Barry Manilow’s first album of original material in 10 years, “15 Minutes,” wasn’t meant to be autobiographical.
The album’s 16 songs, cowritten by Manilow and lyricist Enoch Anderson, follow a young man’s journey to become a famous rock musician, his eventual downfall and struggle to start over again.
It’s not hard to see the similarities. Manilow found massive fame in the 1970s with a string of 10 No. 1 pop hits, including “Copacabana (At the Copa),” “Could it Be Magic” and “Mandy,” but as the ’80s progressed, his singles stopped making the charts.
“We were writing this album about a fictitious character; I wasn’t really writing it about myself,” he said from his home in Palm Springs, Calif., just before heading out for a few one-off gigs in the Northeast — including his performance at Saratoga Performing Arts Center tonight.
When: 7:30 tonight
Where: Saratoga Performing Arts Center, 108 Avenue of the Pines, Saratoga Springs
How Much: $99.50–$39.50
More Info: 587-3330, www.spac.org/
Living the experience
“But when it came time to record the vocals, to sing these songs, I realized that I had lived through every single song. I had actually experienced every single song, which I think made for a better vocal performance, because I was very familiar with each one of these feelings.”
Those songs deal with everything from drug and alcohol abuse (“Wine Song”) to questioning the nature of fame itself (“Winner Go Down’s” insistent introduction, “Fame, is it worth it?”). It’s a darker album than most fans are used to, coming after his last all-original album, 2001’s “Here at the Mayflower;” a series of albums in tribute to songs of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s; and last year’s “The Greatest Love Songs of All Time.” But even with the success of these recordings, Manilow felt the need to challenge himself.
“I felt like I was very safe — I know how to do those albums, they’re easy for me,” he said. “I needed to write; I definitely needed to write my own thing, and I wanted to write an album that I wasn’t sure about. So that’s what ‘15 Minutes’ is — it’s an album that I’ve never, a style of album I’ve never made before.”
For the first time, he looked to guitar-based rock ’n’ roll music for inspiration during the songwriting process. Many of the songs mix distorted guitars with his signature ’70s sound and modern percussion and production.
“I was not a fan of that kind of thing — even when The Beatles came in — and I love The Beatles — I was still back with Nelson Riddle and the legit pop stuff,” Manilow said.
“And so I really didn’t know my way around the world of the four-man guitar bands. And this album needed to do that because I invented a character that was in his 20s who wanted to be successful, and I thought, ‘Well, that guy would play the guitar.’ I don’t play the guitar. So I, this was a very big challenge for me, to write an album based in guitar songs and not being able to play the guitar. So that was a risk too, and it was great — I really needed to challenge myself, and that’s what I did.”
Sticking to Las Vegas
These days, he mostly sticks to the Las Vegas scene. From 2005 to 2009, he was the house performer at the Las Vegas Hilton; since March of last year, he’s been at the Paris Hotel & Casino. Occasionally, he’ll trek out for one-off shows, but he no longer undertakes large-scale tours.
“I wasn’t exactly sure what we were gonna expect when we got this gig, but it’s turned out to be great,” he said. “It kept us off the road and the audiences are great. I can still play with my band and write music. It’s just a great gig for me.”
The shows have allowed Manilow to work new songs from “15 Minutes” into his sets. So far, the harder-edged material has been well-accepted alongside his sunnier hits, which has surprised him somewhat.
“The sentence that strikes fear into the heart of an audience is, ‘Now I would like to do a couple of songs from my new album,’ and everybody runs up the aisles for orange juice,” Manilow said. “But that hasn’t happened to me, certainly not in Las Vegas — I’ve been debuting, one, two, maybe even three songs at the Paris, and they have stopped the show, so I’m in good shape with that.”
The album’s message of fame being fleeting resonates with today’s Internet-based model of fame. But Manilow still has the same advice he would have given in the ’70s for anyone trying to make it as a musician.
“If you are a young composer, and you’re trying to make your way in the world of music — and this goes for any artist — you have to find your own originality in the work that you’re doing,” he said. “Like, you know, this wonderful Lady Gaga — she’s already got, cornered the market on crazy outfits. So you can’t do that anymore; any young girls out there, they can’t do that anymore, she’s already done it brilliantly. . . . And my advice is to not look up and sniff the trend machine. If you sniff the trend machine, you are lost. That’s why I say, I never listen to the radio — I gotta do my own thing.”