Songwriter Profile: Melissa Manchester--Classic Craft and the Modern Mode


Melissa Manchester (photo credit Randee St. Nicholas)

Photo by Randee St. Nicholas

With the reconfiguration of the music business, the success of independent artists is a bright reality. But innovative enterprises are not only for novices: witness Melissa Manchester, a Grammy-winning, Oscar-nominated singer/songwriter who reached out to her audience for her latest project, You Gotta Love the Life.

Manchester learned about crowdfunding from students at USC who encouraged her to create an Indiegogo campaign for her first album of original material in a decade. Manchester recorded the project in the well-appointed studio at Citrus College in Glendora, CA, where she is an honorary artist in residence. Among the famous friends on the project are Stevie Wonder, Dave Koz, Lenny Castro, Keb’ Mo’, Al Jarreau, Joe Sample and Dionne Warwick.

The Citrus Singers from the college back Manchester on “I Know Who I Am,” originally recorded by Leona Lewis for the film For Colored Girls, directed by Tyler Perry. The song was co-written with

Greg Barnhill and Joanna Cotten. “Greg Barnhill is a fantastic storyteller, musician and melodist,” says Manchester. “Those chords come flying out of him. Sometimes you hammer out a melody to match a lyrical idea, but when someone in the room brings something new to the progression, it brings out a deeper element to the story you want to tell—but only if you take a deep breath and an exhale in the middle of the song.”

Manchester was inspired a few years ago by the songwriting alchemy of the Music City. “Nashville sort of saved my heart. I had gotten lost for a while because of the industry. My esteemed colleague Paul Williams said, ‘Go to Nashville to write, because in L.A. they want to know what you’ve done lately, but in Nashville they will be glad that you showed up.’”

“Other End of the Phone,” a duet with Dionne Warwick, was penned with the legendary Hal David, marking their only collaboration and his last lyric. “We met at his beautiful apartment in Los Angeles,” says Manchester. “Sitting at the grand piano, I asked, ‘How do you do this?’ He asked me the question back. I told him I like to get to know somebody, unless someone brings an idea into the room. He left and came back with three ideas. Two were sketches and ‘Other End of the Phone’ was flushed out, I took it home and imagined Dionne singing it because of how she sings angular music. I found where the unexpected commas were in Hal’s writing. He said because he was trained as a journalist, he wrote very sparingly. The essence of two women singing it brings an unusual kind of smoke in the air.”

One of two songs that Manchester penned solo is “You Are My Heart.” She was inspired by the repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act, when a close friend could finally wed his partner of many years. “I was watching TV and the news came on. I texted my friend and asked if I heard wedding bells. He said, ‘Yes, in August,’ and he signed off to me, as he always did, with the words ‘You are my heart.’ I wrote the song and sent it to the couple as a present and sang it at their wedding.”

Along with her own songs, Manchester interprets the Greenwich/Barry/ Spector Ronettes classic, “Be My Baby,” and melds two Irving Berlin songs, “Let’s Face the Music and Dance/From This Moment On.” Says Manchester, “One of the liberating aspects of being an independent artist is that whereas a record company would get confused by the variety of music, I never understood the problem. When I work on this onstage, the audience knows it’s a workshop. No one is confused and raises their hand and says, ‘I don’t know why you are singing Cole Porter and Irving Berlin.’”

Decades into a storied career, Manchester titled her latest project You Gotta Love the Life to reflect her ongoing commitment to the art. “I chose it and it chose me, but I don’t really know how much choosing was going on,” she concludes. “It is what I was supposed to do.”

Contact Judi Kerr, Judi Kerr Public Relations.