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Crash course with Kathleen Bird York

Crash course with Kathleen Bird York


The Oscar-nominated singer-songwriter talks about her road to Crash, reflects on the emotional roots of her music, and pays tribute to her gay filmmaker brother

While many gay people around the country were disappointed that Brokeback Mountain lost out to Crash for the Best Picture Oscar this year, the ceremony did provide music fans with the opportunity to enjoy the gorgeous talent of singer-songwriter Bird York, who performed her nominated song, "In the Deep" from Crash, on the telecast.

On February 21, Narada/EMI released York's major-label debut, Wicked Little High, which includes "In the Deep" and 11 other intense explorations of the meaning of life in all of its joy, confusion, and sorrow. Melodic, rhythmic, and soulful, the album takes listeners on an emotional journey of self-discovery and affirmation. No mere pop joyride, Wicked Little High is ultimately a testament to the power of the personal spirit over adversities both large and small. York knows a bit about what she sings--she was orphaned by the time she was 15, and her beloved brother lost his fight with AIDS in 1986.

A native of Chicago, York has been diligently plying her musical career for several years, and her songs have been featured in a number of television shows and films, including FX's Nip/Tuck, Fox's House, the WB's Everwood, the John Cusack-produced film Never Get Outta The Boat, and the independent film Shelter Island. York is also a highly accomplished actor and screenwriter, and gay fans might have seen her on television in one of her recurring roles on The West Wing, Curb Your Enthusiasm, or The O.C. As a screenwriter, York recently sold a script to John Wells, an adaptation of Robert Rodi's gay novel Kept Boy.

What was it like to be nominated for an Oscar?It was strange that people kept talking about it as a possibility, but then when it happened, it came as a complete surprise. I've been in the entertainment business a long time, and after a while--even when you've had success--you understand that things can really go the other way. So I was really amazed.

The song "In the Deep" had a long gestation period before it actually appeared in Crash, didn't it? Yeah, it written for the film back when Paul [Haggis, coscreenwriter and director of Crash] had written the script. I was part of the process of the film finding its actors and finding its theme. What was cool about it was that every time Paul would meet another actor or another producer, he would present the song as the kind of centerpiece of the film. He gave me the script at the end of 2002, and I started working on it in January 2003.

Is it rare for a composer to be working on a song based only on a script? Yeah, but that's how he and I started working together, because I had done songs for his television series Family Law. And television moves so fast that I would be given a script at the beginning of the week, and I would write and produce a piece of music that I thought reflected the theme of the episode and hand it to him the day before he was about to mix. He would then lay it in on top of a montage, and it would meld together perfectly.

What did you think of Dolly Parton's song, "Travelin' Thru," which was nominated for an Oscar for the film Transamerica?I haven't seen it in context of the film, but I really like the metaphor she used for a film about people who have such a challenge ahead of them. And I love that idea, for any of us, that "I'm just traveling through, and I'm not here to judge anybody." I thought it was a beautiful metaphor.

Let's talk about your other competitor in the Best Song category, the group that actually won the Oscar--Three 6 Mafia for "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp." How did you feel when they won? I was really happy for them. I felt a kinship with them because we were the dark horses, we were the unknown artists. And this was huge event in our lives. I was just happy for them, like they were brothers of mine. I have a real compassion for anyone who wants to make something, and all the doors don't just fly open for them. So I knew this was a huge step for them in their careers, and my immediate feeling was just joy.

Well, there were two times in the night when people were shocked: when Three 6 Mafia won, and then when Crash won Best Picture over Brokeback Mountain. Many gay people have been in mourning ever since Jack Nicholson read the word "Crash." I have to say, I haven't seen Brokeback yet. I've been writing a script, and I had to do some gigs for my album release, and I just haven't had time to see anything. I haven't seen Capote or Munich either. It's been hideous for me to go to these awards things and meet people like Ang Lee and Diana Ossana and to not have seen their film. If you want to catch up with me in a bit, I would love to talk about Brokeback, because I feel really strongly about gay issues. My brother [Tim Glavin] was a filmmaker, and he was gay. He made films when he was going to the American Film Institute, and his films had gay themes. He died of AIDS, and he was my dearest, dearest, dearest soul on the planet. It was the biggest loss of my life.

I'm sorry. Thank you. He had such courage to be making gay-themed films at the AFI--he probably made the first gay-themed film there. It was before any gay films were being made. So the fact that Brokeback was successful makes me wish that he was here to see it and makes me wish, for so many reasons, that he didn't pass away, because he would be making brilliant films today. He'd be one of the film directors that we would know about--he was really talented.

Now, I want to talk about your many interests. You're a singer-songwriter, an actress, and a screenwriter. Do you feel that music is now taking precedence in your life?My music has always been a priority. I've turned down millions and millions of dollars in acting work--and this is not an exaggeration--in order to make music. And strangely enough, I got nominated for an Oscar for my music because I took an acting job that I didn't really want. There was a guest-starring role on a television show [Family Law] that I auditioned for, and it turned out that the role was for a show that Paul Haggis was doing. It also turned out that he wanted me to do the songs for the series, and then he asked me to do the song for Crash. If somebody would have said, "You're going to be playing the mother of Siamese twins that are being separated, and that is how your music career is going to take off," I would have told them they were crazy!

Do you want to be a big music star? I'm not interested in being a big music star. I'm interested in making music that a lot of people reach for when they want to feel more of themselves. That's what I think music does. It makes you listen to it and feel more of who you are, whether it makes you want to get out on a dance floor or go make out with somebody.

The songs on Wicked Little High are very intense--the lyrics beautifully acknowledge and portray the complexities of life. Not a lot of artists go that deep with their lyrics. You know, I found my mom dead when I was 11 years old, and all bets were off. That'll do it. And then my father died a couple of years after that--I watched him slowly destroy himself with alcohol. That said, I have a raucous sense of humor, and I see the beauty and the frailty in everyone, and the wickedness of our egos. Everything's peeled back for me.

Are you aware of having gay and lesbian fans?No, I'm not, other than people that I know who are gay who come up to me and tell me they love my music. But I have to say, my orientation to going out to bars began with me hanging out in gay dance clubs in Chicago when I was 15 years old. That's where I'd be until 5 o'clock in the morning. I was a kid without a mom with an alcoholic father. I didn't fit in--I had just seen too much. I was taking care of the household completely, always cooking and cleaning, and my salvation was dancing. My girlfriend and I would get fake I.D.'s and go to the gay bars in Chicago. We didn't have to worry about guys hitting on us, although it was hard getting a drink, I'll say that much [laughs]. We would just dance and dance and dance, and the friends we made there were really our friends. It was pure and it was joy. I have always felt great affinity for gay people. And I have always felt a part of that world and of people who have been misunderstood and had to fight for who they are. I just get it.

30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff & Wayne Brady

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