Q&A: Ann Hampton Callaway: Creating Landscapes of Human Emotion

Singer-songwriter Ann Hampton Callaway has written over 250 songs and been vocal about issues that are very important to her. Her latest project, “Thoughts and Prayers,” addresses the issue of gun violence. The video for “Thoughts and Prayers” was shared a few weeks after the release of her new album, Jazz Goes to the Movies, which celebrates the long-standing tradition linking jazz and cinema. While both projects may appear to be separate from one another, they have something in common: they express a desire to communicate and the need for people to remain grounded in humanness at difficult times.

JAZZIZ spoke with her about “Thoughts and Prayers” and Jazz Goes to the Movies, about gun violence, the impact of social media on music and everyday life, and more. Below is an excerpt of our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.

JAZZIZ: Why are you passionate about the issue of gun violence?

Ann Hampton Callaway: I’ve been passionate about war and gun violence for as long as I can remember. I wrote “At the Same Time,” the song that Barbra Streisand recorded, about world peace, and those two subjects are very related to me. I’ve been passionate about gun violence ever since I was five years old and President Kennedy was shot. I just don’t understand why our country is so obsessed with guns and power, and how they allow the NRA to have so much power, and how so many politicians are simply bought out by the NRA.

Why make “Thoughts and Prayers” now?

One of the reasons was Jimmy Greene – my saxophone player on Jazz Goes to the Movies. He lost his beloved daughter when she was six in the Sandy Hook Shooting. On opening night of the Jazz Goes to the Movies show, we were sitting at a bar and there had been a shooting in New York City that day. I said to Jimmy, “When are we gonna turn things around and make our country safer, make it harder for crazy people to get guns.” He said he didn’t have any hope that things could turn around because the NRA is too powerful, and I just thought that was ridiculous and unfair.

As an artist, I feel a responsibility to speak out when something is wrong and unjust. My whole life, I’ve been happy to bring to light important topics. You can’t just sit around and be angry; you have to do something with that emotion. And I grew up in the ’60s, where people were stepping up to the plate and Bob Dylan was writing “Blowing in the Wind.” There was all this powerful art being done about what was going on, and things went right. So, I learned at a young age that it was gonna be a choice I could make. I could stand up to the people who don’t want change and people who don’t want to do the right things, the people who only care about money, greed and power.

That’s a lot of people to take on…

Yeah, there seems to be a nice chunk of people who seem to think that those things are more important than taking care of human beings and human life and giving people a peaceful, safe existence where they can enjoy and freely move around. It’s sad and I can’t sit idly and do nothing.

 

How important was it for you to have a video for “Thoughts and Prayers”?

I actually wanted the video to come out right after the Parkland Shooting and the big march, when politicians were like, “Oh well, too bad, thoughts and prayers to your family.” When I wrote the song, I was happy with how it came out, but it sounded slightly glib without the images. Steve Lippman, who is also known as Flip, was a brilliant man and he’s done incredible music videos with the top singers of our time, and I was honored that he would take the time to do this video. But he was so sick and simply unable to do any work. About a month after he finally finished the video, he passed away; I guess his body was just going through so much but nobody really knew. So, by releasing the video, I also wanted to honor him because he was a brilliant, thoughtful artist who spoke out on a lot of subjects that I enjoyed talking with him about.

Has the internet helped spread the message of “Thoughts and Prayers”?

Social media is a very interesting phenomenon. I’m trying to understand how to navigate through it because I’m really kind of surprised that many stars who appeared in his video have not shared it and haven’t done anything, even though I’ve asked them to share it. So, while I love having the power of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and these many venues, I have not been able to really make the impact yet for this song.

Why haven’t they shared it?

I think there are a few things going on. They’re incredibly busy and so overwhelmed. We all are trying to keep up with things and the assault of all news, and the stories and the outrage every day. We’re all fatigued and shocked from the insanity. But also, I think there are some people who are political and not afraid to speak out, and some who don’t want to upset their fans. And it’s their prerogative. I know I’ve been criticized by a few of my fans, but that’s who I am. I try to talk about issues that matter to me from a more humane sense than a political sense. I’m not really against Republicans and I’m not so thrilled with Democrats either. I just think there are certain things that are right and that need to be defended and need to be advocated.

How can social media be constructive in that sense?

I’ve been trying to cultivate the issue of civility. Like, how do we talk to each other, and how do we bridge the gap between different sides and points of view respectfully? You can be very angry but there are ways of talking about things and there are also ways, instead of just complaining all the time, to talk about what you believe in and talk about what’s good and celebrate the people who really are effective.

Talking about Jazz Goes to the Movies, one could say that cinema also offers the ability to communicate in such a way.

Cinema is an enormously important tool and one of the reasons why the songs on this album became so famous and beloved is that they were shared in dark theaters or in people’s homes and millions of people all over the world had a shared, powerful experience of beautiful music that was human and reminded them of what the had in common. Many of these songs were written at a time when the war was going on and people were so scared. The economy was in trouble. People wondered what was going to happen to democracy and who was going to win, and whether their beloved ones would ever come back home. Some writers stepped up to the plate and wrote about hope, love and things that were reassuring because while we’re dealing with the anxiety of a world that seems insane, we have to be grounded in what matters, we have to be grounded in our humanness and lovingness and our ability to share experiences. That’s something that movies and music together have had a tremendous impact on.

Are you a cinephile?

Definitely. In fact, right before I moved to New York as a very young singer, I thought: “Maybe I should just make movies instead.” And now, I just moved this year from New York to Tucson, Arizona, where my wife is from. It was a huge move for me but one of my goals is, I’m really near L.A. now and I really want to do more in film as a singer-songwriter and as a performer.

Would you like to direct a movie in the future?

I would love to direct documentaries. I’m the daughter of a journalist. My dad was a brilliant interviewer, reporter and writer, and my mom was a fabulous singer, pianist and voice teacher. I sort of feel I enjoy my divorced parents’ talents, doing a combination of music and portraits of a culture of portraits of people who need to be understood better.

How did you pick the songs for Jazz Goes to the Movies?

Lisa Schiff, who is one of my dearest friends. She has produced many of my records, and had a list of songs that she would have liked me to sing. She gave me the list one day, and I gave her my own list of songs I wanted to record and explore. We realized that almost all of them were movie songs. I thought this would be a great theme and once we had that theme we realized we wanted to focus more on the ’30s and ’40s. I’m really happy. This is one of my favorite albums I’ve ever done because it seems to be a very complete experience. I think with Jazz Goes to the Movies, I’ve created with my musicians a world where people can be; just a very happy place.

How do you make familiar songs such as these your own?

That’s one of my favorite things to do as a singer. I’m a natural arranger and my arrangements are always based on the lyrics. Some of these songs have been done many times, but for example, with “As Time Goes By,” I wanted to do a more joyful take about how there are some things that will always remain the same. There might be so many changes in our life but some things will always be the same and that’s reassuring. Almost nobody had done an upbeat version of “As Time Goes By,” but I just thought, “This is the way I feel about it.”

And then, when I did “Blue Skies,” I wanted to explore the discovery of hope. When something great happens, you don’t go like, “Hey! I’m in love! Isn’t it wonderful?” When something great happens, like you meet the love of your life or a dream comes true, you almost can’t believe it. It’s like, “Really? After all the suffering and all the waiting, do I get to be this happy? Do I get to be this lucky?” So, I wanted “Blue Skies” to be a process of discovery and I start the song with a slow contemplative start before erupting into a joyful swing, to capture the emotional experience of embracing when you fall in love with somebody.

Is it difficult to embrace these moments?

Yes. We miss this magic. We miss the gorgeous things that are presented to us because we’re so busy. Somebody once said that suffering was about 46% “Oh my god, I hope this doesn’t happen,” and 46% “Oh my god, I can’t believe that happened,” with the actual part of suffering being the remaining percentage. It’s just a moment. We really miss so many beautiful things that every day are there to fill our hearts. I find that because of social media and technology, romance is definitely endangered. People are spending less time really focused on just that one to one. I’m guilty of that too…

Technology has also had a huge impact on music. Why make an album in this digital age?

I know a lot of people make singles and I’ve made a few myself recently. But to me, making a record is like making a movie. I’m creating a 12 to 14 song experience with a beginning, a middle and an end. When I do my orders of the songs, I take people on an emotional journey and I want them to experience the entire journey as a whole. If they wanna shuffle them and take out their favorites, that’s but to them. But I’m trying to create a whole landscape of a human emotion on a topic, or a realm, whatever I choose to focus on. This way, people may let themselves immersed in the experience, and that can be such a beautiful, rejuvenating, humanizing way of living, instead of just watching TV or looking at your computer and all those things that we kind of let take over our lives. I think records are important, and I’m gonna keep making them for as long as I can.

Feature photos courtesy of Shanachie Entertainment.

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