“Songs in Borrowed Clothes”: Male Cantors Sing Songs by Women Artists
Cantor Juval Porat and Cantor David Reinwald recently got on the phone to chat about BCC’s upcoming Cantor’s Cabaret Concert “Songs in Borrowed Clothes.” Here’s a partial transcript of their revealing conversation:
Cantor Juval: Hi David!
Cantor David: Hi Juval! I can’t believe we’re doing this concert again [Cantor David and Cantor Juval performed a version of the concert at David’s home congregation earlier this year]. It’s going to be so much fun! There will be a new feeling to it, as we’re adding new musicians and changing up the songs. It’s going to be great.
CJ: I agree! I’m very much looking forward to it. I was wondering, as we prepare for the concert – could you tell me who your favorite female singer-songwriters are, or have been? Which ones inspired you growing up or nowadays?
CD: I have so many. When we were first putting this together I had to pare it down, because there are so many artists that have inspired me over the years. When I go back to the nineties, I think a lot about singers like Alanis Morissette and the Indigo Girls, singers that have strong dynamic personalities as well as musical vision and a voice that they bring to their artistry. I know that you’re also a great fan of Tori Amos.
CD: Tell me more about that!
CJ: I don’t know the exact details – you could look it up online… but I do know that they’ve collaborated on a mini tour and I think each of the singers presented their own material, sang duets, and presented each other’s song.
CD: Oh, I thought you said you toured with Tori Amos!
CJ: That would be nice!! But no, I don’t think I’d be worthy…
CD: The Lilith Fair was a big festival that toured around the US in the late 90s. It was started by Sarah McLachlan and I went to it once and it was actually really amazing and powerful. Paula Cole, a singer who’s not in our set but is one of my favorite artists from the 90s, was a part of that as well, along with a lot of other artists. I’m sure that some of the members of BCC even attended and had good memories.
CJ: I remember Paula Cole as well! I bought her single back then!
Do you think there’s something unique about a female singer-songwriter’s perspective or also having that singer-songwriters perform their own song instead of giving it to someone else to sing? Do you think there’s something that distinguishes them from their male counterparts in their artistry?
CD: Most definitely! I think I really identify with the feminist and female perspective and the voice that they bring to their songs. There’s something very special about a singer-songwriter who hangs on to their song and the voice of the song is their own voice. Many times today we see songwriters give their songs to a major artist. The artists give deference to the songwriter and the performer makes it come to life. So many of the songwriters that we are highlighting in our concert are ones who sing their own songs, so there’s something very honest and genuine about their music and it also makes you want to dig deeper to find out the story behind the songs.
CJ: And yet we’re the ones who bring those songs to life by our own interpretation, which inevitably comes through when we sing other people’s songs. We love those songs for a reason and do our best to deliver our love for those songs in the way we sing them.
CD: Most definitely!
CJ: I recently read that Joni Mitchell was often categorized as a “confessional singer” — this was a label often put on female singer-songwriters — and how furious Joni Mitchell was for being labeled as such. For her, “confessing” something was associated with being captured or coerced to come out with a piece of information, when she was really singing from her unique perspective on her life. When I read that I was just made aware of the sexism that still exists, or this tension between genders when it comes to artistry and the music business and it also touched upon something that I think is the reason why I’ve been drawn a lot towards music made by female singer-songwriters. There’s a unique yet accurate, compassionate and gentle way to portray something out of someone’s life experience that as a listener you relate to, and for some reason it’s always been female identified singers who would do that for me. I haven’t quite gotten to the bottom of what created this appeal, but having read this article drew me a little closer to the reason.
CD: I’ve had this connection in the past. I’ve noticed recently that the country music that I like tends to also fall in the line of the female country singers. I don’t know why that is, but there’s a little bit more musicality in the female country singers. We are highlighting one song by KD Lang who falls along the borderline of country and folk. I don’t know if that’s still true today, but several decades ago female singers had to really have a more defined and unique voice to break through into the music field. I was just listening to an interview today on the radio with a very young singer who was talking about the challenges of breaking into the music industry and finding her voice, and hanging on to her own vision and not letting the industry try to define who she is.
CJ: I think what you’re touching upon is perhaps also about the perception of women in the music industry. There’s a perception of women being highly sexualized, stereotypical, maybe even without any skill? I think until those beliefs are altered, women will continue to face roadblocks as they navigate their careers. Do you remember how we came up with the idea for this concert?
CD: I remember we had a conversation where one of us mentioned the idea of singing songs written and performed by female-identified singers and singer-songwriters and I remember we were both surprised by the irony that we both had this idea and then we decided to do this together. I’m glad that we did and that we’re going to do it again!
CJ: Me too! I think the inspiration for me for this concert was Tori Amos’ album Strange Little Girls, in which she covers 12 songs written by men about women. She decided to make those songs her own and add a female perspective. I think when we do the opposite, there’s an opportunity to add our own perspective on those melodies and lyrics. I wonder if there’s even a redemptive component to us singing those songs. I’d like to think so! A lot of the songs I chose are songs where either the songs themselves or the artists had such an impact on my life and the way I listen to music, write music, and even sing music. Their contribution is definitely part of my musicality, whether the listener knows it or not. In a way, that’s a way of honoring them!
CD: I’ve seen Brandi Carlile do covers of songs by male artists and make them her own. It’s really incredible when she does that. I found that one interesting song in our concert is the song “Bo” by the artist Rita. What’s interesting about this song is that Rita originally sang it, and then it was covered by the male singer Irvin Linder and now we’re kind of covering both their versions and making it our own. The use of the song in the film Yossi & Jagger — I presume a lot of BCC members have seen and recall the use of that song — puts it in an entirely different context.
CJ: Right! It also touches upon how diva-esque singers, such as Rita, have a huge gay following. I find it so interesting – this draw of gay men towards larger than life female performers. I think knowing that is why “Bo” was chosen to be part of the movie. There’s a scene in the movie where the guys in the car sing along to “Bo” and make up different lyrics that are rather vulgar and I remember just laughing out loud when watching that scene and it’s been difficult to forget those lyrics every time I hear this song now.
CD: I’m glad I forgot them! I just remember that song and loving the melody. Have you found that singing music that was written by and for female artists – have you found there to be challenges along the way as a male singer trying to take on those songs?
CJ: Well, it was mainly the original key in which those pieces were written which was challenging, so I always needed to transpose those pieces. Though a part of me thought to maybe leave the original key as a way to honor those singers, but then I figured that my voice would be done after if I were to sing those songs in the original key during the concert. So, there’s been a lot of transposing and then, I guess, like with the Tori Amos song I picked – a lot of her lyrics could mean so many things and I also know that a lot of her songs have to do with female empowerment, objectification of the female bodies, rape. And there are a couple of lines in the song I chose that could be about the power play between the genders and I think when a woman sings it, it could be from the perspective of a former victim who now takes charge of her life and her healing. Having those lyrics sung by a male, or gay male who is not unfamiliar with discrimination, exclusion and being a victim of bullying, etc. There could be a notion of both solidarity and also even recognizing the original singer-songwriter’s pain and hopefully, this can bring some healing.
I find we do live in a dualistic world where it’s hard to talk about nuances, though I think we get better at it. As long as there is this approach in the mainstream I think it’s an important step we can by mixing up the genders on who’s singing whose lyrics and thus conveying we’re all in this together, we all experience pain, we all experience healing – no one is better or more superior than another and we strive for that equality. That’s kind of why I thought it would be nice to come up with this concept for a concert.