Melissa Manchester shares musical journey

Vocalist and songwriter Melissa Manchester has persevered through four decades of shifting music styles. She has survived grimy bars and mistreating management. And now, she has set her sights on college.

With one GRAMMY award, several television appearances and countless performances and songwriting experiences since her career began, Manchester is ready to share her musical wisdom with a new generation of music enthusiasts at USC’s Thornton School of Music.

Manchester, whose father was a bassoonist for the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and whose mother was a former singer during World War II, grew up with music in her blood.

“Music was just a basic part of my education,” Manchester said. “There was always singing in the house.”

From a very young age, Manchester knew exactly what she wanted to do.

By 17, she was being paid to write songs. At 18, she had already started performing at clubs and looking for record deals.

But Manchester was never prepared for the harsh realities of the music industry.

“When I started to perform in clubs, I assumed it was more like performing in my parents’ living room,” Manchester said. “But the reality of performing is really rigorous, and artistic life takes a certain kind of bravery that you only see in retrospect.”

Eventually, there came a point in her life when Manchester felt the need to walk away from her career.

“I became very frustrated with the changing musical industry landscape,” Manchester said. “It became so electronic, and the demonization of the soul was more and more evident. I felt like I was losing my way.”

It was only after a decade’s break that Manchester gradually eased herself back into the music industry. She found a small community of musicians in Nashville, Tenn., people who wrote songs with good old-fashioned pianos, guitars and a quiet room.

“There’s always something intimate about the experience of waiting for the muse to start dancing about the room,” Manchester said.

It was in that room that she composed many of the songs for her 2004 comeback album, When I Look Down That Road.

You won’t find flashy dance moves, popping rhythm or funky costumes in Manchester’s numbers. Like her 1970s hit songs “Midnight Blues” and “Don’t Cry Out Loud,” her music still projects soulful, delicate melodies and deep lyrics that require thoughtful attention. Somehow, Manchester has preserved her unapologetic, authentic voice and graceful songwriting skills.

Manchester never underwent formal musical training except for a rare opportunity to study under Paul Simon at New York University.

In fact, it was a complete surprise when Manchester received the unexpected call from Thornton’s associate dean for external relations, Chris Sampson, who asked if she could fill in a last-minute, open spot teaching songwriting for musical theater to a group of six undergraduate students.

“I started this class not knowing what I was going to do,” Manchester said, laughing. “Nobody told me what was being done before; they just kind of threw it at me.”

Manchester has had experience writing musicals, such as “Hats!” and “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.” Musical theatre, she said, is one of the few places where true magic can happen.

To gauge her students’ proficiency in songwriting, she first asked them to write a highly emotional song in which their characters belt out the consequences of their addictions.

“They were really fantastic,” she said. “I love their enthusiasm — they really want to learn, and they’re very talented.”

Manchester constantly reminds her students to think deeper and to discover musical motifs for their characters by meditating on how the song changes according to the character that sings it.

In doing so, she reminds her students of the beauty and mysterious power of music, the ability to touch, enlighten and change people.

“In its essence, the definition of musical theater is when you are filled with so many emotions that you can no longer speak, but start to sing,” Manchester said. “It is not just to entertain, but really to create a discussion that transcends time.”

Still, Manchester said she finds certain aspects of teaching challenging.

“I’ve been doing this for so long that I just know how certain things work,” Manchester said. “I only hope I can convey certain things clearly because some things are so natural I just sort of breathe into it.”

For someone who grew up living and breathing music, Manchester said she still learns something new every day.

“[Teaching] has been a blessing and such a sweet gift in my life,” she said. “Both the students and I are always learning.”