EXCLUSIVE: INTERVIEW WITH EDEN XO

Eden xo

Eden xo is ready for pop domination.

It took a few false starts before she emerged as the confident and exciting songstress that she is today. The 25-year-old musician started out in a female-fronted punk band, Shut Up Stella, before moving to England to collaborate as a songwriter with some of the biggest hit makers it pop. When she returned to the US, she fronted Jessie and the Toy Boys, but after a handful of singles and a successful tour, she found her true artistic calling by rebranding herself as Eden xo.

Her infectious debut single “Too Cool To Dance” (iTunes) is rapidly being added to radio stations across the country, has been featured on the smash compilation Now 52, and was named one of “Tomorrow’s Hits” by Billboard. With over 900k plays on Spotify, the single is slowly but surely exploding into the mainstream, paving the path for a huge and pivotal 2015 for Eden xo. I caught up with the singer about her inspiration behind the song, her upcoming EP and album, her Norma Jean moment, her aspirations for the future, and more.

“Too Cool to Dance” is very clearly influenced by Madonna’s early material. Will the rest of your music continue to incorporate this throwback ’80s pop sound with a contemporary spin?

Yeah, absolutely. It’s a little bit late ’70s and early ’80s for me. Definitely early Madonna or Chaka Khan, Michael Jackson, and Sheila E. It’s funny because it’s obviously not my generation’s music at all. But being a dot com child of the internet, I discovered it recently and really fell in love with the musicality, the live horns, the guitars, and that whole feel. It was a real goal of mine to not just try and emulate that era, but really go to the source and try to make the record with people who were involved in that music. So the guitars were played by Paul Jackson, Jr., who played on a bunch of Madonna records. My favorite thing he did, though, was the rhythm guitar on “Thriller” for Michael Jackson. And then the horns are live. We have the guys from Earth, Wind and Fire – their horn sections play all those horns. So it’s absolutely throwback, you hit the nail on the head with the Madonna thing, but obviously with a 2015 spin.

You spent some formative years in the UK writing for Xenomania, singing backup for the Pet Shop Boys, and recording demos for Kylie Minogue. How did those experiences shape your identity as a solo artist?

Well, it made me realize I don’t want to be a songwriter. What I mean by that is I love writing songs for myself. If other people cut or use them, that’s great, but I always have this weird thing where it’s like, “Oh, those are my ideas, and this is strange that someone else is doing it.” When I was at Xenomania for a long time, I was kind of trapped in this writer role where I had all of these ideas, and Girls Aloud were coming in and singing them, and it was actually really frustrating in some ways, because, I was just like, “Ugh, this is not right…” It’s not how I intended it. So, the best thing I got out of it was I learned so much, because obviously working with Xenomania, and with Pet Shop Boys, and people like that, they’re just on another level. So they stepped up my game as a songwriter, but it just kind of reinforced how badly I want to be an artist myself and not only a songwriter.

Under the moniker of Jessie and the Toy Boys, you received the coveted honor of opening for Britney Spears on her 2011 Femme Fatale tour. What was that experience like and did she give you any advice on the road?

It was like everything I’m sure you’d imagine. I couldn’t believe that I was opening up for Britney Spears, arguably the queen of pop of our time. It was insane, especially for me. Growing up, Baby One More Time was one of the first CDs I owned. It was just like, “Wow, I can’t believe that she picked me,” you know? It was such an honor.

Advice? Not so much specifically like “Let me sit you down and tell you how it is,” but she has a great aura about her. Just being in her presence and seeing how her ship is run and how she operates and performs every night, you can’t help but to pick a few things up. It was great to be on that tour. I learned a lot and it was another stepping stone.

I bet! Have you seen her Vegas show yet?

No, I haven’t. I heard it’s really similar to the Femme Fatale tour though, because I think she basically just went from that tour to the Vegas show and then they added a couple numbers. So I feel like I’ve seen it, because I saw the other show every night for three months. But I haven’t seen the new show. I would love to. I love her. I will always be a fan.

What made you decide to drop the Jessie and the Toy Boys and reemerge as Eden xo?

Well, the truth of the matter is that after that tour, I was kind of in a very lost state. I mean, the tweets stopped coming in, the phone had stopped ringing, and I just was isolated and left kind of by myself. Because I was doing this thing, I was on this mission, like, “I’m independent,” you know, “fuck major labels, I don’t need you, whatever.” And, ultimately, it turns out that if you really want to have your music on the radio and out there to the masses, you can’t really do everything yourself and you need a little bit of help.

It was very humbling in some ways and I felt like I was such an underdog for so long. So I just threw myself into the studio and I was kind of in a depression. I started writing different stuff and I felt like I had changed so much and evolved so much as a person that I didn’t feel like I was the same person anymore. And so, I was thinking that maybe I should create a new project or whatever, just to have a fresh start.

Also with my sound changing and shifting from, you know, wanting to stray away from the electro thing and going more organic, I just felt like I was creating something new. And then when I thought of all of these names, I thought, “This is so lame.” I actually just wanted to strip away the gimmick and I just wanted to be myself. Then I was just staring at my driver’s license, because Eden is my middle name, and I looked at it and I was like, “Oh, there you are,” and it was staring me in the face my whole life and I just didn’t realize it. And now is the time. It’s almost like I had to go through everything to figure it all out. So now, when people call me Jessie, it’s actually strange to me. It’s really weird. I feel as though I’ve completely evolved. It was my Norma Jean/Marilyn moment.

What was it about “Too Cool to Dance” that made you decide it was the perfect debut single to launch this new chapter of your career with?

Well, it was the first song I finished, so that helped. The message of the song really resonated because of everything that I have gone through. It’s a fun pop song but, I’m tired of being in the corner, taking selfies and not dancing, in all forms life. I just felt like it was time to let loose and ask, “Who cares?”

And so “Too Cool to Dance” to me really hits a lot of points personally that I wanted to put out there, which is like, “Don’t care about what other people think, let’s not be too cool to dance,” and “let’s just enjoy life and have fun.” You can waste away worrying about what other people think and I just don’t care anymore.

The music video is super cute too. It features you stuck in a retirement home with your grandparents until your friends show up and save the day by getting everyone in the community to dance. How did you come up with the concept?

Thank you! I actually originally made a gif video myself. I did that version first and then the director saw that and it kind of inspired her to write the treatment she wrote with the older people. Because in mine, I have the random Asian Jazzercise club at the end and she was like, “Oh, my gosh. This is so brilliant,” and was like, “What if we did Palm Springs?” and la, la.

So, that’s kind of how it came together. And I liked her style, I liked her photography a lot. I hadn’t seen a lot of her videos but I kind of decided to work with her more based on her fashion photography, because I love fashion so much and I thought she had a good vision. So it was something we tried to focus on in the video with nailing the look of everything, and the clothes, and whatnot.

Do you have any ideas regarding the titles and/or release dates of your upcoming 5-song EP and your debut album?

Yeah, I do. I know that I’m not allowed to say the title. So lame, I know. But I do have the title. I have all songs mixed and mastered, everything’s done, and the EP is coming out in March. I don’t think they’ve given a date on the album, but it’s close to being done too. It’s at least all written. The album is on the way, but mostly the EP is the focus right now, five songs. It’s going to be awesome.

Which producers and songwriters are you working with to craft both of these records?

I worked a lot with this guy named Jesse Shatkin. I met him a few years ago and he, at the time, was Greg Kurstin’s assistant engineer and we had a writing session. We just had an instant creative connection, and we wrote something like eight songs in two weeks. So we were like, “Whoa, we’ve got to keep working together,” so we did. And I’m so proud of him, because he wrote “Chandelier” with Sia and had a massive year with her and that song, and now he’s up for Grammy for Best Record. I also worked with Tony Kanal from No Doubt and Jimmy Harry on a couple of songs. And then there was another collaboration with Fred Falke and Ron Fair, who I did “Too Cool to Dance” with. There’s another song called “Savoring Up My Love” on the EP that we did together, and I think that’s it.

Oh, and a lot of French influence somehow. There is this other French producer named Will Simms, who oddly enough does all these K-pop records but he is one of the freshest programmers I’ve ever heard. He had this beat, this idea, and we called the song we did together, “The Weekend.” That’s another song where we got the Earth, Wind and Fire horns in, and so it’s kind of another one of those mixed fusion moments of the old and the new.

Music isn’t your only forte. You also had a recurring role on the soap opera, One Life to Live. Do you foresee doing any more TV or film acting in the future?

I would really love to act more. I actually got my first movie offer a couple of months ago and I had to turn it down because it was at the exact same time I got the green light to put out “Too Cool to Dance,” so it was impossible to do both. It was kind of a weird and bittersweet moment where I was like, “Oh my God, I’ve been waiting for all of these things to happen and they’re both happening now,” and I had to make a decision. But music is my first love so, you know, that’s kind of why. But I think acting would be great. I’d like to find the right kind of role. I mean, One Life to Live was a good learning experience. It was like the basics, but if I’m to continue acting, I’d like to kind of pay my dues in acting the way I have in music – maybe start out in an indie feature or something like that.

What’s at the top of your holiday wish list this year?

Oh, my God. Sleep. No, I’m just kidding. I know it’s weird, but probably furniture. That’s such an adult answer. Where before it would be clothes and whatever, now I’m into furniture. I’m into design and … like, this is so weird. Any time I have a moment off, I’m watching HGTV and watching shows about flipping houses. And I’m like, “Oh, I want this like antique settee.”

What’s been your favorite album of 2014 so far?

Probably Ultraviolence by Lana Del Rey. I really love that. She’s incredible. I also love the new record that the Arctic Monkeys put out, AM. I listen to it all the time. It’s my jam.

Tell me a little bit about this online dance competition that you recently launched. I know that it’s happening now through December 31st, and it’s called “Are You Too Cool to Dance?”

Yeah. Basically, given the message of the song about dancing like nobody’s watching, it’s this fun opportunity I’m giving fans to win a trip to LA for two and to be in my next video for “The Weekend,” which will be filming at the end of January. All they have to do is make a video and upload it towww.toocooltodance.com. Dancing wherever they want. Some people think, “Oh, I’ve got to put a lot of thought into it, it’s got to be really creative,” but really, the simpler the better. It’s just whatever you feel. If you’re grocery shopping and you just want to break out and dance, just do it; capture it on film, and you could win a trip to LA and be in my next video.

So, just to wrap up, with all of the music you have coming out and all of the exciting things you have to look forward to over the next few months, where do you hope to see yourself this time next year?

I hope to have a #1 album, I hope to have Grammy nominations and I hope to be on fucking top. Finally. I really want a full album out. Because I just know that once people get to peel the other layers of the onion, it’s just going to change the game. There is so much I want to say, so much I want to do, and there is so much creatively that’s out there. So, really, as long as I can keep doing what I love to do and not have to wait tables, I’ll be happy.

eden-xo-2

Originally published on PopBytes

EXCLUSIVE: INTERVIEW WITH THE TING TINGS

The Ting Tings Super Critical

When The Ting Tings exploded onto the music scene with their dynamic debut album We Started Nothing in 2008, it seemed that the pop / rock world had discovered the latest jewel in its crown.

After a string of infectious hits, the band’s star was on the rise as they were featured in Apple commercials, performed at MTV’s Video Music Awards, toured with Pink, won award after award, and much more. But when their second album, Sounds from Nowheresville, was released in 2010, critics weren’t as kind to the UK artists and the success they enjoyed was quickly forgotten.

Four years later, The Ting Tings have reemerged bigger, bolder, and better than ever. Consisting of members Katie White and Jules De Martino, the band has just independently released their superb third album, Super Critical (iTunes), a passionate and unique love affair between the genius sound of their first record and their recently discovered affinity for Studio 54 and 1970’s disco. I chatted with White about the band’s evolution, the new album, their upcoming US tour, and more.

The Ting Tings Super Critical

How do you feel you’ve grown and evolved musically between Sounds from Nowheresville and Super Critical?

What we found quite interesting is working with somebody else in the studio because it’s always just been myself and Jules. Both Jules and I have short attention spans so we would literally write songs and change them 30 times within the space of two days, and then have a nervous breakdown, hate it, and that would be it. Having somebody like Andy Taylor (of Duran Duran) in the studio with us, he’d go, “stop. Get away from the Pro Tools, don’t touch anything, go home, sleep on it and come back and listen to it tomorrow.” It was just a revelation to us because we’d go home hating it, then come back the next day and hear it with completely fresh ears and be like, “We love it! We love it!” That was a huge revelation for us and I think it really opened our minds to working with other people on the next album. We were always quite against it because we thought “oh god, no” and worried that they’d change things too much and we wouldn’t sound like us, but it was actually a much more endurable process.

So how did Andy end up working on the record in the first place?

It was completely random. We moved to Ibiza to record this third album and this guy walked into the studio one day. He looked kind of freaky and I had no idea who he was until he revealed that he was Andy from Duran Duran, and we just became friends. He’s really entertaining and has an amazing story. He’s a complete lover of every kind of music.

What happened was we kept getting asked to write for other artists and we were quite nervous to do that because we were in the middle of recording our album and we were worried that starting to write songs with other artists in mind would disrupt our whole brains. So Andy asked us to come to the studio once a week and kind of dump some ideas on him and then leave him to it, and we thought that was great because we wanted to work with him. But we were also a little frightened because he’s our friend so we didn’t know what we’d do if the songs that we worked on together ended up sounding like shit. We were worried that it would be really embarrassing and ruin our friendship.

At the same time, it was the perfect opportunity to do something that wasn’t so pressured. So we went into the studio one day with him and we recorded a song and we actually finished it in one day. But then we listened to it and thought, “Oh my god, we’re not giving this to anyone. We’re keeping it for ourselves.” And then we didn’t end up leaving the studio for 9 months and we were like, “you’re co-producing our entire album.” We had never worked with anyone before and it was just amazing.

We were in Ibiza, which is a beautiful island off the coast of Spain and we didn’t go to the beach once. We didn’t even go to one restaurant. We just stuck in this bunker, basically, which was hot and humid, and just had the time of our lives fantasizing about writing music and he’d tell us about how he used to go to Studio 54. It was just an amazing experience.

Why did you choose to go to Ibiza to write and record? What was it about being in that specific setting that inspired you so much?

It’s definitely become a thing for our band now that we go to a new place every time that we record. We love to feel almost like a new band and because there’s only two of us, it’s hard to feel like that. After our first album, I remember my mom saying, “Take time to remember this feeling because you can only be a new band once in your career.” It’s a very special moment because you’re not jaded and you’re not worried about how somebody will critique your songs, you’re just working out of complete naivety, which is a great place to be. Obviously by your third album, you don’t feel that same way. You’ve toured and you’ve seen all the reactions and it’s a lot harder to make decisions knowing what you know. So for us, we wanted to try to get back enough of that feeling to write new songs and get really excited again.

We’d been to Ibiza to rehearse for about four weeks before we went on tour. We finished touring Spain and we didn’t want to go back to England. We wanted to go somewhere nice and so we said, “Let’s go to Ibiza!” It’s got a really odd and interesting character because it’s kind of the place where it’s crazy party central in the summer. It’s so famous for its clubs. And then in the winter, it’s just the people who don’t know when the party stops or there’s weird, fun characters who have lived there for years in their own funky houses in the middle of nowhere with their hippie lifestyles. We just found it quite fascinating.

It’s weird because we didn’t actually make up any music that sounded like Ibiza, which is so bizarre. We kind of made the opposite. It was all techno and EDM that would be playing in the clubs in Ibiza and we’d go to them and party and have a great time. But then we’d go back to the studio with Andy and realize there was never even a single song that you could sing along to. They were all just beats that you would need horse tranquilizers to enjoy – which is ok, but we thought there might be another way.

So then we would talk about Studio 54 and we’d imagine ourselves being there. It was so glamorous and all champagne and cocaine and a bigger thing about that was that the BPM of those records from those days was a lot slower, so the dance floor would move in different ways. You can’t dance the same way to beats today, it’s almost like people are kind of jerking around and that’s it. But when you look at the footage from the 70’s, people really danced and it looked really cool. So we wanted to write a record that people could dance to. We loved going to the clubs in Ibiza but it is quite interesting that we made a record that doesn’t sound like it. It’s a bit ridiculous really.

The album really is heavily influenced by pre-EDM nightlife and 1970s New York. Aside from being able to dance to it, what is it about this disco-infused sound that you wanted to explore and what challenges did you face folding this into your signature pop/rock sound?

No challenges really, no. Especially because we had Andy helping us. Andy was in a band with Bernard Edwards out of Chic. When he ended Duran Duran, he started a band called Power Station with him. Nile Rodgers really showed him a lot. What was interesting was that because we were making our own version of that sound, it didn’t end up sounding pastiche, and was instead a weird mix. It’s not totally 70’s. It comes from all three of us, and I wasn’t even born in the 70’s. Then there’s Andy, who took all this influence from Nile Rodgers but played it in his own way as well. I think it was actually pretty easy to write because we made such a good team and had such a love affair in the studio.

You’ve openly discussed that you had a lot of difficulties making your second record. Do you feel that with this third one, you’ve found your footing and are ready to in a way, reboot the band?

Yes, definitely. It will be different. We put the album out on our own label this time. I remember when we first started as a band, we put out “That’s Not My Name” and “Great DJ” and all that all on our own, and obviously we were really scared. Then record labels came knocking on our door and like any new band, we inevitably signed with one to get things going. We wrote that first album in our bedrooms, all on our own. It was pretty much finished and then we signed it to Sony and had an amazing time.

We’re a difficult band because we write completely pop songs but if we try to just be a pop band, we fail miserably at it. We don’t function as pop artists who have huge teams around them and writers. It takes us 2-3 years to write an album and pop artists don’t function like that – they have writers and producers consistently churning out hits for them. And they do that beautifully, but we’re just not that band. We’re just an awkward band that’s almost indie in our mentality but we can’t write indie rock because everything that comes out of our mouths is pop, so we don’t really fit very well with either.

When a major label gets a rock band, they know how to work that. They get the right magazines and do what they need to in order to get the cool points. And with pop bands, there’s another way. As a band somewhere in the middle, we were nobody’s baby. We were always so polite to them but they’d ask us to do things like go walk red carpets and we’d just say, “no! We’d rather sleep at home and be miserable all night!” and that’s just not how it works when you want to sell records. By our second album, there was a meeting that we heard about where there were like 20 people discussing what we should sound like and we just thought, “What the fuck!” We’re the wrong band to work like that. We’d totally fail with 20 people, all who have different opinions of what our second album should sound like.

We’re just much happier now. It’s a totally different approach and we’re putting out the record we want when we want, it’s not like we’re timing it based on a projected chart position. Just like bands like The xx or London Grammar, you don’t feel like it’s forced upon you. But if it’s a good album, maybe over the course of the next year you’ll think “wow, that band has really picked up momentum,” so that was the way we wanted to work on Super Critical. It was less pressured and more creative.

What artists/albums were you listening to the most during the writing/recording of the album?

We listened to Diana RossDonna Summer, and we listened to a lot of Chaka Khan’s early and funky stuff. I became a big fan of Fleetwood Mac, but that was more about the songwriting. It wasn’t so much the sounds of the records but the song melodies. I’ve got an obsession with Stevie Nicks.

What’s your favorite song on the record and why?

I’ve got two. One is “Wrong Club” because it’s one of those songs that sound really uplifting but is really quite depressing when you listen to the lyrics. It’s got a real melancholy feel to it. I’m a big fan of bands like The Smiths, who were masters at doing that. You hear this beautiful song and you listen to the lyrics and they’re about getting run over by a bus and you just think, “That’s amazing!” I also really love the song “Failure.” We wrote that song with the most sugary, syrupy melody. We wrote the melody first and thought it was too sickly sweet for us so we wrote a song about being failure and thought it’d be fun to make such a sweet sounding song be about failure. I love it. I think I just like miserable songs.

Obviously the name Super Critical comes from a track on the record, but why did you feel it was the best title for the album as a whole?

We named it, in all honesty, after a bag of weed in the studio called “Super Critical.” All three of us were like, “is that really what it’s called?” And then you think about it and “critical” is really an amazing word. So then we started to write the song and we wanted to subvert the word to mean a few different things, and we couldn’t think of a better word to name our album. It sounds funky and could mean 2-3 different things that people can read into, whether it’s something to criticize or it’s a moment in our career that’s super important, so we liked that aspect of it a lot.

There’s a hilarious scene in Horrible Bosses in which Charlie Day’s character sings your hit “That’s Not My Name” during a cocaine binge. What was it like seeing your song used in the film that way and are you looking forward to the sequel?

It was brilliant. I found it very funny. I am really looking forward to the sequel, I thought it was a good film. It’s very surreal seeing your song used for a coke binge in a car in a movie.

Currently, you’re touring in Europe, and next year, you’ll be embarking on a headlining tour stateside. Aside from hearing the new album live, what can fans look forward to from these shows?

I don’t usually like to read things about us because it usually gives me a nervous breakdown, but I saw somebody write on Twitter, “If you go see The Ting Tings, don’t expect a nice, polished pop show” and it’s really not that. It’s disorganized and it’s raw. Even though the new album is very smooth, we still manage to bend the songs to sound rough around the edges. It’s just how we like to perform.

The Ting Tings Super Critical

Originally published on PopBytes

IDINA MENZEL PERFORMS ‘HOLIDAY WISHES’ IN NYC

The holidays have never really been Idina Menzel’s favorite time of year.

Idina Menzel

During an intimate concert for iHeartRadio Live in New York last Thursday, the Tony Award-winner and voice of Elsa in Disney’s juggernaut Frozen recalled how, when she was fifteen, she learned on Thanksgiving morning that her parents were getting a divorce. She remembered the turkey getting thrown in the garbage, the potatoes being tossed down the drain, and canceling on all the guests who were supposed to enjoy all that food. Moving forward, she’d have to split holidays between her mother’s and father’s homes, making the holidays a more stressful than festive time of year.

Idina Menzel

So when it came time to curate the track listing for her Christmas album, Holiday Wishes (released on October 14 by Warner Bros. Records), Menzel originally chose a series of depressing songs to encapsulate a feeling of loss during the holiday season. She joked to the audience that the record she first submitted to her label could have been titled A Slit Your Wrists Christmas. This was just one of the many times that she kidded with the iHeartRadio crew by suggesting that they edit out what she just said for the broadcast of the concert online later that evening.

But the final version of Holiday Wishes is far less morbid that Menzel had originally imagined. After she received pressure from Warner Bros. to include some more uplifting material on the album, the Broadway legend turned to her five-year-old son Walker for inspiration. Through him, she has been able to “rewrite what the holiday season means” to her, and found a sudden passion and desire to share that rejuvenated excitement through her record.

It was that newly rediscovered affection for the holidays that was on full display during Menzel’s concert. “Merry Christmas! Happy Halloween! Let’s get started,” she said when she stepped out onto the stage. “Happy Thanksgiving! Happy holidays,” she chuckled, acknowledging that perhaps not everybody was quite ready to get into the holiday spirit quite so early yet. But over the course of the next hour, she more than overcame any resistance from the skeptics in attendance.

She opened the show with the classic “Do You Hear What I Hear,” a song she’s been inspired to sing ever since hearing Whitney Houston’s version of it. The mezzo-soprano wasted no time belting at full-force, highlighting the stellar talent that explains why there’s a giant billboard in the middle of Times Square that describes her as “Broadway’s biggest star.”

While introducing “Have A Holly Jolly Christmas,” Menzel told a humorous story about how her son was supposed to sing with her on the track, similarly to how Harry Connick Jr. featured his daughter on his holiday album. She recounted recording the album during the hot summer weather and trying to convince Walker to get into a Christmas frame of mind in the studio. Originally, he was supposed to do a spoken word intro where he tells his mommy what he wants under the tree that year. Instead, Walker couldn’t get into it and the most he would do was sing “have a holly jolly butt-butt,” no matter what toys she bribed him with. As a result, Menzel tried to speak in Walker’s voice during the opening of the song, showcasing more of the hilarious sparring she did with the audience that was a big part of what made the evening so enjoyable.

Idina Menzel

Menzel’s setlist included a series of holiday classics, including a booming rendition of “White Christmas,” a beautiful take on “Silent Night,” a stunningly serene cover of Joni Mitchell’s “River,” and a unique and jazzy interpretation of Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You.” But perhaps the most interesting of all of the songs she performed was “December Prayer,” an original song that she penned for Holiday Wishes.

“I wrote this song so that everyone would have a song during this time of year,” Menzel said before performing the hope-filled ballad, clearly channeling some of that sense of loss she previously discussed.

“Hear the song within the silence, see the beauty when there’s nothing there. Sing a song within the silence that hope and love are everywhere,” she gorgeously sang. “And when the quiet night is falling, watch an angel dancing in the air, to the song, the song within the silence, a December Prayer.”

As poignant as it was lovely, “December Prayer” showed off Menzel’s talent as a fully-rounded musician, further demonstrating why the crossover Broadway star has achieved so much mainstream success following the release of the seminal Frozen track, “Let It Go.”

Of course, no Menzel concert would be a complete without a show-stopping rendition of that song, and the songstress delivered with the same power that would help it win the Academy Award. This time around, she performed an acoustic version of “Let It Go” featuring two back-up vocalists, who added impressive harmonies to the gargantuan hit. Before beginning the song, she thanked iHeartRadio for including her in their special concert series and laughed at the fact that prior to “Let It Go,” she was never even featured on the radio. Today, the song has made Menzel the only Tony Award-winning actress to ever crack the Billboard Top 10.

Idina Menzel

With Holiday Wishes, Idina Menzel has solidified herself as a contemporary musical powerhouse. Between promoting the album (with numerous upcoming appearances including Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade), preparing for her just-announced world tour, and performing eight times a week in the Broadway hit If/Then, she’s one of the busiest and most versatile artists around.

And with Holiday Wishes having just debuted at #1 on the Billboard Holiday Albums chart, it’s a safe bet that Menzel’s reservations about this time of year have now melted away faster than Elsa’s ice kingdom.

Idina Menzel | Holiday Wishes

PHOTOS | JEN POTTHEISER FOR IHEARTRADIO

Originally published on PopBytes

REVIEW: THE REBIRTH OF BROADWAY’S “SIDE SHOW”

Side Show

Side Show 1997In 1997, a musical called Side Show based on the true story of Depression-era vaudeville stars and conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton opened on Broadway. While the show would go on to receive four Tony Award nominations (including an unprecedented shared Leading Actress nomination for co-stars Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner), its lukewarm critical reception and poor ticket sales caused it to close after only three months and 91 performances.

Fast forward to 2014. Side Show has been retooled and rebirthed into a spectacular and must-see Broadway experience. It’s a rare second chance that builds upon and improves its source material to create something fresh, contemporary, and as visually stunning as it is musically brilliant. And just like that, Michael Keaton’s Birdman is not the only one flying his freak flag at the St. James Theatre these days.

Academy Award-winner Bill Condon (“Chicago” and “Dreamgirls”) directs this new darker take, and contributes additional book material that focuses on numerous recently discovered biographical details about the Hilton sisters. For instance, the characters of Auntie and Sir, who helped with the birth of the twins but abused them through their adolescence in an attempt to make a profit off of them, take pivotal supporting roles here; they were not featured at all back in 1997. Also not included in the original was the character of Harry Houdini, who appears briefly in the new production to teach the sisters the value of sticking up for oneself and how to ignore critics. His song is aptly called: “All In The Mind.”

Side Show

And it’s not just the show’s book that has been revised. Author / lyricist Bill Russell and composer Henry Krieger have reworked the music to include orchestrations by Harold Wheeler and musical direction by Sam Davis. Performed by a live orchestra, the score also incorporates plenty of new songs. They include “Ready to Play,” a big number that the twins sing upon arriving in America; “Cut Them Apart,” sung by threatening doctors during a horrifying flashback scene; and “Very Well Connected,” which the Hiltons’ future agent Terry sings while trying to convince them to leave the side show. This also means that a number of songs from the original production were either cut or condensed, making this “Side Show” truly feel like a completely new musical.

Bringing the Hilton sisters to life are Great White Way veterans Erin Davie and Emily Padgett. As Violet, Davie sympathetically plays the more introverted, quiet and naïve sister, while Padgett’s Daisy is brazen, relentless, flirty and full of charisma. As the sisters begin to fall in love and start feeling the effects of fame, the closeness of their relationship never wavers, even at the suggestion that they may be surgically separated. And though their journey may find them yearning for different things at times, their undying support for one another and the self-sacrifice they’re always willing to make for the other is nothing short of beautiful and inspiring. That beauty is on dazzling display in the show stopping, best song, “I Will Never Leave You.”

Side Show

While it’s difficult to pit these two performers against one another when they’re literally connected at the hip on stage, it’s Padgett who truly shines as the show’s MVP. Davie is undoubtedly a colossal talent, but Padgett’s zesty interpretation of Daisy is packed with perfect comedic timing and scene-stealing panache. And her sublime belting is alone worth the price of a ticket. Mixed with Davie’s more traditional soprano voice, Padgett’s power pop tendencies are amplified to a breathtaking sound that should satisfy fans of classic and contemporary musicals alike.

Davie and Padgett bring to life the yin and yang of the sisters’ complex opposing personalities with enough contrast and heart to carry the entire show on their own. Luckily, though, they don’t have to because the entire cast is superb. As Jake, a man hired to watch over the girls, David St. Louis is a force to be reckoned with due to his supremely rich and honey-smooth baritone voice. From “The Devil You Know” to the gorgeously somber “You Should Be Loved,” his passionate delivery is the stuff that turns actors into stars. The same can be said for Ryan Silverman, whose rendition of Terry’s “Private Conversation” is a jaw-dropping master class in tenor performance. And in no recent memory has an entire ensemble been as in sync as during the closing notes of the Act I finale, “Who Will Love Me As I Am.” With its layers of harmonies and massive cast, the show pulls off the incredible feat of making these performers all sound like one very powerful voice.

To create the illusion of Davie and Padgett being conjoined, costume designer Paul Tazewell had to prepare outfits that could both hold the ladies together and stay intact during dance numbers. He used numerous zippers, magnets and sewn-together threads to achieve this. “It was important to know where to trick the eye,” he told The Associated Press. Ranging from the grim, nightmarish, Tim Burton-esque look of the opening carnival to the glamorous and sparkly world of Hollywood, the meticulously crafted costumes tell the story of the Hiltons’ rise to stardom in a remarkable way. The imaginative team behind the new Side Show has accomplished something truly stunning. They’ve not only resurrected a cult hit, but also transformed it into the strongest contender for Best Musical Revival at next year’s Tony Awards.

Side Show

Get your tickets here. Just like the tagline promises … it will never leave you.

Side Show

Originally published on PopBytes

REVIEW: JOAN DIDION & VANESSA REDGRAVE COLLABORATE FOR ‘BLUE NIGHTS’

“When we talk about mortality we are talking about our children.”

This powerful sentence appears frequently in Joan Didion’s haunting 2011 memoir, Blue Nights, and was repeated a number of times at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in NYC on Monday evening during a special one-night-only reading from the book by renowned actress Vanessa Redgrave.

Blue Nights

Blue Nights is the acclaimed and characteristically evocative follow-up to Didion’s classic The Year of Magical Thinking, a memoir detailing her grieving process after the sudden death of her husband, writer John Gregory Dunne. Blue Nights, published six years later, chronicled how she dealt – and continues to deal – with the passing of her then 39-year-old daughter, Quintana, just before Magical Thinking was published.

In their review of the book, The New York Review of Books wrote, “‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live,’ Didion famously wrote in The White AlbumBlue Nights is about what happens when there are no more stories we can tell ourselves, no narrative to guide us and make sense out of the chaos, no order, no meaning, no conclusion to the tale. The book has, instead, an incantatory quality: it is a beautiful, soaring, polyphonic eulogy, a beseeching prayer that is sung even as one knows the answer to one’s plea, and that answer is: No.”

But before writing Blue Nights, Didion turned The Year of Magical Thinking into a one-woman Broadway play. Redgrave, a close friend of the writer’s for decades, starred in the riveting adaptation, which won her a Drama Desk Award and a Tony Award nomination. Yet there’s even more that connects these two extraordinary women.

Like Didion, Redgrave knows what the pain of losing a child feels like. In 2009, her daughter Natasha Richardson died from an epidural hematoma that occurred during a skiing accident. Richardson, whose first marriage took place in Didion’s apartment, was a good friend of Quintana’s during their teen years – something that Didion remembers fondly in Blue Nights.

“Magical thinking is when we believe that the past can be reversed, somehow,” Redgrave said in a press statement. “Blue nights are when everything has a future. For many of us, that means our children. When the blue nights end, we each confront the ludicrous enigma ‘Why can’t I be who I was? Why can’t I wear the black tights and hooped earrings that made me feel I knew who I was?’”

She continued that she hoped that those who attended the event – including familiar faces such as Ralph FiennesMatthew Broderick, and Emma Roberts – would find “a curious solace – and laughter – in Joan’s strange encounters with those who try to assist us with coping.”

Hearing Redgrave deliver Didion’s moving words was, as expected, a deeply emotional and sometimes even difficult experience. The knowledge that these two women, previously bound together as lifelong friends and now as grieving mothers, added layers to the reading. “When we talk about mortality we talk about children,” Redgrave repeated, filling the Cathedral with that heavy sentiment that would define why the evening was so special.

“This was never supposed to happen to her,” Redgrave read from the chapter about Richardson, echoing a feeling she too no doubt constantly grapples with. Seated in an armchair, she lifted her gaze from the page and onto the audience as she spoke those words. Her delivery was calm yet heartfelt, with each syllable carefully pronounced to give justice to the full rhythmic effect of Didion’s stunning prose while simultaneously honoring the memory of their children.

The end of each chapter was marked with a short piece of music on the trumpet-flugelhorn by guest artist Jimmy Owens, 2012 NEA Jazz Master and leader of Jimmy Owens Plus. All of the selections he played were as somber as they were beautiful, emphasizing the lingering melancholic atmosphere that consumed the room each time that Redgrave turned the page. These interludes offered the audience a quick break to collect themselves before Redgrave began to read again.

The Cathedral of St. John the Divine also holds a special significance for Didion. Not only is it where Quintana was married, but it’s where she, John Dunne, and Didion’s mother are all inurned. The idea that her ashes were in the surrounding walls added a somewhat poetic quality to the reading, almost as if she, too, were present and listening to her mother’s touching homage.

A benefit for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and Cathedral Community Cares, the event underlined just how profound Didion’s legacy has become. Last year, she received the National Medal of Arts and Humanities from President Obama. And just last month, a documentary that her nephew Griffin Dunne is directing about her life and impact raised its initial $80,000 goal in just one day onKickstarter.

Redgrave finished the reading by focusing on passages from the end of Blue Nights in which Didion recounts how she has managed to find meaning and purpose in a world that has robbed her of so much. “The fear is for what is still to be lost,” she read. “You may see nothing still to be lost. Yet there is no day in her life on which I do not see her.”

As a result of the poignancy of Blue Nights and Redgrave’s raw performance of its text, Quintana and Richardson will never “pass into nothingness” like “the Keats line that frightened her.” All those who were lucky enough to attend this incredible reading left firmly convinced on that score. They also left deeply moved, pondering many of life’s most difficult questions.

PHOTO | BRIGITTE LACOMBE

Originally published on PopBytes