The Grammy Award-winning vocalist offers the backstory to her book, Emotional Memoirs and Short Stories.
Singer-songwriter-author Lani Hall AlpertOriginally aired on December 10, 2013
Tavis: Grammy-winning singer Lani Hall Alpert began writing lyrics for songs more than 40 years ago, when she was first singing with Sergio Mendes’s group Brasil 66. Since then, she of course has gone on to record dozens of albums with her husband of nearly 40 years now, Herb Alpert.
What is probably less known is that she has always continued to write prose as well as lyrics, and now some of her short stories and essays are gathered for a new tome, entitled “Emotional Memoirs and Short Stories.” Lani, good to have you on this program.
Lani Hall Alpert: It’s such a pleasure to see you.
Tavis: Speaking of pleasure, this was such a surprise to me. I did not know, and we’ve hung out a few times here and there, but I didn’t know that you were, like, a writer of short stories.
Tavis: I know your lyrical stuff, but I didn’t know –
Alpert: Just for 30 years, that’s all. (Laughter)
Tavis: Yeah, I’m slow catching up, I’m slow catching up. How and when did this start for you, the idea of writing short stories?
Alpert: Well, I always wrote. I wrote lyrics and poems, and in the early ’80s I started writing short stories. The first story in the book, “Come Rain or Come Shine,” was the first short story I wrote.
I really enjoyed the process, and so I would write a story and put it in my drawer, and write another story and keep putting them in my drawer. I really wasn’t thinking of what to do with these stories until about a year and a half ago.
A friend of mine was sick, and I thought that she might like a story that I wrote about me being sick. So I gave it to her, and she was so encouraging to me that it inspired me to re-examine what I had written and to try to put them together.
When I discovered writing the narrative that connects all the stories, it made sense to me. That was kind of the clincher for me.
Tavis: How would you describe the distinct difference – I assume distinct difference – for you of writing song lyrics and short stories?
Alpert: Well, song lyrics are – my song lyrics are more abstract, and sometimes I can hear one of the songs I wrote and I’m not exactly sure what I’m trying to say here. (Laughter) But they’re pretty abstract.
The short stories are not abstract. There’s some – there’s a little give in there when it comes to ambiguity and what really happened, was this character dreaming, or did she really murder this person?
Tavis: You do mix the two.
Tavis: You mix fiction –
Alpert: Fiction and nonfiction
Tavis: – and reality, yeah.
Alpert: Yes, I did. I enjoyed that. It gave me an opportunity to put pieces of myself in the fictional stories, and it was exciting to me to have these conversations with these characters and see where they were going.
It’s very much like singing jazz. It’s very improvisational, and I just kind of let the story take me.
Tavis: Why just pieces? There is another option here – you could have gone full-force in one direction.
Alpert: I did in three stories, and in the narrative. There’s seven short stories that are fiction, so I just played around with it.
Tavis: The first story, as you mentioned, when I got into it a couple of days ago, it was clear to me pretty quickly that Chicago, your hometown, is as much a character in your work as is the other living, breathing individuals who you write in as characters
Alpert: I had no idea. I had no idea. I had no idea that the light in Chicago was so specific and so locked in me until I started writing about it. I was very surprised to be writing so much about Chicago.
Tavis: Why were you surprised by that?
Alpert: I didn’t really – I wasn’t that conscious of it being, having such an effect on me in my life, and –
Tavis: Positive or negative?
Alpert: Oh, very positive. Very positive. I really kind of adopted the city as a family, and those buildings meant something to me. The strength of those buildings with the wind whipping them day after day, that they still stood was inspiring for me to see and to be around.
The architecture, the trees, the constant season changes, the changes in the city. It was dependable for me.
Tavis: When did you make the decision – you told me a bit of this earlier, but I want to go back to this – when did you make a decision that you had written enough of these to string them together for a text?
Alpert: When I started writing the narrative, and I realized that I could relate all the narrative to each story. It just came together in this piece, this single piece, and it just felt like it was finished when I –
Tavis: I’m curious – do you see yourself now as a writer, or are these just Lani’s expressions? I’m asking that because if you see yourself as a writer, then I suspect there might be more of this to come, as opposed to these are some things that I thought about, I wanted to get out of me, and this is what it turned out to be.
Alpert: Well, there’s that aspect too. It is about getting it out of me, or else they just keep winding around in there. This is a way to release them. But I’ve always written. Singing and writing have been best friends to me, so I can’t really imagine not doing that.
Tavis: What does the writing specifically – we’ve talked about your singing before, but what does the writing do for you? When you say they’re two of your best friends, what do you get out of that friendship?
Alpert: Well I get a lot of nurturing, and I get understanding. They both listen to me. Writing is very much like singing. When I sing a song, I see the lyric in front of me. I can see it visually.
When I write, it’s like I’m watching a movie and I’m just writing what I’m seeing. It empties these ghosts that walk around inside of me, and part of it is the imagination that I inherited. I have a very vivid imagination and an active mind, so it’s moving all the time.
Tavis: That always helps for a writer.
Alpert: Yeah, it does.
Tavis: You suggested a moment ago that as your friend, the writings listen to you.
Tavis: Let me flip that. Do the writings ever speak to you?
Alpert: The writings clarify what I’m thinking. I don’t really know fully how I feel about something until I’m either singing about it or I’m writing about it. Then I understand more. It draws me to the conclusion, and that’s exciting.
Tavis: In the time I have left, I’m going to put you on the spot and ask you to pick one of these and just tell me about the story. We don’t want to give the whole book away, but pick one of these short stories that is really – they’re all meaningful; that’s especially meaningful for you, and just talk to me about the story.
Alpert: Well –
Tavis: I’ve read it, but talk to the viewer about the story here.
Alpert: I think that the first story that comes to mind is “Inland,” which is the last story in the book. Most of the stories in the book are about women who just can’t continue doing what they’ve always done, and they just don’t know how to define themselves anymore.
They don’t know how to find their truth and find their own voice. This last story, which is about me being sick, having Epstein-Barr virus in the ’90s and having to stop singing and what that was like.
Also too I had breast implants that I felt were making me sick, and then I had them removed without anesthesia. (Laughter) Because I was so afraid that the anesthesia would start a whole other problem in me.
But that story comes to mind because in that story, I find my voice. I find my truth. I start asking myself – instead of all these doctors, what’s wrong with me and how can you help me.
No one could, and so I started to ask myself, and I started to get answers. To me, it was a very hopeful time in a very dark place. So that’s one of the stories.
Tavis: Is it your hope or your expectation that people will be able to situate themselves in your narrative?
Alpert: Sure. I think that’s why –
Tavis: I think every writer sort of wants that.
Alpert: – artists do what they do, I think, just to connect. That connection is everything. That’s the whole purpose.
Tavis: The book is called “Emotional Memoirs and Short Stories,” the first but not the last from Lani Hall Alpert. Wonderful collection, and I think, as we said a moment ago, you will be able to in fact situate yourself in the narrative.
Lani, congratulations, and I suspect we may be seeing you again in the future with another one of these.
Alpert: Thank you so much, Tavis.
Tavis: Good to see you, and tell Herb we said hello.
Alpert: I will.
Tavis: All right. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching. As always, keep the faith.
“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
[Walmart sponsor ad]
“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.