Interview by Maryam Qureshi
Melody Breyer-Grell is a singer, writer and teacher. Her interest in the performing arts started when like many a young girl, she read the Ludwig Bemelmans children’s classic, Madeline, and was then introduced to musical theatre. It was not long before she found herself singing and acting in varied styles, starting with opera and landing in jazz/cabaret, a discipline in which in lyrics lay first. Breyer-Grell’s Blujazz debut CD, “The Right Time” was released to rave reviews, winning the coveted All About Jazz—New York—Top Five, Best Vocal Jazz CD of the year in 2004 “…Melody found her own personal style: “a happy meeting of cabaret and jazz…full of pleasures…Melody communicates words with clarity & warmth, while letting the composer’s intentions shine through.” (James Gavin, critic & author.) Melody also moonlighted as the musical director of the Ninth Avenue jazz/supper club, Chez Suzette. Having turned to the written word by penning lyrics to her satirical one woman show, What’s so Funny About Jazz? her writing turned more serious when she was asked to contribute CD reviews for the online zine Nitelife Exchange. The reception towards her writing was positive and Melody was eventually in print with Cabaret Scenes Magazine, The Huffington Post and a catalogue of short stories, a novel, and a memoir. She continues singing, but ultimately knows NYC is where her heart, beloved canine companion and husband reside. “The next step in a singing career like mine would have pointed to putting together gigs in Europe and Japan, as many of my colleagues have done. I need to sing, but not to travel.”
1.How would you describe yourself in one word?
2.What got you into music?
When I was about six, my mother was carrying on about how musical my two-year-old sister was. I think I remember exactly where I was, standing in our Queens, New York kitchen. I decided that if she could sing, well, I could too! Coincidently I did find out I had a singing voice, as did my sister. No shock really, because my father was a tenor. It is all genetic.
3.Who inspired you?
I think Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music really got me going. Later on I listened to all musicals and much opera, due to my father. Anna Moffo, in Madame Butterfly got me hooked on opera, she was beautiful to hear and look at. Later I loved to listen to Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McRae and other less famous but worthy jazz/cabaret singers.
4.How would you describe your sound?
I was always a bit of chameleon. I started off as a little girl soprano and then when I heard belters, I felt I needed to sound like that too. So one day I would be singing La Boehme and the next day I would be using full chest voice in a musical comedy. Later I migrated to jazz/cabaret. That is one reason I say I am mercurial, I had to do it all. My sound actually surprised me when I started listening on tape. I thought my voice was much darker and louder than it was, due to my personality. Actually it was a more lyric sound (with some heft).I never sounded like people I listened to, such as Sills, Sutherland, Price, etc. I heard a very young Montserrat Caballe do La Traviata on record and might have sounded a bit like her, but I never matured into a viable opera singer, no matter what my voice sounded like. It takes more than a voice…
5.What is your creative process like?
I really don’t have much of one. Just listen to the music and imitate it and try to make it mine through the words. I do read though, so I can check myself to see if am going in the right direction. I never really mastered a consistent technique, I was so attached to words and shut down when I did scales. That did not bode well in classical music.
6.Who would you like to collaborate with?
The actor, Adam Driver. I would like to play his press agent or something like that in a movie. He is one of the greatest talents I have ever seen and people are sick of my discussion of his abilities, so I might as well dream big.
7.Have you ever dealt with performance anxiety?
I was always a ham and never nervous, except near the end of my opera experience, because my singing was not going well. It’s hard to have confidence once you cannot manage your instrument. I was very relaxed singing cabaret/jazz, as it was not as demanding as opera. And one is able to phrase the way they like, use any tempo that works for them. As an intuitive person, it was easier for me to relax into it. And vocal perfection does not matter as much in that medium. Interpretation is key.
8. What are your favourite venues to perform in?
Probably a jazz club or a smaller theatre. I do like some space, though. I never made it into a top tier venue, like the Appel Room in Lincoln Center. It has a full opened-window view of Columbus Circle and Central Park. That would be the pinnacle. Magical.
9.What’s your favourite movie?
I like high art to low trash when it comes to film. My favorite guilty pleasure is Mommie Dearest, I must have seen it ten times, I know, horrible, right? It is just too hard to picture a favorite important movie, but All About Eve keeps coming to mind. I just love the dialogue and witty performances.
10.Your favourite actor?
Right now Adam Driver. There I go again. He is hilariously funny and/or deeply dramatic. He also sings a great “Being Alive” in Marriage Story. I guess the best old timer was Humphry Bogart. He did it all, but I doubt he could sing.
11.Your favourite dialogue from a drama?
Anything that Tennessee Williams has written. Mostly…Mendacity! (from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.)
12.Your favourite Halloween costume?
When I was young and cute, I pulled off a decent Little Red Riding Hood. Now I could do one of the Charmain Bears.
13.The movie that you would love to watch again?
I could always watch Tim Burton’s Sweeny Todd. Although some great Sondheim music was cut, it works and never gets old.
14.Your favourite book?
Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates. I am constantly re-reading it to improve my own writing. The story is terrific, but the style of his writing is deceptively simple and clear.
15.Your favourite author?
I love Richard Yates but I would have to say Sinclair Lewis. Main Street was a revelation, as was Dodsworth (great early movie), and Elmer Gantry (movie was excellent, but the book was better). I wish more people knew about and this author today. He wrote an insightful book It Can’t Happen Here, which recently sparked some people’s interest.
16.What do you like doing in your spare time?
I search Youtube looking for gory medical procedures. I think I need help. I also go through the millions of channels on the streaming services and get overwhelmed by the content, the good and horrible. But that’s what everyone does now.
17.Where would you like to visit?
I don’t like leaving my apartment, but if I could snap my fingers, I might want to hang around in Portugal for a while and eat fresh seafood. Or Iceland for the hot baths. Really anywhere, if I could just beam myself there.
18.Do you speak any other languages?
Nope, I can’t master any.
19.Do you get used to being a celebrity?
HA! The only place I was ever a celebrity was in high school. I used to get the vocal solos in choir and then get kicked out for mouthing off at the teacher. He would always ask me back to sing for the concerts, though. That scenario did not set me up to understand real life. Not too many second chances out there with people. But one can always change their professions!
20.If you weren’t famous what would you be up to right now?
At this point I am only famous to my husband, Andrew Paul Grell, writer and spouse extraordinaire. I would like to be famous though, or maybe just rich.
21.What’s your favourite holiday?
Halloween. I love candy, and it brings up great memories of my mother actually encouraging me to procure some. Usually she was hiding it from me. I am a sugar addict.
22.What sports do you enjoy watching?
I grew up watching the New York Mets. The team formed in my section of Flushing, Queens, in New York City. That said, there never has been a more Bi-Polar team in baseball, and the pain of seeing this talented team blow it so often is just excruciating. They have a two time Cy Young winner! They won their second Word Series just about the time I met Andy and we listened by radio, as my cable was not yet installed. Very romantic if that is not TMI.
23.What’s your favourite song?
Really? Okay…I do get worked up by Billy Joel’s “Innocent Man.” He is so emotionally naked, a really strong man. As least in that song.
24.What’s your favourite place to eat?
Home. That has helped me tolerate the Pandemic. I don’t like going out, so I have a curve.
25.What’s your favourite clothes?
Andy says I looks like a Ninja, whatever that is. I like oversized black tee shirts and black pajama pants in the summer. In the winter, black tunics and leggings. I’m not a fancy girl.
26.What pet would to love to have?
I already have him. My mini, cream colored poodle-mix, Cyrus. He is small at 16 pounds but very tall. He looks just like Andy. They get stopped in the street with that comment from strangers. I miss my lovely blue rat-terrier, Nora, who passed way to soon—she was the love of my life. And she reminded me of my mother. I think dogs are relatives and I am not kidding a bit about that. They just become us.
27.What would a good theme song for your life?
“That’s Life.” I think Dean Martin sings it. It kind of says it all…
28.What fictional character would be the most exciting to meet in real life?
That’s a hard one. Most of them are scary. Maybe Dracula. That’s gotta be exciting.
29.What’s the weirdest thing a fan has ever done for you?
That one is a secret…
30.What is one message you would give to your fans?
Listen to my music on Ecco-Alexa or Spotify under Melody Breyer-Grell. I have two CDs on there, (The Right Time and Facinatin’ Rhythms) and I have no idea who put them up. Even better is YouTube so you can see the song list. Feel free to send fan mail to Melogee@gmail.com
Maryam, I bet you did not think this would be a plug. Ha! But really, everyone, please take and stay safe in this wacky new world we live in. Thank you for offering such a great platform.