Interview: Who Was Fran Landesman? from JazzWax


Last week, I posted on Stormy Emotions, the sterling new album by vocalist Sarah Moule and pianist-songwriter Simon Wallace. The husband-and-wife team not only have worked together since the early 1990s but they also were intimates of lyricist Fran Landesman and her husband, Jay, from the 1990s right up until the Landesmans’ deaths in 2011. Simon wrote songs with Landesman, and Sarah sang songs with Fran’s lyrics, including ones for which Simon wrote the music. [Photo above of Tommy Wolf and Fran Landesman]


You should know that Stormy Emotions will be released digitally on May 3. To mark the download’s release, Sarah and Simon are releasing a clutch of new videos. A Stormy Emotions Songbook also will be available on that date. Watch this space for more information. Sarah and Simon are also livestreaming weekly for a half hour on Sundays at Restream here. Sign up. It’s free. Or catch their Live on Sunday videos on YouTube a day later. [Photo above of Sarah Moule and Simon Wallace by Tom Oldham]

Long curious about Fran Landesman, I interviewed Sarah and Simon last week on the lyricist, why she and her husband, Jay Landesman, moved to London and how they managed to sustain an open marriage:

JazzWax: Sarah, when did you first meet Fran Landesman?

Sarah Moule: I must have met Fran in London at some point, since she was already living there since 1964, but I can’t recall. I do remember the first time I hung out with her. It was in New York in 1995 at the “Polish Tea Room,” as she called the cafe in the Edison Hotel on West 47 Street. By then, I had already met Simon two years earlier and we married in 2000.

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JW: Why were you and Simon with Landesman in New York?

SM: We were there for Rocco Landesman’s production of The Decline of The Middle West at The Supper Club. The show celebrated Fran’s lyrics and included several of Simon’s songs. Rocco is a long-time Broadway theater producer, of course, and the nephew of Jay Landesman, Fran’s husband. After opening night, everyone was at the Edison. I was seated at a table with the hip poet and playwright Arnold Weinstein and rock record producer John Simon. [Photo above, from left, of Fran Landesman, Jay Landesman and singer Jackie Cain]

JW: What was your impression of Fran?

SM: Fran and her coterie were a completely new milieu for me. I was just finding my way as a singer, unsure of where I might fit in with this group of worldly wise, outspoken Americans who had stories going back decades. She struck me as a spiky, fast thinker who didn’t suffer fools and liked to laugh.

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JW: Simon, Fran and her husband, Jay, were from St. Louis. How did they wind up living in London?

Simon Wallace: Jay was an incorrigible nihilist, so when his St Louis nightclub business started to go downhill in the early 1960s, he declared America to be a cultural wasteland. He decided that rather than return to New York, the Landesman family should relocate to a Greek island. Fran intervened, saying she would move to an island only if everybody there spoke English and she could pursue her songwriting career. [Photo above, from left, of Fran Landesman, Miles, Jay Landesman and Cosmoin the 1950s]

JW: What happened?

SW: A compromise was reached. In 1964, Jay and Fran and their two children moved to London just as the swinging ‘60s were taking off. After a few years, London became her home. Although she was born and raised in New York and loved the city, she never thought of moving back permanently. One of the last poems she wrote was what she used to call a ‘Jewish Haiku’—17 syllables, more or less: “Two rivers run through my life / Hudson and Thames / An ocean in-between.”

JW: Sarah, what was the extent of your professional relationship with Fran?

SM: In 1999, we were all in New York again. Simon was musical director for actress-singer Imelda Staunton’s one-woman show at The Firebird Café on West 46th Street. Fran, Jay and I came along to New York for fun. That’s when I first met bop signers Jackie Cain and Roy Kral and TV director Jim Harelson, who Fran later told me was one of the “sad young men” she had written about in the song, The Ballad of the Sad Young Men. The title was inspired by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s All the Sad Young Men, his third collection of short stories. In Fran’s lyrics, the sad young men were a group of guys who couldn’t quite grow up and move into adult life. After 1999, we did gigs at theaters and jazz clubs around the U.K. Fran would recite her poems and Simon and I would perform Fran and Simon’s songs. Fran was a big part of our lives.

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JW: Did you sense what made Landesman special as a lyricist?

SM: I first fell in love with Simon and then Fran’s songs as soon as Simon played them for me. They were exactly what I was looking for—contemporary, smart, attitudinal with a focus on modern life written in the jazz idiom. It was Simon’s music that got me. [Photo above of Fran Landesman]

JW: How so?

SM: The music allowed Fran’s lyrics to shine. As a singer, it’s the tune that always grabs me first and the harmonic twists that press my emotional buttons. Fran used modern language, vernacular wielded with craftsmanship, internal rhymes and honesty about myriad subjects: time, love, opportunities grasped and missed, regret, compassion, music, the creative process, bad behavior and the list goes on. After the music had hooked me, the words reeled me in. She was unafraid to reveal all sides of a situation or emotion. She could be pretty dark, but usually with a slice of humor to go with it. She lived the life she wrote about, so the lyrics always ring true.

JW: What was Fran Landesman like as a person?

SM: She was funny, generous, difficult, cranky and extreme. She was a great host and party-giver and was never boring. To me as someone who sang her words, she was unstintingly supportive. It was always nerve-wracking to sing Simon and Fran’s songs when she was there. This was true of her ‘list songs’ in particular could be really tricky to get right. A “list song” lists things that support the title—like Cole Porter’s You’re the Top or Tom Adair and Matt Dennis’s Everything Happens to Me. Fran told me that though she used to be hard on singers who fluffed her lyrics, once she started performing her own poetry in public she realized how hard it could be to remember all the words in the right order. She used to say, “The most erotic sound in the world is hearing my words in someone else’s mouth.”

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JW: Simon?

SW: Fran was definitely a force to be reckoned with. She had a razor-sharp wit and could have a harsh tongue. But above all, she was great fun to be around. The Landesmans were terrific hosts. Fran would cook dinner every night for whoever happen to be visiting. Even into her late 70s, there were regular, not-to-be-missed house parties. Over the years at Duncan Terrace in the Islington section of London, we got to hang out with some truly extraordinary people: Ken Kesey, Bob Dorough, Annie Ross and Larry Adler, to name a few. [Photo above of Fran Lendesman]

JW: What inspired her as a lyricist?

SW: When Fran was a girl, she had a book of English composer W.S. Gilbert’s libretti, which she came to love without ever hearing Sullivan’s music. This led her to read Charles Dickens and then Shakespeare, who were both major influences on her writing. She grew up in New York on Central Park West in the 1930s. Her family was well off, and her mother would take her to see the latest Broadway shows. She was especially fond of Irving Berlin and Cole Porter. In later years, she was a fan of both Bob Dylan and Stephen Sondheim, with whom she corresponded. When it came to poetry, she had great admiration for Philip Larkin and Emily Dickinson.

JW: How did she work?

SW: She wrote every day in a variety of notebooks and spent hours editing and honing the lyric or poem before copying it into a series of ledgers, which I now have. Her first songwriting partner, Tommy Wolf, described her as “writing with incredible speed in curious flashes of intense concentration, as a stenographer taking sudden, urgent dictation from a personal omnipotent muse.”

JW: How did you work together?

SW: With her collaborators, Fran tended to work the lyrics first. We would work on ideas separately and then get together every week to finalize a song we both liked. The motivation was always to entertain each other.

JW: Sarah, did Fran tell you how she wrote Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most?

SM: The title came from the first line of T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land: “April is the cruelest month…” Fran translated the line into ‘50s hip jazz speak and went from there. At the time, the Landesmans were living across the street from T.S. Eliot’s birthplace in St. Louis. Fran often used an event or a line of poetry as a starting point before going off on her own creative journey with words.

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JW: Fran wrote you a new verse to Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most, didn’t she?

SM: In 2005, I was due to sing Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most for a broadcast with the BBC Concert Orchestra. Weeks before the concert, I discussed the song with her. We agreed that some lines might have dated slightly. A few days later, she gave me a new verse to sing. I used it in the broadcast. Simon and I will finally record the song with that new verse this spring. [Photo above of Fran Landesman]

JW: Simon, who called her the “poet laureate of lovers and losers?”

SW: I don’t know who first said that, but when she asked Dudley Moore for a quote to put on one of her poetry books, he wrote back: “Say whatever you like and put my name to it.” So perhaps it was him.

JW: Sarah, did she have any regrets?

SM: Perhaps that she might have been overly optimistic at times. Fran was a great believer in defensive pessimism and thought that disasters such as nuclear war could only be averted by her worrying about them.

JW: Simon, did she think she should have been better known beyond the hip set?

SW: As her son, Cosmo, brutally pointed out in his memoir, Starstruck: Fame, Failure, My Family and Me, Fran did occasionally harbor unrealistic expectations of her media visibility, but at the same time she would never compromise her work or filter her opinions to help enable this. In her regular appearances on BBC radio, she was always trenchant and often controversial. In 1996, her choice of a luxury on the esteemed BBC show Desert Island Discs was a bag of cannabis seeds.

JW: Fran and Jay had an open marriage. How did they both decide that a such relationship was best?

SW: Fran and Jay’s open marriage did not go undocumented. In the end, she grew tired of talking about it. Suffice to say the arrangement was always to their mutual benefit. Fran was always keen to stress that the appeal of extramarital liaisons often extended beyond the bedroom and into the exploration of bookshelves and record collections.

JW: Sarah?

SM: I was always secretly relieved that Simon met Fran after she had assumed the persona of Granny Franny, having eschewed make up, amphetamines and affairs on the birth of her first grandchild. Fran and Jay remained very happily married right until the end in 2011. In their London home, Fran had a bedroom upstairs while Jay inhabited the basement, so they were always pleased to see each other. Every morning, they went out for breakfast together and every evening Fran cooked him dinner. She used to say, “I married you for better or worse but not for lunch.”

JazzWax clips: To listen to Fran’s appearance on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs, go here.

Here’s Sarah and Simon’s most recent installment of their Live on Sunday


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