously from a policy perspective or a legislative perspective. If they say they don't support a carbon tax, but recycle plastic bottles, then actually they're not the choir, they're totally deluded. I'm actually going after some of the green fallacies in the show as much as I'm going after the more skeptic views. Hopefully that means that everybody who comes hears something that challenges them or makes them rethinks their views.

Q: Obviously, you've been doing this for a long time, since before Hamilton, but do you think the popularity of that musical will make audiences more likely to check out other theater with rap in it?
A: We've only been open for a week, so it's hard to say how much that's going to cause a flood of audiences, but one of the reviewers who wrote about the show said, "I wouldn't have gone to this show if I hadn't like Hamilton so much." So, there's some evidence right there that it's going to open people's minds. I think there is a major effect because I did a hip hop theater show Off-Broadway in 2011 and when I told people what I was doing, I'd have to explain that it's like a play, but it's with rap, and that took some processing to wrap their head around what that would be like. But now you can just say it's like Hamilton but it's about climate change and then instantly people are like, "Rapping and theater, of course. Those goes together great." Hamilton has had the effect of making it intuitively obvious that it's a good idea to put theater and rap together whereas people before needed some convincing of that fact, which is I think a very good thing. Although Hamilton and my show are different in genre because that's a musical and I don't do much singing in my show.

Q: You've already tackled religion, global warming, and evolution. Do you have other topics that you want to explore?
A: I'm starting research and looking into a new show about artificial intelligence. I'm pretty interested in biotechnology and genetic engineering and what could happen with that as well. Still science related, but I do tend to gravitate towards controversial subjects. I think there's entertainment value in that because if you can get a feel for what kind of emotional reactions people have to it, whether it's excitement or revulsion or indignation or whatever, then you can navigate and negotiate those creatively and provoke reactions and then subvert those reactions. That's where a lot of my artistic craft is based, provoking outrage in ways that somehow are still funny.