From country lounge singer to soap opera maid, this dynamic performer has played many a role on stage and screen. These days, she’s achieved great success on the cabaret stage with her uncannily faithful interpretations of iconic singers. This month, she’ll be bringing back one of her favorite ladies to Pangea: the Velvet Underground’s Nico! Thotyssey basks in the glow of Ms. Tammy Faye Starlite.
Thotyssey: Hi Tammy! I hope all is well. Your new show It Was a Pleasure Then opens at Pangea this week, are you psyched?
Tammy Faye Starlite: I am! I’m excited and nervous about the show!
You’re no stranger to reinterpreting the songs and voices of many classic artists. You just participated in a Leonard Cohen tribute at the Bowery Electric last month! How did that go?
That was great! It was organized by my husband, Keith Hartel, along with noted singer/guitarist Mike Fornatale. I did “Suzanne,” and I f-ed up the lyrics. Or, rather, fucked up the lyrics. Always the professional. But the band and the other singers were fantastic.
You must have quite a musical lexicon. Have you been musical your whole life?
I’ve always loved to sing, from when I was little – I don’t know if others love to hear me, but that doesn’t stop me. I started out singing Judy Garland songs, then onto Rocky Horror, then the Stones, Linda Ronstadt, Debbie Harry, Loretta Lynn, Carlene Carter, and, of course, Nico.
I’ve always acted, too. Always wanted to be somebody else.
A performer in every sense! I see a lot of powerful and pained women in your repertoire, like Nico and Judy and Marianne Faithfull, whom you’ve also covered extensively. What draws you to these types of singers/personalities?
I love their voices – their singing voices, their lyrics – they don’t sound or write like anyone else. I love the depth of their voices, both sonically and emotionally. They sound like sirens from the fathoms of Lethe. There is no patina of forced protocol.
They came up in a time where singers were allowed to have character, and their voices told a story. Pop singers today are expected to be pitch perfect, and there is very little room for personality. Does this trend alarm you?
I guess… Autotune is so prevalent, and takes away any sense of character or uniqueness. Not necessarily soulless, but a controlled soul, perhaps. I’m a fan of the not-perfect, which is probably good, since I’m far from any Platonic idea of anything.
I love when the real voice escapes. I love to hear Madonna’s actual singing voice. And I really appreciate Adele. I think Beyoncé is fabulous!
Yes, Adele’s one exception in recent years as a singer who was allowed to be natural and emotional… Amy Winehouse was another! And Beyonce is moving more towards a vocal artist than ever before. I’ll get back to other singers, particularly Nico, but first let’s start with Tammy! Where’s your hometown?
The Upper West Side of Manhattan.
Do you grow up in a musical or performing family at all?
Not at all. Although my mother claimed that at one point she was a “jazz vocalist.” I mocked her endlessly for that. My dad was a judge, my mom a psychiatric social worker-turned UJA executive, but my younger brother taught himself how to play guitar and piano.
So you must’ve had a very intellectual upbringing! Were you exposed to a lot of the culture that the city offers?
Kind of – we weren’t religious, but I went to Yeshiva from nursery to 12th grade. My elementary school was a tiny school on the UWS; I grew up with my classmates, it was all very Liberal. Then for high school, I had to go to an Upper East Side Yeshiva, called Ramaz – a bit of NYC culture shock – much stricter, more conservative – but I’m still friends with many classmates and a teacher or two.
We didn’t do too much highbrow stuff – saw some Broadway shows, which I loved, but I was more of a TV watcher growing up. I continue to love television. It’s my opiate. My favorite things to read are cast lists.
So when did music come into play for you?
I used to stare at my parents’ record collection – mostly classical and Ella Fitzgerald and Barbra, but it was Judy At Carnegie Hall that grabbed me and wouldn’t let go, and vice versa. They also had musical cast albums, which is why I revere Fiddler on the Roof and West Side Story.
And I used to write musicals and plays for myself and my friends to perform, much to the dismay of any guests my parents had over. Oh, I was also a big Free To Be You And Me fan.
And when I saw the movie Grease, I morphed into a complete freak. It was epiphanic, like when I saw Blondie on the Mike Douglas Show doing “One Way Or Another.” If any one song changed my life, that was it.
Then when I saw The Rolling Stones on Solid Gold, I was done. Gone into another realm of existence, never to return.
So it’s like music and theatricality were always intertwined for you. I understand that you largely pursued acting before you became Tammy Faye Starlite?
I did. I got into Tisch but I hated it, so I switched to creative writing as a major and started studying outside of NYU. I studied with William Hickey at HB, I did 2 years of Meisner, I studied with Louise Lasser, with Bobby Lupone and Bernie Telsey at MCC, and with my acting mentors, Susan Greenhill and Martin LaPlatney, for about six years.
I did plays and soaps – a lot of Under-5 and Day Player work, and had a recurring role on Guiding Light for two years – Allison Janney and I were the two wacky maids at the Spaulding Mansion. We were in soap magazines! I wonder whatever happened to her.
Hold. The. Phone. I used to watch that soap religiously with my mom, and I remember those two maids very well… especially since Janney started appearing in lots of stuff right after!
I can’t believe you remember me from GL! How wild!
What roles came next for you?
I got my first Equity show (The Efffect Of Gamma Rays… at PA Stage), and right after that, my dear manager died. The soap was changing, so I started doing downtown performance comedy at Surf Reality and Luna Lounge, and that’s when Tammy Faye Starlite emerged.
So, Tammy Faye was originally a country music character… nothing to do with the televangelist?
Actually, the idea was to have a country singer character, because I’d fallen in love with country music (through the Stones). But because it was during that fantastic wave of White Supremacy and televangelists in the mid-90’s, I decided to make her a rabid racist country singer: anti-Semitic, anti-everyone except Straight Southern Baptists. And also have her be a potty-mouthed nymphomanic. Just to have that dialectic at work.
My real name is Tammy, but Tammy Faye Bakker was big in the news then. So I appropriated her second name, and chose “Starlite” as a surname because it sounded like a cheap hotel lounge. But I wanted her to be as real as possible, where lines were blurred (a la Robin Thicke), and as few pulled punches as possible.
So over time, the name has that become less of a character’s, and more of a general stage name.
It has! It’s now my name, essentially. Which is fine. Truth is subjective, I guess. Certainly now, but probably since the beginning, whenever that was, or will be. But that’s for another time, or maybe the same time.
What have been some of your favorite stage experiences of yours, as far as singing goes?
Oh my… so many. Singing onstage at Joe’s Pub with one of my idols, Debbie Harry. Singing at various venues with the incredible Steve Earle. Playing at Lincoln Center, at the Warhol Museum.
But I think my favorite experience was in Provincetown, two summers ago, on the day that marriage equality became legal. I was singing a few songs as Nico at Deb Nadolney’s AMP Gallery, accompanied by my friend Monica Falcone on solo guitar. I did Nico’s version of “Heroes,” and when the verse that begins– “I, I can remember..”– all the people watching at the gallery spontaneously sang the backing vocals -“I remember.” There was so much love, joy, unity and hope. It was so beautiful.
And, of course, when I was doing Tammy Faye at a midtown bar, and a cop came up to me with a dart pointed at my face and said, “DON’T MAKE FUN OF JESUS!” I asked (as Tammy Faye), “Can I make fun of Jews?” He paused, lowered the dart, and said, “Okay.”
When you sing in the styles and songbooks of other people, do you feel yourself embodying them as acting roles?
I do. It’s the most fun for me, to be them. I think that’s why I do it – so I can “be” Nico. Just like when I was 12, I pretended to be Farrah Fawcett-Majors. The physical resemblance to either is negligible at best, but I just pretend.
And if you’re “the character,” you can say anything with impunity–especially the wrong things. And so often I say the wrong things, intentionally or not.
Nico was a brilliant musician, but she certainly said and did the wrong things quite often. She’s a pretty fascinating subject… did you ever see that documentary about her, Nico Icon?
Several times! First when it came out, and then I bought the DVD and watched it a few times that way. Last week I watched it on my phone via YouTube.
Watching her transformation from this cold and beautiful object in her youth to this rough but brilliant monster in her last years is pretty fascinating. I mean, she got her son hooked on heroin! Do you think that you have to understand her on some deep level to perform her music?
I don’t know – I just find what I can: watch live footage a lot, listen to interviews, talk with people who knew her, like the brilliant Danny Fields (whom I love) – just try to figure out what she wanted, what was beneath the seemingly nihilistic facade, make up what I don’t know for certain (which is pretty much everything), and try to find her through her external manner and speech pattern.
Sometimes it’s more me, more interpretation than immersion, but trying to stay with my question of who she was, or is, while not necessarily knowing the answer. I learned that from studying with Austin Pendleton, and I hope I haven’t mangled or misinterpreted his teaching. But just basically sticking with her words, her lyrics and melodies, as best I can.
The Nico play I did, Nico: Underground, I wrote based on a radio interview she did in Melbourne in 1986–that featured another character, the interviewer (played sublimely by Jeff Ward), and the dialogue was interspersed with songs. Since she was being asked questions, she could be reactive, and as it was scripted, I just had to remember lines.
For this new show coming up at Pangea, I’m doing the entire Chelsea Girl album (her first solo album, although they were mostly other people’s songs), and I’ll be improvising the dialogue. I have no idea what I’ll say between songs. But I like that! If it works, great. If not, I’ll just obsess over it endlessly. We live in the unknown offstage, so maybe being onstage can be a heightened simulation of our diurnal experience.
“Diurnal” is a funny word – sounds like urinal, which is appropriate, I suppose.
Ha! Don’t let the gays get that word! On that note, I love your drag friend Marg-OH! Channing! How was sharing the Pangea stage with her for her cabaret Hung last season?
It was a joy! I love Marg-OH! She’s such a beautiful, powerful presence. A glittering spirit.
Your Chelsea Girls interpretation It Was a Pleasure Then opens at Pangea on April 6th at 7:30, and will run weekly on Thursday through May 11th! Is Chelsea Girls your favorite Nico album?
Yes! Even though she dismissed the album as “light entertainment, which I don’t care for,” and despite all the overdubbed strings and flute, the songs are beautiful, and an encapsulation of the new masters of American song. She was the first to record Jackson Browne’s songs (on this album). There are songs by Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, John Cale, who all played on the album.
It’s described as “chamber folk,” or “chamber pop,” (I don’t think it was a chamber of commerce), but we’re stripping it down – two guitars, one violin, and piano, and we’ll try to keep the ‘spirit of chiaroscuro, dark and light, and hopefully fun, too. Not precious or breakable. We’re already broken, which is liberating, in a way. No onus of some chimerical ideal.
Here’s maybe a dumb question, but does it physically hurt to sing like her? Her voice is sooooo gorgeously low.
Actually, no, thanks to my genius voice teacher, Barbara Maier Gustern. I don’t know what I’d do without her. The lower levels are more home to me. I could never sing Joan Baez.
Yay great teachers! Are you gonna do all the songs in album order, or might you mix them up?
In order. Nico was German, after all.
True that! Well it sounds like an amazing show, and I encourage my gaybees to check it out. Nico truly was a gay icon, and you’re an amazing performer! So, do you have plans yet for the next project yet?
I’m so one-tracked right now, alas – I just hope this show is okay. As Nico said, “I can’t think further than tomorrow morning, at the most. I’ll leave that for somebody else.”
Thanks and break a leg, Tammy! We’ll be seeing you for All Tomorrow’s Parties!
Tammy Faye Starlite stars in “It Was a Pleasure Then” at Pangea on Thursrdays from April 6th through May 11th (7:30pm). She can be followed on Facebook and Twitter.