Posted on February 25, 2012 at 11:53 am

I’ve been playing “Vienna” for a long time – it’s one of those songs that I can pull out at a piano bar or a party when it doesn’t feel like it’s the right kind of room to do one of my own songs. For that matter, it’s one of only two covers I’ve ever done in my concerts (the other is Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927”). (Well, there was also a concert at Birdland a couple of years ago where, at some point, I awoke as if from a dream and realized that I was leading a group singalong of “The Rainbow Connection.” It was like a collective psychotic break.) I didn’t plan on reinventing “Vienna” for this project; I was relieved to know that I had one of these songs in my bag already.

I recorded piano and vocal at the same time, assuming that I’d maybe need one take to warm up and then one take to nail it. But I kept stopping the computer mid-song; to my frustration, I found myself phrasing it by rote. The lyric is complicated – sometimes “you” is specific and sometimes it’s general, and the point of view seems to shift from sarcastic to sincere and back again – and I found myself surfing on the music rather than really riding the lyric. The challenge isn’t just to say the right words, obviously, it’s to mean them, and to make them make sense. Over and over again, I found myself falling into habit, singing without paying enough attention to the meaning of the lines. It turned out that having sung this song for so many years was as much a curse as it was a blessing – I had to rediscover what it meant to me.

In the middle of what must have been my eighth or ninth shot at it, I abruptly stopped playing any groove at all, and suddenly the song came into focus. The less I played, the more I connected. It still took two or three passes for me to shed twenty years of old phrasings, but what you hear in the version below is a single, unedited performance.

I find this happening with my own songs sometimes when I do them in concerts. I’ve sung “She Cries” so many times at this point that I can accidentally go on auto-pilot mid-phrase, and I have to force myself to snap back to the present. But having written those songs myself, it’s relatively easy to get back on the horse – I can remember why I chose certain words or chords or rhythms and play with that information. It was much harder dealing with a song in which someone else had made all of those choices. It’s a good reminder that the greatest actors and singers face this challenge all the time: how to interpret another person’s words night after night and still make them fresh and meaningful.

Music and lyric by Billy Joel (1977)
Jason Robert Brown: piano & vocal
Recorded live at Casa JRB, Los Angeles, CA, 2/24/12

Concert at Casa Mañana in Ft Worth TX tonight, and then I’m getting deep into writing The Bridges of Madison County and casting for Honeymoon In Vegas!