January 22, 2019

Melissa Manchester is loving the life

“You Gotta Love the Life” is the title track of Melissa Manchester’s latest album and a kind of personal and spiritual mantra. It’s the essence of what she conveys to students at USC’s Thornton School of Music, where Manchester teaches master classes, and at Citrus College in Glendora, where the Grammy-winning pop star is an honorary artist-in-residence.

The philosophy has come in handy for family discussions as well.

“My daughter, who is a very talented singer, was considering walking the artistic walk,” Manchester said. “I said to her — as I say to all my students — ‘Your talent is just your focal point that piques your curiosity.’ But the truth is, this version of normal for most people is so unsettling that you have to be willing to reinvent yourself at least once a week to stoke the fire and keep your hunger going.

“For me, this version of normal is a very good fit. I’m comfortable with the unsteadiness and the insecurity of it,” she continued. “If you’re going to do this, you have got to love it.”

The 64-year-old Manchester — who will give a holiday concert Dec. 16 at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills as part of the Cabaret @ the Wallis series — not only loves “the life,” she continues to learn how to work it and make it evolve. “You Gotta Love” is her 20th album, funded by an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign managed by one of her USC students and entirely self-made. 

It is Manchester’s first album of original music in nearly a decade and was recorded largely in the state-of-the-art recording studio at Citrus. Not only did Manchester include songs that are highly personal, she produced the album in such a way that her students could observe it being brought to life and learn from the experience. 

“I really wanted to return to how I made albums in the first place,” said Manchester, who launched her career with 1973’s “Home to Myself.” “I wanted to bring in live musicians, bring new ideas to light or revisit old ideas. A lot of these students had never seen that collaboration. Most of them have worked with tracks, and the only person who comes into the studio is the pizza delivery guy.”

Robert Slack, Citrus’ dean of fine and performing arts, has watched Manchester with students on campus and during summer 2014, when she accompanied the orchestra and singers to perform in Waikiki, Hawaii. Slack said Manchester has been “incredibly gracious” in helping them find their way.

“I think the album speaks volumes about the kind of artist she is,” Slack said. “She has never sold out. She has always been who she is, and she will always do it her way.”

Manchester will be on the move this holiday season. After her performance at the Wallis, the singer has a five-performance engagement at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs, Colo. In 2016, she has scheduled performances in Oklahoma and across Florida. The world premiere of the musical “The Sweet Potato Queens,” which Manchester wrote with lyricist Sharon Vaughn and Rupert Holmes, will open in March at Theater Under the Stars in Houston.

For her holiday shows, Manchester’s set list will include selections from her new album, as well as seasonal favorites and hits from her more than 40 years of music making. She also plans to include the Chanukah song “Let There Be More Light,” which she wrote in response to the death of a rabbi in the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. Manchester had visited a Conservative temple shortly afterward, and she listened to a rabbi who had said, “How shall we combat this darkness? With more light!” Manchester wrote the song “Let There Be More Light” later that day.

A native of the Bronx in New York, Manchester had a bat mitzvah as an adult and describes her upbringing as “beyond Reform.” The daughter of a bassoonist with the Metropolitan Opera and a mother who worked in the fashion industry, she studied songwriting with Paul Simon at New York University and was subsequently discovered by Bette Midler and Barry Manilow. She received her first Grammy nomination in 1979 for “Don’t Cry Out Loud” and won the Grammy for best female pop vocal performance for “You Should Hear How She Talks About You” for the year 1982. Two songs that she recorded for films — “Through the Eyes of Love” from “Ice Castles” and the theme from “The Promise” — were nominated for Oscars in 1980. She has composed for films and spent some time acting on the small screen and onstage. 

Considering the who’s who of recording stars with whom Manchester has worked over the years, it is hardly surprising that her phone would start to light up when word spread of the development of her new album. “You Gotta Love” includes guest appearances by Dionne Warwick, Al Jarreau, Dave Koz, Keb’ Mo’ and the late Joe Sample. 

While touring in Florida in 2014, Manchester received a phone call in the middle of the night from someone interested in being part of the project.

“I pick up the phone and it’s Stevie Wonder, who doesn’t know about night or day. He just knows about time in his own way,” Manchester recalled. “I hear, ‘Melissa! It’s Stevie Wonder! I’d love to play harmonica on your album!’ Sure. OK!”

As Manchester tells it, Wonder arrived at Citrus to record his harmonica work on the track “Your Love Is Where I Live.” Students were on spring break and the campus was largely empty except for a student band that was practicing in a rehearsal room not far from the location where Manchester and Wonder were recording.

His “You Gotta Love” duties at an end, Wonder was preparing to leave the campus when he heard the student musicians and went off to find them. He entered the room, and the students, after getting over their shock, invited him to sing with them. As it happened, the Citrus musicians had been preparing “Superstition,” and with Wonder taking the microphone, they launched into a rendition of Wonder’s hit that Manchester said had “the paint peeling off the walls.”

After Wonder departed, Manchester debriefed the still amped-up students.

“They’re all screaming and crying and thanking me,” Manchester said. “And I said, ‘Listen to me. When you get home, find something to write on and write everything you remember about this day — everything you ate, whatever you wore, what he wore, what happened up until this moment and now your reaction to this moment. Because 20 years from now, how you thought about this will blow your mind.’ ”

For more information about Melissa Manchester’s Dec. 16 performance at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, click here.