Arizona Musicfest is almost here and as the non-profit concert presenter gears up for its 31st year, we were delighted to catch up with one of the star attractions of the season: Ann Hampton Callaway.
An Arizonan transplant, Ann will be joining her sister Liz Callaway and presenting their 1995 cult-classic hit, Sibling Revelry on March 7 in Scottsdale. Those in the showbiz 'know' have for some time appreciated the harmonic wonders of The Callaway Sisters — but if you are new to the party, welcome. I caught up with Ann ahead of the show to find out how her fabulous musical career came to be, what she really thinks of sister Liz, how she's adjusting to life in Arizona, and what marriage has taught her.
AZMF 2021-22 Concert Season Preview youtu.be
Ann Hampton Callaway, I am such a huge fan of yours. You have the perfect career and dare I say, the perfect life, which includes a happy ending with a beautiful wife.
Ann: I remember when I finally was in love and it was actually mutual and it was all going to work out despite certain challenges, and I thought, Am I still going to write good songs? Am I allowed to be happy? Am I actually allowed to have this feeling?
I like to think as gay women, we get to graduate at some point. So let me go back to the beginning because my understanding is you grew up in the Midwest with talented parents, but I'm not sure they were on the showbiz map yet somehow you discovered you were musical. Tell me a little bit about that discovery and when it happened.
Ann: Well, you know, I sensed there was music deep into the DNA of at least my mother's side of the family. I think the way when in the olden days, in the 1800s, there were opera singers in Austria and my mom was a wonderful singer, pianist, and voice teacher, and she sang with the Chicago Symphony Chorus and was quite talented. But she had a challenging mother and parents who didn't really have any intention of her doing anything but getting married and teaching and having a family. And so there were moments in my life where I thought I was living my mother's unrealized dreams. I wanted my own dreams. My father was truly a brilliant journalist, but when the great Sammy Cahn heard him sing at a luncheon when he was introducing Sammy and he sang one of Sammy's hits, Sammy went up to him and said, 'You knocked it out of the park, John' and my dad said it was better than all his Emmy awards and Peabody Awards, having Sammy Cahn tell him that he sounded good as a singer. So my dad was a scat singer and he was a jazz fan, and I fell in love with jazz from my father. But my mom was more show tunes / classical music. And so my sister and I grew up in this very interesting family where there was just the right amount of neurosis, the right amount of difficulty, and the right amount of love.
Find Out Why Everyone Loves the Callaway Sisters' "Sibling Revelry" youtu.be
Let's talk a little bit about sisters. What is your relationship with Liz like?
Ann: We had a normal amount of rivalry and revelry. We had a normal amount of having fun and being kids. And then there was a while where I was like, Why are you my sister? We have nothing in common. But then when I went off to college and my parents had gotten divorced, we finally realized that we could be allies and she was starting to get into her own light and not in the shadow of her sister. In high school — we had a beautiful performing arts department — and she started to find her [musical] family. And that was the birth of Liz Callaway as a singer when she really found her people and got to star in some shows in high school. And then she went to college at University of Cincinnati for a quarter. And I like to say I served two years as an acting major at the University of Illinois because the people there had a very negative, hostile way of teaching. And that was not the kind of environment that I or most people thrive in. So we I decided to move to New York and Liz decided at the last minute to join me. Once we moved to New York we became allies in a big city where there were a lot of challenges. I got off the Amtrak train and they lost my reservation at the Martha Washington Hotel for Women where my sister and I were going to stay and I had no place to go and my little sister's coming, and so I'm crying on the corner and this guy says, 'Oh, go two blocks down and you can go to this hotel and they'll take care of you' — not knowing that that's where prostitutes and homeless people lived. And Liz got groped by the taxi driver on the way from the airport. So that was our welcome to New York! That kind of stuff makes you bond. I always say that she is the sunlit voice and I am the moonlit voice and together we make twilight.
And speaking of New York and how shitty New York City can be, what what made you move out to Arizona where you now live?
Ann: My wife, Kari, who is from Tucson, Arizona, was in deep need of returning to be with her mom and her family and her incredible friends. And I happened to be bewitched by the desert. I'm a person who thrives in New York and its excitement, and I love the glorious spiritual beauty of this part of the world. It's something indescribable, but when people come to our home, they just feel like, Oh wow, you get to live here and you get to experience this. And I tell people we moved to heaven and God is our neighbor. It's just spectacular, inspirational beauty with the skies and mountains and the stars and the sunsets and the beautiful birds. As a songwriter, and as a highly sensitive person, it's an environment to really replenish. It's a sanctuary, a place to to rebuild my energy. And it turned out to be a great place to spend the pandemic.
And many great performers pass through Tucson, Phoenix, and Scottsdale.
Ann: [Tucson] is actually a surprisingly vital and vibrant, funky artistic town. It's really a hip community. And the more time I spend here, the more talented people I meet, and I get to see our friends come through. And so it's a really lovely place to have the best of it all.
You work extensively in the genre of jazz and the American Songbook, what do you love about this genre?
Ann: I do feel very passionate about the genre because to me, it's just great artistry and it's great artistry that becomes more beautiful and more significant, with time, with challenges. There are very few love songs that can provide the level of depth and resonance to a human heart than the ones that were written during this golden age of theater and film writing. And so, yes, I feel very passionate about it, and most of the songs are songs from that era are timeless. And on the other hand, though, I listen to a lot of other music and I'm as seriously busy songwriter...
People may not know you wrote and sang the theme song to the TV sitcom The Nanny, and you wrote Barbra Streisand's wedding song. Tell me a little about your approach to songwriting.
Ann: I was born a songwriter. The way I think things and feel things. I like to distill the moment. When a phrase has a ring of truth it's like a gong that goes off in me and it wants to be realized. It asks me to to pursue it and follow through and make something of it. And so it's just a natural part of my creative life. Over the last two years, with the exception of this year, I wrote a poem every single day. It was an extremely creative exercise, and many of these poems turned into songs. And this year I want to take many more poems that are meant to be songs and actually spend the time to write them into songs. But I do have a very passionate way of looking at life, and as a person who primarily is a lover and cares about people and our world and being a conduit for loving change and compassionate exploration of new ways of living and experiencing life — being a songwriter is one of the most powerful ways to address many of the challenges that we see in front of us . And also to embrace the gorgeousness of life and to honor and celebrate it in the midst of extremely challenging times.
You know, when the pandemic came, I think we suddenly realized even more strongly how we don't know how long we have. And so I don't want to leave this Earth without giving a lot more from my heart as a songwriter. It's a beautiful way of trying to meet the creative power. And I'm very spiritual person, so when I say the creative power I mean I don't think that anybody writes a song alone, you can call it whatever you want to call it, but I feel that I have a bossy muse and she needs to be obeyed (laughs).
How do you know it's a love song when you write a love song?
Ann: I don't worry about what something is. I just try to tell the truth of something. And if it's written with love, it's a love song.... It may be me seeing the world having just kissed someone. There are so many different ways of experiencing love; seeing the world through loving eyes having found love; and learning more about love and getting to share it with someone significantly through the years is a profound gift. So every song is a love song if you are a loving human being.
A WEDDING CELEBRATION Ann Hampton Callaway & Kari Strand - Stephen Sorokoff youtu.be
You're in your seventh year of marriage? Has it transformed you?
Ann: We've been together for 15 years by the way. I proposed to Kari not much later, after meeting her — I just knew she was the one — and she said yes. So, the world's longest engagement, and we always said we didn't need a piece of paper. But then I started to realize that we were part of history, and there were a lot of people who fought to give us the right to marry. And we thought about the legal protections of marriage, and we also thought about it as an inspiration to up the ante of a true relationship. And so we wanted to celebrate our marriage. First, we got legally married at our house, on November 7th, seven years ago. And then we had a huge party at Birdland the following year in June on Pride Week with the greatest singers and pianists and musicians do two and a half hours of great love songs, and it was a love benediction and people all over the world came to celebrate our marriage and we had one of the greatest singers of our time officiate our wedding, Marilyn Maye. That kind of positive, loving energy blessed our relationship and made me feel like, I want to work even harder to be a better partner. This is so precious. I don't want anything to get in the way of us growing every day as a couple. So I think marriage helped me feel the higher stakes of thinking that this is like an art, and I want to get better at it.