by Dan Goldwasser
An original founding member of England's "loudest rock band", Michael McKean (aka David St. Hubbins of "Spinal Tap") and his wife, actress Annette O'Toole (Martha Kent on "Smallville") have recently teamed up and are branching out into a new career: songwriters. With three of the songs in A Mighty Wind under their belt, including the focal song "A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow", this talented duo is now busy writing a feature film musical. SoundtrackNet had an opportunity to talk with this very talented couple, just before the holidays.
How did you two meet?
Annette: Well, Michael and I actually met many years ago when he was doing "Laverne and Shirley". I was this actress, and we could bump into each other at various screenings; we had friends in common, but we didn't really know each other very well. We had very different lives. In 1997, we re-met on a Lifetime movie called Final Justice. We were playing bitter enemies: I was a woman whose brother was murdered, and Michael was the horrible lawyer who got the murderer off.
Michael: Not a good basis for a relationship!
A: Michael was in a relationship at the time; we were both divorced, but he was "spoken for" - so we didn't get together then. But we did become friends. I was living in Oregon, and we became email buddies, and kept in contact that way. I was in the process of moving back to California with my two daughters, and so during that process he... well, Michael, you take over!
M: <laughs> We just kind of wound up e-mailing a little more intently!
A: But, your relationship broke up...
M: Oh, yes, it did. But that's not so interesting! We cleared the tracks.
A: It was crucial though; there was no overlap, which was nice.
M: Crucial, yet not interesting! <laughs> We did, in the long and short of it, get together, and we were married in March 1999. And that continues to this day!
How did you start collaborating on songwriting?
M: On September 11, 2001, Annette found herself without an airline to carry her back down to Los Angeles from Vancouver, where she films "Smallville". So she drove a rental car down. The two of us drove it back up together, and on the long drive up there, somewhere between Portland and Seattle, she told me she had a tune in her head. She sang me this funny little tune, and I told her I didn't think it was an existing tune - she had made it up. So we started batting the tune around, and as a way to mnemonically preserve it, along the lines of what Sir Paul did with "Scrambled Eggs" which later became "Yesterday", we came up with a mnemonic device which was "Potato's in the Paddy Wagon", which helped us remember the rhythm of the main piece of the song. By the time we got to Vancouver, we liked the phrase so much that we decided to keep that, discard all logic, and try to assemble a song that made sense out of the phrase, "potato's in the paddy wagon." So that was the first tune we wrote together! I told her that Christopher Guest was doing this folk movie, and there might be a place to use that in the film!
So you knew about A Mighty Wind already?
M: Oh yeah, I had been working on the film already, but not filming. I was just writing songs with Christopher, and Harry (Shearer), and Eugene (Levy) - the usual. So we got back to Vancouver and played it for Chris - he thought it was great, and he asked us to write a song to be Mitch and Mickey's signature tune. Something romantic and fairly straight. So we wrote "A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow" more or less trying to recreate the Stephen Foster feel - a song that could have been written within the last 180 years.
How did you collaborate to come up with that?
M: We tried all different methods. The first song was Annette's tune that we both collaborated on. This one I had come up with the phrase, "a kiss at the end of the rainbow..."
A: We knew the song had to include a kiss - it was about a kiss. Michael came up with the title "A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow", which was great, because the song was built around that.
It seems like half of the film is built around that!
A: Yeah, kind of amazing - we didn't expect that!
M: The song really does work as a character almost. It's kind of like what we're all trying to get back to - to recapture something that was lost.
A: We just sat down and wrote it one night - kinda knocked it off in a couple of hours.
Michael, you have a lot of experience writing songs, but Annette, this is all new for you!
A: It's a totally new thing, and it's like I created a monster - I can't stop! The tunes are in my head, and we're trying various ways to go about this. Michael has had this collaboration with other people over the years, but this is my very first time ever doing it. So every time we write one, it just gives me more confidence to do the next. We had never written a song before where one of us just wrote the lyrics, and the other wrote the music. There's a new song I wrote, where I just wrote the lyrics and handed them to Michael before flying to Vancouver. A few days later I came back and he had this amazing piece of music that fit perfectly. So it was actually the very first time that each of us had done just one thing. But then when we started singing it, we needed to massage it, together. There's no one way we go about it. Sometimes I do more lyrics, or more music. And now we're writing songs with a friend of ours, Michael O'Keefe.
I said to Michael (McKean) one day, "do you ever worry about running out of ways to combine notes?" He said, "No, it's infinite!"
M: You know, John Lee Hooker didn't run out of melodies with only three chords! It's a level of inspiration. Whatever you do, you're still writing what you want to hear.
You wrote three songs for A Mighty Wind. You're also working on a new musical project. Do you write songs for yourself?
M: Yeah - that's the one Annette was just talking about. It was something that happened in her life, which needed to be expressed. The fact that it has become a song now is because I think I knew her well enough to kinda hear the music in the words she had written. So it's still what you want to hear.
In the case of an assignment, like the "Fare Away" song that CJ Vanston wrote the music for, Annette and I wrote the words. We knew the words would have to be a fairly silly sea-shanty song. That was the assignment - we did something we knew wouldn't make us cringe every time we heard it. Keep it fun and interesting! The songs in A Mighty Wind are, with the possible exception of "A Kiss at the End of the Rainbow" and "When You're Next to Me" - they're not loaded with jokes. They're fairly straightforward, and the humor comes from the film, not the songs. The songs help keep the film honest - and that's what makes the comedy work.
How many instruments do you both play?
M: I play guitar, and a little piano...
A: No, he plays more than just a little piano!
M: Well, completely self-taught! And Annette, as of a year and a half ago, is an emerging mandolin player!
A: I've never played an instrument before - I was a singer, but I never played an instrument, so I was very intimidated by it! Christopher wanted Michael to play the mandolin on one song, "Skeletons of Quinto" - so when he brought one home to prepare for A Mighty Wind, it was sitting around the house. And it's such a beautiful instrument, and it's so small! The thing about a guitar was that, well, I would lift it and it's so heavy! So the mandolin was appealing. I was also inspired by Parker Posey. She and Michael were filming some IFC spots, and she brought hers because she was packing for the movie. She was playing it and I said, "Oh my god - you must have been playing that all along!" And she said, "No, six weeks." I thought, wow, this is an instrument I could actually do!
M: I always knew she was a mandolin player anyways because she's a knitter! She has these very fine fingers, but they're also enormously strong - she could poke a hole through the side of a Volkswagen! So that's what you need - little tiny incredibly strong fingers - and she has them.
A: But anyways, it's a fun instrument, and I progressed rapidly on it - then I hit a plateau. So I was thinking, "Oh my god, I'll never be able to do this!" - and then I started listening to these incredible mandolin players...
M: <laughs> There's your mistake, listening to your Sam Bush and your Chris Thile...
A: But I'm actually at the point now where I can pick out tunes on it so that I can play them for Michael, or remember them, and put them down and remember what I wrote and play for him when I see him if I'm up in Canada. And it's such a beautiful instrument - I now own two of them! We went to this wonderful store called Norm's Rare Guitars in the valley, and I bought a great old 1924 Gibson, and then I bought a brand new instrument that came out of Victoria, Canada. It was a just-born instrument - I got it about a month after it was made.
Is there a noticeable sound difference?
A: Oh yeah! The old Gibson has this beautiful, rich mahogany sound - very deep and gorgeous. The other one is harder to play and sounds tinnier. It took me a while to find the right strings for it, but it's great. The reason I bought two of them is because I didn't want to carry one back and forth to Canada. So I got one up there, and left it there. It's a great way to find different strengths - it exercises different things.
Switching gears from music to acting - Michael, you recently had a small role on Annette's show, "Smallville"...
M: Yeah, I created the role of "Perry White", who of course will loom large in Superman's future. But this was hopefully just a glimpse of things to come. They'll use me again when it calls for it.
How was it working together?
A: Well, we were in one shot separated by about 200 yards. It was our only scene together!
Michael, you play band-leader Adrian Van Voorhees on "Primetime Glick" - do you actually play the harp?
M: No! The harp is insanely hard, and the seven pedals at the bottom don't make it any easier! It's like playing... well, it's like playing harp! It's as hard as it looks. The harp idea was strictly the writers on the show. It's a brilliant outfit over there - we've done some insanely unforgivably funny shows.
What projects are you both working on currently?
M: Well, we're writing a feature musical, for the movies! It's about a subject very near and dear to our hearts, but we're not going to tell you what it is. We do a scene, then we do a song, then we create a character. Then eventually we're going to weave all these fibers together, and hopefully it will look like a movie!
Is it a comedy, or drama?
M: Well, a drama with some funny stuff, hopefully!
Is there anything else on the horizon?
M: I'm semi-retired <laughs>
A: Oh, no he's not! Actually, we're going to have a little gig at the Hotel Cafe here in Los Angeles. We have this big Christmas party every year, and it inspired us to go out and perform in front of an audience. We always have incredible people coming over to our house and playing, so we're going to do this little evening, and hopefully it will lead to other things!
It sounds like this songwriting thing is taking you in an alternate career direction!
M: Well, this upcoming gig is primarily about the songwriting. But there are certain covers that we love - I think its bad manners not to do a Richard Thompson song at every gig. So there are a few covers - we do a lovely version of "I Remember You", which is kind of midway between Diana Krall's version and Slim Whitman's version. It falls exactly right between.
A: It will be on January 3, at 8pm at the Hotel Cafe. We also have a song on a Disney album coming out later this spring. It's on a new album called "World of Happiness". We wrote a song for it called "What Could Be Better?" and we actually wrote it while on the set of "Smallville". We heard about this album - this man contacted us, he was writing all the material, and he was putting together an eclectic blend of people: Parker Posey, Jeff Goldblum, Isaak Hayes, Illyana Douglas, Gary Oldman - all singing on the album! All of these people who aren't known for singing, but they do sing, and they're musical! So he asked us to do one of his songs, and we asked if we could write a song - and he said "sure!"
So we wrote this song called "What Could Be Better?" and it's sort of a list about what is great about being a kid. It's not rainbows and unicorns - it's all about the real stuff. So that's coming out soon - we'll be performing it at our little gig. But that's a Disney album - we're hoping to crack that nut! That's the goal - to be those people you can call when you need a song for this movie, or this performer. We have a backlog now of songs, building up a library!
So soon we can look forward to the albums!
A: We won't be singing them ourselves, but you can look for the songbook!
Finally, Michael, what would Spinal Tap think of the Folksmen?
M: <laughs> Well, they have kind of a relationship, you know. We did a tour in 1992, and we had a special at Albert Hall, and the Folksmen were part of that. They never got a chance to go on - but they were stranded in the dressing room and we cut back to them occasionally. We've always assumed that it was like they had the same booking agent, thrusting them together. Two audiences that have nothing to do with one another. But of course, it's the same three guys, and it's just another way of having fun. I haven't got a David St. Hubbins quote for you. "They're nice blokes!" I guess you could say that!
A: The Folksmen have opened for Spinal Tap a few times - and have been booed off the stage!
M: Well, we have to remind people that there's an opening act, and kind of wink at them - otherwise they think they're real! That happened in 2001 at the Beacon Theater in New York - we forgot to tell anyone. So they booed us off the stage so that we could come back on! It was very peculiar.
The soundtrack to A Mighty Wind is available on Columbia Records, and the DVD is available now. "World of Happiness" is expected to be released later in 2004 on Walt Disney Records. The duo performed at the Hotel Cafe in Hollywood on January 3, to a rather enthusiastic crowd of family, friends, and fans. From what we at SoundtrackNet heard, we can't wait for the musical they're writing!
Special thanks to Irene Dean and Jane Ayer at Jane Ayer Public Relations for all their help with this interview.