Melissa Manchester sheds ‘Light’ on the songwriting process
Melissa Manchester sure knows how to write a song.
When she was 17 years old, she took a songwriting class with singer-songwriter Paul Simon. Since then, she’s had three hits on the Billboard charts, received two Academy Award nominations for best original song and won a Grammy Award that is prominently displayed in her living room.
“It takes inspiration,” Manchester said one recent afternoon in her cozy Sherman Oaks apartment that was seasoned with the aroma of simmering chicken soup (her mother’s recipe) and decorated with tinsel, a Christmas tree and a “Happy Chanukah” banner. “But what does it take to write a good song?”
For her newest release, a Chanukah song titled “Let There Be More Light,” her inspiration was a rabbi’s sermon she heard in 2008, immediately following the terrorist attack at a Chabad House in Mumbai, which left six people dead, including a young rabbi and his pregnant wife.
Manchester was living in Oxnard at the time. She recalled watching television coverage of events surrounding the attack and feeling an overwhelming need to seek spiritual comfort. “I didn’t belong to a temple,” she said, “but I knew I needed to find one.”
When her son and daughter were growing up, Manchester belonged to Stephen Wise Temple (where the children became bar and bat mitzvah and where she would later become bat mitzvah), but it had been years since she attended services. So, she found a synagogue in Ventura where, it turned out, the rabbi was the best friend of the rabbi slain in Mumbai.
“He gave a sermon that brought stillness to the room,” she said, taking a thoughtful pause.
At the end of his sermon, Manchester said, the rabbi asked the congregation a question he then answered himself: “How do we answer such darkness? Do we answer darkness with more darkness? … No. God commands us to answer darkness with more light.”
That was her inspiration, the moment a seed was planted. She went home that night and wrote “Let There Be More Light.”
“Sometimes when you get inspiration, if it’s a lyric, you don’t know if it’s a title or if it’s something in the middle of the second verse,” she said. “And so you really have to sit with it.”
Manchester hails from the Bronx, N.Y. Her father was a bassoonist with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and her mother was a fashion industry mogul.
“My father was an atheist — Jewish, but an atheist. But my mother, who was raised in an Orthodox tradition, to her dying day felt guilty about our lack of Jewish and Hebrew education,” she said.
Still, when she was growing up, Judaism was a constant presence in Manchester’s life — her family lived next to a shul.
“And in those days, nobody had an air conditioner, so everybody opened their windows,” she said. Manchester still remembers the sounds of the High Holy Days drifting into her home.
Manchester is an adjunct professor at the USC Thornton School of Music, although she currently is on sabbatical because of her touring schedule, with performances on her calendar through March.
“I tell my students that lyrics of a song are basically a monologue,” she said. “It’s such a small amount of time — say, 3 minutes and 15 seconds — to create a world. So every line has to move the story forward.”
The first thing Simon taught her in songwriting class nearly 50 years ago, she said, was a credo that still holds true: “He said, ‘All of the stories have been told. It’s the way you tell your story that will create your sense of authenticity.’ ”
The story Manchester tells in “Let There Be More Light” is one that’s been told time and time again. (The video version was produced in partnership with the pro-Israel nonprofit Stand With Us.)
“The thing about light is it’s the connective tissue between all major religions,” she said. “In Christianity: I am the light of the world. In Buddhism: Make of yourself a light. Light is the ultimate guidepost of awakening.”
What makes her latest holiday song authentic is that it’s a prayer, an answer to her trying to make sense of the darkness.
“It’s a very interesting journey,” she said about songwriting. “It’s like peeling an onion from the inside.”