Deborah Dutcher and Phil Kuntz, above, and the proposed album art, which offers homage to both Elvis Presley and the Clash, below. (Photo by John T. Ward. Click to enlarge)
By JOHN T. WARD
It was no accident that Deborah Dutcher ended up touring Europe for 13 years with lead roles in such shows as “Les Misérables” and “Phantom of the Opera.” Singing show tunes professionally was pretty much all she ever thought of doing.
“My mom tells that from the moment I could speak, I wanted to be a singer,” Dutcher told redbankgreen last week. “And I had major follow-through. I never deviated.”
That laser focus, supplemented by a heavy diet of Barry Manilow and the Carpenters, also ensured that Dutcher ended up knowing diddly about punk rock. So when her friend and fellow Rumson resident Phil Kuntz suggested she record an album of punk classics as a way of restarting her career after a decade off, Dutcher was in unfamiliar territory.
Now, though, Dutcher has completed an album’s-length collection of punk classics reworked as torch songs, and will perform them at a sold-out show in Manhattan this week.
The project, which has not yet crystallized into an album but was released as snippets last week on Soundcloud, is the result of an unlikely alliance.
Kuntz, a journalist at Bloomberg Financial and co-author (with his brother, Tom) of “The Sinatra Files,” dreamed up the punk-to-jazz concept and produced the songs, though he had no prior experience in the music industry. Dutcher’s husband, Donovan Mannato, a financial advisor who has sidelines as a fillmmaker and as a producer of Broadway shows, co-produced.
Their idea was to showcase the vocal talent of 46-year-old Dutcher. She had been called back to London’s West End for the 25th-anniversary performance of “Les Miz” at London’s Albert Hall in 2011, and participated in a Sinatra tribute at Red Bank’s Count Basie Theatre two years ago. Otherwise, though, her singing voice had gotten little airing while she concentrated on raising her now-nine-year-old son, Donovan and tackling typical parental tasks such as volunteering with the Deane Porter School’s PTO.
One day, sitting on a beach, Dutcher brainstormed with Mannato and Kuntz about relaunching her career with an album of songs. But they kept running into the same question: how do you make something like that stand out?
“There’s countless Broadway show tune albums, there’s countless Sinatra albums and crooner albums,” she said. Which got Kuntz thinking: why not throw together two disparate styles, such as punk and cabaret-style jazz?
Kuntz, 55, who wore a t-shirt bearing the logo of Asbury Park’s fabled Fast Lane rock club during an interview with redbankgreen at his West River Road home, asked Dutcher to consider covering a Ramones song, “Chinese Rock.” She vetoed the suggestion because the song is about heroin use, but Kuntz and Mannato remained keen on the idea of recasting punk songs as jazz, and pressed on.
“I was a little hesitant because I wasn’t familiar with the genre. I wasn’t a punk rock girl,” Dutcher said. “They kind of had to sell me on it.”
Dutcher was sold one night over dinner, when Kuntz read her the lyrics to “Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shoudnt’ve)” by the English band the Buzzcocks, which opens with this verse:
You spurn my natural emotions
You make me feel I’m dirt
And I’m hurt
And if I start a commotion
I run the risk of losing you
And that’s worse
Dutcher was moved by the words, and told Kuntz, “I would sing that.”
She suggested her friend, Mike Woolmans, an English actor and writer of commercial ditties, be brought on board to do the musical arrangements, and they patched him in on a conference call. “All he heard was ‘it’s punk songs done as jazz standards,’ and he interrupted and said, ‘I’m in,'” said Kuntz.
Woolmans created all the instrumental parts on a computer and sent the tracks via the Internet for Dutcher to record over, which she did at her home office.
The project yielded eight songs, including “Pretty Vacant” by the Sex Pistols; “Watching the Detectives” by Elvis Costello; “Life During Wartime” by Talking Heads; and “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll” by Ian Drury and the Blockheads.
Links to samples of the songs are posted on a Punk Standards Facebook page Kuntz created.
Dutcher said the project took her on a journey into a new realm. She credits Woolmans, who she said “was able to hear the hidden jazz standard amongst all the screaming and wailing.”
“It was so hard for me to get my head around what these songs have actually become,” said Dutcher. “I never would have heard half these lyrics had we not slowed them down.”
In their original forms, the words “kind of wash over you,” often in a percussive onslaught, she said. But “you slow them down, and you put them with these beautiful accompaniments, and some of them are really touching,” she said, nothing the cinematically wrenching scene described in “Watching the Detectives,” when Costello sings about the “parents who are ready to hear the worst about their daughter’s disappearance.”
“Every time we launched into a new song, there was a moment that just kind of took my breath away,” she said. “Every time.”
Not all the arrangements are solidly in the jazz-standard mode, “but they’re pretty close,” said Kuntz. At the same time, he said, he and his co-collaborators were “not looking to rewrite the song and only use the lyrics. We want to capture something about the melody, the essence of each song, so that it’s recognizable beyond the lyrics.”
Dutcher says she now loves the songs, and is “breathing them” in preparation for this week’s performance, which may feature some Broadway standards “to round out the show.”[Update, January 3, 2018: Deborah Dutcher’s album, recorded at Shore Fire Studios in Long Branch, has been completed and can be found here.]