As Claudia Russell’s biography states, she is a unique musical mixture — “a whimsical melting pot of traditional and contemporary styles.” That does sum it up. It’s a sure bet that one will never get bored listening to Claudia and her husband and partner in musical crime, Bruce Kaplan. They have a way of creating a vast array of song types within any set and on all of their recordings. There’s something for everyone. Rave reviews for Claudia’s newest CD indicate she’s never sounded better or written more solid and memorable songs.
Check out Claudia’s website here.
Here’s a video that gives you a good representation of what Claudia and Bruce (and the Folk Unlimited Orchestra) do best!
Since Claudia’s connection to this song is covered in this interview, here’s a link to “Teddy Bears’ Picnic.”
Before you I even inserted the CD into the player, I was captivated by the cover of All Our Luck is Changing. I don’t know what I love more—the Claudia and Bruce bobbleheads or the circa 1960s Las Vegas strip with your name on the marquee. Is the title song of the album a true recollection of a childhood vacation to Vegas?
Claudia: Like many songs, it’s part fact, with some embellishments. One of the fun parts of songwriting is finally giving myself permission to do that! I had a great stepdad, David Murphy, and the first vacation I ever took (other than an overnight to San Diego or some other local California town with my Dad and my stepmom) was with Dave and my Mom…a road trip to Las Vegas, Hoover Dam and Yosemite. I remember swimming in a motel pool, at that “magic hour” time of day and just feeling totally happy. Then when we got to Vegas, we stayed at the Stardust hotel and I was sort of loony for swimming pools, I wanted one so badly! I got my fix at the very old local public pool in LA. So I was in pool heaven at the Stardust! Later, in my early 20’s my stepdad’s two sisters, Betty and Jean used to pay my way if I’d drive them to Las Vegas and we’d stay across the street from the Stardust Hotel, at a cheaper place, The El Morocco but we’d go across the street for fun and breakfast!
Bruce: It took us more than a year to finish “All Our Luck Is Changing.” The moment I heard the chorus, I was hooked. But the story was actually much longer and even more richly detailed. Between the rhythmic intensity and the verbal intensity, it took some time to tame the beast into a song we could actually perform, and also finish the story.
The cover art was done by David Chelsea with real paint – that’s not Photoshop! We had a phone call with him about the title song, and mentioned some of the images, plus the fact that being a musician is very much about getting in the car and driving. And a few days later, he sent us a sketch that was pretty close to this. I think it was my idea to put our name on the sign.
What was it like having Peter Case produce your CD? How did you connect with Peter?
Bruce: We’ve known Peter, in my (BK) case since about 1978. He was in the Plimsouls and I was in a band that played the same clubs. His 2007 Let Us Now Praise Sleepy John is one of those landmark recordings that stays with you, like maybe the way a Dave Carter/Tracy Grammar record does. Claudia took a songwriting class from Peter about 12 years ago, and was struck by his depth and creative spirit.
Peter Case is a force of nature. He has a strong musical instinct, and on a couple of songs, instantly honed in on how to make them more accessible from a rhythmic point of view. The song “I Remember the Wind” was sort of a slow blues dirge and Peter suggested “four on the floor,” resulting in a more compelling, jazzier feel.
Peter likes to capture the moment. So though there are some overdubs (for instance viola and keyboards), almost all the vocals are live with the track.
Peter has his own strong artist personality and it was sometimes pretty intense working with him. But I think the results speak for themselves…this record has been very well received. Part of this is also the great work of our band — Carl Byron (keys), Tom Tally (viola and violin), Debra Dobkin and Danny Frankel, drums, Eric Lewis, dobro and Paul Eckman bass.
The down side of having all these great players with us is that I think Claudia’s very fine guitar playing gets a little overshadowed, even though a lot of the arrangements are pretty much derived from her guitar parts. One of these days, we’re going to have to make a record that is just a guitar, vocals, mandolin and maybe a bass.
Claudia: Peter is a trip! He’s really great at capturing vibe, and intention, soul and a mood… and he loves doing it live, which was a little scary to me. So for me, this record was a lot about “jumping in” and trying to let go of being too careful. It was long days and not quite enough sleep! We recorded in LA in a studio with lots of old Hollywood ghosts floating around…had been an old Foley stage and I just felt all that surrounding us. I think we were in good hands, both past and present.
Do you enjoy performing as much as songwriting? Does one come more naturally than the other?
Claudia: Singing and playing guitar come naturally to me.
Songwriting and performing…not so much. Starting a song is easier – finishing it is very hard work.
I’ve always loved performing as part of a group or as a side person. I’ve been part of one musical group or another since high school and I’m really comfortable in that role. But when Bruce encouraged me to write and perform my own stuff, the focus was on me and I missed the safety net of the group.
So I’ve gone more than a few rounds with stage fright and sometimes it wins, and sometimes we shake hands and it agrees to leave the ring and let me just be. I remember the first time I realized there wasn’t going to be room for me and my stage fright. We played a very close, intimate restaurant in Vermont…I took one look around and decided to just walk up to everyone and introduce myself, tell them we were going to be playing some music and that I hoped they’d stick around to enjoy it. It was like I had to break my own ice, and it worked. I made friends, and I was fine, it was a defining moment for me, but of course, I’ve slid often because my anxiety wants me to forget that I can do that! I had the same experience leading a choir for the Bread and Roses organization here in the Bay area…a Christmas choir. I’d never done anything like that before…I was a nervous wreck and minutes before we were supposed to start I thought, “maybe I’ll just tell them I can’t do this”…which was so absurd it made me laugh out loud. Instead I got into Pufferfish mode and made myself be a bit larger than life and it was fine, fun even and I surprised myself in one of those life affirming ways we all need every once in a while.
So, I LOVE to sing and I want to share that love with others, so I am willing to try my best to put up with my own anxiety. A lovely woman and fellow performer (Kristina Olsen) once told me that the more I did it, the easier it would get…I didn’t believe her then, this was before I was performing my own stuff, but she was right…it gets easier, but you have to keep doing it!
I noticed that you wrote the majority of the songs on this CD by yourself; only two are co-writes with Bruce. Do you require a lot of “me” time when you’re in a creative mode? When do you ask Bruce to work with you? I’ve often wondered how that worked when both spouses are musicians.
Bruce: I hear a lot of Claudia’s song ideas when they are in the half formed stage. Sometimes it might be just a guitar idea. More often there is a guitar idea with some lyrics. Claudia writes creatively and instinctively from her unconscious, and sometimes doesn’t have a road map of where she wants the song to go. If she’s feeling a little stuck, I’ll listen and give her my reaction as to where the song seems to be leading and perhaps contribute a story arc and sometimes I will suggest a line or two to get a verse going in the direction that it seems to want to go.
Other times, she seems to have it substantially finished, and it seems best to just let her finish it on her own, as she takes a certain satisfaction in writing a song without any outside help.
Claudia: Writing is so interesting…I know I should work harder at it, and sometimes, I really want to. Other times, I’m barely interested…so I guess I’m not always “driven” to write, but when I’m in the zone of a song, it can wake me up at night and I like to chew on the syllables, and the whole thing looks and feels like a verbal jigsaw puzzle to me. Which I love in sort of an obsessive compulsive way.
Bruce is very helpful to me and often helps me find my way to the actual POINT of a song. But I can also resist that, and that’s ok too, as sometimes if I don’t agree with him, it can sort of help me think harder about what it is that I DO want to say.
As far as “me” time, yes, I need it, a lot. I’m a Cancer and can get a bit reclusive, and lone wolf-y. I like to go away, for at least a week a couple of times a year. I really have let go of the outside stuff. I think my imagination needs space, and it’s not easy to give myself permission to just sit and stare out the window with a pen in hand and a guitar nearby when I’m home.
I love that your bio states that your voice can be likened to Dolly Parton, Suzanne Vega and Aretha Franklin. I can so hear this! Did you ever study voice or is yours just a naturally powerful one that comes out when you open your mouth? 😉
Claudia: My Dad taught voice in the home he shared with my stepmom, and I heard a lot of vocalizing. He also really shared great vocal music with me, and some of the first records I ever had were his, Judy Collins, Aretha, Ian and Sylvia, Simon and Garfunkel, the Stones, Jose Feliciano, all such unique stylists. I don’t really remember getting any training or even singing advice from him, I’m sorry to say…I wish I could. He passed away when I was about to turn 15 and had been sick for a few years before. But I often send him a little thank you prayer for getting me a guitar and taking me to lessons. I really have enjoyed playing and singing and that was thanks to him.
I sang in Girls Glee in High school…and honestly I used to just harmonize anytime, anywhere. About 15 years ago I realized that I’ve been sort of a “passive” learner all my life, especially with music. I’m very, very fortunate to have genetically inherited my pitch, voice, etc., but I also think that singing is a lot about listening, especially with harmony. But I did have one wonderful teacher for a little while when we lived in LA, Rosemary Butler. She is a great singer, has sung with the greats and is a kind and very nurturing voice teacher.
Bruce: Claudia is fortunate to come from a family of singers. Her grandfather was a Russian tenor and sang opera all over the world, including Carnegie Hall and the Hollywood Bowl. Her dad was a professional singer too. (see below) If you listen, you can hear the family resemblance, and also that they each have a natural gift of infusing a song with feeling and sincerity.
So as someone who has spent a lot of time watching Claudia work, her voice seems to be a gift, but her guitar playing (which I think is pretty darn good) has come about by the work of practice and exploration.
Tell us how you met Bruce and how your music has been influenced by him over the years.
Bruce: As legend has it, my band, the Tearjerkers, was playing on the same night Claudia’s band, The Life Is Grand Band was playing. I missed their set, but one of my band members told me that I would have liked them, as they did an arrangement of Marshall Crenshaw’s “Favorite Waste of Time,” and at the time (way back in 1988) I was playing Marshall Crenshaw somewhat constantly in my car.
I saw the band doing the after gig schmooze thing after their set, and I noticed one of Claudia’s band mates, who I had worked with some years before and she got the introductions going, and Claudia gave me her card, and threatened to put me on her mailing list. I called her a few days later. And the rest is history!
Oddly enough, we didn’t play that much music together for our first 10 years together. But when each of our bands broke up, our musical directions started to converge in the late 1990s. My picking up the mandolin around that time created some common musical ground and a chance to develop a sound of our own.
Claudia: Yes, Bruce likes to say that we “met at the dumpsters”…which is really true. At a great club no longer there in LA ,called “At My Place”, we were loading out, they were loading in. I had sort of put it out to the universe that I’d love to meet a musician and someone who lived on the west side of town (where there was nice beach fog and it was cooler!), and lo and behold, there was Bruce, and he lived in Venice Beach!
I’m curious to hear more about your father, Val Rosing, and his connection to “Teddy Bears’ Picnic.”
Bruce: Claudia’s father was Gilbert Russell, an opera singer and later on, singing coach to TV stars like June Lockhart, Peter Falk and Tina Louise. But before he moved to the USA (in about 1938) he had another life. He was born Val Rosing in London, and sang with the best bands of the day — The Henry Hall BBC Dance Orchestra, the Ray Noble Orchestra, Jack Payne’s Orchestra. He also had his own combos, among them, the Radio Rhythm Rascals. He recorded more than 120 songs, and a few of them not only became hits, but continue to be heard today. His recording of “Teddy Bears’ Picnic” is the first and definitive recording of this classic children’s song. His recording of “Try A Little Tenderness” is not the one we all remember (I think Otis Redding owns this song, really) but it was the first recording, and the songwriters chose Val to sing it first. The song “Hush Hush Hush, Here Comes The Boogey Man” has been used in several movies and even a best selling video game. So long after he passed away, he continues to capture people’s imagination.
Claudia: I never knew my Dad had an early career, as for some reason, he never spoke about it…so we discovered all this about 15 years ago. Bruce has done a lot of research about him, began collecting his 78’s and four years ago, when my Dad would have been 100, Bruce released a wonderful CD of some of the songs he sang back in the 1930’s. I lost my Dad so early that I really feel Bruce has given me the gift of my Dad with all his research and this amazing CD.
Do you tour often?
Bruce: We would like to your more often, but putting two or three tours a year is hard enough without the aid of a booking agent. It’s just easier to take gigs around California than beat the bushes 18 months in advance for stuff around the country.
Claudia: Not often enough! I’d love to go out more often, but booking is painful, the self-sell…ouch! I have the fantasy of driving all over the country, with our instruments and PA and just asking if we can “put on a show” when we pull into town. I think that’s the troubadour of a bygone era. Or, maybe shows at campgrounds?! I really love getting out and playing and am focusing on getting ahead of that booking curve that Bruce talked about. Venues are booking 18 months to two years ahead, and it’s so hard to wrap my head around that, but you have to.
What’s your guilty pleasure when you’re on the road? Every touring musician must do something a little out of the ordinary when they’re on the road–just to save their sanity. No?
Bruce: Claudia’s guilty pleasure is PRETZELS. She loves to snack. Mine are Raisinettes, or if I am lucky, a higher quality chocolate covered raisin from the health food store. Do we know how to party, or what!
Being on the road is physically taxing, and meeting new people is both exhilarating and exhausting. But in another way it’s easier than life at home. There are so many things that since you can’t deal with remotely, you don’t have to. We are always grateful to have people across the country provide a performance opportunity for us, and happy to move people with our music.
Claudia: I am WAY too big a car snacker. Anything salty and crunchy is fair game for me. Also, as much as I really love staying with friends, old and new, one of my “guilty pleasures” is a motel or hotel, but just when we’re needing some non-relating time. It’s that lone wolf need for me, it shows up and after I’ve had it, I’m refreshed and ready to hang out and yak, and snack!