Friday, January 14, 2011

The making of a radio show, part 3: In the studio with Debbie Duncan

More in this series: Part 1 (Nancy Harms), Part 2 (Maud Hixson)


Arne Fogel and Debbie Duncan listen hard
Although it’s late November, it might as well be spring. As we arrive at Wild Sound recording studio in northeast Minneapolis, Debbie Duncan is singing the Oscar-winning Rodgers and Hammerstein classic “It Might As Well Be Spring” with so much warmth that she could melt the snow on the ground.

We’re here at another recording session for Arne Fogel’s new series for public radio station KBEM, where he hosts The Bing Shift each Saturday at 7 pm. Fogel has a long history with radio. For 12 years, he produced and hosted a series of Arne Fogel Presents programs for MPR, followed by programs for KLBB and (with co-host Connie Evingson) Singers and Standards for KBEM from 2002–2005.

Fogel’s latest, Minnesota Voices: Certain Standards will air later this year for 13 weeks, 5 days/week. Five singers—Nancy Harms, Maud Hixson, Debbie Duncan, Connie Evingson, and Fogel—are each recording 13 songs from the Great American Songbook. The show will include 65 classic songs and the stories behind them.

Debbie’s voice breaks on an interval near the end of “Spring,” so she sings the phrase over twice, then takes a completely different approach. If something doesn’t work for her, she has a hundred more choices in her pocket. She also knows what she wants from pianist Tanner Taylor. When she hears a chord she doesn’t like, she asks for a do-over, Arne concurs, and Wild Sound's Matthew Zimmerman punches it in.

Tanner Taylor
On the Rodgers and Hart ballad “Where or When,” she and Tanner do two complete takes, one faster, one more laid back and swinging. The gorgeous first recording of Lerner and Loewe’s “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” turns out to be too long; the second is shorter, yet somehow more touching and wistful.

With Debbie, songs are all about feeling and expression, honesty and truth. If she doesn’t believe it, she doesn’t sing it. Rhythm and melody are flexible, malleable, open to interpretation. While some vocalists are introspective and perfectionistic, Debbie projects and takes chances—whatever it takes to communicate emotion. She wants you to feel what she’s feeling, and if somehow you don’t, either you’re not paying attention or you’re dead.

Her final song, the one she’s been working up to over two days in the studio, is not officially a Great American Songbook tune, but Arne says he’ll make it work; Debbie wants it in. “I’ve Gotta Be Me” by Walter Marks was first sung by Steve Lawrence in a Broadway musical in 1968 (as the more proper “I’ve Got to Be Me”), but it took Sammy Davis Jr. to loosen it up and make it a hit. Debbie sings an arrangement she did with bassist Gary Raynor; Tanner plays a walking bass line on the lower keys. It's simple, passionate, and convincing. The third take, fast and swinging, is the winner and a wrap.

Debbie Duncan and Arne Fogel
Debbie explains why the song matters to her. “It’s kind of a mantra for me. All the lyrics are good. ‘Do it now, do it righteous. Live, don’t just survive.’ It used to be my theme song, and when I sing it, I really mean it.” Feeling and expression, honesty and truth.

We spend a few moments talking about songs that are hard to sing. For Debbie, it’s “’Round Midnight.” For Arne, “Sophisticated Lady.”

Next up: Arne.

Photos by John Whiting.

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