The Latest Return of Marc Ostrow
October 17, 2011 § Leave a comment
Marc Ostrow has performed at the Cornelia Street Cafe often enough that he really doesn’t need an introduction. But if you’d like one, please see what we wrote the last time we interviewed Marc, prior to his July performance.
When you sit down at the piano, is there anyone you’ve got in mind, performance-wise, you’re aiming to emulate? Where in the sizable range of lounge-appropriate genres would you locate your work? What are some of your favorite sounds/feels/idioms to play with?
Well, I grew up listening to the great singer-songwriters of the 60s and 70s, especially piano-playing ones like Elton John, Billy Joel and Carole King. Also the Beatles, Paul Simon…The list goes on. I also really love standards by the likes of Gershwin, Rodgers, Jimmy Van Heusen, Harry Warren… . I don’t really try to emulate anyone. As a performer, I try mostly to hit the notes vocally and put my hands on the right keys.
That said, I do think anybody who considers himself an artist tries to come up with his own unique sound. As a writer I think my songs definitely have their own individual stamp and I care very much about the craft. In whatever genre I’m working in, I’ve always got some weird melodic — and especially harmonic — twists. In bridge or B sections, I like to go as far out harmonically as I can and then somehow seamlessly find my way back home. I’ll also throw in things like 9-bar phrases – just because I can! I don’t write a lot of songs because I set very high standards for myself. I don’t want to listen to half-baked crap – even if it’s my half-baked crap!
As for feels/idioms/genres, I first came to Cornelia Street as part of Frank J. Oteri’s Twenty-First Century Schizoid Music series, which I played twice – meaning I’m doubly schizoid! I’ve written everything from pop to show tunes to swing and bebop, country, and even a few art songs. Anything that’s harmonically interesting, doesn’t require sampling, heavy percussion or vocal pyrotechnics is fair game for me.But there’s almost always a jazz influence, usually quirky chord substitutions even if it’s a pop tune with plain triadic chords.
What’s the songwriting process like for you? How and how soon does it come to be that a song is Done? How does your music change when introduced to the rest of your band?
I’ve written songs any number of ways. I’ve written music first, lyrics first, I’ve set lyrics to other people’s music and I’ve set music to other people’s lyrics. Usually I sit down at the piano and come up with the tune. Then the title. Then the words. A couple of years ago I was dating a woman who was good friends with some great guitar players and I discovered that guitarists seem to write differently from piano players. They strum chords and kind of improvise a melody over it and go from there. So, for one piece, Lullaby, I first came up with a set of chord changes – mapped the whole thing out from first to last measure. Then I wrote a melody over it and then set the lyrics. It’s a really pretty piece, if I do say so myself.
I used the same approach for a very different tune, “I’ve Been Unfriended On Facebook,” which, like many of my songs, is loosely based on experience. It’s a mock horror song, perfect for Halloween, which I describe as Steve Reich meets the Ramones meets Dr. Demento. The music doesn’t change much when I’ve got the band playing – it just sounds much better. The people I work with are top-flight musicians who “get it” right away. And I’m open-minded about what they bring to the table as well. So, there’s not a lot of rehearsal or explanation needed.
What are some of the places you’ve played, in the City or elsewhere? How do differences in the venue change the experience of performing there? Where does Cornelia fit in?
Being a full-time lawyer and starting a new business, I don’t gig much. And I don’t mean to be a shill, but I really love playing at Cornelia Street. Since Robin expanded the stage and got Jed Distler’s Yamaha grand up there, it’s really an ideal venue for someone like me who likes an intimate setting and to interact with the audience. While I don’t quite do a cabaret act, I do set up the songs a bit and talk to the audience more than just, say, playing an hour’s jazz set at the Vanguard. The sight lines are very good, I’ve always had excellent sound and the food and drink is much better than most of the other clubs I go to.
Last time you suggested burgeoning songwriters buy a rhyming dictionary. Any other advice?
Learn your craft. Get a good songwriting and/or lyric writing book. There’s plenty out there. And learn about the business. Don Passman’s “Everything You Need To Know About the Music Business” is the best introduction. It’s well-written and I used it in both the music publishing and recording industry courses I’ve taught. I should be getting royalties from recommending it so often!
Describe the ideal cover art for a hypothetical LP of your work. Feel free to include illustrations or diagrams if you wish.
One would be an M.C. Escher print I have hanging on my wall. It’s fairly well known – two hands drawing themselves. Life’s about reinventing yourself and that image is how I look at songwriting. As someone who writes both music and lyrics, I can freely change one element to accommodate the other. If a melodic phrase and a lyric don’t quite work, I don’t need anyone’s approval either to modify the music or change the lyric and I usually do a bit of both as a song progresses. And I’ll do at least 3-5 drafts – sometimes more – of a lyric. That’s why I’ve always got my lyrics up on stage with me. The tune and the chord changes are much easier to remember than which version of what verse to sing.
Pressing deadlines… people re-emerging from your past… As the great Yogi said, “it’s déjà vu all overagain” for piano-playing professor, Marc Ostrow. Join him on and his merry band on October 19th at 6pm as they play through some new songs on old themes and dusts off a few favorites in myriad moods and styles from the memory trunk of tunes. Call 212/989-9319 or visit http://www.corneliastreetcafe.com for reservations.