NYC’s cabaret haunts and advocacy keep this performer going
Anne Steele’s recent album Made Out Of Stars has packed venues nationwide, and even across the pond in England. But one song in particular is getting a significant amount of attention. “I Miss Those Days” is a stunningly gorgeous song that speaks of old New York City cabaret haunts and how the people who inhabited them become their own kind of family.
Each and every one of us can relate to a time in our lives when freedom and youthful innocence was overshadowed by family and “adult” responsibility. This song has found its way into the hearts of people all over the world. And Steele herself got to share it with her New York City cabaret family recently for a much different occasion. As she prepared to hit the stage at the Blue Moon in Rehoboth Beach, Del. Recently she caught up with me to talk about this stunning song, the effect it’s had on her own life, her cabaret community, and what we can expect next from this singer-songster.
Michael Cook: Spending the summer in the midst of an album release must be a very surreal feeling. What is it like going on tour with new and some established material?
Anne Steele: I absolutely love touring, especially with my new album, Made Out Of Stars. I am so proud of this new music and I love singing it for audiences across the country. I was so much more involved in all of the writing on this record. And that’s because it really tells my personal story. Each song means something so important to me. And getting to connect with people on the road through music is the greatest gift I could ask for, honestly.
“I Miss Those Days” has become an anthem for so many people, especially a very special kind of New Yorker. Tell me about the background and the meaning of that song.
AS: I was on my way to Nashville to have a writing session with a fantastic songwriter named James Farrell. And I got some bad news that an old friend of mine, AJ Irvin, had passed away suddenly. I was completely wrecked because AJ and I had truly “grown up” together in New York City piano bars. When I say we “grew up,” what I mean is that we spent our twenties earning a living by working in the piano bars. We also became seasoned entertainers and musicians by working with some of the greatest pianists and singers that New York City has ever seen. There was an incredible nightlife culture that existed in the 90s and 2000s. And it was there long before I got there in the 80s. Between the piano bars and the cabaret rooms, that were attached, that truly became a family.
We all learned from each other and created a community that supported one another. Unless you were there, it is so hard to explain. The talent was off the charts and even though we didn’t have much, we had each other. Audiences would pack the rooms with lines down the street. And you could literally hear a pin drop when the singer/ bartender/ waiter got onto the stage. It was true New York City magic. I am forever grateful that I was a part of that world for so long.
However, we all eventually got gigs, got married, had kids, got other jobs. And everyone started to move on. It’s what happens in life. Unfortunately, we also grew apart. So, when I got the news about AJ, I walked into that writing session with my piano bar family on my mind. All I wanted to do was to write about that time and what it meant to me, and will always mean to me.
The interesting part about the song is that you don’t have to know anything about the New York piano bar scene, or the community, or my friends. Because I have seen it connect to so many people just based on missing their own friends from the past that they may have let slip away. Life is so brief, and you never know when your time is up. I think this song encourages people to reach out and reconnect with people that really mattered to them and will always be in their hearts.
You mention places like Don’t Tell Mama and Rose’s Turn in the song. Tell us what those places were like and why they are so needed in New York City.
AS: As I mentioned before, New York City piano bars are truly one of a kind. Back when I started working at Don’t Tell Mama (1999) it was one of many piano bars in the city. Over the years, I also worked at Brandys and The Duplex. One by one, most of the piano bars have closed. It makes me so sad to see that happen. I think it has something to do with the way people consume music now. So many people take live music for granted. It’s the American Idol world that we live in. Everything seems easy and on-demand instead of honoring how hard it is to be a live entertainer, and how much work it takes to be really good at it.
Thank goodness there are still some piano bars hanging in there and giving people the incredible music they always have. I wouldn’t say it’s the way it was back in the day but that’s not because of the talent. There are still incredible singers singing and slinging every night in those bars. I think it’s the audience that has changed. And I’m not sure there is much that can be done about that.
Where do you think the feeling of family comes from within that cabaret and theater community in New York City?
AS: I think the sense of family comes from the fact that it’s a hard life and we are all in it together. Cabaret means producing your own shows because you want to have a voice in music. That is not an easy path. It’s a grind and a lot of hard work. It also means that you need support within the cabaret community for your shows and in turn, you support others. It’s always a give and take. Obviously, the Broadway community is the same. They work so hard and for so long to break in and once they do, they become part of an incredibly supportive family of performers. It’s truly one of the greatest payoffs for all the years of work.
A big part of that time for you is your friend Poppi Kramer, who the community recently lost. What are some of your best memories of Poppi?
AS: Poppi and I were friends for 20 years. When she passed away, it was like someone took the wind out of my sails. She had always been one of my biggest supporters, and I hers. She was such a good friend to everyone. She was a fantastic comic but even more than that, she was a supporter of other comics. She had an open mic for years at The Duplex on Wednesday nights. It featured up and coming comics because she cared about giving people a shot. That was who she was to the core. Someone that cared deeply for other people and so many people miss her dearly. I have so many memories of Poppi but the best were always at Mets (baseball) games. She was an obsessed Mets fan. She never missed a game, even if she had to listen on headphones while bartending. She was truly an original and now when I sing “I Miss Those Days,” it has even more meaning.
The community recently honored her memory at Hudson Terrace with the OOOOOH POPPI Show where so many paid tribute to her. Tell me about that evening.
AS: That was a hard night to say the least. Because Poppi had so many talented friends. The night was filled with comedy and music. One minute we were laughing as she would’ve wanted it. And the next minute we were sobbing, which she would’ve hated. I sang “I Miss those Days” because Poppi asked me to. I know that sounds strange. But after AJ passed away, Poppi and I planned his memorial with some other friends. I played her the song and she wanted me to sing it for AJ. But I just couldn’t. She said it was the best song I had ever written and I just had to sing it. I again told her no. And then she said, “ok, that’s fine. Just save it for my memorial.” I said, “well that’s a terrible thing to say!” Then she just laughed that Poppi laugh. Little did I know that within the year we would be where we are now. So, I sang it for Poppi and somehow I think she heard it and loved it.
And how are you honoring her memory going forward as a performer?
AS: I think the best way to honor Poppi, as a performer, is to always support younger people coming up. She always did that and gave them a voice and it is so needed in the world we live in today. She always created such a sense of community around her. She was a really good friend and mentor to those people. I will always strive to do the same and to keep her spirit alive that way.
You and your wife Kelli Carpenter are raising a family. And you both have burgeoning careers that involve lots of travel. What about New Jersey truly is “home” to both of you and makes it your home base?
AS: We initially moved to New Jersey for the school system honestly. The public schools in our town are highly rated, and we knew that the kids would get a great education. We also wanted to stay close to New York City because so much of our work happens there. So, New Jersey was a win-win for us.
Your fantastic podcast with Kelli, I Love My Wife is getting bigger and bigger. Who are some dream guests you would love to have? And what makes the quintessential I Love My Wife guest?
AS: We have been so lucky to have such an eclectic range of guests on our show. From musicians like Melissa Etheridge, Chely Wright, Ann Hampton Callaway, and Ty Herndon to comedians like Judy Gold, Alec Mapa, and Jessica Kirson. From actress Sharon Gless, to CNN political commentator Hilary Rosen. We always have lots of Broadway stars like Norm Lewis, Euan Morton (from Hamilton), Brenda Braxton, Gavin Creel, and Elizabeth Stanley. We have plenty of drag queens from Marti Gould Cummings to Sherry Vine to Varla Jean Merman. As you can see, anyone can be a guest on our show. All you need is an interesting story that we think would connect with our listeners.
As far as dream guests, we certainly have a few. We would love to have Cyndi Lauper, Sara Bareilles, Christine Quinn, Cynthia Nixon, Rupaul, Audra McDonald, and Will Swenson, Bridget Everett, and Pete Buttigieg. Plus so many more!
As if you are both not busy enough, you and Kelli both sit on the Board of Ramsey Pride and are in the process of planning Ramsey Pride 2020. Tell me about how you got involved in this? What do you want to do with Ramsey Pride that will make it truly magical?
AS: This year was the first Ramsey Pride ever. We were so excited and proud of the team that stepped up and made it all happen. We knew immediately that we wanted to be part of the event next year. So, when the head of the Board asked us to join, we were thrilled! Because we have attended so many Prides across the world, we are hoping to be able to help Ramsey Pride grow to an even bigger and bolder event with our expertise in music, marketing, and fundraising. The most important thing is that LGBTQ people in and around our community know they are supported and loved. That’s what we will strive to do in Ramsey.
What gives you pride?
AS: Living my life as an OUT singer/songwriter gives me pride. Using my voice to empower young women and LGBTQI+ youth to know that it’s okay to be your authentic self, whatever that may be. That you don’t have to be afraid to raise your voice and be proud of who you are. Even if you are in a place where you feel like you can’t. Eventually, it will get better. You will find your people. The first track on my last EP What’s Mine is called “What’s Mine” and I wrote it about growing up in Indiana where I felt like I couldn’t be my true self. That I had to break away and find my people. That I eventually found what’s mine. I also find pride in my family. My wife Kelli and our kids. They keep me grounded and safe, and always make me feel loved no matter what happens. That is something to be proud of every day.
What is next for Anne Steele in 2020 and beyond?
AS: I will probably still tour a little more with Made Out Of Stars, but I am also writing a new show, and I am always writing new music. Eventually, the goal will be to get back in the studio for another album, but until then I will stay on the road and share my voice.