The versatile co-star of The Secret Life of the American Teenager talks about her love of music and her new jazz CD, “Except Sometimes.”
Actress-singer-writer Molly Ringwald
Tavis: I suspect no one of a certain age can forget Molly Ringwald in era-defining movies like “Pretty in Pink” and “The Breakfast Club,” but even when starring in those films, her first love was always music.
Now, she has just recorded her first-ever CD, a jazz album called “Except Sometimes,” which she says is a tribute to her jazz pianist father. Here’s just a small taste of what to expect. She’s singing the classic “Sooner or Later.”
Tavis: Molly, good to have you back.
Molly Ringwald: Thank you. Good to be here.
Tavis: Every time you appear anywhere, the introduction, I suspect, is similar to the one you just heard.
Tavis: The movies. You ever get tired of hearing that? Do people let you grow up? I mean, you are grown, obviously.
Ringwald: Well, it happens whether you let them or not. (Laughter) But yeah, it depends on the day. I think fortunately I’m proud of those films. It would be a real bummer if I was known for something that I really didn’t like. But I think I’m really happy with the stuff that I’m doing now, and if those films bring people to listen to a jazz album when they wouldn’t ordinarily listen to a jazz album, I think that’s okay.
Tavis: When you look back on those films now – I’ve talked to so many – I’ve been fortunate over these 10 years on PBS and even prior to talk to so many artists, music artists. James Taylor, for example, since we’re talking music, James Taylor comes to mind.
I had JT on this program once. He’s been on a number of times, but once I recall having a conversation on this set. We talked about how stuff that he had written 20, 30 years ago has different meaning to him now than it did back then.
I raise that to ask whether or not when you look back on the films of years ago, whether or not you see stuff now then that you didn’t see then, or think stuff now that you didn’t think then?
Ringwald: Well, I watched “Pretty in Pink” for the first time last week with my nine-year-old daughter.
Tavis: Just last week?
Ringwald: Just last week.
Ringwald: And I actually didn’t plan it, but nine-year-olds, 10-year-olds are really going through what young teenagers were going through in my day. Everything’s skewed a little bit younger.
Tavis: Does that scare you as a mom?
Ringwald: Yeah, of course, but it’s just something that I have to contend with. I was seeing her go through some issues with kids that were older and mean girls and popularity and all that stuff, and I thought, God, I’d really love to have a movie that I can show here where there’s a strong female protagonist and she’s an outlier but she has a strong core, and she fights against – and I thought, oh, I made that movie. (Laughter)
I made that movie. So I thought there’s no better movie to watch with her, and it was great. I think it really actually helped her, and that’s the first time that I really felt the impact, I think. Because I didn’t experience those movies the way that other experienced them because I was in them, so it was the closest thing, I think, to really appreciating them in that way.
Tavis: That’s a great story, though.
Tavis: That your daughter ends up –
Tavis: Wow, that’s cool. Speaking of the movies, John Hughes – this is I guess my phrase, not yours, but I suspect you may not disagree. You were like his muse. As you look back on that experience, now that he’s no longer with us, what do you make of that relationship?
Ringwald: It was amazing at the time. It was incredibly flattering, and we also really connected, I think, on a deep level. We were born the same day, February 18th, 18 years apart. There was something that seemed sort of cosmic and pre-destined, if you will.
But it was a really great relationship. I think he taught me a lot, and I’m really glad that I was his muse rather than someone else.
Tavis: So what was happening with this love for music that was, I guess at that moment, at least, somewhat suppressed because the acting thing was out front.
Ringwald: Kind of took over.
Ringwald: Well, I kept singing. I just didn’t do it publicly, really. I would sing here and there, I would always sing with my dad. I’ve always done a few tracks on my dad, Bob Ringwald’s, albums.
But I just – at that time, unlike nowadays where every young Disney teen star is expected to sing and dance and act and be a pop star, and then before me, in the golden age of musicals, everybody sang and danced and act.
But when I was coming up and doing movies, there weren’t that many people that were doing both, and I felt like I had to make a choice. Also, the music that I liked to sing, which was jazz, I didn’t think that there was any way that I was going to be able to make a career out of that.
Then along came people like Diana Krall, Norah Jones, and Jane Monheit, and proved me wrong. But I’m glad to be able to come back to it now. I think it was the right time for me.
Tavis: Speaking of the right time, the difference between you and those persons you just mentioned – Norah Jones and Diana Krall and others – is that they did not have another box they had to break out of.
Ringwald: That’s true.
Tavis: Put another way, they didn’t have to convince the public to take them seriously in this lane.
Ringwald: That’s true.
Tavis: Where the public had only seen them run previously in this lane.
Ringwald: That’s true.
Tavis: You’re not the first actor to have to deal with this, to say you know what, I am, fortunately I’m multitalented, I can act and I can sing. Tell me about the journey, the decision process, I’m asking now, about doing this, and whether or not any of those thoughts about the push-back that you might get – if not push-back, the way you had to work to convince people that you really could sing. Did that in any factor in?
Ringwald: I think you can either sing or you can’t.
Ringwald: The moment you open your mouth, you pretty much know. Anybody can do a recording. They use devices to change their pitch and make them sound better than they are, but you have to tour your album eventually, and people are going to figure it out, if you can sing or you can’t.
So I never really worried so much about that. I think we do live in a very specialized society, where once you think about somebody as one thing, it’s hard to change that. But I do a lot of things. I act, I write, I sing.
Tavis: You raise kids.
Ringwald: I raise kids. (Laughter) Three. I was sitting the other day thinking in three years, I’ve written two books, had two kids, and done a jazz album, which is a lot to do in three years. But anyway, what was your question? Oh, oh –
Tavis: No, you answered it.
Ringwald: I answered it? Good, okay. (Laughter)
Tavis: I’ll move on to the next one.
Ringwald: Okay. (Laughter)
Tavis: That comes to mind now, which is you referenced your dad earlier. Of course, those of us who are jazz lovers –
Tavis: – know your dad, Bob Ringwald, is a great artist himself. Obviously your dad has an impact you. When you live with a guy who’s an artist, it jumps on you.
Tavis: But tell me more about the relationship that you’ve had with your dad over the years where the music is concerned.
Ringwald: Well, I think it’s really – I’m very, very close with my dad. Both my parents, but my dad and I have always been extremely close, and I think it really is because of the music. Once he figured out that I could sing, which was actually because of my mom – my mom heard me singing to the animals, sort of hypnotizing all of the animals, before I could go to school, and she –
Tavis: At what age was this?
Ringwald: This was just about three.
Ringwald: It was before I was in school.
Ringwald: She told my father, and my dad didn’t believe her at first. Then she said, “No, come on, listen to her,” and so he checked it out and he thought oh, wow, she really can sing.
So we started to work together, and he started to teach me songs, and I had already been listening to jazz all the time, because that was just the music that was played in the house, and I had a special fondness for Bessie Smith. That was my favorite.
Tavis: Do you know why? Her style is unique, obviously. What was it about that style that attracted you as a kid?
Ringwald: I just liked the songs. I liked “Give Me a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer,” and “Nobody Knows You when You’re Down and Out,” and those were the songs that I (laughter) just really responded to.
When I was six, we had a report that we had to do in school on famous Americans, and all the girls were picking Florence Nightingale and Clara Barton and all the boys were picking George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, and I picked Bessie Smith. There was a piano in the classroom, so I brought my dad, and you had to dress up like her, and I sang “Give Me a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer.” (Laughter) Which they’re still talking about –
Ringwald: – in Sacramento. (Laughter) I don’t know, there was just something about that music. Even now, even though the music that I sing on this album is more modern than my father’s taste in music, that’s really my first love – traditional jazz.
Tavis: Yeah. When do you recall the first time was it you performed publicly with your father? The classroom – I guess the classroom is public to some degree, but I mean on stage somewhere with your dad.
Ringwald: The first, my first performance was in front of the California State Fair at three and a half, and I sang “You Gotta See Your Mama Every Night, or You Can’t See Your Mama at All,” and I remember it vividly.
Tavis: Three and a half.
Ringwald: Three and a half, yeah.
Tavis: When you developed a love of jazz for yourself – it’s like my mom and I were talking not too long ago, and different subject, but you’ll get my point. We were talking about the fact that when you’re a child in my house, the house I grew up in, we were a very spiritual family.
It’s one thing to lean on your mom and dad’s relationship with God, and at some point you had to develop your own relationship in your own life, when you start going through things on your own.
So it’s one thing to be introduced to jazz by your father, but at some point, you develop your own love and affinity for it. You made the point a moment ago that what’s on this project is a little different than what your dad’s tastes are. Tell me about the evolution, though, of developing your own unique style and taste and affinity for your brand of jazz.
Ringwald: Well, I think it really came from my love of vocalists. Once I moved on from Bessie Smith, I discovered Ella Fitzgerald, and she just had a huge impact on me. Ella recorded everything – every great song of the American songbook, I think Ella Fitzgerald probably recorded.
She was really, I think, the first person that really got me into vocalists. My dad, because he’s a pianist, he really approaches everything very much from a musical side. Sometimes he doesn’t even hear the lyrics.
But me, because I’m an actress and a writer, I think I approach everything as character. What are they saying? What do the lyrics mean? So for me, I can’t’ really sing a song unless I really connect with the lyrics.
So all of these songs that I sing are considered from the Great American Songbook, and there’s just nothing like that, singing these beautiful – nobody writes like that today.
Tavis: Yeah. You’ve said two things I want to go back and pick up right quick. One of them is how you perceive, because that’s all that really matters here, how you perceive how the acting experience and artistry gives you a different way of getting at interpreting the lyrical content.
Any good artist is going to have his or her own way of interpreting it, but I heard that point you made about the fact that you see it a little bit differently, because you are into character.
Tavis: So when you’re on stage and you’re singing this, how does the acting experience work in terms of the interpretation of the lyric?
Ringwald: Well that’s the thing, is I think Ella was just about as close as you could get to a perfect instrument, musically. She was just phenomenal. But later, I got into singers that weren’t as perfect, but had maybe more, what I perceived as more emotion in the voice – Billie Holiday, for instance, Blossom Dearie, who had almost no range, but what she did with it, Susannah McCorkle later.
I think I really approach singing like that. I have a trained voice, I’ve been singing for a long time, but when I’m singing, I don’t really think about that side of it. I’m just thinking about the lyrics and what they mean, and what they mean to me.
That is the way that I approach acting, and always have. For instance, there’s a song on the album that’s called “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” and the album is called “Except Sometimes.” The reason why the album is called “Except Sometimes” is because Hoagy Carmichael wrote that song –
Tavis: From Indiana, by the way.
Ringwald: From Indiana.
Tavis: I’m from Indiana (unintelligible).
Ringwald: Somebody at Indiana University gave him a poem that was called “Except Sometimes,” and he adapted the song from this poem, and he adapts it pretty faithfully. It’s really based on this poem. But when it came time to publish the song, he had no idea who wrote the poem, and they had to go on this big search, pre-Internet, pre-Facebook.
He enlisted the help of Walter Winchell to say, “If you wrote this poem, please let it be known, and your Uncle Hoagy can make you famous.” (Laughter) It turned out to be this woman named Jane Brown Thompson, who was a widow from Philadelphia, which when you know the story, it makes those lyrics so much more meaningful.
Because the lyrics of the song are “I get along without you very well, except for” this time, except for that – “Except when soft rains fall and I recall.” So I think it’s knowing things like that, really breaking down a song and thinking about the lyrics that I think really inform my singing style a lot.
Tavis: Speaking of the personal touch to songs and to lyrics, there are a couple of things on here that stand out for me in terms of tracks. One of the tracks features the voices of your baby on your CD.
Ringwald: (Laughs) Yes, outro giggle.
Ringwald: That’s “Exactly Like You.” I recorded this when my twins were six months old, and that was the song that really helped put him to sleep. He just loved that song, so when we went into the studio and everything was finished, I said, “He really has to be a part of the song.”
So we brought him in and set up a mic and tickled him, and we got that great giggle.
Tavis: Whenever I think of babies on songs, Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely,” like –
Ringwald: “Isn’t She Lovely,” of course.
Tavis: – you can’t beat that. (Laughter) It’s like –
Ringwald: Just makes you happy.
Tavis: It does, absolutely. But the baby’s voice just does it for me. Aisha’s, I should say. She’s no longer a baby. I saw her in a restaurant the other day. She ain’t a baby no more. (Laughter) Hi, Aisha.
Having said that, another track on here you bring “The Breakfast Club” soundtrack back.
Ringwald: That’s right.
Tavis: I’ll let you talk about it, but the way you – your song styling, the way you treat that song, is different than we heard it on the movie, of course.
Ringwald: Yeah, well, I don’t see any point in doing a cover of a song exactly the way the song was done in the first place. I did record this album really not that long after John Hughes had passed away, and he was in my mind a lot.
I wanted to do some sort of tribute to him, and I really have to credit my pianist and arranger, Peter Smith, for that, because I didn’t even know if it was possible. I said, “I’d really love to do a jazz ballad of ‘Don’t You Forget About Me,'” and we just sat and started working on it, but he was really the one that that came up with those beautiful chords.
It turned out really well. A lot of people, when they hear I, can’t – especially when I sing it in front of a crowd of people, a lot of times people don’t know what song it is. They know that they know it.
Tavis: I’ve heard that somewhere before, yeah.
Ringwald: Where is it, where is it, yeah. But now it’s been publicized, and now more people know about it.
Tavis: How did you – this is a question that you could ask of any artist, and I have, how they went about deciding what the content was going to be on the project.
But that question is particularly interesting for me where your project is concerned, because it is your first project, and it is Molly Ringwald singing and not acting, and it is jazz, and they are standards. So how did you go – what was the process that you went through for deciding what you were going to put on your very first project?
Ringwald: Well first I have to correct you – it’s my second album. (Laughs)
Tavis: It’s your second project, that’s true.
Ringwald: It’s my second album. I did one when I was six years old with my dad.
Tavis: Excuse me, Molly Ringwald. (Laughter)
Ringwald: But this is my first –
Tavis: Technically, it’s the second album, yeah. (Laughter)
Ringwald: This was my first jazz album as an adult.
Ringwald: I think the way –
Tavis: I love it when guests correct me. This will be Molly’s last time on this show, (laughter) so please enjoy these next six minutes of Molly Ringwald on “Tavis Smiley.” You were saying, Molly Ringwald?
Ringwald: I think the way that I really went about choosing the songs were these are songs that I’ve always loved. I also, since I knew that it was going to be songs from the Great American Songbook, with the exception of “Don’t You Forget About Me,” I wanted to pick ones that weren’t recorded quite as much.
They are standards, but usually when somebody does a standards album, there’s always “Embraceable You,” there’s always –
Tavis: The typicals, yeah.
Ringwald: – “My Funny Valentine.” They’re wonderful songs and that’s why everyone wants to record them, because they’re so beautiful, but I tried to pick ones like “The Ballad of the Sad Young Men” or “I Get Along Without You Very Well,” ones that haven’t been heard quite as much.
A little bit more obscure, but still really beautiful. Then also I tried to pick songs that just the whole band loved, because sometimes I’ll love a song, but it just doesn’t jell together with the group, and these were ones that just seemed great all around.
Tavis: Given that your dad has been, for so many years, a band leader, how did you go about, and what advice or help did he give you in creating your own band, putting your own band together.
Ringwald: My dad has always just had a lot of faith in me as an artist and as a person, and he doesn’t really dispense with a lot of advice when it comes to the music. He’s taught me a lot over the years, but when I was taking on this project he’s really hands-off about that. He just appreciates what I’ve done and is very supportive, and of course really proud.
Tavis: Since you said proud, I was just about to ask how it – I ostensibly know the answer to this question, but I’m going to ask anyway because I want you just to kind of color it in for me.
How important was it, is it, for your dad to have really liked this? Would you have been okay if your dad hadn’t like it? You said earlier that the stuff that you do on this isn’t really his first love, but how important was your dad’s stamp of approval on this when it was done?
Ringwald: I would like to say as an adult that I would have been fine if he didn’t like it, but I wouldn’t be telling the truth. (Laughter) I think I should have been okay, whether or not he liked it, but having his stamp of approval on it is incredibly meaningful for me.
He’s also really honest. The only song that he was a little iffy about, actually, was the “Don’t You Forget About Me,” just because he wasn’t a fan of the song in the first place, and he couldn’t figure out why I recorded it.
When I sent it – he was the only person that I would send track by track, and he said, “What’s this song?” I said, “Dad, it’s from ‘The Breakfast Club.'” (Laughter) “Oh, yeah, oh, God, wow, I can’t believe you made that out of that.” Like, that’s my dad.
His favorite song is “The Ballad of the Sad Young Men.” He really, really loves that song. But it’s really exciting to be able to sit with my dad and say, “Oh, God, love that baseline, love what Trevor’s doing there,” or “Like oh, wow, what Clayton Cameron,” with tom-toms. It’s really exciting to be able to do that.
Tavis: It’s clear to the person watching this program at home that you have a love of the music, and not just a love of it but an appreciation for the artistry of it, and you know the history of it.
Tavis: You know the history of jazz. You’re really into this. Which leads me to ask other than your father, whether or not any of the greats that you have mentioned in this conversation tonight, or haven’t mentioned, you ever got a chance to meet and/or perform with.
Ringwald: Well –
Tavis: Because stars meet stars all the time.
Ringwald: Yeah. I’m trying to think. I got to –
Tavis: Did you ever meet Ella Fitzgerald, even.
Ringwald: I had tickets to go see Ella Fitzgerald at the Hollywood Bowl and ended up being subpoenaed by the government for one of the first hacking cases, about somebody had hacked into my phone line.
I couldn’t get out of it because I was subpoenaed, and I said, “But don’t you realize I have tickets to see Ella Fitzgerald at the Hollywood Bowl? Can’t I come another time? I don’t care about this hacking case,” and I couldn’t, so I missed the tickets and she passed away not that long after.
So I didn’t get to meet Ella. I did get to meet people like Eubie Blake, because my dad was one of the –
Tavis: Great pianist, yeah.
Ringwald: – one of the people that helped found the Sacramento Jazz Festival. So Eubie Blake was there and people like Barney Bigard and Nick Fatool, a drummer. There’s a picture of me singing, standing on a chair with – and apparently one of the few pictures where Nick Fatool was ever smiling in a picture.
Ringwald: So I got to meet a lot of those people even before I really knew who they were, and then, of course, I’ve seen people. I got to see Blossom Dearie before she passed away, and Cab Calloway. I saw him at the Blue Note.
Tavis: So the music is beautiful, and I’m glad that you are out with this. I assume, given that you’re on the show talking about it, that you’re happy with your first project.
Ringwald: I am.
Tavis: Excuse me – your second project. (Laughter)
Ringwald: There’s always things you hear where you wish that you would have done this differently or oh, why did I take that note instead of that note, but I think yeah, I am really proud of it. I’m proud that I had the idea to do it and that I completed it, and I’m really proud that Concord Jazz picked it up.
Tavis: Yeah, that’s a big deal. That’s a big deal.
Ringwald: Because that’s a pretty amazing label to be on.
Tavis: This could have been self-distributed.
Ringwald: This could have been, yeah.
Tavis: But Concord Jazz, that’s beautiful. That’s a beautiful thing.
Tavis: The acting is still coming – how’s the TV show coming?
Ringwald: The acting is still going. I’m finished with the television show.
Tavis: You’re finished, okay.
Ringwald: I’m developing another one.
Tavis: Oh, cool.
Ringwald: And I’m working on writing my second novel. And did I mention those three kids? (Laughter)
Ringwald: Got my hands full.
Tavis: No grass growing under your feet, yeah.
Ringwald: But I – no. But I’m going to be touring this album this year, and I’ll be in Australia in June, touring, and I’m going to do the Montréal Jazz Festival in July.
Tavis: Wow. So you’ll be out there.
Ringwald: I’ll be out there.
Tavis: So Molly Ringwald’s going to be out there, so you’ll want to see her and judge for yourself how good she sounds. It is her second project. (Laughter) It’s called “Molly Ringwald, Except Sometimes.” Some wonderful jazz stuff here, including, of course, some standards.
Molly, congratulations and I’m glad to have had you back on the program.
Ringwald: Thank you for having me.
Tavis: Good to see you. Have a great time on the tour.
Ringwald: Thank you.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for joining us, as always. Until next time, keep the faith.
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