Posted September, 2010
We’ve all read stories of relationships between celebrities and their kids. Sadly, too many of those stories are dripping with tales of abuse and dysfunctional relationships between parent and child. Equally as sad, we learn that this tragic cycle repeats itself in the adult lives of the children. We pretty much just come to expect that all celebrity kids are just a jacked up mess.
I don’t know about those of you reading this piece, but I always find it refreshing to be proven wrong when it comes to those assumptions. Because of the people that I’ve been fortunate enough to interview, I’ve slowly but surely begun to change my preconceived notions about kids of celebrities.
Case in point: my recent opportunity to chat with Antonia Bennett, the lovely and very talented daughter of jazz icon, Tony Bennett. The youngest of four children, Antonia has worked and studied hard to follow a similar but different career path Mr. Bennett.
Musically schooled at Berkley as well as trained in acting and dance at the Strasburg Institute, Antonia has the weapons in her arsenal to be the consummate performer. As for presence, her natural beauty and sense of presence and delivery are attributes one could understandably assume she inherited from her gifted father. That is likely true to a great extent. However, I would argue that Ms. Bennett has worked and studied hard to perfect her art.
Either way, Antonia has delivered a great debut EP of pure jazz artistry. Entitled Natural, it’s a six song, multi-genre treat featuring such diverse classics as, Puttin’ On The Ritz, B.B. King’s, The Thrill Is Gone, to Pat Benatar’s, Love Is A Battlefield, which, coincidentally, was written by Natural’s producer, Holly Knight.
Grammy nominated pianist and arranger, Larry Goldings (and who has also worked with Norah Jones, John Mayer, Al Jarreau, David Sanborn and James Taylor) skillfully arranged the tunes. With this triple threat of talent and experience, it’s no mystery why Natural is a superb debut offering.
It was the subject of this talented powerhouse that fed the content of my first question as to what brought Antonia, Holly and Larry together for this project.
“Larry, he crosses both worlds. He understands popular music and he really understands Jazz and traditional music, too. That’s important to me because I grew up listening to everything. Larry and I met many years ago. An A&R guy named Steve Ferrera - at the time he was with Blue Note Records and Angel Records, and is now all over the place, doing everything from American Idol and a lot of other things. He’s a pretty big A&R guy now.
“Anyway, he introduced me to this producer, Russ Titleman. Russ had heard me sing and thought I would be perfect for a duet with Tom Wopat on his record, In The Still of the Night. That’s when I met Larry – many, many years ago in New York, when I was living there. He now lives in L.A. with his wife so, when I came back out to L.A., I said that, when I get organized here, I want to work with Larry.
“Holly and I started writing songs together, one at a time, then slowly, we started doing more and more. We were gearing up to do a record of all contemporary music that we had co-written. I said to Holly, ‘You know? Before we start to do this, I really want to take a snapshot of what I’ve been doing my whole life because this is what comes so naturally to me and it’s what I know. So, it would be a shame if I start going straight for the contemporary stuff without taking a snapshot of what I had been doing up until now.’
“She said that it was a great idea and said, ‘Come on, let’s do it!’ She was nice enough to help facilitate the whole thing. It just kind of happened effortlessly. It all just fell into place. Then, I approached Larry. He’s so great to work with. We sat down at his piano and started going through tunes and listening to stuff. As I said, it just fell into place.”
Recording projects of any kind can range from 2 years to, seemingly, infinity. I asked Ms. Bennett how long did Natural take to get out the door.
“We had it sitting there for awhile. We didn’t really know how we were going to release it. We didn’t know if we were just going to release it on iTunes or what. Then Mitch (Davis, son of record industry legend, Clive Davis), my manager, was nice enough to introduce me to George Nauful over at Mesa/Blue Moon Records. He put a deal together for us to release it. After this digital EP is out, we’re going to go back into the studio and make a full length LP with Mesa/Blue Moon. Hopefully, we’ll start work on that in October and have it out soon after.
“Also, I did an amazing tour of Europe with my dad, opening shows for him. We were at Royal Albert Hall, Istanbul Jazz Festival, and the Umbria Jazz Festival in Italy as well as other amazing and beautiful theaters all over the U.K. So, we’re going to take the best picks of the live performances from that tour and release them digitally as an EP to keep our fans engaged and satisfied – the people who were there and would like to have a memory of that experience at home.”
This led to a sidebar discussion about the state of the music industry. Antonia’s education and unique experience has fed her keen observation of the business as well as a good feel for what it will take to develop a loyal following.
“It’s amazing what’s been happening with the music industry. On one hand it’s difficult because there a lot of free downloading and artists aren’t getting their money for their music. On the other hand, it’s really opened things up for fan because, as an artist, you can do things a lot of different ways and the fans can reach out to their artists in a lot of different ways, as well. There’s no roadmap anymore so you can make it your own. I think that’s a really great thing. The more that I can keep fans involved and reach out to them and show them what I’m doing, and just hope that they like what I’m doing as much as I like doing it. That’s all that I can pray for.”
While asking Antonia what determined which songs she selected for the EP, I also asked if it wasn’t a bit risky to have such a mix, given her current audience.
“We were talking about it and I said, ‘Do you think that this should be a second project?’ because, even though we were treating it like a jazz standard, I thought that I might should do another project of just modern tunes with jazz treatments. I didn’t know if it would all fit together. The great thing is, I was working with such tremendous people that it all fell into place.
“That track (Battlefield) was played and arranged by great pianist by the name of Deron Johnson. He’s super fantastic. Holly had also wanted a jazz version of it and had talked to Deron to see if he could come up with a great arrangement. Later, I came in and sang it. I love that kind of thing – to dive into the lyrics of something and express it.”
It’s at this point that Antonia drills into an area of particular interest to her: song interpretation. “The way that I grew up, I grew up as an ‘interpreter’ and, as an interpreter, that’s what you’re supposed to do: take a song and make it your own. It’s an art form that’s been ‘lost in the wash’, I think. Everybody’s expected to write and do everything else, too. The art of interpretation has gotten a bit lost and almost looked down upon in some mediums. But, it is a true art form.
“I’ve watched my dad night after night and I can honestly say – it’s not nepotism – I don’t know anybody that can do what he does in the area of song interpretation. And, with Battlefield, I tried to approach it from that point of view. How am I going to make this mine? How would I say these lyrics? What are they meaning to me? What’s the story?”
When Antonia mentioned earlier that she would be going back into the studio soon, I immediately wondered what other songs might be added to the mix.
“I’m not quite sure yet. I would love to share it with you if I knew what they were going to be. There might be a couple of originals. I’m not sure yet. We’re still working it out.”
Currently in the midst of a nationwide tour with her dad, I asked Ms. Bennett what kind of people made up her audience.
“Right now, I’ve been mostly touring with my dad and the audience is represented by a wide range of ages. I’m not quite sure yet since this is just the beginning but I would assume that my audience age range is from age 30 on up. I would say that I have a hot ‘AC’ (adult contemporary) audience and cross over to the traditional jazz audience, as well.”
While the album is still young, Antonia is incredibly enthusiastic about the favorable response – and press – that’s she’s already receiving.
“Wow, I just had a great write u in the Jazz Times (here) and I was really taken aback! I was reading it but I was saying, ‘Oh my gosh! This is about ME?’ It was SO positive and encouraging. When you’re an artist, you get used to the idea that there are going to be people out there that don’t like what you’re doing so I always try to prepare myself for that. But things have been really, really positive and people have been giving me positive feedback. I just hope that it continues. It’s nice to be recognized by your peers – by a magazine like that. For me, it’s a really big deal because they really know their stuff.”
As much as I hated to, I had to ask Ms. Bennett how involved in her album was her famous dad. She didn’t seem at all offended by the question.
“He was pretty much ‘hands-off’ but he was also very supportive. When I played it for him, he was really blown away and he really loved it. He said, ‘You’re really singing great and I’m SO proud of you! You know I wouldn’t say it if it’s not true! You’re a really good jazz singer.’ Coming from him is a very high compliment!”
Did Mr. Bennett give his daughter any advice before going into the studio?
“He didn’t give me much advice on the album. He just wants me to sing jazz. He would really love that. He always tells me that I’m a great jazz singer and to always ‘quality’. The other thing that he has said to me is to always breathe before each phrase and, when you get to the words ‘I love you’, make sure that you really mean it.’ That’s his advice and it’s really worked out great for me.
“They sound like such simple things but the truth of the matter is that they get missed in the mix. You really have to take a minute to ‘seal’ it and express it in your singing.’
In developing her career and body of work, I asked Antonia what are the similarities and differences to how her dad developed, and is continuing, his career?
After some careful reflection, she said, “It’s a hard to say. Growing up as an artist, part of it is about him and part of it just about finding your own voice and trying to be yourself. If you just be yourself, you’re automatically different than everybody else but that’s not always so easy to get to.
“I think the biggest difference is that, since I was working since a very young age, I waited a long time to put something out because I wanted to make sure that I was ready. The biggest difference is that I waited a lot longer than he did to start but, then, I think that it’s a generational thing. Kids were adults at seventeen years old when my dad was growing up.
“The other thing is I try to choose to stand in my dad’s light and not in his shadow. I try to focus on that. The rest of it just goes into the wash again. He’s said some other things. He said, ‘You always have a choice no matter what cards you’re dealt. You can focus on the good things or you can focus on the negative. I really, really do my best to focus on the positive and be very grateful and humble for the amazing opportunities that I have.”
Aside from her dad, who have been her biggest musical influences? Her answer surprised me but it really shouldn’t have.
“Gosh, I have so many influences. It’s hard to say. Obviously, a lot of the traditional musicians like Stan Getz, Oscar Peterson, Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole – all of those kinds of people. I’ve been influenced not only but singers but by musicians, too.
“Then, there were also a lot of artists from the 60’s and 70’s who really influenced me. People like Tina Turner. I was always a big fan of Blondie. I always liked her songs. They were always melodic, romantic and dreamy. David Bowie. I listened to a lot of John Lennon. Now, I listen to Kings of Leon and The Killers. I listen to a lot of different things. I soak up as much as I can.
“At the end of the day when I relax, one thing I really enjoy listening to is Louis Armstrong because he always makes me feel good. I don’t know why but, from the sound of his voice, it makes me feel happy so I listen to a lot of him.”
With Antonia Bennett’s spotlight beginning to shine on her now, I asked her what her long range career goals are.
“Gosh, I’ve never been that great at planning but what I would like to do is to continue to put out good music and to continue to grow as an artist, build my fan base and keep touring. Hopefully, I’ll be fortunate enough to have a good career and a fan base who loves my stuff and keeps going out and supporting my music.
“The most important thing for me is to always be able to earn a livelihood. I can always sell records and tour. That’s definitely the most important thing. Secondly, to be recognized and respected by my peers. For me, I feel that I can hang my hat on that if I’m respected by my peers – it would be a really big deal for me.”
You can catch Antonia Bennett and her legendary father at a city or town near you. To find out where, and to keep up with the latest developments in Ms. Bennett’s career, you can visit her website at www.antoniabennett.com.
You’ll definitely want to keep an eye on this talent. She’s going to be around for a very long time.