Music Interviews
7:03 am
Mon May 28, 2012

Catherine Russell: An In-Studio Fresh Air Concert

Originally published on Tue May 29, 2012 6:49 am

This interview was originally broadcast on February 21, 2011.

Blues and jazz singer Catherine Russell says she frequently listens to the radio while washing dishes. One night, she was by the sink listening to a Chick Webb compilation when Ella Fitzgerald's "Under the Spell of the Blues" came on. The song struck her.

"The lyric came on, and it was just a beautiful story, and then I [was] compelled to learn the tune, and then I learned about everything surrounding it," she says.

The result is now one of 14 songs on Russell's fourth solo album, Strictly Romancin', and one of the tunes she sings during Tuesday's Fresh Air in-studio interview and concert. Other songs in the concert include "Everything's Been Done Before," "Wake Up and Live" and "Romance in the Dark." Russell grew up on these tunes, in addition to a mix of rock, blues and classical arrangements.

"My mother had a radio in the kitchen when I was growing up, and we used to listen to William B. Williams Make Believe Ballroom on WNEW-AM," she tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "So every morning, I was listening to Ella, the Mills Brothers, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Judy Garland, Peggy Lee. Everything that was popular of the day and before that. ... That really formed my appreciation of phrasing, of how the people sang these tunes in those days."

Russell's household was always filled with music. Her father, the late Luis Russell, was Louis Armstrong's musical director from 1935 to 1943. Her mother, Carline Ray, performed with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, an all-female orchestra, during WWII and has performed with Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Jazz Center Orchestra.

"Their appreciation of traditional and different types of jazz kind of formed my young ears," she says. "Mom played a lot of different things. ... And she also let me listen to a lot of things that she didn't particularly like. ... She let me listen to my Led Zeppelin records loud. ... She never said, 'Turn that down. I hate it. This is terrible.' She always let me listen to everything I wanted to listen to."

Catch A Rising Star

As Russell grew older, she realized she wanted to be a singer. One of her first regular gigs was in between sets at a comedy club called Catch a Rising Star in New York. Russell was allowed to sing for 15 minutes and pick three tunes.

"The first song would be an uptempo soul tune, the second would be some kind of blues or a ballad and then the third would be an uptempo tune, and I wouldn't finish the tune. The band would keep playing and I'd say, 'Good night everybody!' and leave the stage," she says. "Not only weren't they my audience, but it would take a tune or two to have them say, 'Oh, okay, she can sing,' and then they would go back to tallying up their checks."

Russell says singing to a relatively indifferent audience was actually excellent training.

"You really have to work so hard to win them over," she says. "You only have 15 minutes, and you have to put all of yourself into every note. And I could sing whatever I wanted to sing. So it was a way for me to change up repertoire and add repertoire and know what was and wasn't going to work."

After that gig, Russell sang backup for people like Jackson Browne, Rosanne Cash, Steely Dan, Paul Simon and David Bowie. She also backed Bette Midler, Al Green and Beth Orton on David Letterman's show. Rehearsals, she said, often took place on the same day as the show.

"Sometimes they'll send you the tune beforehand, but really, we're working out the parts that day," she says. "Those of us working out those parts are continually rehearsing that day until we're on camera. So we keep rehearsing the parts in the dressing room; as we're going down the stairs to the studio, we're rehearsing in the wings, in the green rooms, right up until the cameras roll."

Performing as a solo artist, Russell says, requires a different set of nerves.

"It was terrifying at first, really," she says. "I just thought, 'What have I done?' But then the more I did it, then the more comfortable I got, and then I thought I need to start enjoying my life."

After a sold-out performance at the Rochester Jazz Festival a few years ago, Russell says she needed to become more comfortable.

"I realized, 'You need to just start to own this,'" she says. "Because if people come to see you, you can't be cowering and looking nervous and being unsure of yourself. So I did a lot of talking to myself about that. ... I said, 'God meant for me to do this. My mother wants me to be proud. And I'm too old to be standing up too-nervous in front of an audience. And there's a reason why I have this opportunity, and I need to take it and own it.'"

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. On this Memorial Day, we have a performance by a singer who I consider one of the best jazz and blues singers around, which isn't to say she's well-known. Her name is Catherine Russell, and for many years she worked as a backup singer for Paul Simon, Steely Dan, David Bowie and others.

But for the past few years, she's been performing and recording under her own name. A lot of the material she does is jazz, blues and pop dating back to the 1930s and '40s. Her father, Luis Russell, who was a pianist, composer and arranger who worked as Louis Armstrong's music director in the mid-1940s.

Her mother, Carline Ray, performed with the all-women's band The International Sweethearts of Rhythm. Catherine Russell's FRESH AIR performance was recorded in February, after the release of her latest album "Strictly Romancin'." With her was guitarist Matt Munisteri, who plays guitar on the album, served as the music director and did many of the arrangements.

Catherine Russell, Matt Munisteri, welcome to FRESH AIR. We've been so looking forward to this. It's really great to have you. So Catherine, I'm going to start by asking you both to do a song, and I'd like you to introduce it for us.

CATHERINE RUSSELL: We're going to do a song called "Under the Spell of the Blues," which was written by Edgar Sampson and Ken Harrison, and Edgar Sampson was associated with the Chick Webb Orchestra, and this was one of Ella Fitzgerald's earliest hits.

GROSS: And I should mention it's the first song on the new album "Strictly Romancin'."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNDER THE SPELL OF THE BLUES")

RUSSELL: (Singing) I turn my head to the sky when you pass by, but I want to cry because my heart is under the spell of the blues. For I go around acting gay, say it's OK, pretending each day, but I'm alone and under the spell of the blues.

(Singing) Since we're apart, the dawn brings only heartache to me. You're born, I'm like a lost ship at sea in my misery. I'd say that I'm satisfied, no use to hide what goes on inside. It's true, my heart is under the spell of the blues. Since we're apart, the dawn brings only heartache to me. You're gone, I'm like a lost ship at sea in my misery.

(Singing) I'd say that I'm satisfied, no use to hide what goes on inside. It's true, my heart is under the spell of the blues.

GROSS: That's fabulous. Thank you so much for performing that. That's Catherine Russell, singing in our studio, accompanied by Matt Munisteri on guitar. Thank you so much. That's so - I love your voice so much.

I love a lot of early jazz and pop, and one of the things I love about your work is that you love that music, and you bring it to life in such a beautiful and committed way.

RUSSELL: Thank you very much.

GROSS: And you know the language of it. I mean, I think a lot of singers don't have the right rhythm when they sing old songs because they grew up with rock, and they just don't feel a jazz rhythm. But you grew up with jazz.

RUSSELL: I grew up with jazz, but I grew up with rock, too. I grew up with blues. I grew up with classical. My mother had an old radio in the kitchen when I was growing up and we used to listen to William B. Williams Make Believe Ballroom.

GROSS: On WNEW.

RUSSELL: On WNEW, yeah, AM. Every morning, I was listening to Ella, the Mills Brothers, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Judy Garland, whatever, Peggy Lee, everything that was popular of the day, which - and before that. So that was late '50s, early '60s now. So that really kind of formed my appreciation of phrasing, of how the people sang these tunes in those days.

So I always, you know, was in the mirror with a toothbrush when I was a little girl, trying to sing these songs and everything.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Now, I grew up with that radio station, too, because my parents listened to it. And I hated it then. I really hated it because I wanted to hear rock 'n' roll. And - but you grew up with parents who were jazz performers. You know, your father, the late Luis Russell, was Louis Armstrong's music director for a while. Your mother sang with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm during World War II, which is an all-women jazz band.

And so did the fact that they loved the music bring the music alive for you?

RUSSELL: Yes, my dad's music was some of the first music I ever heard in the house growing up, and my mother was so happy that I kind of took to it, you know, when I was very little because I liked to dance and I loved swing. And so, yes, I would say that their appreciation of traditional and different types of jazz kind of formed my young ears with that.

GROSS: Were they determined to get you to love the music? Did they play you things and hope that you would love it?

RUSSELL: No, they - you know, mom played a lot of different things. So she's happy that I did, but she also let me listen to a lot of things that she didn't particularly like. I grew up on "American Bandstand," so if there were groups on there - she never told me, oh, turn that stuff off, I hate it, never. She always let me listen to my Led Zeppelin records loud.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RUSSELL: So she, you know, got me a little stereo, and I had it, you know, the kind that you pick up, and I had that in my room when I was growing up, and she never said turn that down, I hate it, this is terrible. She always let me listen to everything I wanted to listen to, so...

GROSS: Well, I'm going to ask you to perform another song that's also featured on your new album "Strictly Romancin'," and this song is called "Wake Up and Live," and I love this song. I was not familiar with it until you sang it. Tell us why you chose it.

RUSSELL: This is another song that I actually heard when I was growing up. I remember this, it's written by Mack Gordon and Harry Revel, and I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly. I remember that from the radio, as well, so I think that William B. Williams played that one, also.

And on the Chick Webb - that's also from this Chick Webb selection. It's a vocal trio on that collection, and I remember that recording very faintly when I was little, and Cab Calloway also recorded it. So I loved his version, too. And it just reminds me that I have to really do something with my life. You know, I like to sleep late and everything. So this is a good song for me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And I should mention that Matt Gordon, the lyricist for this song, also wrote the lyrics for "Chattanooga Choo-Choo," "I Had the Craziest Dream," "The More I See You" and "There Will Never Be Another You." And Harry Revel wrote "There's a Lull in my Life," which is a great song.

RUSSELL: Oh yeah, beautiful.

GROSS: So let's hear it.

RUSSELL: Let's do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WAKE UP AND LIVE")

RUSSELL: (Singing) Wake up and live, don't mind the rainy patter, and you will find it's mind over matter. Dark clouds will break up if you will wake up and live. Yeah, wake up and live, show the stuff you're made of. Just follow through, what are you afraid of? You'll try it, won't 'ya? Why don't you wake up and live?

(Singing) Come out of your shell, hey fella. Find your place in the sun. Come out of your shell, say fella. Just be a go-gettin' son of a gun. Wake up and live, if Lady Luck is yawning. Up on your toes, a better day is dawning. Don't let up, get up and give. Just give yourself a shakeup just to wake up and live.

(Singing) Come out of your shell, hey fella. Find your place in the sun. Come out of your shell, say fella. Just be a go-gettin' son of a gun. Yeah, wake up and live, if Lady Luck is yawning. Up on your toes, a better day is dawning. Don't let up, get up and give. Just give yourself a shakeup just to wake up and live.

GROSS: Yeah, that was great. Thank you both so much. That's Catherine Russell singing with Matt Munisteri featured on guitar, and Catherine Russell has a new album, which she performs that song, and it's called "Strictly Romancin'." But today, Catherine Russell and Matt Munisteri are performing in our studio.

So let's talk about your first regular gig in New York. I should mention you were a backup singer before you became a soloist.

RUSSELL: For many years, yeah, yeah.

GROSS: But one of your first regular jobs, maybe your first regular job, was at Catch a Rising Star in New York, where you sang when the checks were being given out, when it was really noisy and when there was, like, a famous comedian testing out a new routine. None of the other comics would want to follow that.

RUSSELL: Wanted to follow him, yes.

GROSS: So you would kind of sing right in between to break it up a bit.

RUSSELL: Yeah.

GROSS: So it wasn't necessarily going to be your crowd because they're a crowd who came to see comedy, not music. What songs went over for that crowd?

RUSSELL: It was a 15-minute slot for everybody. So comedians, singers - there are a few of us who sang. And so I chose soul and blues. So I would sing three songs, and the first song would be a kind of an up-tempo soul tune. The second would be blues or some kind of a ballad like, you know, Aretha Franklin. And then the third one would be an up-tempo tune, and they would - so I wouldn't finish the tune.

So the band would keep playing, and I'd say good night everybody, you know, and leave the stage. And so really, after whatever comedian was on, the singer - they'd announce the singer, and the people would go - uh, you could hear it, hear it in the crowd.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RUSSELL: So not only weren't they my audience, but, you know, it would take a tune or two to kind of have them say, oh, all right, she can sing, you know, it's OK. And then they would go back to tallying up their checks, you know.

GROSS: And you also did backup for a long time. You sang with Steely Dan and with David Bowie, with Paul Simon...

RUSSELL: Jackson Browne, Roseanne Cash. I did J. Geils Band. I sang with Bernie Worrell of P-Funk fame, you know, a whole bunch of people and then also backed a lot of people up on television shows, on, you know, David Letterman, on the late-night shows: (unintelligible), Bette Midler, Beth Orton, Al Green, Ray LaMontagne, you know...

GROSS: So for that kind of backup singing, you've got to, like, really deliver. I mean, you've got to be every-note precise, right?

RUSSELL: Yes, it's really important. You know, we rehearse beforehand. You go in on the day, and so sometimes they'll send you the tune beforehand, but then really you're - we're working out the parts that day, and then whatever group of us there are will continually rehearse those parts until we're on camera.

So we keep rehearsing the parts in the dressing room, we're rehearsing as we're going down the stairs to the studio, we're rehearsing in the wings, in the green room, right up until those cameras roll.

GROSS: What was it like for you when you started singing solo to be the front person because when you're the backup singer, you're not supposed to be upstaging the actual performer. But when you're the soloist, you have to have a persona onstage.

RUSSELL: It's different - you know, I've sung lead in different bands for a long time. So they were bands that weren't under my name, which was still fine because it wasn't under my - my name wasn't on the ticket. But as soon as my name was on the ticket, I thought wow, OK, now, you know, I'm getting to the venue, and I'm looking around for the star, and it's me.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RUSSELL: I'm looking around for the other person. They're like hi, Catherine. You know, it's like oh my goodness. So it took me a few years, actually. Now we've been doing this maybe five, a little over five years. It took me a few years to get used to that. That was terrifying at first, really. It was really nerve-wracking.

Then the more I did it, you know, then the more comfortable I got, and then I realized wait a minute, I need to start enjoying my life. So at some point, there was a - I did Rochester Jazz Festival a few years back, and we sold out, and I realized, oh, my goodness, all these people came to see me, oh.

So at that point, I think - you were with me at that - Matt was with me. And then I realized, wow, you need to just start to own this because if people come to see you, you can't be cowering and looking nervous and being, you know, unsure of yourself. So I did a lot of talking to myself about that.

GROSS: What did you say to yourself?

RUSSELL: I said God meant for me to do this. I mean, this may sound corny, but, you know. God meant for me to do this, my mother wants to be proud of me. I'm representing a lot of people here. And I'm also too old to be standing up and being nervous in front of an audience. So there's a reason why I have this opportunity, and I need to take it and own it. So this is what I say to myself.

GROSS: So my guest is Catherine Russell, and she has a new album, which is called "Strictly Romancin'," and with her today, accompanying her on guitar, is Matt Munisteri. And let's take a short break here; then we'll hear some more live performance in our studio.

RUSSELL: Excellent.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are singer Catherine Russell and guitarist Matt Munisteri. And Catherine has a new album called "Strictly Romancin'," and Matt is the music director, the primary arranger and the guitarist on the album. So I'd like you to do another song that's featured on the new album, and this one is called "Romance in the Dark." And I have to say it's a very sexy song, especially the way you sing it.

RUSSELL: Thank you.

GROSS: So tell us why you chose the song.

RUSSELL: It's just such a - I love the blues. And I just love the pictures that the song creates with the lyric.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROMANCE IN THE DARK)

RUSSELL: (Singing) In the dark, it's just you and I. Not a sound, baby, not one sigh. Just the beat of my poor heart in the dark. In the dark, I get such a thrill when he places his fingertips upon my lips, and he begs me please be still, in the dark.

(Singing) Oh, soon this dance will be ending, and I know, baby, you are gonna be missed. Gee, you know I'm not pretending 'cause you know it's fun, fun to be kissed. In the dark, I know we will find what the rest, what the rest, what the rest have left behind. So just let them dance while we find romance in the dark. Yeah...

(Singing) Oh, soon this dance will be ending, and I know, pretty baby, you are gonna be missed. Ah, honey, but gee, I'm not pretending when I tell you it's fun, fun to be kissed. In the dark, I know we will find what the rest, what the rest, what the rest have left behind. So just let them dance while we find romance, oh baby, in the dark.

GROSS: Wow, that was fantastic.

RUSSELL: Thank you.

Performing for us in our studio, Catherine Russell, singing with Matt Munisteri accompanying her on guitar, and that is one of the songs that's also featured on her new album, which is called "Strictly Romancin'." Whoa.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: You know, I wish our audience could see you because your hand movements are so beautiful when you sing. You studied acting, didn't you?

RUSSELL: Yes, I did. I went to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and graduated from there with honors. So I'm very proud of that.

GROSS: Catherine Russell and guitarist Matt Munisteri will be back in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today we're featuring a concert and interview with jazz and blues singer Catherine Russell. She has a new album called "Strictly Romancin'. Some of her material dates back to the 1930s and '40s.

Her father, Luis Russell, was Louis Armstrong's music director in the mid-1940s. Her mother, Carline Ray, is a bass player and guitarist who played with the all-women's band, The International Sweethearts of Rhythm. Accompanying Catherine Russell in our studio is Matt Munisteri, who is the guitarist and music director on Russell's new album.

Now you're here singing live for us, which is thrilling. But there's an album - there's a song from the new album I actually want to play from the album because your mother is featured on it singing a duet with you on a Rosa Tharpe gospel song.

RUSSELL: Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Sister Maureen Knight recorded a lot together back in the 1940s. And I actually got to meet and sing with Sister Maureen Knight on her last album that Larry Campbell, the great multi-instrumentalist, produced and played on. She did an album, which was a dedication to Reverend Gary Davis. So it was blues song, kind of gospel, spiritual songs. So I began to listen to the songs that Maureen Knight recorded back in the 40s and she swung, you know, that's what also grabbed me about her music. And so then, listening on to this collection that I have of hers, I came upon this song, "He's All I Need," and I thought my mother is a very spiritual, you know, she's a woman of faith, of deep faith. And I thought what can I sing with her that will be simple that will really grab her that we can sing together?

GROSS: And I should say, she's in her 80s.

RUSSELL: She is going to be 87 years young in April, and still singing, still playing bass and she's one of the strengths in my life. So I brought her into the studio to sing this song with me because she also really connected with the lyric.

GROSS: So let's hear the track from the album in which you sing a duet with your mother. And this is "He's All I Need." And this is my guest, Catherine Russell with her mother Carline Ray, who used to perform most famously in the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, an all-women's band during World War II. And this is from Catherine's new album, which is called "Strictly Romancin'."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HE'S ALL I NEED")

RUSSELL AND CARLINE RAY: (Singing) If I was hungry without bread to eat. Well, if I was naked with no shoes on my feet. Well, if I was wondering oh Lord, where will I be? The Lord, he is my shepherd, yeah, yeah, and that's all I'll ever need. Oh, now the Lord is my shepherd. He is my shepherd. The Lord is my shepherd. And that's all I need to know. Oh, now the Lord is my shepherd...

GROSS: So that's Catherine Russell dueting with her mother, Carline Ray, from Catherine's new album "Strictly Romancin'." I really like that so much. At a time when there were few women instrumentalists in jazz your mother was playing guitar with the International Sweethearts of Rhythm.

RUSSELL: Yes.

GROSS: In the 1940s during World War II. And then your father dies when you are seven.

RUSSELL: Yeah.

GROSS: So your mother is on her own...

RUSSELL: Yeah.

GROSS: ...raising you.

RUSSELL: Yes.

GROSS: So you must've gotten the impression from her that women can definitely be strong and do things that are unconventional for women.

RUSSELL: Yes. You know, even when my dad was alive, I mean she was always very independent because she left home to go on the road and women just didn't really do that, you know. So my grandfather, she used to tell me the story, you know, my grandfather would say, you'll be back, you know, when you've...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RUSSELL: You'll be back, you know. And she left and she didn't come back, really. You know, she just left and started working right after she graduated from Juilliard School of Music. And, you know, she wanted to play and she was inspired by all the jazz on 52nd Street and hearing, you know, Billie Holiday live. And she's got a story about how, you know, Art Tatum played, accompanied her one night and all these great stories. And so she was really determined - she has always been very determined and very independent and very focused, you know.

GROSS: Do you think that that affected your stage fright at all, having a mother who was so, you know, so kind of capable and brave and out there and...

RUSSELL: Yes. You know, absolutely. I mean I grew up looking at a degree from the Juilliard School of Music...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RUSSELL: ...on the wall, and right under that a degree from the Manhattan School of Music. And I just thought I'll never, you know, A, I'll never live up to that. And B, you know, she was always doing these - and she's got a very low voice. She's a classical contralto so she sounds like this, you know, and she's always been very strong and I'm not, you know, quite as strong that way. I'm a little more outwardly emotional, maybe in things like that, you know, so I really had to work on that. That's what took - and, you know, then she, I didn't let her - when I was in acting school I did not let her come to my plays for two out of the three years that I was at school because I didn't want to see her in the audience, you know. And, but, now I welcome her in the audience so I've made some progress.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: That's great.

RUSSELL: But she - yeah, she's still very, very - I ask her everything.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are singer Catherine Russell and guitarist Matt Munisteri. They're performing some songs for us today. Catherine Russell has a new album out, which is called "Strictly Romancin'." And Matt Munisteri is the guitarist and music director for the album.

We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, we're doing something special today. We have Catherine Russell performing some songs for us in our studio, accompanied by guitarist Matt Munisteri. And Catherine Russell has a new album, which is called "Strictly Romancin'."

So both your parents were jazz musicians.

RUSSELL: Yes.

GROSS: But you grew up hearing all kinds of things growing up in the '50s and '60s. I'm going to ask you to sing a song that meant a lot to you when you were coming of age musically and when you were really impressionable and learning new things.

RUSSELL: All right. Well, my first 45 that I bought was a Supremes 45. I think it cost me about 40 cents back in 1964, -5, something like that. And then with all the girl groups, I loved a song called "Nowhere To Run" by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas. Then, later on I realized that the Isley Brothers also recorded it and I loved their version of it. So that's where I take this version from.

GROSS: Fantastic. And this is my guest Catherine Russell singing with guitarist Matt Munisteri.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOWHERE TO RUN")

RUSSELL: (Singing) Nowhere to run to, baby. Nowhere to hide. I got nowhere to run to baby. Nowhere to hide. It's not love I'm running from. It's just the heartache I know will come. 'Cause I know you're no good for me. But you've become a part of me.

(Singing) Everywhere I go, every, face I see, every step I take you take with me, baby. Nowhere to run to, baby. Nowhere to hide. Oh, got nowhere to run to, baby. Nowhere to hide.

(Singing) I know you're no good for me now. But free of you I'll never be, yeah. Nowhere to run to, baby. Nowhere to hide. Oh, yeah. Nowhere to run to, baby. Nowhere to hide. Nowhere to hide.

GROSS: That was great. And what an achievement to sing that solo without a backup group, you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: It's funny because that's the kind of song that's usually so dependent on like the backup singers. You used to be a backup singer and here you are doing it solo.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RUSSELL: I don't know. I just love that song. I love the fact that it's actually blues, you know. It's a sad song but it's, you know, we used to dance to that song when I was a kid, so.

GROSS: Well, thank you so much for performing that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And I should mention, Catherine Russell has a new album, which is called "Strictly Romancin'." And now, Catherine, you're here today with guitarist Matt Munisteri. And Matt, you're the music director of the new album, the primary arranger and the guitarist. You've been working together, how did you first meet?

MATT MUNISTERI: Catherine called me maybe four years ago to start doing some stuff with her. And I'd heard about her maybe a year before that, because our mutual friend, Michelle Garnier, mentioned her. And I realized when Michelle was telling me about her that I'd played with her and heard her a very long time ago at the Berkshire Mountain Bluegrass Festival. We were in a parking lot picking session when I was like 16 playing banjo and she was playing the mandolin and singing Bill Monroe tunes. And for...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MUNISTERI: For years, for years, I thought about this woman - I'm not joking - and the incredible focus and pain and living inside the song that she brought to this, you know, performance of, I think it was "In the Pines."

RUSSELL: Yeah, I grew up on "Hee Haw" and everything else, so I was listening, you know, Buck Owens. And early on I loved acoustic instruments. You know, loved the sound of acoustic...

...and everything else. So I was listening to, you know, Buck Owens and from early on I loved acoustic instruments. You know, loved the sound of acoustic instruments, and maybe one of the turning points in my life is hearing a traditional Irish string band when I was about 15 years old.

And my grandfather had a mandolin in the house, because he played the mandolin. So I grew up, kind of, fooling around on it, but then - you know, and I used to sing (singing) Hello, my baby. Hello, my honey. Hello, my ragtime gal. (Speaking) Because it's three chords and it was easy to play.

So, you know, when I was like 10 years old I would fool around on that. But then when I heard this traditional Irish band out in California when I was 15, I thought I have to - I've really got to study the mandolin and learn how to play fiddle tunes. So that's really what sparked me to start learning that music.

GROSS: I'd love for you to do another song and this is a song by Fats Waller that's the title track of one of your earlier albums called "Inside This Heart of Mine."

RUSSELL: Yes. Yes.

GROSS: And one of the things I love about this, I mean, it's a beautiful song but, you know, you always associate Fats Waller with these, like, up tempo kind of jokey songs and this is a really, like, heartbreaking song. And it's just not what you'd expect and it's a beautiful song. Tell us why you chose it.

RUSSELL: That's why I chose it, because another instance of me, you know, cleaning up the kitchen after a great meal I said let me put Fats Waller on. You know, and I was kind of, you know, dancing around the kitchen and then I heard this song and I thought, he's kind of jokingly singing it, but it's just such a - it just struck me as such a beautiful song and the lyric just kind of caught me.

And I thought wow. And I just listened to it about 10 times after that and I said, OK, I have to learn this. I have to sing it.

GROSS: Well, you're not kidding around when you sing it.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

RUSSELL: Thank you.

GROSS: So this is my guest Catherine Russell with Matt Munisteri on guitar and they're performing in our studio. And she has a new album which is called "Strictly Romancing."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "INSIDE THIS HEART OF MINE")

RUSSELL: (Singing) Outside it's sunny but in this heart of mine the world is gloomy, the sun refuse to shine. I've done the best that I could do all for you. Now we're through. Sunshine brings danger inside this heart of mine. Blue skies taunt me, memories haunt me. You don't want me. Let me be alone and have my cry. Outside it's sunny but that's a real bad sign. Love is a stranger inside this heart of mine. Blue skies taunt me. Memories haunt me. You don't want me. Let me be alone and have my cry. Outside it's sunny but that's a real bad sign. Love is a stranger inside this heart of mine. Inside this heart of mine.

GROSS: Fabulous. Thank you so much. I love the way you do that song. That's Catherine Russell singing the Fats Waller song "Inside This Heart of Mine" which is on one of her previous albums. Her new album is called "Strictly Romancing." And Matt Munisteri, who's accompanying her on guitar today, is the guitarist and music director on that new album.

You didn't have your first solo album till you were 50.

RUSSELL: Yeah.

GROSS: Which is, I mean, that's pretty old for the first solo album, considering you've been performing for decades.

RUSSELL: Yeah.

GROSS: So before that did you think it's never going to happen for me? I'm never going to be, like, the real soloist. And did that bother you?

RUSSELL: I knew that there was a piece missing from my life and I had - but I didn't know how to do it. You know, I didn't know how to make it happen. I had co-written a bunch of songs with a friend of mine years and years ago, 20 years ago now, and I never finished them and I thought, gee, do I want to be singing like this when I'm 70? I don't know.

And then I had gone to see Alberta Hunter when I was a kid too, at the Cookery in New York City. She was very inspiring. I had seen Ruth Brown, and - because my mother was in her band for maybe five or six years. And so I really had to evaluate, kind of, what am I going to do and how do I do this?

And, you know, I just didn't think I'd ever have any assistance doing it.

GROSS: So how did it happen?

RUSSELL: Well, I came home from a David Bowie tour in 2004, and I was kind of, you know, we got home from tour and I thought, gee, OK, now what? Now what am I going to do, you know? And so then my friend Paul Kahn said, you know, you should really make a - people had asked me why I hadn't I recorded my own stuff before and I thought, ah, well, you know, I don't know.

I don't know how to promote it, and he said, well, I want you to do it. You know, I think it's time for you to do this, you know. I said, yeah, OK. So I just put together 14 songs that I knew. He said I have a friend in the Chicago area with a studio.

So send him, you know, the music ahead of time, the source material, and he'll gather up the musicians and we're just going to go out there and make a record. So that's what we did. And that turned into "Cat". That turned into the debut album.

So then I was performing at the St. Peter's church weekday jazz series. So Paul invited two record company people down there to hear me. So it was myself and a piano player. I was doing a duo. And so then the next day we were sitting down having a meeting about giving me a record contract.

GROSS: Well, Paul Kahn who you mentioned...

RUSSELL: Yes.

GROSS: ...and who helped you become a soloist and get your first record...

RUSSELL: Yes.

GROSS: ...is with you today and is in our studio. So I just want to say thank you, Paul.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Much appreciated. if you're just joining us, my guests are singer Catherine Russell and guitarist Matt Munisteri. There will be more music and conversation after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: With me in our studio is singer Catherine Russell and guitarist Matt Munisteri. They're performing some songs for us. She has a new album which is called "Strictly Romancing." He's the feature guitarist and music director on the album.

So I hate to say it, but I think our time is up. And before you leave I'd love for you to sing another song for us.

RUSSELL: OK.

GROSS: And I have one to recommend. It's called "Everything's Been Done Before." It's one of the songs on the new album which is called "Strictly Romancing" and, again, tell us why you chose this one.

RUSSELL: I was once again listening to a compilation, you know, in the evening in my apartment, and this time it was a Louis Armstrong compilation and Decca had just put this compilation out.

GROSS: Was your father on these records?

RUSSELL: Yes. And this is during a period when my dad was musical director and one of the arrangers for Louis Armstrong's orchestra. It was actually my dad's orchestra, during the years of 1935 to 1943. This collection goes up to 1946, but many of the tunes are, you know, my dad's arrangements.

And so when I listen to this music it's like I'm just home. You know, so when I hear Louis Armstrong sing, everything he sings, he's so inspiring to me because he had a hard life and everything he sings his life is in every lyric. You believe everything he sings, you know?

And so when I heard this song "Everything's Been Done Before" I thought anyone else singing that, you know - I'd never heard it before. Anyone else, it would kind of be corny sounding to people, maybe. I don't know. But when he sings it, it's so real that it just drew me in and I thought what a simple idea. What an old fashioned, romantic idea.

GROSS: So was your father music director when Armstrong sang things like "Got a Brand New Suit" or...

RUSSELL: Yeah. Yes.

GROSS: No, really?

RUSSELL: Yes. Yes. Yes.

GROSS: Or "On a Coconut Island"?

RUSSELL: Yep. That's one the--

GROSS: Oh, I love that stuff.

RUSSELL: All of those things on are that, yeah, during those years.

GROSS: Oh, wow.

RUSSELL: Yeah. In the '30s.

GROSS: So that was actually your father's band?

RUSSELL: Yeah. That was his orchestra. That was his orchestra.

GROSS: Wow.

RUSSELL: So it was a lot of the guys that he came up from New Orleans with. You know, the orchestra changed personnel starting maybe in 1940. But from 1935 to 1940 it was a lot of guys that, you know, my dad made records on his own as well. So it was a lot of those same people. You know, it was like the New Orleans brotherhood, really, you know.

And my dad, of course, was from Panama, but the first place he went was New Orleans. You know, so it's very - it's got the whole spirit of New Orleans in it for me.

GROSS: Wow. Catherine Russell, it has been really very special to have you here performing today. Thank you so very much.

RUSSELL: Well, thank you. You have no idea. It's been so special for me and I just want to say dreams can come true. So...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: And Matt Munisteri, thank you so much for being here today. So we're going to hear one more song and this is, again, a song from Catherine Russell's new album "Strictly Romancing" but she's performing in our studio with Matt Munisteri on guitar. Thank you both again.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYTHING'S BEEN DONE BEFORE")

RUSSELL: (Singing) Everything's been done before. To share a kiss, a moment's bliss, and hear you whisper you love me, sweetheart, it's thrills as old as the hills but it's new to me. Oh, everything has been done before. The birds that sing the song of spring always singing above me yet with you their singing is something that's new to me.

(Singing) Life is strange. We hate to change from what is tried and true. Although I know I'm only doing what the others do, yet it all seems new. Oh, everything's been done before. To fall in love with stars above began with Adam and Eve but when I'm with you I just want to do what's been done before.

(Singing) Oh, life is strange. We hate to change from what is tried and true. Although I know I'm only doing what the others do, yet it all seems new. Everything's been done before. To fall in love with stars above began with Adam and Eve but when I'm with you I just want to do what's been done before.

GROSS: Catherine Russell's performance with guitarist Matt Munisteri was recorded last February. Her latest album is called "Strictly Romancing." You can download podcasts of our show on our website freshair.npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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