“I’m doing luscious, gorgeous love songs,” Callaway says over the phone from San Juan, Puerto Rico, ashore from an annual jazz cruise, although she adds, “There will be a few songs for people who are single and bitter.”
Love songs have long been part of Callaway’s repertoire. She has written her share of them, including the one Barbra Streisand sang on her own wedding day, “I’ve Dreamed of You.”
“To me, one of my missions as a singer is to help people either fall in love or to feel a rekindled spark in their relationship,” Callaway says, “because music has the power to awaken the heart like nothing else.”
Lyrics are key to a great love song, and the best romantic songs illuminate the moments of greatest realization, Callaway says. “When you just realized you’ve fallen in love, when you’ve just realized that you just screwed up the best thing you’ve ever had, when you’ve just lost somebody who died. They’re realizations, and the reason why you have to sing, not just speak.”
Callaway mentions as her favorite love songs Irving Berlin’s “How Deep Is the Ocean” (“He was able to express so much passion using all questions”) and Stephen Sondheim’s “Being Alive” (“Because it’s not just about romance, it’s about embracing the fact that we need each other”).
Lyrics aren’t the only thing, though. “A great melody can tell a story without words,” she says. “I try to find songs that the emotion of the melody is in synch with the story and that I can almost make love to.”
The physicality is important, she learned while recording the songs of Sarah Vaughan for an upcoming CD. “One of the things I’ve learned from Sarah Vaughan is that she really caressed her love lyrics. She made love to the lyric. Each word, each syllable was like a kiss. And I think there’s something very sensual about singing on Valentine’s Day.”
Demand for romantic songs
The new set of songs from Cash, “The River & the Thread,” is more about a sense of place than strictly romance. But love finds its way as well into the songs she first performed at the Library of Congress in December that will be the centerpiece of her show Friday at Lisner Auditorium.
Speaking from New York City, Cash says Valentine’s Day will affect “maybe my mind-set a little bit.” But it also will allow her to highlight a couple of new pieces that qualify as love songs.
One of them, “Etta’s Tune,” is a detail-filled story about a couple married 65 years. He was the bassist in her father’s band, who awoke every morning with the same question to his wife, “What’s the temperature, darlin’?”
When Cash repeated that to her husband, John Leventhal, with whom she wrote the album, “he said, “Well that’s the first line of a song.’ And it was.”
Of her other new songs, “When the Master Calls the Roll” is “a deep love song” and “Modern Blue” reflects her relationship with her musician-husband.
“That’s really our story,” she says. “We travel around the world and get you back home and hanging on to each other, keeping your eyes on each other to pull the course steady.”
In it she mentions her birthplace, Memphis, as her original home but keeps in mind “the home you have when you hang onto another person.”
Cash had a chance to review some of the greatest country songs of all time when her father, Johnny Cash, wrote a list of what he considered the 100 best, which she began to record on her 2009 album, “The List.”
One thing she learned is that it can be tough to find unfettered love songs in country music.
There are, Cash says, “so many songs of travel and heartbreak. Does a great love song have to have a heartbreak in it, whether it resolves or not?”
She mentions a few of them. Hank Williams’s “Take These Chains From My Heart’’: Oh my God, he’s so in love. She’s so in love. But it’s so weighted and heavy.’’
There is still a great demand for romantic songs from audiences, Callaway says. “People who come to my concerts, they come because they want to hear great love songs.”
That may be in part because they are not served by popular culture, she says.
“When I listen to some of the things I hear that are on the radio, in terms of Top 40 radio; when Britney Spears sings a love song, I never feel any love from them,” Callaway says. “I don’t want to generalize, but I think a lot of pop songs, even if the subject is love, it never sounds like love.”
That gives an extra responsibility, she says, to “those of us who work in jazz and traditional pop and the Great American Songbook, I think we realize the power of music to awaken the greatest aspects of who we are and the highest experience of what life is about.”
And for that, Callaway is unequivocal. “Life is about love. I don’t know anything more important than love. It’s not just about romance and feeling excited to be with someone, it’s also about the true generosity of spirit and compassion and care that goes into love.
“When music opens your heart, the moment your heart is open, then you can experience everything of love. But if you’re just in your head, stuck in your stress, it doesn’t matter what a nice person you are, you’re not going to experience love the same way. That’s part of the job of the artist, is to help people melt back into their true selves and experience the most beautiful part of who they are — and that is the part that is the lover.”
Being on romantic edge every night on stage can be wearing on a singer, Callaway says.
“Sometimes it’s a little scary. Sometimes I feel vulnerable. There are times in my life where I feel I’m too open, I’m too emotional. There are times when I’ve fallen in love too easily. But I also have a very active spiritual life, and I think now as I’ve become more mature and lived a lot, and risked a lot and I’ve learned a lot, I feel very, very grateful that I’m as open a person as I am.”
Callaway says she feels grateful that “I get to experience and share the beautiful part of life with people through music and live that every day. It really makes my life a celebration.”
Think of it, she says, “I’m reliving the most profound, beautiful experiences of my life and sharing them with people that appreciate that. That’s something I really love about what I do.”
Catlin is a freelance writer.
Ann Hampton Callaway
7:30 and 9:30 p.m. Friday, Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, 2700 F St. NW, $30.
Visit kennedy-center.org or 202-467-4600.
8 p.m. Friday, Lisner Auditorium, 730 21st St NW, $30-$55. lisner.gwu.edu or 202-994-6800.