MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Now, a lot of people think they're divas, but Audra McDonald has actually earned the title. She's graced Broadway theaters for more than 15 years, and she has won a stunning five Tony awards, her most recent last year for her role in the Gershwins' "Porgy and Bess." But the Broadway stage isn't big enough to contain her talent. She's filled concert halls around the country and the world, dazzling audiences with her soaring voice.
She's now touring in support of her latest album, "Go Back Home."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GO BACK HOME")
AUDRA MCDONALD: Maybe times will turn. I pray so. Maybe someday I'll get lucky. Someone's gonna say all right, and I'll take a train and go back home. Hop a freight and go back home.
MARTIN: "Go Back Home." It's the title track from Audra McDonald's latest album, and she is with us now. Thank you so much for joining us.
MCDONALD: Thank you, Michel. It's good to be back.
MARTIN: When we last spoke with you, you were wrapping up your stint as Dr. Naomi Bennett on ABC's hit medical drama "Private Practice." You were heading back to New York to do the Gershwins' "Porgy and Bess." And I think even in the middle of that, you were touring. So, not busy at all.
MCDONALD: I have hyperactivity. I like to keep busy. It keeps me focused.
MARTIN: This is, though, your first solo album in a long time. What is it, seven years?
MARTIN: Do I have that right? It's been seven years?
MARTIN: How did you start? Did you start with kind of an organizing idea? How did it come together?
MCDONALD: I had tried a couple of times over the past seven years to get an album out, and I just wasn't - it wasn't coming. You know, it wasn't coming. And I thought, well, I'm not going to do an album until I have something to say. And when I look back on that now, I realize it's because life was happening, and I was living life. And sometimes some people say, you know, as a performer, you go out and you give everything you have on stage or whatnot. And then you have to go and fill up again.
And, you know, for good and for bad, I think life filled me up again, and now I feel like I have something to say. When I started putting songs together, it happened very quickly. A lot of it was songs that I had been signing for a while and had never recorded, like "The Glamorous Life" and "Some Days." And others were songs that I had just learned from - a wonderful crop of new composers are out there, a new musical theater, just wonderful stuff that I think, well, I'd love to get out to the public.
And then it all sort of started to take on the theme of - a very personal theme of sort of I think songs that I was drawn to, or songs or things sort of like that have been happening in my life over the past seven years, like being away from home, or being away from my daughter, and then kind of ending with, "Make Someone Happy," which is just sort of where my life has come after losing my father in a plane crash and going through a divorce and then remarriage. And, you know, so the reemergence of a happier - maybe more seasoned, for sure - person.
MARTIN: Well, you know, it is true that you have a lot to say in this album. I'm just going to play a little bit from "Married Love."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MARRIED LOVE")
MCDONALD: Married love, married love, here's my strategy of married love. If it seems your hearts are growing dim, don't forget that you chose him. Don't forget that you chose him, so he must be wonderful, right?
That song is a - it's a wonderful song written by Michael John LaChiusa, and it was written for a one-woman musical that he's written called "ABC," which is based on a book by Marlene Dietrich. And in that book she - it's basically - some people refer to it as Marlene Dietrich's dictionary. She just goes through the alphabet, and just has random words for each letter of the alphabet, and then her thoughts on those particular words. And one of those words is married love.
And a lot of it is just sort of her musings and her thoughts on marriage, and her thoughts on partnership and relationships, and how we as women must sort of do what we must do to be in relationships. You know, mind you, this was written, you know, in the '50s. And it's not necessarily a specific personal experience of my own, but just the whole institution of marriage and everything that it brings about and everything that it tests in a person.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MARRIED LOVE")
MCDONALD: (Singing) Go back to a time before you learned how to mate and then humiliate and when to delegate the blame. You were young and such in love and it was wonderful. He knows that you loved him and yes, he was wonderful. You didn't demand or second-guess or thought in terms of more or less. The heart put on its Sunday dress and you are wonderful.
MARTIN: You know what? I was thinking about our conversation and listening to the album. One word kept coming to mind over and over again, and the word that came to mind for me was raw.
MARTIN: You know, it's...
MCDONALD: I like that.
MARTIN: Well, so often, you know, when we use that word in connection to music we're talking about, you know, a lot of profanity and hardcore beats.
MARTIN: We're talking about rap or hip-hop. But you have the most beautiful voice. I mean I think that's well established. I think under beautiful voice in the dictionary they have your picture.
MCDONALD: Oh gosh. Oh that's sweet. That's sweet.
MARTIN: And I think everybody knows that. But this album has so many raw feelings and ideas in it. I mean it's just - and even the way you talk about it in the liner notes about why you chose each song. I mean the song about, you know, the glamorous life, which is a song about, you know, a little girl thinking about her mom who is an actress.
MARTIN: I mean you are a mom who is an actress and a performer and you have a daughter.
MARTIN: That's raw. And I just...
MCDONALD: Yeah. Absolutely.
MARTIN: You know, did it feel raw when you were putting this together?
MCDONALD: Absolutely. And these are certainly songs that feel raw when I sing them and songs like I said that I have a deep personal connection to.
MARTIN: Let's just play a little bit of "The Glamorous Life."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GLAMOROUS LIFE")
MCDONALD: (Singing) Ordinary mothers lead ordinary lives. Keep the house and sweep the parlor, mend the clothes and tend the children. Ordinary mothers, like ordinary wives, make the beds and bake the pies and wither on the vine. Not mine. Dying by inches every night, what a glamorous life. Pulled on by winches to recite, what a glamorous life. Ordinary mothers never get the flowers, and ordinary mothers never get the joys. Ordinary mothers couldn't cough for hours maintaining their poise.
Quite literally, I say this over and over about this album. If someone were to write a Broadway show about my life over the past seven years, this would be the soundtrack, it really would be and which is probably why it ends up sounding a bit raw because it's all if not, you know, specific within the lyric, the idea of the themes that I'm exploring in this album are all very, very, very specific and personal and very fresh.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GLAMOROUS LIFE")
MCDONALD: (Singing) Ordinary mothers drive on being private. And ordinary mothers somehow can survive it. But ordinary mothers never know they're just standing still with the kettles to fill, while they're missing the fill of the glamorous life.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Tony Award-winning actress and singer Audra McDonald. We're talking about her new album, her latest. It's "Go Back Home."
I did want to say I'm sorry about your dad.
MCDONALD: Oh, thank you.
MARTIN: That's just...
MCDONALD: It was hard.
MARTIN: ...under any circumstances. I mean losing a dad is hard. A plane crash.
MARTIN: I mean your dad was a pilot as well...
MCDONALD: Yeah. Yeah.
MARTIN: And I mean - ugh.
MCDONALD: It was really difficult and it happened so, you know, just on a bright sunny day in California and they still really don't know what caused the crash. And it was a bright sunny day in New York and I just finished doing a matinee of "110 In the Shade" and I got this phone call from my stepmom saying your dad's gone, you know. And so I realized it really was the catalyst that sort of forced a lot of change in my life and going through that trauma and grief and learning how to mourn and realizing that I was mourning, it changes you, he really does.
MARTIN: How do you think it changed you?
MCDONALD: I started to take stock in my life really quickly and look at my life and say OK, who am I? What do I really want? What am I missing? What do I need? Because I realized that life is short and it's easy to kind of get cocky and forget about that. You know, when you're young and just sort of trapezing about your life and doing what you got to do and then something like that happens and especially when it's, you know, my dad was, you know, 6 foot 6 and strapping huge guy. I mean just, you know, there was no better picture of like a big, healthy, 62-year-old man, and he lifted weights every day. To lose that sort of security also, you know, I lost my daddy. I lost the person who I think if, you know, if something really were wrong and I really needed help and I needed him to beat up someone for me or whatever, you know, his little girl losing your daddy, all of a sudden that was gone. So it forced me to look at life and try and live it more presently and more fully and more honestly than for a better purpose.
MARTIN: Which is why I don't know how you get through "I'll Be Here." I don't know how you get through it. It's from "Ordinary Days."
MARTIN: A play which is inspired by 9/11.
MCDONALD: Some days I don't get through it, I have to say. Some days when I'm singing it I don't get through it. You know, for me it certainly has a personal meaning in terms of losing my father really quickly, but also it's kind of a tribute to my stepmom, watching my stepmom have to like get her life back together and find her life too, losing the love of her life and then all of a sudden just like how do I move on? And watching her deal with that and try to pick up the pieces and there are some very specific lines in that that correlate directly to her like, take off my ring and you let yourself smile, you know, all those things that I've watched her go through and thought hmm. Well, that...
MCDONALD: ...I - that's why this song I think, you know, resonates with me.
MARTIN: It's such a beautiful song I hate to give people - and it tells such a story and I hate to give people...
MARTIN: ...but I just want to play a little bit of it...
MARTIN: ...even though I feel bad because I'm not doing it justice by playing a clip of it, but here's just a little bit.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'LL BE HERE")
MCDONALD: (Singing) I'm sorry; I don't mean to ruin your evening by bringing up all of this stuff. You're probably wondering why I even called you tonight. Well today something happened that spooked me all right. I saw this storm cloud of papers fall down from the sky, and I thought of that day and I started to cry. When sure as I breath I heard John clear as day saying hey, you're allowed to move on. It's OK.
(Singing) Because I'll be here, even if you decide to get rid of my favorite sweater, even if you go out on my birthday this year instead of staying at home letting all of life's moments pass by. You don't have to cry because I'll be here. When you start going back to the places we went to together. When you take off my ring and you let yourself smile. When you meet some handsome and patient and true. When he says...
MARTIN: It's remarkable, isn't it, that something so beautiful can come out of something so ugly...
MARTIN: ...which is like a lot of your work, like "Porky and Bess," for example, right?
MARTIN: It's so beautiful and yet it's about a lot, there's ugliness in it. You know, there's...
MCDONALD: Yeah. So much pain. Yeah.
MARTIN: ...personal ugliness, pain, racism.
MCDONALD: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
MARTIN: It's about, you know, so many things. I was curious about that. When you think about the beauty of your instrument and what you're using it for and then the kinds of stories you want to tell, you know what I mean?
MARTIN: I'm just wondering how you think about that.
MCDONALD: Well, for me, you know, the way I've and drawn to music has always been something that moves me and something that sort of reflex something that I want to say or something that I feel or something I believe it or story-driven things especially. And so the voice is very important but the meaning behind the voice and, you know, just the fact that you use the voice as the means to communicate the story, the feeling, the whatever, that's what's most important to me - which is probably why I didn't connect so well in the operatic world because I was always willing to sacrifice the sound if it, you know, made a moment better and that's not I mean what is done in opera. And I love opera and I wish I could do it but it's a different thing in opera where, you know, the voice, the beauty of the voice is what's most important, you know.
MARTIN: When we last talked to you, it was just before you won your Tony for "Porgy and Bess" - your fifth. Just thought I'd mention that again.
MARTIN: At the ceremony you gave a very memorable acceptance speech. I just want play just a short clip of it. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF ACCEPTANCE SPEECH)
MCDONALD: I was a little girl with a pot belly and Afro puffs, hyperactive and overdramatic, and I found the theater and I found my home. And I found a place to express myself and I was so grateful, even at the age of nine, and to think that the theater would be so good to me.
MARTIN: The theater has been a home for you and has been good to you. Do you think the theater is doing what it should be doing for our society? Is it telling the stories that it needs to tell?
MCDONALD: Yes. I think if you look everywhere that there's theater. I think if you look just on Broadway then you won't necessarily see all the stories that are needing to be told because they're not all there, I mean for many reasons, whether it's, you know, commercial or they are... I don't think it's that they're not being written because I think they are being written but they're not being brought to that huge visible commercial level. You know, and all the wonderful work that's being done in underground theaters and off Broadway, Off-Off-Off Broadway and regional theaters all around the country, it's there, absolutely is there and has it has been since, you know, the ancient Greeks. I mean it's there and it's commenting on society and commenting on human nature and what not. I think it's absolutely there, it's just maybe not necessarily in the most commercial and visible places that we would like it to be.
MARTIN: So what's next for you?
MCDONALD: I will be back on Broadway in the next couple of seasons. There's a few projects that are going to happen and I'm very excited about that. And up until then I'm...
MARTIN: A secret? A secret? No? You can't tell us?
MCDONALD: Oh yes, there's always secrets.
MARTIN: It's a secret? Oh, oh.
MCDONALD: A secret you can never tell. No. No. No. But stuff that I'm very excited to do. I mean even if, you know, I end up doing more television or film or something like that I will always come back to the theater. I meant what I said in that clip you just played. It is my home and it's where I feel like I am fully myself as an artist and so I won't ever leave it.
MARTIN: Audra McDonald is a diva of stage, screen and song. Her latest album is "Go Back Home" and she joined us from our bureau in New York. Audra McDonald, thank you so much for speaking with us.
MCDONALD: Nice to talk to you again.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EDELWEISS")
MCDONALD: (Singing) Small and white clean and bright. You look happy to meet me.
MARTIN: That was "Edelweiss" from Audra McDonald's latest album "Go Back Home."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EDELWEISS")
MCDONALD: (Singing) Bloom and grow forever...
MARTIN: And that's our program for today. And remember, to tell us more, please go to NPR.org and find us under the programs tab. You can find our podcast there. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter. The handle is @TELL ME MORENPR. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium. Let's talk more tomorrow.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EDELWEISS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.