The word “ethereal” is perhaps the adjective that comes to mind quickest when describing the voice of Maude Maggart, the 32-year-old who is a fast-rising singer of the Great American Songbook. But however you choose to characterize it, it’s the kind of voice that has critics from the New York Times to Time Out New York struggling to convey its particular beauty in words. From April 1 through May, she performs her latest cabaret show, “Speaking of Dreams,” in the Oak Room at the Algonquin.
Maggart’s renditions of 1920s-era songs like “Love for Sale” or “Love Me or Leave Me” uncannily evoke an earlier time, with their melancholy, yearning high notes, laced with a wispy, fast vibrato that makes her voice recognizable in an instant. She takes many standards at slower tempos—even “Happy Days Are Here Again,” recorded on her 2005 CD Look for the Silver Lining, often taken at march-like clip, is taken leisurely, as if from the wistful perspective of someone already looking back on happy days. Posted after the jump, you can hear her singing “Love Me or Leave Me” with John Boswell on piano from Look For The Silver Lining.
Maggart is the granddaughter of Millicent Greene, who performed in George White’s “Scandals” in the 1920s, and she is the daughter of musical theater performers Brandon Maggart and Diane McAfee. Her little sister is the singer/songwriter Fiona Apple. Just before one of her shows at the Oak Room, I spoke with Maggart about why she loves cabaret, her career, and her family.
On how she got started as a cabaret singer: I first heard Andrea Marcovicci when I was 16. My dad took me to the Gardenia [in California]. My life changed. I thought she was the greatest thing I had ever seen. I still do. But it was almost 10 years later when she heard me sing and offered to help me, and then she helped me put together an act. I didn’t really know what I was going to do with my life, and the encouragement from her was huge, because I was like any kid, I guess, I was afraid to try something because I thought I’d fail. And singing was so important to me, that I was reluctant to really go for it, but she just held my hand and helped me the whole way.
She never gave me lessons or anything, she pointed out little tricks of the trade—just all the knowledge that she’s accumulated over 25 years of performing. She shared her music library with me, pointed out songs that she thought would be great for me, helped me with ideas, how to shape a show, little things like how to relate to your audience without making them feel nervous or uncomfortable, like how to look somebody in the eye and not make them feel stared at. Things like that that there’s no book on, or no course on.
How she can tap into the intense sadness of so many songs: I have to say I don’t really think about it too much. Something does just click. The music takes over, the music leads all of that emotion. I think when the music moves me, when you’re in a state of actually being moved, it’s so much easier to show it, to be emotive, because it’s honest, you don’t have to pretend, it’s really true.
On the kind of music she listened to growing up: I think my first favorite album was The Divine Miss M, Bette Midler—I thought that was fantastic. We listened to some musical theater, because both my parents were musical theater people. Oh, I loved this James Galway record, Songs of the Seashore, Japanese music, that was my favorite album to listen to. I didn’t really listen to songs from the Great American Songbook. I never listened to Harry James or Jo Stafford or Judy Garland or any of those people until my twenties…. I was a big Madonna fan, and Whitney Houston, and all that stuff—Guns & Roses. I loved pop music, but I liked theater music. I liked everything.
Her annoyance at Simon Cowell’s criticisms of performers on American Idol as being “too cabaret”: First of all, cabaret is not an adjective. I hate it when he just continues to feed that malaprop. It’s like, come on, we’re struggling enough to make people understand. Cabaret is a room. So I think that a good cabaret is … well, now I’m going to use it as an adjective! [laughs] When you’re in a room and you feel like the rest of the world goes away for an hour, and you’re led by a really good leader to a place that’s comforting and tender and emotional and pleasing, when you can forget the rest of the world and go someplace that’s tender. I think Andrea [Marcovicci] wrote a piece called “Cabaret is where you go for tenderness.” It’s really quite lovely, really beautiful. But yeah, good cabaret—obviously, good singing is somebody who is smart, somebody who makes me feel interesting. Somebody who offers a different perspective but makes you feel like you understand what they’re talking about, too.
On how she puts together a show like “Speaking of Dreams”: The idea for “Speaking of Dreams” was swirling around in my head for a few months. I did most of the work two or three weeks before we opened. But I’m always like that. It takes a while to put together a show; the idea is very appealing to me, but it’s difficult for me to actually realize it. It’s like I’m sitting in front of a jigsaw puzzle that hasn’t been put together yet, there are a thousand pieces, and I just have to figure out which ones go together, and what I mean by “pieces,” I mean ideas or specific songs that I want to do, to say, I see, this fits here, this leads to that, that leads to that, and then I’ve got a whole cohesive concept. And then the songs are just put to express that concept.
On a Kurt Weill documentary in which she recently performed a number of songs: Well, the film hasn’t been finished or released; it’s a documentary. It’s not a narrative. I sang two or three songs in the movie, and they filmed it sort of like a music video, but really sweet, wonderful, beautiful, tasteful. My singing, I think, will be interspersed with interviews with people talking about, say, “My Ship.” It’s a really cool idea, actually, because of the concept of Robert Downey Sr., the director. His concept is to present Kurt Weill’s songs being interpreted by different generations in different ways, so they have, for instance, the Doors singing “Alabama Song [“Show me the way to the next whiskey bar”], and then they might intersperse Lotte Lenya doing that with Jim Morrison. They take archival footage of Lotte Lenya being interviewed, and of Kurt Weill. It’s really beautiful, what I saw of it.
On whether there is anything about her singing she’d like to change: I’m really happy with the quality of my voice. The only thing I’d like to be able to do is have a bigger belt, to be able to belt more. That’s kind of frustrating sometimes. But I’m very happy with what I have. It seems like it would be so much fun to be able to sing like one of those powerhouse voices like Celine Dion, or somebody like that, or Barbra [Streisand]. It seems like it is just so physically satisfying. But I’m satisfied.
On whether she would have expected, growing up, that she would be performing cabaret songs and Fiona Apple, her sister, would be writing and performing her own songs: Yeah, I guess it’s not surprising to me. Not surprising at all about Fiona, because she was always writing songs, from a very young age.
On whether she writes songs of her own: I’m trying to, but it’s not something that comes naturally to me. My sister is so good, I think she got all of those genes! [laughs] It’s some kind of different way of using the brain … Last night I was listening to Fiona’s songs, and what she’s thinking, and it’s amazing. I’m really just awed, and I always am when listening to her: her rhyme schemes, and the words she chooses, and the way they fall on the notes.
About being a performer in the tiny niche of cabaret singing: Well, I think that there are always … I don’t believe that it’s going to die. There are some people who say it’s going to die out with the older generation, who sometimes are only populated by, a generation that frankly won’t be here that much longer. But I’ve come to see that when cabaret is really good, and it is a special thing to sit in a little room and be transported for an hour, and that’s not appealing just to one generation, that’s appealing to human beings, I think. So, it’s not that popular I guess because there’s very little publicity surrounding it. I get some of the most publicity, and maybe that has to do with my age … and maybe my sister, I don’t know. But frankly I think that people just don’t know that it’s out there.
On whether she’d ever want to perform a double cabaret with another performer: I haven’t done that yet. That would be fun, if I found the right person! I’ve done shows, a double bill with Tony DeSare. We’ve performed together, and that’s really fun. Because we’re different. He plays amazing piano, and he’s got a really lovely voice. He was doing every Sunday at Bemelmans Bar for weeks.
On whether the publicity she’s received gets her noticed on the street: I remember when I was on the cover of Time Out, I thought, “All right, it’s going to happen for sure now.” [laughs] I did everything except read it on the train, you know, just dying for somebody to come up to me and say, “Is that you?” But it’s pretty funny that even when I bought the magazine and went up to one of those little newsstands and asked for it, I motioned to the cover, and I looked at the guy, and I said, “What do you think?” And he said, “Uhhh… $3.50?” [laughs]
On whether the internet—and YouTube—can help bring cabaret to more people: Sometimes half the battle is just letting people know that it’s out there, that is exists. Personally, I can’t stand seeing cabarets that are videotaped. It never translates. It never looks good to me. I never like to – I certainly wouldn’t put anything on YouTube. Sometimes I tape the shows just for posterity, so I can refer back to it if I want to. Video just never shows what it really is.
On why she likes performing in New York: The New York audience is the best. They know a lot of the material, they’re sophisticated, they’re smart. So you kind of feel like it’s not like I’m playing to people who have no idea what I’m talking about, or what I’m doing. Because if you get deep into the reference of a songwriter, you don’t want to have to do a 101. It’s fine to do that, I never mind doing that, because I want to bring in new people. You can’t expect every young person to have the knowledge and history that’s behind the song. But to make a joke that only cognoscenti would know and get: that’s fun. San Francisco is a great audience, too. It depends. I think when people go and see a show like mine, they likely have an idea of who I am and what I do, and that’s why they’re there.
Hear Maude Maggert perform “Love Me or Leave Me” by Gus Kahn and Walter Donaldson with John Boswell on piano.
Photos of Maude Maggart by Monique Carboni