The Many Sides of Artistry
When the great American free-verse pioneer Walt Whitman penned the indelible and oft-quoted line "I contain multitudes," he wasn't referring to the many hats he wore as a worker and an artist, although his skills as a printer did come in handy when established presses rejected his groundbreaking poetry. Whitman was a spinner of ethereal verse, and a maker of beautiful objects, and each talent fed the other. A similar depth of talent can be seen each year in the amazing performers who are part of Lincoln Center's American Songbook.
This season, which runs January 30 through March 4, will showcase a rich array of reimaginings, solo experiments, fresh collaborations, cross-genre expeditions, and surprising trajectories. Each concert offers an opportunity for well-established artists to connect with audiences in a new, more personal way. In these days of creative hybridity, genre feels more fluid than ever, as hip-hop holds primacy over Broadway, Latin-influenced sounds climb the pop and rap charts, and artists like Gaby Moreno flex in multiple languages.
A new project can feel like a special treat for attentive fans of a performer with a wide following.
All that energetic mixing and matching reflects an increasingly diverse world of artists and audiences, connecting across ever more permeable boundaries. The technology that blurs the lines that separate us—letting artists access a wider range of influence than ever before—also empowers them to explore and take risks: The ability to record and produce cheaply with digital tools, and disseminate widely online, opens up room for playfulness and experimentation for prolific tinkerers.
Sometimes, too, the exploration goes inward rather than out, as with projects such as St. Vincent's 2018 MassEducation—adding one carefully placed vowel to the title of her acclaimed top-ten 2017 release Masseduction and revisiting its compositions as spare, acoustic productions, practically undressing them. Reinterpretation is its own art: it's the essence of the folk tradition, and the meat of jazz and cabaret vocalists like the Broadway veteran Christine Ebersole or rising star Vuyo Sotashe, who give well-known songs new shape and meaning by inhabiting them. Broadway folks, of course, have never stopped expecting versatility from the singing, dancing, emoting, and multitasking stars of musical theater—like Jose Llana or Tony Yazbeck—and an intimate night of music with a star who can fill an opera house or a Broadway theater with the force of their talent can feel like a peek behind the curtain. Joyce DiDonato, the two-time Grammy Award–winning American opera star, literally calls her side project Songplay, a lighthearted but wholly adept foray into jazz and tango.
A new project can feel like a special treat for attentive fans of a performer with a wide following. This is where artists get to step outside the lines, as with the quieter, stripped-down solo work of Rostam, an architect of Vampire Weekend's ebullient pop; actor Martha Plimpton's U.S. history–themed tribute to Aimee Mann; or actors-singers-dancers Megan Mullally and Stephanie Hunt, who act, sing, dance, and make jokes as Nancy And Beth—but kind of differently together than you're used to them doing separately. Changing partners sparks inspiration: ask Lake Street Dive's Rachael Price, exploring new sounds with former conservatory classmate Vilray, or Son Lux, originally the gorgeously textured post-rock project of composer, singer, and keyboardist Ryan Lott, now sharing mental and sonic space with percussionist Ian Chang and guitarist Rafiq Bhatia. And then there are artists who embrace the new intimacy of engaging close-up and live, like the celebrated television star Jenifer Lewis or versatile actor/musician Oscar Isaac, best known for film work. On the flip side are behind-the-scenes hitmakers like Desmond Child, stepping out into the spotlight with his American Songbook performance.
There's a certain vulnerability at play when someone who knows what works decides to show off a previously unseen interest, or test out a new potential identity. That's where trust pays off, when the "side" project proves to be the pleasing reveal of another literal facet of a well-loved and well-known artist, getting to stretch outside the usual persona. We all contain multitudes.
Alison Fensterstock is a writer in New Orleans.
American Songbook Lead Support provided by PGIM, the global investment management business of Prudential Financial, Inc.