Paul Reiser's 'Unusual' move: Writing and recording with singer-songwriter Julia Fordham
Maybe you remember comedian Paul Reiser from his roles in “Diner,” “Aliens” or most likely “Mad About You,” where he and Helen Hunt essentially defined sitcom couplehood for much of the '90s. What you may not consciously remember are Reiser's musical talents, which were on display in co-writing the show’s piano-pop theme music.
Having studied piano and composition in college, Reiser had been exploring his musical side in the last few years since leaving his TV character Paul Buchman behind, and the results of that tinkering eventually led him to pass his music along to one of his favorite musicians -- U.K. favorite Julia Fordham, who recently relocated to L.A.
What began as a casual collaboration developed into “Unusual Suspects,” a 10-song CD released last month on Muttley Bosco Records. Though Reiser doesn’t seem close to making a career change (another NBC sitcom is planned for 2011), his musical side-project has been gathering steam thanks in part to the song “UnSung Hero,” a heartfelt tribute to families of troops stationed abroad that the group recently performed live on "The Tonight Show."
Reiser and Fordham will play at the Catalina Bar & Grill on Tuesday and Wednesday. Culture Monster talked with Reiser about how he came to work with Fordham and the collaborative differences between writing music and writing comedy.
How did you first come to hear Julia Fordham’s music?
On the car radio, the old-school way. Just driving along and listening to some, I don’t know, adult station, and literally had to pull over. I was enraptured. From there I got to meet her –- shortly thereafter I said something in some interview that asked, "Who are you listening to?" and I said, "Well there’s this great singer Julia Fordham." So she heard that and reached out to say thank you, and we struck up a friendship. That’s how it started.
That was a good 12 or 15 years ago, back when “Mad About You” was still on. We were just casual acquaintances and then about a year and a half or two years ago I happened to bump into her at the movies. And I had been writing music and bumping into her made me think, maybe some of this wants to be a song? I didn’t know what I was writing, I was a composition major in college and had wanted for years to get back to it. So I called her up and very nervously said, "Forgive the presumptuousness, you’re a big fancy singer-artist and I’m a comedy boy, but I got this thing . . . would you like to see if it appeals to you?"
And she came over and listened to it and she took it away and came back with this stunning song which was called “Walking Shoes,” it’s the first song [on the album]. There was no design or intent to do anything professional with it, it was just sort of a home project. I thought, well this might be something, we had such a great experience with that so let’s write another one. And the process was just so easy and we suddenly had three or four and said, well, let’s go for 10 and put out a little album for ourselves.
How was the process, you were basically sending her what you were working on or were you in the studio together?
Yeah, we would get in the studio and I would play for her and we would tinker. And sometimes I would play her something and she would grab a pad and she would go out and sit in my backyard and come back with an idea, and sometimes she would get home and come back a few days later and send me a complete thing.
So the process was she would take the music and would come up with either the germ of an idea or sometimes fully formed, and sometimes she would listen to my music and say "What if this bit that you think is the chorus was actually the bridge, and we take this piece here and reconstruct it a bit?" It was very informative, I had never written music with anybody but it was a very fun, easy, collaborative process.
You’ve probably done comedy collaboratively in the past. How does it compare?
Well, first of all the biggest thing with this was there was no audience involved, meaning there wasn’t like, this has to be done by Friday, then we have to run it by the network, then we have to service these characters –- there was nobody else involved in this at all. It sounds minor, but it’s actually enormous, I had never really experienced that. You’re always writing and creating for some specific audience, or some purpose. This had no purpose and it was very liberating to realize that.
Kind of along those lines about the distinctions between music and with comedy, was that what made you want to explore music the last few years?
Having started with music before comedy I always just thought I would get back to it. And sometimes I need the structure and the demands of knowing somebody’s waiting for it. Part of the reason I was able to get into stand-up comedy is there was a structure in place -– you go to this club, and you go on audition night, and there’s this hierarchy and so on. But with music I realized I wanted to just give myself the freedom to take any structural demands out of the equation. So if I came up with a little melody my brain would go, "Well what is it? Is it a song, is it a symphony, is it a string quartet?" And I thought maybe it’s just a seven-second music cue, just let it be what it wants to be. And that’s sort of the spirit that this [collaboration] came out of.
In fact, as it turns out, even though we were so open and giving to each other [while writing] usually things remained largely intact. I would give her a piece of music and she would just write on top of that, the words would come back and they would fit right in. For me it was a thrill on so many levels. I never really got to collaborate with anybody, I was never one of these guys who played in like chamber groups or played with other people. So this was wonderful to be with somebody else. And in her case, because it was somebody I admired, I felt very validated, like "OK, there must be some substance to this because she’s no slouch, and she sees something in this so it must be something worthwhile."
And in the midst of this we stumbled on the very last song we wrote, “Unsung Hero,” which is getting a bit of attention and has sort of been tacitly endorsed by the military -- they sent us their trumpet player from the Army ceremonial band [Staff Sgt. Kevin Gebo, who will also be joining the group at Catalina]. We were on the “Tonight Show” with it and . . . the comments we hear are often that families of the military often feel invisible, people don't deal with them or they don't feel that they are. And to have a song that just very simply honors them is a gift, we’re being told. One of the things I love about Julia's lyrics, they’re so simple, there’s nothing political. “Just know that I love you, and know you’re my hero.” There’s something so heartbreaking about that.
You guys are playing at Catalina tonight, what’s that going to be like?
I know nothing of this world. Everybody always tells me, “Well, it’s changing,” and I say that’s OK I never knew what it was like before, so I don't notice anything different. But my goals for this are so modest, this was never intended to be a commercial hit, or even an album. But now that it’s done and it came out so well, I feel like I want to get it out. And it’s never going to be a mass hit, nor was it intended, but I would love [to play it] for the people who are Julia Fordham fans and the many people who would be fans if they knew of her. It’s amazing to me how many people have not heard of her, she’s done like 10 albums and she’s truly a unique vocalist and writer.
Have you played music live before this performance?
Not really, I’ve done it about two or three times with Julia, playing one song at a time. But never an entire show like this. The big question is going to be can I be awake at 9 o’clock at night? I’ve lost that muscle, as the father of two boys and an old guy. I thought “Wow, I’m going to have to train for this.” I do feel the muscles of my brain being stretched and expanded to remember how to play 10 songs in a row. We will see if I turn into a pile of dust or if it actually works.
-- Chris Barton
Julia Fordham with Paul Reiser, Catalina Bar & Grill, 6725 W. Sunset Blvd., L.A. 8 p.m. Tues.-Wed. $25. (323) 466-2210.
Photo of Julia Fordham and Paul Reiser by Simon Gluckman.