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Q&A with the Fabulous Idina Menzel

By: Matt Niehoff

Tags: Celeb, Music

Every once in awhile an opportunity comes up in life that makes you pinch yourself. Today, this came in the form of a conversation with the one and only Idina Menzel: an artist who, throughout her career, has inspired me on so many levels. We talked her upcoming Nashville show (8/1 at the Ryman: tickets available here), the story behind her new album Idina, what it means to play Nashville's most iconic venue, and perhaps most notably: the impact Rent had on the world.

EXPxNSH: What can we expect to see from you 2017 world tour, IDINA, here in Nashville?

IDINA: It's a pretty eclectic set. There are songs you'd expect to hear—but I've played with some arrangements so that they feel fresh and new without alienating the audience. There's music from the latest album, and then there are a couple of surprise covers. I have an amazing, kick-ass band that I love very much- a lot of them I've been with for many years, so we're super tight and have a great time. There's a lot of spontaneity and storytelling.

EXPxNSH: You have a new record (also aptly named, Idina) that you'll be singing some tunes from. Tell me a little bit about the creative process behind it. What inspired you?

IDINA: It was sort of a turbulent time—I had a lot going on: my professional life and my personal life were very different. My professional sort-of life catapulted into a new realm with the success of Frozen, the Broadway show I was in at the time, flying all over the world for the Oscars and the Superbowl. At the same time, I was getting divorced from my husband at the time (Taye Diggs), and dealing with all the guilt and sadness that comes from that. There was a lot to write about, figure out, think about. So, I put myself in the studio with a ton of great producers that I wanted to work with, great songwriters, and you know—got busy.

EXPxNSH: Speaking of inspiration—you inspire so many with your music. Who inspires you?

IDINA: My son inspires me—my little boy, Walker. He's 8 but already has this great mind. He's empathetic, opinionated, and just a great ball of energy. He keeps me honest. My boyfriend inspires me—he's a therapist at a drug, alcohol, and mental illness facility. He does real, hard work in the world. On the musical side, gosh. Jonee Mitchell, Aretha Franklin, Bette Midler (side note: Idina starred in the Lifetime Beaches remake), just so many people. 

EXPxNSH: My favorite Idina moment I've experienced has to be "No Day But Today", which you performed at the Nashville Symphony. If you had to pick a "most powerful moment" for you, during a live performance, what would it be? 

IDINA: Gosh, it changes with every night. I really leave myself open to be present and feel the audience and the climate of the room. I continue to do that song, it's become a mantra for me—I agree with you with that song. Probably when I have kids sing along with me, that feels really special. Whether they have a great voice or not, they have an amazing personality and illuminate the entire room. 

EXPxNSH: Do you have a favorite song to perform?

IDINA: It changes depending on the night. I do a song from my latest album called "Cake", which is a lot of fun—I enjoy performing that live, I love the groove. I do a little acoustic set where I do something from Wicked ("I'm Not That Girl") and a song from my new album I wrote about my son.

EXPxNSH: What was it like to be a part of the ground breaking musical Rent? It was the very first Broadway musical I saw, and as a teenager from a small town, it was mind-blowing for me to experience. I was still trying to figure out so much about myself at the time, and for me to see it was such a powerful moment in my life—I will never forget it.  What was it like to be a part of Rent, and did you have any idea the impact its story would have on the world?

IDINA: Thank you, for saying that. There are so many levels in my life at that time I experienced. There was the sheer survival mechanism of having to get out there and do the show, even though everything around us was so sad because we lost Jonathan Larson (Tony award-winning composer of Rent). There was this cloud that was cast over us, and we learned what it meant to really get out there and to do what was most important: get out there and communicate his music. So, we were busy being active in that respect, which made it a great time because it made us stay in the moment and not get caught up in the whirlwind and the phenomenon that it was becoming. There was a gift and a curse in all of that.

I think I probably can I appreciate it all more now that I'm older. All the connections we made, all the letters I received from people like yourself saying that they just felt seen in the show, and they were literally given a voice. They were being celebrated, their community; the people they love were being celebrated in this beautiful musical. Looking back now, twenty years later, I just love that so much, and I'm so proud to have sort of grown up with all of the fans. 

...Gosh. This is such a deep question—there was so much going on, and I was so young. Everything. I met Taye (Diggs) in that show, there were so many things going on. To be a part of something like that, that really changes people, that really forces a conversation, that really gives people a voice—where they feel like who they are is being accepted and celebrated. You can get a lot of great projects in your career but it's different when they have social, cultural integrity. That is what I'm so proud of. 

EXPxNSH: It's crazy to think that 20 years ago it was so epic, so ahead of its time—it made such an impact on our culture and allowed those conversations to happen. Thank you for answering that question. It's a really cool moment for me to be able to have that conversation with you. 

IDINA: Oh yeah! Me too. In light of today, it feels like, "oh really that's how far we've come?" Whenever there is such ugliness like that, there's always resistance, and that strengthens us and creates even more change.  

(Amen, Idina.)

EXPxNSH: Okay—shifting gears. On a bit of a less serious note, what does it mean for you to play on the iconic Ryman stage?

IDINA: Just to be down in Nashville, surrounded by all the history is always a really special time for me and my band. It's that thing where you just pinch yourself. I always wanted to play live, I always wanted to have a life where if I never got hired for anything else again, I could go out and I could get on stage and sing for a living and people would show up. When you're doing this, especially in these really famous and legendary places, it's a milestone in your career.

EXPxNSH: Have you had a chance to really explore Nashville?

IDINA: Not so much, unfortunately. When you're on tour—especially with your 8-year-old son, you see a hotel and you see maybe a zoo. But, I'm going to be back there soon, doing Kenny Rogers tribute show.

EXPxNSH: Yes! That was my next question for you. How excited are you about the show?

IDINA: I'm really excited. He's the man. I'm excited to just be a fly on the wall with these incredible artists (Dolly Parton, Little Big Town, Allison Kraus, the Flaming Lips and others will be taking the stage with Menzel). 

EXPxNSH: Last question. What's next for you?

IDINA: A nap would be nice! Haha. Honestly, there's some truth to that. Once the tour is over, I'm going to get a bit more domesticated, get my son back in school: he'll be going into second grade. Take a little rest, develop some more projects, develop some more projects for the theater. My sister has this amazing book (titled Voice Lessons, due out October 10) coming out about the two of us growing up, and I wrote the forward to it, as a part of the collaborative process. We're going to get out there and get the word out about that in October, it's so beautifully written. That's pretty much it for the near future!

EXPxNSH: It was an honor speaking with you Idina! See you in Nashville, and enjoy your rest post tour.

Tickets are on sale now for Idina's Ryman debut, August 1, 2017.