Julian Fleisher does it all: singer, songwriter, producer, composer, actor, writer, and host of his own podcast Julian Fleisher's Guilty Pleasures which has welcomed guests like Molly Ringwald, Martha Plimpton and Justin Vivian Bond. Fleisher, the son of renowned concert pianist Leon Fleisher, came to New York as a Yale graduate and set out to prove himself in the city that never sleeps. He spoke with GLAAD about his new intimate album Finally, the challenges of sharing a story through song and coming clean about his own guilty pleasure song.
GLAAD: The new album Finally was released last month and focuses on original songs in a more stripped back production. What can you tell us about your story and how it's explored on your album?
JULIAN FLEISHER: I think that in terms of the CD, my story is one of peeling back layers of artifice -- in the form of lots of instruments, crazy arrangements, clever covers and mashups -- and revealing more personal and perhaps even more earnest parts of myself. My previous work was known for its' razzle-dazzle, volume and vocal acrobatics. This recording, by comparison, is a tiny jewel box of personal observations set in the simplest of arrangements played by a small group of intensely gifted musicians. It's not even the lyrics, necessarily, that are more personal or vulnerable (though a few of them are) it's merely that the whole experience of it — from making it to listening to it to performing it — requires that I and my audience get much closer together. A six-man horn section, while awesome to hear, doesn't exactly invite you sit close and listen to a story. This set features a good amount of ballads and many of them explore some feelings that can be tough to sit with. And believe me, I'm talking about myself here! I don't relish the thought of exposing myself lyrically, musically or vocally. But these are the songs that were coming out of me and the muse must have her way! To be honest, it was the idea of performing this CD live that really had me scared...and I do mean scared. And fear of performing was never something I suffered from! But after years of blowing the roof off with a 12-man band and a set of seriously challenging charts, I really wondered how I would hold my audience with this set. Would they remain interested? Would they long for the days of my "I Will Survive / Sing, Sing, Sing!" mashup? Would they care about how difficult it was for me to lose my dog? Honestly, there have been several moments when I considered faking an injury so I wouldn't have to find out! But find out I did, and the answer has been a pleasant surprise. People have been even more responsive than before, which, of course, just makes me wonder why I waited so long!
GLAAD: You've enjoyed a long career in the arts, what was it like for out performers when you started compared to today?
JF: Well, first of all, I'm not that old! Contrary to some reports, I wasn't at Stonewall. Well, not for the riots anyway. I was there when New York state legalized same-sex marriage, but I can barely recall what happened that night. Let's just say I didn't get married. Anyhoo, other than observing what so many others have, that the closet is bad for all people, straight, gay and otherwise. So the fact that so many artists were (and remain) in it is a terrible shame. The only difference now is that fewer are closeted now than I recall as a young man at The Hippo in Baltimore watching Dead or Alive videos and thinking "Gee, I think he might be gay." But for every George Michael who took a generation to come out, there was a Jimmy Summerville or even a Madonna to step into the light.
I can also say that, sadly, the world of Jazz, where I came up, is still pretty closeted. You'd think that with athletes and political figures coming out left and right, there'd be some serious cats doing the same. But the bandstand is a very macho place and there will need to be some pioneers willing to make the first move (Dave Koz being the notable and amazing exception) for the scene to really open up. But then again, as I point out in the answer above, I've not really been making Jazz music for a while.
GLAAD: You recently starred in the musicals February House and Coraline and composed the music for several shows including Almost, Maine and The Performers. What is the biggest difference between writing and performing as a character versus writing and performing songs as yourself?
JF: Depending on what night you ask me, I'd either say the difference is profound or there is no difference at all. And when there is a difference, it has less to do with whether I'm playing a character than with the fact that I'm either singing someone else's song or my own. That's true in my case in particular since in both the cases that you mention, the writers and directors came to me specifically because I sing live a lot and I'm totes comfy addressing an audience directly from a stage. In fact it's kind of my bread and butter. In both cases, February House and Coraline, my character was not only relating to the others in the show, but also to the audience as well. Not all actors are familiar with how that feels, but as a singer with a lot of gigs under my belt, I was ready for that challenge. So really the difference is the responsibility I feel to other writers to put their material across in a meaningful way. New musicals can be insane since new songs are being written all the time and you can find yourself staring down the barrel of a brand new solo to close the first act on the very night it was written. So you've got to have some kind of central nervous system to get through that on a regular basis. And you know that out there in the dark is the human being who wrote that song and they are depending (and dependent) upon you to pull it over the finish line. That's a pretty major load to bear, but that's the business of show. I often found myself far more uptight about properly rendering Gabe (Kahane) or Stephin's (Merritt) songs than I was about my own. What's more, in both their cases, they are both great performers in their own rights, more than capable of selling the song in just the way they like.
As nerve wracking as it can be to present my own tunes to an audience, I have a pretty good idea what will make it go over, tempo, dynamics, emphasis, style, etc. In the theater, I have to work extra hard to internalize the composer ideas and then get them across to the audience -- within the emotional context of the scene. But to be honest, that last part is the easiest part. At least when you're in a show, you don't have to explain or introduce the material. It just comes in the middle of the scene and you sing it.
GLAAD: Your podcast, Julian Fleisher's Guilty Pleasures, has featured huge guests revealing the songs they're most embarrassed to admit they love including Molly Ringwald, Martha Plimpton, Mo Rocca and Justin Vivian Bond. Who is your dream guest and what is your biggest guilty pleasure song?
JF: My dream guest (among living artists...don't get me started if we're included those who've passed on) would either be k.d. lang, Joni Mitchell or Quincy Jones. I suppose they'd all have interesting Guilty Pleasures, but they are also the three pop musicians I admire most and I'd basically do anything to be able to talk with them.
My guilty pleasure, if you must know, is "Tomorrow" from Annie and you can hear it on my new CD at the very end. And I guarantee you won't have heard this version before. But that's ok! Because the original with Andrea McCardle belting it out over a full Broadway Orchestra is still enough to stop me in my tracks and make me cry. No joke.
GLAAD: You're obviously experienced with working in a lot of areas between composing for shows, recording your own original songs, writing novels and touring productions. What do you have coming up next?
JF: Coming up next for me is to tour this CD around. I will let you know when and where, but you can always find the latest info on my website julianfleisher.com. Also, I'm eagerly awaiting the release of a CD that I produced for Ana Gasteyer called I'm Hip. It's a killer disc of nightclub tunes arranged and performed as they might have been on New York's famous 52nd Street back in the late 50's and early 60's. She's most famous for being on SNL and Suburgatory, but she's a truly amazing singer: fun, sexy, smart, sassy and can totally hold her own in front of a horn section...all without ever breaking a sweat.
And finally I'm headed back into the studio shortly to record my new single, "Brooklyn, Goodnight," a drinking song about a failed attempt at love in an outer borough. I'll be tracking that with my friends The Pig Pen Theater Co., a group of young folk/rockers from Pittsburgh for whom you will, very simply, swoon.