In 2015, Trisha Yearwood was one of the artists selected for the Recording Academy’s all-star tribute to Frank Sinatra, during which she performed “I’ll Be Seeing You.” The event’s musical director, producer Don Was, asked her backstage if she’d ever considered doing a full album of standards. She told him, “Yes, every day.”
As far back as the mid-Nineties, the singer had been mixing orchestral versions of her country hits with standards at full-fledged symphony shows, along with delivering the occasional knockout rendition of “Somewhere” from West Side Story at special events. So while Let’s Be Frank, Yearwood’s new collection of songs from the Great American Songbook, may seem like a sudden left turn, it’s actually been a long time coming.
Yearwood and Was teamed up at Capitol Studios in Hollywood to record the album — her first full-length solo release since 2007 — and tapped Sinatra’s engineer Al Schmitt as well as string arranger Vincent Mendoza to bring it to life. Let’s Be Frank includes 11 standards such as “Over the Rainbow” and “The Man That Got Away,” all of which were previously recorded by Sinatra, along with one original love song Yearwood co-wrote with husband Garth Brooks.
Ahead of the wide release of Let’s Be Frank on February 15th (it’s already available at Williams-Sonoma stores), Yearwood chatted with Rolling Stone about avoiding comparisons to Linda Ronstadt’s standards albums, writing with her husband and using Sinatra’s well-documented love life as inspiration.
Up until now, you’ve been known primarily as a country singer, but these standards are just as much a part of your musical DNA as Patsy Cline and Linda Ronstadt, right?
The very first influence here was my mom because she was born in ’37, so she loved that music. She loved those movies, and all those musicals. So when I was a kid in the Seventies, that was one of our things. We would sit and watch these old movies together. So I learned this music through her and loved it all. I always wanted to do that standards record.
And then when Linda Ronstadt did her Nelson Riddle albums in the Eighties, I totally fell in love. Interestingly, I did not cover the same songs that Linda did. I kind of stayed away from the things that Linda had covered, because I’m such a Linda fan. I knew them all so well, and I knew her arrangements so well that I was afraid that I would just copy Linda.
The idea to frame this album as a loose homage to Frank Sinatra was born at the Sinatra TV special taping in 2015, but this isn’t just a collection of “Trisha Sings Sinatra’s Biggest Hits.” Some songs are more associated with other acts, like “Over the Rainbow” with Judy Garland. How did you go about choosing which songs to record?
When I sat down to make my list for Let’s Be Frank, I had a hundred songs, and I sent the list to Don Was. Don said, “OK, you’ve got to narrow this down. Right now, if you had to pick 12 songs, what would they be? Write them down.” These were the 12, and then we added the original song, and I had to boot one. I would never have done it if he hadn’t made me do that. It ended up being, “These are the ones.” Somewhere in my sub-conscious I knew these were the ones I wanted to do.
I picked the ones that were very Frank. You can’t not do “Come Fly With Me,” which I think was written for Frank. “One for My Baby (One More for the Road)” was a must. But I really wanted to do “Over the Rainbow,” so it’s like, “OK, Frank recorded it. So, I can do it.” If Frank recorded it, it was fair game, and for me, Sinatra was a great way to focus all of these songs into something really cool, ‘cause nobody was cooler than Frank.
On songs like “Over the Rainbow” and the opening number, “Witchcraft,” you’ve included these lyrical preambles or introductory verses that are rarely heard anymore. What do those preludes do to make people stop and listen to these standards in a fresh way?
Well, “Witchcraft” is a perfect example. When that song starts, and that’s what we open the album with, you’re like, “What is this? What song is this? I have no idea.”
There’s a mention of “Lucrezia Borgia” in that opening line, a semi-obscure reference to a Spanish-Italian noblewoman from the 15th century. It really does make you stop and pay attention.
I looked up Lucrezia Borgia, who was basically a man-killer, ‘cause I didn’t want to sing a lyric that I didn’t understand.
“Witchcraft” is really this song about how you’re probably really bad for me, but I’m a moth to a flame. I’m headed right towards you. And the opening verse sets it up referencing things from centuries past that we know don’t work out. The opening verses give you more anticipation for what’s coming.
You’re singing these vocals live in the studio with 55 musicians, which is a high-pressure situation. How did you deal with that?
I’m confident when it comes to singing, but I was so nervous that first day I forgot my charts at the hotel. We had to go back and get my charts. I was about to throw up the whole time. It’s 55 people, and if you don’t know the arrangements and you mess up, 55 people have to start over.
After you sing the first song with the musicians, if they like you, they don’t clap — they tap their music stands with their bows. So, you’re waiting the whole first song to see if you get the tap. I guess I would have gone home if they didn’t tap, but they did. After the first song, I was a little bit more relaxed. I played with the L.A. Symphony at the Hollywood Bowl in ’98, so I worked with some of these musicians back then. It was encouraging and just a good vibe. This was a very live record, and it happened fast. We recorded 12 songs in four days, and then mixed it the next four days. So, really, in a week, we were done.
There’s something about these arrangements that really brings out the lyrics for me like never before, especially on “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road).” These are devastating lyrics as sad as any country song you’ve sung: “This torch that I carry, it’s gotta be buried or it’s gonna explode.”
Yeah, this one was really fun for me for that reason because I love a depressing song. And I’m dramatic, so I believe every time I hear it that Frank is singing about Ava Gardner. So, I go there. There’s a really great black-and-white version of him doing this you can find on YouTube. Right in the middle of the second verse, he just goes back to the piano and lights a cigarette and gets a drink. The arrangement was so conversational, so forlorn. “Ava’s broken my heart. What am I going to do”? I was like, “That’s the way I want to sing that.”
Then there’s the original song on here, “For the Last Time,” which you co-wrote with your husband. It has a melodic structure and lyrical language that really fit with some of these standards. How did you approach writing it?
This was written before this project, so I did not say, “You know, I think I could probably show Rodgers and Hammerstein a thing or two.” [Laughs] It was not on the radar. And I don’t call myself a writer, which Garth hates for me to say, ‘cause I don’t like anything that’s hard. It’s like breathing for him. For me, it’s not. So, I’m just lazy, and I’m like, “Nah.” But I had that line, “For the first time I’m in love for the last time,” which is him and me. I came home, and I said, “I have this title. I don’t know what to do with it.”
He started singing that melody that’s from another era. That melody just doesn’t sound like anything that I’ve ever heard him do. So, we got it written, and then it was like, “I don’t know what to do with this. Maybe there’ll be a Broadway show for it someday.” When this album came up, Garth said, “You should play it for Don.” I was like, “I don’t know. I’m scared!” He encouraged me, and I played it for Don, and Don said, “We’re doing it. I love the song. We have to do it.”
You were hesitant about including “The Lady Is a Tramp” in light of the Me Too movement. What made you decide to go forward with it?
Well, when you read the opening verse to this song, you see I’m singing it about myself. I’m not singing in the third person. The whole preamble, the whole verse sets it up for you to understand the song better. She just doesn’t do things like everybody else, but if you really listen to the whole song, at the end of the night she’s all alone when she lowers her lamp. It’s like, “I’m crazy. I do what I want, and I go to bed alone.” I love her.
You’re performing songs from Let’s Be Frank at New York City’s Rainbow Room on Valentine’s Day. Is this just a one-off or can we expect more shows?
It’s the beginning. There’s going to be some shows, and we’re just getting started figuring out where. We’re going to do a handful, and then the new country record will come out in the fall. So, we’re trying to figure out how to do everything at once. The Rainbow Room show is just going to be Frank, and then I’d love to play the places he played.