Lauren Interviews Lauren
Singer-songwriter-humorist Lauren Mayer reflects on Hanukkah, Christmas, family, growing up a Jew in Orange County and how all this informs her own, artistic process. May you enjoy this in depth interview conducted by… herself.
What inspired you to write “Latkes, Shmatkes”?
Two years ago NPR did a program on Christmas music, and their expert was talking about how secular songs, like “Frosty The Snowman,” became classics, and then he said, “Some songs should never become classics, like this one”— and used an old recording of mine as an example. It was a novelty song I’d written and recorded years ago, “The Fruitcake That Ate New Jersey,” and when I wrote in to ask how they found it, they ended up interviewing me. I joked that now I was part of the great tradition of Jewish songwriters who create Christmas music, and I really should do a Chanukah album. Once I said it, I realized it could be a fun idea.
Where did you get the ideas for the individual songs?
I love playing with styles - I’d heard a Jewish comedian make a comment about how well he fit with Nashville, and thought, “Hmmm, Jewish country music sounds like an oxymoron, but it sort of makes sense for Chanukah, epic battles, miracles, fried food…” And since I grew up in Orange County as the only Jew in my classes, I was always explaining Jewish holidays like we were some exotic foreign species, which made me feel like Carmen Miranda or Desi Arnaz, always having to be the token Latin singer—so Chanukah ChaCha made sense to me.
A couple of your songs sound a little irritated, like “Don’t They Know (Not Everyone Does Christmas” - what’s your problem?
I’m generally very optimistic, but during Christmas it’s hard to be Jewish. Everyone assumes we celebrate Christmas, and between the decorations, muzak, and shopping insanity, we feel a little outnumbered. (I have nothing against Christmas - in fact, some of my best friends celebrate it!)
What’s the hardest part about being a self-produced singer-songwriter?
You’d think it would be the work part of it—writing an album’s worth of songs, creating all the arrangements, and recording all the instruments. But I love doing that—it’s why I’m in this line of work. The hard part is all the unsolicited advice—producing an album is sort of like being pregnant, in that everyone feels like they can now give you pointers. My favorite is “You should send your stuff to Jon Stewart,” as if that were easy or as if it had never occurred to me. (I must admit that marketing is not one of my strengths, so I do welcome suggestions!)
How does being Jewish inform your writing? (Apart from the obvious, that the album is about Chanukah)
Jewishness is definitely an attitude as well as a religion and a background. My dad had this odd sense of humor that just felt very Jewish to me - he taught me to appreciate the combination of intellectualism and silliness in comedians like Ernie Kovacks, Mel Brooks, and The Smothers Brothers, so those were my influences, along with comedic songwriters like Alan Sherman, Tom Lehrer, and “Weird Al.”
Was your dad a big influence on you? (You dedicated your album to him.)
Absolutely—people will joke that I got my sense of humor from my dad and my chutzpah from my mom (who is the least shy person on the planet!). He really taught me to find ways to laugh no matter what—which was extremely helpful, because last year while I was finishing the album, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given 2 weeks to live. I quickly changed the liner notes to dedicate the album to his memory—however, he ended up living almost 3 months, so here comes the album, clearly dedicated to him but he’s still alive, which confused a lot of people, but Dad loved the album and thought it was funny. Dad handled his illness with humor, too—the week after his diagnosis, he went sky-diving (my mom would never let him, because it was too dangerous)! He spent the whole time cracking jokes (like telling people he’d opted not to do chemo because he didn’t want to go bald—which he’d done 30 years ago).
When did you start writing comedy songs?
Believe it or not, I do remember the first time I wrote something. I was in 5th grade, and I was a pretty serious piano student, so my friends Amy and Lori asked me to accompany them doing a dance for the school talent show. The song they picked was “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head” (how’s that for dating myself!), and the back cover of their sheet music listed other titles that were available from the publisher, including a title I’d never heard of, “I Left My Heart In San Francisco.” That struck me as particularly funny, so I sat down and came up with this chorus (with a vaudeville-y sounding dippy melody):
“I left my heart in San Francisco, I left my lungs in Waikiki
I left my legs in old New Mexico, and now there’s nothing left of me!”
(Not exactly Sondheim, but I was only 10!)
What is your next project?
I also write kids’ musicals, and a local theatre is doing a production of Never After (an irreverent rock musical about what happens after the fairy tale characters all get their happy endings and realize they’re bored), so I am working on the arrangements for that, and the publisher has asked me to write songs for a play of theirs that is a spoof of the Twilight movies, so that’s also fun and irreverent. And I’m working on a comedy revue about the women’s perspective of divorce, “The D Word,” looking for humor in what can be difficult and painful but is extremely common. (And I guess that’s another common theme among Jewish humor writers!)