Kristin Chenoweth Is Doing It 'For The Girls'

Sep 27, 2019
Originally published on September 30, 2019 12:14 pm

With nearly 30 years in show business, Kristin Chenoweth has won an Emmy and a Tony Award for both her singing and acting. In one of her most famous roles, she sang her way through Oz in a story about sisterhood — the award-winning musical Wicked. Still, Chenoweth says some people are surprised to learn that she's a singer.

"It's so funny when people come up to me and they're like, 'Oh, I didn't know you sang.' And I'm like, 'What?!,'" Chenoweth says.

So, it felt appropriate that Chenoweth's latest album, called For The Girls, honors all the singers that have shaped Chenoweth as a performer. On the album, Chenoweth covers songs originally recorded by women who inspire her and in some cases, those women even join her on the tracks.

Chenoweth puts her own spin on classics from all across the pop music sphere — from Doris Day's "When I Fall In Love" to Barbra Streisand's "The Way We Were." Across the album's 12 tracks, there many duets, but Chenoweth says she didn't set out to make this a duets album.

"It started evolving," she says. "I said, 'You know, Steve [Tyrell], if it's going to be for the girls, I've got to have some of my favorite singers on there."

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One of the album's standouts, "I'm A Woman" — originally popularized by Peggy Lee — features guest vocals from Jennifer Hudson and Reba McEntire. Chenoweth says she directed each woman to put their own spin on their verse regardless of what the arrangement called for.

"You know what? I don't know how it worked but it did," Chenoweth says. "With three different voices, it just goes to show you there are no more rules anymore."

Chenoweth counts her duet with Dolly Parton on the song "I Will Always Love You" as one of her proudest accomplishments with this album — "I get goose bumps and I start to cry still," she says with a laugh.

"When I first met her many, many years ago, she said 'I'm like you and you're like me' and I was like 'What?!'," Chenoweth remembers. "And I thought, Well, I'm definitely lacking a couple things that we can't mention [laughs] but she was so very kind and I thought if I ever got to sing with her I'd want to sing that song but I never thought she'd give it to me. And she said yes."

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For The Girls, out now, marks Chenoweth's third album under Concord Records. The artist spoke with NPR's Ari Shapiro about collecting voices from cross generations for the album, jumping out of her comfort zone and adapting classic songs into her own. Hear their conversation at the audio link.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Kristin Chenoweth has won an Emmy and a Tony. She's been in movies and hosted awards shows, and of course, she sings - although some people aren't aware of that.

KRISTIN CHENOWETH: It's so funny when people come up to me, and they're like, oh, I didn't know you sang. I'm like, what?

SHAPIRO: Really? (Laughter).

CHENOWETH: Oh, yeah. They know me from different things, you know? You never know how people are going to recognize you or what they know you from.

SHAPIRO: In one of her most famous roles, she sang her way through Oz in a story about sisterhood, the musical "Wicked."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FOR GOOD")

CHENOWETH: (Singing) Because I knew you...

KRISTIN CHENOWETH AND IDINA MENZEL: (Singing) ...I have been changed for good.

SHAPIRO: So it feels appropriate that, more than 15 years later, Kristin Chenoweth's new album is called "For The Girls." She covers classic songs originally recorded by women who inspired her. In some cases, those women even join her on the tracks.

CHENOWETH: I didn't set out to make a, like, quote-unquote, "female-empowered" album; it just began to evolve that way. And Steve Tyrell, I said, you know, Steve, this is just turning out to be for the women. And he's my producer. He sounds - he's got, like, a really gruff voice - Memphis boy. And he goes, ah, you know what it is? It's for the girls, man. It's for the girls.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

CHENOWETH: And I said, you're right; it is for the girls. And it's for the men. You know, for me, my dad was such a strong influence in my life, with giving me self-esteem and - you know, who cares if a man sang the song, or who cares if you're petite and 4'11"? Who cares if you sound like you sucked helium? Go for it. You know, he was that guy. So I looked at it as, not only is it for the girls, but it's for the men who love us, too.

SHAPIRO: And it's not a duets album, per se, but there are a lot of duets on it.

CHENOWETH: Yeah. Yeah.

SHAPIRO: Was that part of the concept from the beginning?

CHENOWETH: No. I'm telling you, it started evolving. And then I said, you know, Steve, it's going to - if it's going to be for the girls, I've got to have some of my favorite singers on there. And I thought, I want to do that with - because I'm a woman, and so I asked Jennifer Hudson and Reba McEntire to join me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M A WOMAN (FEAT. JENNIFER HUDSON & REBA MCENTIRE)")

JENNIFER HUDSON: (Singing) 'Cause I'm a woman...

KRISTIN CHENOWETH AND REBA MCENTIRE: (Singing) Woman.

HUDSON: (Singing) ...W-O-M-A-N. Say it again. Say it again now, y'all.

SHAPIRO: On paper, it sounds like a wild lineup - you, Jennifer Hudson and Reba McEntire. Tell me about those - that trio. I mean, what was that like?

CHENOWETH: Well, what I said to J-Hud (ph) is, I want you to just do J-Hud. I want you to do your version of this, your verse. And I said to Reba, I want you to do Reebs (ph). I just want you to do Reba McEntire, the great vocalist. And you know what? I don't know how it worked, but it did. It did.

SHAPIRO: It sure did.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M A WOMAN (FEAT. JENNIFER HUDSON & REBA MCENTIRE)")

CHENOWETH: (Singing) I got a $20 gold piece that says there ain't nothing I can't do.

HUDSON: (Singing) I can make a dress out of a feed bag and make a man out of you.

CHENOWETH: (Singing) 'Cause I'm a woman.

KRISTIN CHENOWETH, JENNIFER HUDSON AND REBA MCENTIRE: (Singing) W-O-M-A-N.

REBA MCENTIRE: (Singing) I'll say it again.

CHENOWETH: I love it.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

CHENOWETH: With three different voices, it just goes to show you there are no more rules anymore.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

CHENOWETH: Why not? Why shouldn't there be three girls who love to sing on a song and bound together by music?

SHAPIRO: The first track from this album that I heard randomly came on my Spotify when I was on summer vacation driving through Oregon, and I was like, wait - am I hearing what I think I'm hearing right now?

CHENOWETH: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WILL ALWAYS LOVE YOU (FEAT. DOLLY PARTON)")

CHENOWETH: (Singing) Bittersweet...

DOLLY PARTON: (Singing) Bittersweet...

CHENOWETH: (Singing) ...Memories...

PARTON: (Singing) ...Memories...

KRISTIN CHENOWETH AND DOLLY PARTON: (Singing) That is all...

SHAPIRO: I literally pulled over the car to look at my phone and figure out if this was indeed a Kristin Chenoweth-Dolly Parton duet of "I Will Always Love You." And sure enough, it was.

CHENOWETH: (Laughter) It was. I'm still like - when I hear it, I get goosebumps, and I start to cry still.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

CHENOWETH: I was raised on country music and gospel music. There's something about Dolly that - well, for everybody; not just me - that I have connected with. And when I first met her many, many years ago, she said, you're me and - I'm like you, and you're like me.

SHAPIRO: Wow.

CHENOWETH: And I said, I know.

SHAPIRO: What an honor...

CHENOWETH: I know. I know. I was like, wait - what?

SHAPIRO: ...To have a legend say that about you (laughter).

CHENOWETH: I know. And I thought, well, I'm definitely lacking a couple of things that we can't mention, but...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

CHENOWETH: She was so very kind, and I thought if I ever got to sing with her, I'd want to sing that song, but I never thought she'd give it to me. And she said yes.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WILL ALWAYS LOVE YOU (FEAT. DOLLY PARTON)")

CHENOWETH AND PARTON: (Singing) And I - I will always love you. I will always love you.

SHAPIRO: And as accomplished as you are, when you're recording an immortal song with a legend like Dolly Parton, is there any part of you that's still just, like, terrified, intimidated, weak in the knees, what am I doing here?

CHENOWETH: Yeah. My challenge was to get over my nerves with her, you know, to get over my worship of her so that I could sing. And tip my hat to her, but also do me, you know.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

CHENOWETH: When I heard it, I did the ugly cry. I was in Atlanta, on set, and I'm bawling - bawling.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) And the makeup people are freaking out because you're ruining the...

CHENOWETH: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: Right (laughter).

CHENOWETH: She's definitely my favorite, so...

SHAPIRO: Yeah. The people you collaborate with on this album range in age from Dolly in her 70s to Ariana Grande in her 20s.

CHENOWETH: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: I know you're a mentor to her. Do you think that recording with people of different generations, different aesthetics and their different styles bring something different to a recording like this?

CHENOWETH: Yes. We know Ariana Grande is one of the best, most popular and incredible singers on the planet alive today. So what I did is I had it fully orchestrated, and then I added an electric guitar in there. So it sounds Ariana, and it sounds Kristin.

SHAPIRO: Let's listen to a little bit of this track that you recorded with her - "You Don't Own Me."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU DON'T OWN ME (FEAT. ARIANA GRANDE)")

CHENOWETH: (Singing) Don't tell me what to do, and don't tell me what to say. And please...

I mean, it's over a 60-piece orchestra, you know?

SHAPIRO: A 60-piece orchestra.

CHENOWETH: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: Go big or go home.

CHENOWETH: (Laughter) That's right.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU DON'T OWN ME (FEAT. ARIANA GRANDE)")

ARIANA GRANDE: (Singing) You don't own me. Don't try to change me in any way. You don't own me. Don't tie me down 'cause I'll never stay. I don't tell you what to say. I don't tell you what to do.

SHAPIRO: Well, is there a song from the album that you would like us to go out on?

CHENOWETH: Yeah. An uncomfortable lane for me was a song by Patsy Cline that a lot of people know - "Crazy."

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

CHENOWETH: And I - not a lot of people know this, but I can do a pretty darn good impression of her. And I started in the recording studio doing that, and Steve Tyrell said, stop it. Stop doing her; do you. And I said, I can't. I only hear her voice. And so I wanted to cut it, and I - there were - might have been some tears. Like, I just couldn't find what "Crazy" was for me.

SHAPIRO: So what was your breakthrough?

CHENOWETH: It was - believe it or not, I had to stop listening to her because I love her voice so much. And Patsy had such a cry in her voice, right?

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

CHENOWETH: And every note was a money note. And for me, I had to back off and make it introspective. I had to just make it different, and this is what we came up with.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRAZY")

CHENOWETH: (Singing) Crazy - I'm crazy for feeling so lonely.

SHAPIRO: Kristin Chenoweth, it's been wonderful talking with you. Thank you.

CHENOWETH: Thank you, Ari. Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: Her new album is called "For The Girls."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRAZY")

CHENOWETH: (Singing) ...Crazy for feeling so blue. I knew... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.