Roger Catlin interviews jazz singer Ann Hampton Callaway and country artist Rosanne Cash about love songs. After the jump, I’ll give you what Ms. Callaway, a master of the form, says, including some real insights about the nature of love and her complaint that most of today’s pop songs, though about love, “don’t sound like love.” And as a bonus Valentine’s Day present, I’ll add some samples of Ms. Callaway practicing what she’s preaching.
“To me, one of my missions as a singer is to help people either fall in love or to feel a rekindled spark in their relationship,” Callaway says, “because music has the power to awaken the heart like nothing else.”
Lyrics are key to a great love song, and the best romantic songs illuminate the moments of greatest realization, Callaway says. “When you just realized you’ve fallen in love, when you’ve just realized that you just screwed up the best thing you’ve ever had, when you’ve just lost somebody who died. They’re realizations, and the reason why you have to sing, not just speak.”
Callaway mentions as her favorite love songs Irving Berlin’s “How Deep Is the Ocean” (“He was able to express so much passion using all questions”) and Stephen Sondheim’s “Being Alive” (“Because it’s not just about romance, it’s about embracing the fact that we need each other”). . . .
There is still a great demand for romantic songs from audiences, Callaway says. “People who come to my concerts, they come because they want to hear great love songs.”
That may be in part because they are not served by popular culture, she says.“When I listen to some of the things I hear that are on the radio, in terms of Top 40 radio; when Britney Spears sings a love song, I never feel any love from them,” Callaway says. “I don’t want to generalize, but I think a lot of pop songs, even if the subject is love, it never sounds like love.”
That gives an extra responsibility, she says, to “those of us who work in jazz and traditional pop and the Great American Songbook, I think we realize the power of music to awaken the greatest aspects of who we are and the highest experience of what life is about.”
And for that, Callaway is unequivocal. “Life is about love. I don’t know anything more important than love. It’s not just about romance and feeling excited to be with someone, it’s also about the true generosity of spirit and compassion and care that goes into love.
“When music opens your heart, the moment your heart is open, then you can experience everything of love. But if you’re just in your head, stuck in your stress, it doesn’t matter what a nice person you are, you’re not going to experience love the same way. That’s part of the job of the artist, is to help people melt back into their true selves and experience the most beautiful part of who they are — and that is the part that is the lover.”
Body and Soul
How High the Moon
My Funny Valentine