INTERVIEW BY AMY MATHENY
From her Tony award-winning role as Grisabella in Cats to Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, and her many concerts and CDs, Betty Buckley is unparalleled as an interpreter of song. Buckley talked on the Windy City Queercast before she performs at the opening gala of the Gay and Lesbian Center on Halsted on June 8.
Amy Matheny: The last time I interviewed you it was weeks after 9/11. You're living in Texas these days. [ Did ] the decision to move back home have anything to do with that incident?
Betty Buckley: Well, actually it did. Following 9/11, I just really became visionless and without a quality of ambition. My entire focus from the moment I graduated from college was about my career and work, work, practice, practice, work, work. So, I became obsessed with getting a cutting horse, which had been a childhood dream of mine, and … made a connection with one of the top trainers in the sport of cutting, and he took me on as a student. I sold my New York apartment and bought a lovely little ranch outside of Fort Worth and moved down here 3 1/2 years ago. I have two cutting horses, two show horses, five dogs, three cats, a parrot. … I've got a menagerie and I live here on this ranch and travel around singing concerts.
AM: You began singing in Texas in the Methodist church choir, and I know spirituality is an essential part of your life and your music. How are these two connected for you—the spiritual and the musical?
BB: I found meditation in my mid-20s after I first experienced Hollywood and life in the fast lane. I was pretty exhausted and looking for an answer to find some balance. My ex-husband actually took me to a meditation center, and it just made so much sense. I felt so much better once I started meditating. From that practice, I've found a way of focusing my work that really is … everything to me. The balance and harmony in my life comes from the practice of prayer and meditation.
AM: Now you have been teaching for almost 30 years…
BB: Thirty-five actually.
AM: What does teaching bring to your life?
BB: Well, everything I know of value has been taught to me by great teachers, and I feel it's … my responsibility, to pass [ it ] along. So I give classes between my work as a concert artist and as a performer and as an actor. I teach meditation as a means for focusing the singers' minds or the actor.
I teach a very universal spiritual philosophy that really just encompasses basic humanitarian principles as the methodology for making one's choices as a singer, as a communicator, as an actor [ and ] as a storyteller. I try to teach these same tools to the students that come to study with me. It's extremely gratifying because these tools assist in an amazing transformation [ and ] open up the potential that they always knew was inside them but somehow didn't have a technique to access with consistency.
AM: I want to take your class, Betty Buckley!
BB: I am teaching here at Fort Worth. Sometimes in New York.
AM: No, I'll come to Texas with the cutting horses, the dogs, the parrot and all that. I want the whole 'ranch girl' Betty Buckley experience.
BB: You're welcome to come, Amy.
AM: So you mention being a storyteller, and that is just the word that I would use to describe you. What are you looking for in a song?
BB: It's hard to say … people are always making suggestions of songs to me, and why I respond to one song and not another is a mystery even to me. I can say that I look for songs that have a beginning, middle and end. Those are my favorites—what I call the monologue song. [ Stephen ] Sondheim is the master [ of this, where ] a character is clearly defined; starts the song in one place; has an active contemplation through the experience of the song; and comes out on the other side with a new point of view, a new perspective or solution. In Into the Woods, he's written several songs for the young performers in the show that are just so perfect, like Cinderella's song, Jack's song…
AM: Little Red Riding Hood or the Baker's Wife…
BB: Yeah, [ but ] none of those songs is especially right for me. Some songs resonate depending on the age you are. I've retired certain songs because they no longer apply. I can't really invest the same truth to that material anymore. I can act it, but it doesn't resonate as something that has anything to do with me as an individual at this point.
AM: [ In your ] concerts … you get to select what is speaking to you. Your rendition of Fire and Rain by James Taylor is amazing.
BB: Fire and Rain is a very profound song. Mary Chapin Carpenter is a beautiful poet and songwriter. ... I'm a child of the '60s, so I love that whole generation of singer/songwriters [ like ] Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, [ and ] Jefferson Airplane.
AM: Tell me about the new CD, Quintessence.
BB: It should be released in September. I'm very proud of it. Some of my best recordings are live concert recordings. The studio is just another whole situation that I can't say I have complete mastery of, but I gave myself a lot of time to get this right.
AM: Do you feel trapped when you go in the studio?
BB: Yeah, it's a completely different thing. I prefer singing in live resonate concert halls that have an echo pocket that I can hear, and I know where to place my voice inside of that resonance. My voice I think really is meant for a live experience. In the studio it's so intimate and the microphone is so sensitive that I can't sing the same way. Once or twice I've worked with engineers that really knew how to record my voice full tilt. Also, I am my worst critic … I hear things and I go 'Oh, no, that's not acceptable. That's not what I want at all.' So I have to go back and redo it and redo it. So it's a frustrating process.
AM: Are there any shows or artists lately that you've been inspired by?
BB: I love that new Broadway musical, Spring Awakening. I was deeply moved by that. I really liked Christine Ebersole's performance in Grey Gardens. I've been listening to Kurt Elling; he's amazing.
AM: He's a Chicago guy.
BB: God, he's just awesome.
AM: Is there somebody you're dying to work with?
BB: Yeah—Michael McDonald. He's my favorite male voice in the world. When he sings, my heart just soars. He's got the most soulful, beautiful male voice. For my birthday, my assistant got me front row tickets to a concert that he gave with Steely Dan. … I just burst into tears when he walked on stage. I had also seen Michael in concert at B.B. King's years ago and I went backstage and met him, and I was just like 'I'm your fan! I love you so much!'
AM: Memory from Cats is, of course, the song that is equated with you and your voice. What has changed for you in singing Memory over the years?
BB: I'm very fortunate that Memory is my signature song; [ in fact, ] I'm fortunate to even have a signature song. Memory is a very universal piece of poetry, and it appeals to people at all ages and in all walks of life. It has an essential message that is about being profoundly and essentially human. So, while it may get richer in terms of the longer I live with [ it ] , the more I've experienced of life … I'm very fortunate that that song. … [ It ] is still so fresh and alive in its experience to me.
Buckley will perform at Center on Halsted's 'Out and Open: Everything Will Become Clear' gala on June 8, 6-11 p.m., at the new facility at 3656 N. Halsted.
To hear the whole interview with Buckley, see www.WindyCityQueercast.com .