Bench Tales

Make Someone Happy 

I spent 6 1/2 years on the piano bench at Vitello’s, a well-known restaurant and music club in the Studio City neighborhood of Los Angeles. I have a million stories. Most of them are weird.

Even though my job was similar to Ryan Gosling’s in La La Land, my bosses (fortunately) never told me what to play. I performed my original songs, covers, jazz standards, and everything in-between. I made my own set lists, but I always took requests. It was a huge part of my job. I still take requests when I perform live, whenever possible.

Every so often, people ask me “What’s the one song you REFUSE to play?”

I never have an answer.

Well, that’s not quite true. Sometimes I say, “Any song I don’t know.”

Some musicians refuse to play certain tunes. That’s never made sense to me. (Side note: songs that include hate speech, make people feel unsafe, etc., are not the certain tunes I’m talking about).

Jazz musicians often balk at playing “Summertime,” “Autumn Leaves,” or “Misty.” I’ve certainly been guilty of this thought in the past. I want to be seen as someone who can play “harder,” more complex music. These tunes are thought of as “overdone,” not advanced enough, not inspiring enough. In truth, that’s elitist thinking.

Those tunes were at the top of my “most requested” list.

Is that because they’re better tunes? Is that because they’re more familiar to the general population than the Jazz Deep Cuts? I think it’s partially because they’re hooky and memorable. But the answer is simpler than that – people like them. People want to hear music they like. Music that connects them to the performer by the heartstrings.

Whether “Misty” is my favorite jazz standard doesn’t matter. I’ll never forget playing the request for a woman who began crying almost as soon as I started performing. When I was finished, she told me she was celebrating her anniversary with her husband. She and her husband had named their late daughter “Misty,” after the song.

It made her day to hear those lyrics, that melody. It connected her to her daughter beyond the physical world. It wouldn’t have mattered who was performing. That was her song.

The simple act of making someone’s day is not something to look down on. It’s not beneath us, as educated or technically-advanced musicians, to play popular songs that connect with other humans. That’s the very reason we do what we do, isn’t it?

Some musicians don’t want to keep playing the songs they’re known for. I’ve performed “Another Day of Sun” live over 300 times since La la Land came out. And I never, ever decline to perform it. That song gave me a career. Nearly every other piece of art I’ve worked on since has been because of my involvement with that film. I have extreme gratitude and joy in my heart because of that song. And beyond all that, it’s still a musically-challenging and fun piece to play. I believe some creatives don’t want to perform their signature tunes because they don’t want to be irrelevant going forward. They don’t want the world to think their 15 minutes of fame are up. I am SO guilty of thinking this about myself! But if people are still calling your name, still requesting, still telling you how much they love something you made – you’ve achieved the dream. You’ve carved out a tiny sector of the cosmos in which you live forever. That’s an achievement worth repeating on loop.

Sometimes, the arts feel like such a selfish pursuit. Crudely put, we artists seek fame and glory in exchange for our thoughts and our talents. Sometimes, it feels like we’re not actually making the world a better place. But music absolutely makes the world better. Music as service is a very powerful concept. Entertainment is a service, and there is such a deep reward in serving other humans. Creation or performance of something someone requests doesn’t automatically mean compromising an artistic belief. It doesn’t exclude you from making the music you want to make. But I do think it’s an opportunity to take a deep dive into what it means to connect with a fan. Listening to what would make their day. Being an impactful part of their lives.

When you make someone happy, “just one someone happy,” as Comden, Green, and Styne wrote, “then, you’ll be happy too.”

There is so much potential in the new artist model in the modern music industry. Potential to truly change someone’s world.


One morning, I woke up a songwriter.

I was 26 years old, and I had just completed my master’s degree in jazz performance. In my new, tiny apartment in my new home city of Los Angeles, I sat at the piano and songs started pouring out.

Some of them were not good, but some were. Most of them took a lot of re-writing, but a couple of them fell out of the sky, fully-finished. I had moved to LA to follow in Diana Krall’s footsteps as a jazz singer-pianist. As soon as I started writing songs, I found my authentic voice. I became me.

When I entered the LA scene as a singer-songwriter, I realized that my peers had started writing at least 10-15 years before I had. It intimidated me. It made me feel like I had missed the boat.

But I write songs for a living, now. For films, for TV shows, for myself and others.

Spending 10,000 hours becoming an expert is a wonderful and admirable pursuit. But there’s more than one recipe for success. I started my music training at age 7. All that time I spent analyzing music helped me learn to write songs from a place of form and structure. I was getting those hours under my belt without knowing it. I didn’t have to start at hour 1 at age 26.

But even if I hadn’t been playing music my entire life, I imagine I still would’ve wound up a songwriter. When you love music and writing and you immerse yourself in art, you’re filling your brain with great info. That info can be turned into creations of your own.

Paul Williams once told me he was taking a break from acting in a movie, on-set, when he picked up a guitar. He then wrote his first song. He was 27.

I believe in artists finding their voice through songwriting and creating original music.

Maybe there’s something you feel you’re called to do. Switch careers, volunteer, learn an entirely new skill, or become active in causes you’re passionate about…

If there’s something you want to do, but think you can’t, give it a shot. It might change your whole life. I don’t know where the calls come from in this life, but I do think we’re called to do things.  If you need encouragement to do the new and scary thing today, I support you.

Zinnias bloom in the late summer, and they’re gorgeous.

One of my all-time favorite photos – performing with Paul Williams in Las Vegas in 2016.

Tea and Empathy 

Joni Mitchell wears Christmas tree light necklaces. Big, colorful, novelty ones. For the woman who wrote “River,” this could be considered a departure. Though she may have wanted to skate away from Christmas at the time she wrote the song, Joni enjoys the holiday now.

I know this, because I had tea with her once.

When you’ve spent six years behind the piano in an LA music establishment, you’re bound to have run into famous entertainers. Big ones. Studio City is like a tiny village full of people who could take up and entire block. But none gave me the feeling I got when I saw Joni and her friends come into the club that Christmas. And what was that feeling?

Crippling anxiety.

How could I have been in the right place at the right time to be inhaling her carbon dioxide. Why was I the only one losing my mind over the fact that she was there? It was like staring into the sun. Like Jesus himself had come in, propped his sandals up on one of the tables, and turned his water glass into a wine glass.

It was, of course, a ridiculous way to feel,. Don’t put people on pedestals, right? They’ll fall off and smack you in the head.

But I can’t help it. The summer before I left for college, I could sense the huge changes that were coming. Most of the time I spent by myself. I thought about life, I enjoyed my childhood room for the last time, I read, and I listened to music. I spent a lot of time listening to Joni Mitchell while crying. Oh to write words so profound, and yet feel so deeply and put that feeling out into the world so generously!

As my college degrees in jazz started me on the path that led to me being a songwriter, my love of Joni grew ever stronger. The fact that she could hang with Jaco was such a huge exciting thing to learn. It gave me the affirmation that it’s ok to make music in many different styles. I never imagined I’d actually meet her.

After playing one of the most terrified sets of my life, I went to the bar for a break. One of our managers then embarrassed me down to my molecules by asking Joni and her friends if I could go and sit with them. I immediately had a gut reaction that can only be described as carnival ride nausea. Not only was I terrified of saying something stupid, I was also very worried that she’d tell me she didn’t like my performance. Or she would be annoyed and offended that a stranger wanted to fangirl over her dinner table. Some zoos have “Don’t Feed the Animals” signs; in LA, they all say “Please Don’t Look at the Celebrities.”

Her party was a combination of friends and caretakers. Joni had suffered an aneurism in 2015; she was in a wheelchair and needed some help getting from place to place. The group of friends was a lovely bunch of people, and they immediately welcomed me.
I took one look into Joni’s eyes, and thanked her for all she had written that had impacted my life. Then I immediately burst into hot, guttural, ugly crying. (Note to self: Hot, Gutteral Ugly Crying – memoir title?) She didn’t seem to mind. She had a cup of tea and some dessert in front of her, so she kept on enjoying her food. I think she’s used to people breaking into crumbly little pieces when they meet her.

I showed her my “Both Sides Now”- inspired tattoo. We had a lovely talk about music and musician life, and she mentioned how much she had enjoyed my work in La La Land. She was kind, encouraging, and complimentary of my live performance. It was just a short time, but it was surreal. Before I left the table, I thanked her and explained that I was so awkward at first because I was afraid of bothering her.

She looked at me, grasped her teacup with both hands, and said “Everybody bothers everybody.”

At the time, I didn’t know what that meant. But I knew I’d remember it forever.
I took a very grainy picture with her, which I treasure to this day. And because I’m a sad nerd queen, I went home, removed the shirt I was wearing, and kept it in a box of keepsakes in all its Joniness. But maybe now, knowing what I know, I should take it out again, wash it and wear it. Experience the memories while I’m here on earth, instead of keeping them in a box.

Reverence is a given in our celeb culture society. Making gods out of mortals is a huge part of formal music training culture. Whether you were trained classically or commercially, you learn how to Stan. Is art, in fact, a gift from the divine? Or is art just within the minds and spirits of the talented people who create it? I have no clue. I sit down to write, stuff comes out, I rewrite. I rinse and repeat. Many people feel Joni is a goddess. But I think that “everybody bothers everybody,” was her way of saying hero worship, even that which people bestow on her, is unnecessary and weird.

You bother me, I bother you. We can’t go through life without bothering people in some way. We all ask each other for advice. We all teach. And why would I see myself as unworthy of a cup of tea with one of my heroes? Everybody is making their way. Being humanly curious. How would anyone ever learn how to live if no one else let them sit at the table?
When we throw ourselves at the feet of our heroes and proclaim our own unworthiness, we’re broadcasting that message to the entire world.

Respect your heroes. Love them, tell them what they mean to you.

But don’t be afraid to take your seat at the table. The real ones can be bothered for a cup of tea and a picture or two.