Friday, December 16, 2022

šŸŽ¤Interview with Sally Stevens Author I Sang That #AuthorInterview

Sally Stevens is a singer/lyricist/choral director who has worked in film, television, concert, commercials and sound recording in Hollywood since 1960. She sings the main titles for The Simpsons and Family Guy and her voice can be heard on hundreds of film and television scores.  She has put together choirs for John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Elmer Bernstein, and many others for film scores, and was choral director for The Oscars for 22 years. In the earlier years she toured with Ray Conniff, Nat King Cole and Burt Bachrach, and she has also written lyrics for Burt Bacharach, Don Ellis, Dominic Frontiere, Dave Grusin, and others.

Her short fiction, poetry and essays have been included in Mockingheart Review, The OffBeat, Raven’s Perch, Hermeneutic Chaos Literary Journal, Los Angeles Press, The Voices Project, and Between the Lines Anthology: Fairy Tales & Folklore Re-imagined.

Along with singing and writing, her other passion is photography, and her black & white photographs of film composers have been included in exhibitions at the Association of Motion Picture & Television Producers headquarters in Los Angeles, and at Cite de la Musique in Paris, France.




Welcome! Can you tell us a little bit about your writing background – how you got started, etc.?

I’ve always loved writing -even as a child, when a kind grandfatherly neighbor used to staple together tiny pieces of paper for me and I would create “books”…well, kind of “books”!  But I continued all through my life to write personal poems based on the experiences or drama of the moment.

I also began to write songs during my high school years, which brought my love of writing and music together.  

I was blessed to be so busy in the music world of Hollywood that I never could leave town long enough to do a serious MFA study but I learned about the summer writing workshops at University of Iowa in Iowa City, IA.

When I was approaching my sixtieth birthday, I wrote what I thought was a letter inquiring about them. I was instructed to send writing samples, which I did. Turns out I accidentally applied to the actual university writing program, and received a letter from Frank Conroy, head of the program at that time, informing me I had been accepted into the program. His letter still sits framed, on my desk, as confirmation that I might actually be an okay writer!

I was then able to sneak off to Iowa City every summer going forward, for the next twenty years, and did the summer festival writing workshops there, which were what I had intended to inquire about. I enjoyed every genre – poetry, play writing, fiction, memoir…I was just able to dive deeply into that world and it became a hugely important part of my life.  I began eventually to send writings off, and a number of poems, short fiction and essays have landed in literary journals all across the country. I don’t do as much submitting as I should though, and when the “we enjoyed your work – thank you for sending but it doesn’t quite fit…do send us more of your work” letters arrive, it’s hard not to be discouraged. My freelance singing and choral contracting work requires so much focus that it’s been difficult to give the writing submissions the time and focus that process needs.

What fact about yourself would really surprise people? 

Hmm. That I’ve done bicycling trips through the Loire Valley,  and from Amsterdam to Bruge, and along the west coast of Ireland?  That surprised even me!

Or maybe – that I once smoked a joint with Andy Williams after our dinner date? (Who knew Andy did that!)

When you are not writing, how do you relax?

I like to walk my little dog in the low hills here off of Laurel Canyon…I enjoy watching a good film, and learned during the pandemic that there is a huge amount of pretty worthwhile viewing available now with our streaming channels.  Also during the pandemic months when the lovely spring and summer weather draws us outdoors, I enjoyed sitting on my front porch with a glass of wine, visiting with my neighbors – my “tribe” as I began to think of them.  Friends would come too, but it’s amazing how many lovely, interesting folks live all around me here, and during our regular normal busy lives, we’d never given ourselves the chance to know each other with more than a casual wave.  Those new friendships have become a blessing. I also enjoy just sitting at the piano and noodling around with the keys, for my own listening enjoyment – though I’m not sure how enjoyable my noodling would be to others!

Please tell us why we should read your book?

I’ve tried to weave together the stories from my sixty years in the music business- it’s been a wonderfully long journey – much longer than most have been blessed to enjoy in my line of work.  Music, singing…has always been a rather youth-oriented business. And it remains so, but the behind-the-scenes work – the off-camera vocals in underscores for film work, for TV, for commercials – to assemble the right voices for instance, as I did as Chorale Director of the Oscars for about 20 years – takes experience, knowledge of the contracts and of the singer community – knowing which singers do what style of music best, etc.   And getting to know the incredible artists who are in front of the camera has been a fascinating journey.

I’ve had my own experiences performing as the “out in front” artist with Burt Bacharach, touring the states and in other parts of the world. I’ve had a chance to write lyrics for film and sound recording projects, I’ve been very active in the governance of my performermance unions, SAG and AFTRA , now SAG-AFTRA since their merger in 2012…

But I’ve also shared in the book the story of my personal life- of the merging of two families after my mother’s divorce, when she married my stepfather and I became one of three children, two from his first marriage, then of six children after they had three more.  My brothers and sisters have been a huge part of my life, but the stories of that woven-together childhood had its happy moments and its not so happy ones.

And of course the romances along the way – I’ve been single for the last 25 years, after three marriages ended in divorce.  There’s a bit of drama there as well!

But for anyone who wants to be a part of the business of music – the book shares a great deal of history, of how I became part of the business, of how the business due to the developing technologies has changed dramatically over the decades…and I’ve experienced it all – from the “golden years” as we say – the sixties and seventies when there was so much activity that those of us lucky enough to be “busy session singers” worked six days a week, all on union contracts – to the current era, where synth sound samples have replaced live musicians in many areas of production, where film scoring has run to places outside of Hollywood where union contracts are ignored in order to avoid backend payment costs, etc.  These are challenges we must adapt to, and continue to try to work within. 

Also in today’s world, with streaming music rather than records, CD’s people actually have to buy, or radio stations that actually had to pay royalties…artists can, yes, produce as independent artists and get their music out into the world – but there’s no big record label promoting that music, so it has to find its listeners and fans pretty much through its own devices.

What kind of advice would you give other authors just getting their feet wet?

Don’t give up, don’t get discouraged, just try to keep broadening your experience, developing your voice, so your writing will find its readers. Do as much reading of fine literature as you can, settle into some workshops where you can share with others, and get feedback about your writing.

My own dilemma with the poetry these days is that the genre seems to have become obsessed with line breaks… putting them where in olden days they would never have been. I really struggle with it, because for me the flow of words is what brings the story, the emotion and when that flow is interrupted by a line break…that presumably makes the NEXT word SO much more important... for me, that’s just nonsense. And annoying. But if I want my poems to land out there someplace, like they used to – I guess I have to adapt my style.  So there’s that – there are changes in the “market place” that sometimes we have to adapt to.

THANK YOU so much for allowing me to participate in your interview.  I hope the conversation has had some worthwhile elements that your readers might enjoy and find interesting or helpful.

~ Sally Stevens

“I SANG THAT…a Memoir from Hollywood”



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