Feel Like A Lady
Feel Like A Lady is special for me. It’s the first song Colman and I wrote for Nine Lives. The rest we wrote in sequence but this one was the first melody that popped into my head.
It was Jazz Fest 2009. Colman had gotten me to read the book before he came to town and had spent much of the two weeks in town insisting we should turn Nine Lives into a musical with me insisting he was nuts. On the second to last night he was in town he asked again. I told him no, again, before heading up to bed. “Alright pal,” he said smiling,”I’ll let it go”. I went upstairs, Jazz Fest exhausted, ready to sleep for two days. As soon as my head hit the pillow, I heard the melody for the opening lines. I got out of bed and grabbed my guitar while the melody kept coming. “You need a name… that makes you feel… like a lady.” I ran downstairs to tell Colman. He was on the phone long distance to Los Angeles and I just kept telling him to hang up. He did and I played the opening lines. His eyes got big. He ran and grabbed his copy of Nine Lives, turned to the page where that scene was and started shooting lines at me. We finished writing the song and I went to sleep laughing and singing it to myself.
The next morning we were having coffee and Colman said it was too bad he had to fly back to L.A. the next day because if we could record a demo of the song he could send it to the author, Dan Baum and see if we could get the rights. I laughed and said, “This is New Orleans, daddy-o. Let me make a few phone calls and see who is around. I called John Boutté, Shamarr Allen, Debbie Davis and Matt Perrine. We headed to Shamarr’s house and his home studio, P.O.M.E., to track the song.
We threw together an arrangement with Matt on tuba, Shamarr on trumpet, me on guitar, Debbie and Boutté singing lead and everyone joining in on singing. It was simple but conveyed the idea of how easily the words Dan had captured from the “Nine” in his book could be made into song. We sent it to Dan. He responded that he had not heard of me or Colman but was a big fan of Matt Perrine’ Sunflower City and had written a story about John Boutté for The New Yorker. He said okay, write a musical.
When it came time to record the song for the album, Matt wanted to make some arrangement changes. We both agreed that the character of John/Joann – which was being sung by Michael Cerveris – is the central character in the song but doesn’t sing until the very end. Matt wanted to change an instrumental section to add some space for the character to interject between the “advice” being offered. It was fun for Coman and I to throw words at each other again. It also felt right to have a chance to develop that character a bit more in the song.
The band was very basic for this one because it is mostly voices. Matt Perrine on bass, Herman Roscoe Ernest III on drums, Shane Theriot on guitar and Tom McDermott on piano. The song begins slowly and builds into a comedic frenzy before resolving into a gentle ending. Matt had written the instrumental interlude to be a vocal harmony over a groove he described as “hot swing”. The band and backing singers worked very hard on the transitions from slow to fast, tender to comedic and back again.
Colman, in his only appearance on the recording, speaks the line of a drag queen making a joke at the party.
The drag queen chorus was sung by Debbie, Vatican Lokey, Shoeless Pollard and my brother John Sanchez. Johnny and Shoeless came out a few times to record harmonies for me when money got tight. Neither took money for their work and both were reliable about knowing parts and singing in pitch which saves money in the studio. Johnny can read music which helped when working through some of Matt’s more complicated parts.
The featured voice on the song is Vatican Lokey. Vatican was someone Debbie Davis really wanted on the project. I did not know his work and only met him when he showed up to sing background. A very sweet fellow, a gentle spirit and a wickedly funny sense of humor. He was a wonderful addition to the studio vibe on any session he took part in.
I wanted him to record the song with Michael in the studio because there is interaction between their characters in the song. Vatican tried his best to be nonchalant but I could tell he was very happy to be working with Michael. Any working actor in New Orleans would be thrilled to have a chance to act and sing with a Tony Award winning actor and I could see that Vatican was more than delighted. He was looking forward to the challenge. As charmingly funny and sarcastic as he had been through the sessions, he showed up this day very focused, serious and ready to work. I wanted the timing right but I also wanted the chemistry of people actually having a conversation, not just fitting words between other words that have already been recorded.
It worked wonderfully because both Vatican and Michael are actors as well as singers. It was like giving two great jazz players space to improvise. They gave each other openings, responded to each other and created moments. Michael took some of the new lines we had handed him the day before which had not been in the demo and added sighs, breaths and life to John’s transition to a new beginning as Joann. Vatican’s vocal inflections are nuanced and just lovely. The opening lines, “Okay, breathe. You’re among friends. Nod, if you can hear me.” Are sung playfully, the drag queen headed out for more ice at the party is giddy. Then, just for a moment, Vatican changes his voice to say, “Okay, what’s your name?” and you hear the tenderness in his voice that tells you this person knows the fear that John is feeling and wants to help. He immediately goes back to the playful voice but that one moment, that one subtle change of inflection, was a choice that gave a vulnerability to the moment that makes it ring true and gives it life. Debbie had sung the same part on the demo and she grabbed it this time with the comfortable gusto of grabbing a quality bourbon off the bar after a hard day. The song ends with Michael, as Joann, seeing himself as a woman for the first time. After a song full of musical and lyrical comedic frenzy, the song slows to a resolve both musical and emotional.
Michael Cerveris embraces the moment with his voice. His singing gives the melody a sense of self awakening as he steps out to show himself to the party and the world.
Michael does the least singing in the song yet manages to keep Joann at the center of the song with inflections, sighs and finally when the moment is right, embracing the singing which announces to all that John now knows what it means to Feel Like A Lady.
~ Paul Sanchez- May 24, 2011