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Interview with Steve March-Tormé
An accomplished songwriter, singer, and entertainer talks making music today
Steve March-Tormé is a singer, songwriter, sports aficionado, medal-winning fast-pitch softball player, and entertainer. The son of Mel Tormé — who was nicknamed “The Velvet Fog” owing to his smooth, seductive vocal tone and style — his son has his own distinctive style and tone, one that landed him as the singer on “The $100,000 Name That Tune” from 1978-1981, has supported innumerable performances and tours around the world, and led Quincy Jones to select him as the singer for a trio called Full Swing, which toured Brazil and Japan, produced a well-known album, and culminated with March-Tormé singing with Full Swing alongside his father at Carnegie Hall.
The following interview was done in a combination of phone and email. March-Tormé is set to work on a new album this winter.
Q: You have a famous name, and a father who became famous because of his gifts as a singer and entertainer. What are the pros and cons of that?
March-Tormé: The pro’s of having a famous last name? It might open a door or
two, or at least when it comes across a booker’s desk or a venue's desk, they’ll say, “Oh, Mel Tormé’s kid. Let's see if he’s any good.” It also might get a few people to come to a concert who otherwise wouldn’t because they heard me do a radio interview or they read aboutme, or they saw dad in concert years ago and they’re curious. That’s
about it. The rest is all “con.” The second I come on stage, whether they want to or not, they’re going to compare me to dad. If I stepped on stage and my name was Steve Smith, no one would be thinking, “I wonder if he sounds like Mel.”
I don’t have to use the name “Tormé” in my last name, but I choose to for two reasons: I think I should be honoring both my stepfather (Hal March) and my real father. Secondly, if I didn’t have the confidence and self esteem that I stand on my own two feet as a singer and performer without having to rely on a famous last name, then I shouldn't be in the business in the first place.
Q: You’ve been performing and recording during one of the most tumultuous times in the music industry. What are some of the changes you've seen?
March-Tormé: There are more and more opportunities for a very diversified swath of artists to get their music out there by way of YouTube, online streaming, house concerts, coffee houses, ale houses, etc. But there are many more artists than there are venues to play. Outside of the huge artists, no one’s making money from CD sales unless they’re selling them at concerts. Recording studios have closed because artists can record at home on their computers. Work for sidemen has dwindled because keyboards can replicate horns and bass players, even drummers when necessary.
Songwriting isn’t as interesting because either the songs are driven by “beats” or conversely, they’re predictable, three-chord “Americana” tunes.
Q: You’re about to go back into the studio to record a new album. What's the idea behind this collection of music?
March-Tormé: The new album is a hybrid. It’s going to definitely be a “jazz”-oriented album, but there will be some songs included that aren’t necessarily associated with jazz, including Stevie Wonder’s “Creepin’” and Randy Newman’s “She Chose Me.” It’s my first album to be produced by my manager Suzi Reynolds, who is well-versed in album production, and I will be using almost exclusively musicians out of NYC. The album will be recorded back East. It will also have some songs in it that will be an homage to my father Mel, as this is now the 20th Anniversary of his passing.
Q: Speaking of producers, they seem to be the major force in music today, rather than the musicians or performers. Do you agree? Why do you think this is?
March-Tormé: I think hiring a well known producer today can be more valuable to a recording artist than almost anything. They’ve always had great clout but I think that's more true today than ever. Why? Hmmm . . . I think they simply can make more things happen, like radio play. I also think they can be invaluable in putting different artists together in a collaborative setting.
Q: How has on-stage technology changed for your live performances? What's your favorite innovation for the stage?
March-Tormé: The only thing that’s really changed for me on stage is in my “pop” shows, and that would be using in-ear monitors. I’m pretty old school, and I’m used to using floor wedges as monitors, but I do see the value in using in-ears for certain concerts. It keeps the stage clean and uncluttered, and if you’ve hired a good sound team, you can really dial in your own, personalized mix. They take some getting used to, but if you get the ones that also allow for some ambient sound, they can
work well for the artist.
Q: You’re also an avid baseball player and sports fan and observer. How do you integrate these things into your life?
March-Tormé: I’m still a fan of a lot of sports, especially baseball, but I think my playing days (mostly fastpitch softball) have come to an end in that sport. I still play tennis at least 3-4 times a week, and I’m a member of the USTA. I was on our local tennis team that went to the Nationals in Arizona just 3 years ago. I think there are something like 3,500 4.0 teams across the country, and 18 make it to the Nationals. We were one of them. Now, I could go into a long dissertation on today’s sports scene but we’d be here until Christmas. That’s a series of questions for another day.
Q: You’re now an independent artist. What are the pros and cons of this? How do you keep up with change and new approaches?
March-Tormé: As an independent artist, you don’t have the weight of a record company behind you to set up tours, though today that model has somewhat changed anyway. They don’t do that as much as they used to. It’s harder to get airplay because you don’t have a record company calling the station and making them aware of your release. It’s harder to latch on to a tour with another act on a label, so that you could possibly open for them on their tour. There are probably other cons to that situation.
The pros? You can choose whatever material you want, you’re not at the mercy of what a label wants you to record. You can choose the musicians you want, the studio you want and with the different on line funding opportunities (GoFundMe, Kickstarter, etc.), you can get your music recorded without being beholden to a label and having to pay them back for everything they’ve fronted you (and the “hidden” costs you didn’t know about . . . ahem.)
Q: What's your approach to songwriting like?
March-Tormé: I think most songwriters write the music first, but I could be wrong. I know a lot more writers who can come up with music but struggle with lyrics, but maybe that’s just me. I’ve been lucky to not struggle too much with lyrics but truth is, I usually come up with the music first, and it’s almost always from just constant noodling on the piano or hearing a passage in someone else’s songs and seeing if I can
take that passage and put my own spin on it. That usually involves re-harmonizing the chord changes and/or the melody. I also hate settling for easy and obvious rhyme schemes (“you make me feel fine, you're always on my mind, I need you all the time,” etc.) Settling like that would be shortchanging myself.
Q: Anything you’d like to add? Something I should have asked but didn’t?
March-Tormé: Well, I have lots of stuff I want to do. I really want to develop my symphony show. Of course, the downside to that is, it’s hard to book those for obvious reasons: they’re expensive, and they have to be booked way in advance.
I’m looking forward to seeing how this new album will sound. The process is going to be somewhat different for me, as I’m not going to meet these musicians I’ll be working with until I get to NYC. They’re being selected by my producer, and I have to trust her.
I’m really enjoying having my daughter Ruby sing with me on stage. She’s got a great ear, hears harmonies easily, and has a beautiful voice. I think her sister Sunny is going to join her with me on stage within the next year. We’re going to have some