"Can you feel me? Can you motherfuckin' feel me?" Adira Amram belts out on her song "Wanna Make Out," which she sings while dressed in leotards, a Betsey Johnson push-up bra and suit jacket, or other attention-getting garb while pounding away on a keyboard or piano. Amram, the daughter of composer David Amram, started out as an actress but has taken to performing her hilarious “keyboard fantasy” songs at local comedy gigs. The 25-year-old performer is at The PIT Fridays in October with her latest work, Adira Amram Is An American Idol (tagline: “Let Her Spangle Your Banner”), which is fitting for a woman with a former President’s photo on the cover of her CD, Me and Bill (North Street Records).
When not carting her keyboard all over town to sing songs like “Mortal Combat,” “Confession (Toothbrush)," and “Eurosong,” she's making videos that appear on YouTube and performing in plays such as Door Wide Open, where she played Jack Kerouac's girlfriend. As she recently told Backstage, the key for her was simply starting, even when she didn’t know what she was doing. Here, she explains why Bill Clinton is someone “everyone should meet,” talks about growing up surrounded by music, making a music video in her apartment building, why it sucks to bomb, and what the American Dream 2.0 looks like.
Your father is the noted composer and musician David Amram, and your mom plays folk music, while your brother and sister are both in rock bands. What's your earliest musical memory, and when did you start writing your own music?
I literally grew up with music all of the time. My family didn't really play records or the radio but there was always a piano in the house that someone was banging on.
When we were young, we traveled with my parents a lot so we were exposed to loads of music from around the world at different music festivals. But one of my favorite places to go with them was to the Brooklyn Academy of Music. My dad conducted a children’s series for several decades and I loved to watch the orchestra. I loved watching my dad in his tails jumping around on stage conducting the orchestra. It looked really fun. But I didn't start writing music until I was 22, before that I would just improvise stuff but never write it down. My sister and I would sing a lot together with my mom.
How does your folk history and family's musical background inform the kind of music you write? Did you always want to be a performer or was there a point where you wanted to rebel and not be an artist in any way?
I think that my family always emphasized respecting fellow performers, the audience and the art. So from there anything goes. I try to make what I do fun for the audience, I want people to be glad that they took time from their busy schedule to see a show.
I always wanted to be a performer and I have always really liked it. We were very wild kids, my sister always says that we were like pirates. I think my parents put me in ballet hoping it would make me calm down a bit, I think it worked. It was such a different environment than being at home. I work well within structured environments, I think.
You started off as a ballet dancer as a child, then studied acting at SUNY Purchase and have performed in several plays. When did you make the transition from acting to music, and how does your education play into the way you perform now? Were you into the kind of music you play now when you were younger?
I actually was a Drama Studies major at Purchase, and while at Purchase I studied acting privately with Lee Michael Cohn of the Atlantic Theater School. I had transferred from University at Buffalo where I was in the BFA acting program. Buffalo really wasn't for me, it was a much better school for people wanting to study musical theater, and they had a great jazz dance department; all the girls looked like Britney Spears and they danced just as well.
While at Purchase I was constantly reading plays from all different times in history. Then I would read contemporary plays for my acting classes. I was reading a lot of theory as well. I remember reading Peter Brook for the first time when I was a freshman at Buffalo and thinking, "Whoa!" I really think he's genius. Talking about this makes me want to reread his books.
I am still acting. I did a movie that is almost finished called Some Kind of Awful by Allen Cordel, also from Purchase, and did a little spot on The Sopranos this year. So I'm not, by any means, done with acting. The music is really just part of the same thing. It's all just stuff I do.
I first started the music thing with my friend Quincy Newton who plays electric uke. We started improvising one night and came up with a few songs and decided to play a little show that was happening at the bar around the corner. We had a lot of fun and started playing at the Vaudeville Night at Galapagos in 2003 and played together until 2004 when he moved to L.A., but he's really the person that got me into it.
I was always interested in all kinds of music, and lucky enough to be exposed to many different genres from a young age. I rebelled in different ways. We grew up on a farm and I made it very clear to everyone that I didn't like it. I wanted to live in the city and not have to milk goats. I rebelled by being the preppy one in the family. I used to joke that I was the white sheep in a family of black sheep. Now I'd really like to have a big vegetable garden and a bunch of cats.
Your CD is called Me and Bill, and the cover features a picture of you as a teenager with Bill Clinton. What's the story behind the photo, and which song would you dedicate to him at a show?
Actually that was me only two years ago. We did a catering party at his house and there was a photographer that said "You can take your picture too, if you'd like." I felt very insulted somehow by the way she said it because she then said, "President Clinton, can you take one with the help?" I was like, "Did she just call us the help?"
Bill Clinton is someone everyone should meet. Every time I meet someone that has met him, the person describes the same thing. They say that he is unbelievably charismatic, but it's beyond that really.
Watching people watch him is hilarious. At that party, it was a birthday party for his neighbor, and no one was paying attention to the birthday guy because they were all staring at Clinton. Just staring at him. It was pretty funny.
I liked him though, Bill Clinton is awesome. I'm just waiting to get in trouble for having him on my CD. If he's not cool with it, I'll be like, "Bill, Bill, Bill you can do a sax solo on ‘Wanna Make Out.’" I'm sure that will get him to agree. How awesome would that be, if I were like, "Hit it, Bill!"
Your label, North Street Records, says you've been described as "a mix of Biz Marckie and Madonna." Is that an accurate portrayal, and who else would you say that you're a mix of?
I don't know if it's accurate or not but it's pretty funny. I think the whole thing of asking people who they are a mix of is really weird anyway. I'm just trying to be myself. A mix of Adira and Amram.
Your shows straddle the line between music and comedy, and you're often booked on comedic lineups. Do you deliberately set out to write funny songs, or does that come naturally?
I just try to write the songs and then see how it comes out. But I usually write the music first and then the lyrics. I let the music inform me as to what the song is about. It can sometimes be a slow process. Sometimes I'll want to write a funny song and it just comes out hackey.
Are you comfortable as part of the comedy world, or are you looking to move on to more music-based venues? Do you think comedy crowds get your music better than other kinds of crowds?
It's interesting when I perform in a music venue because usually no one has any idea who the hell I am. I played a really fun show at Southpaw with some great bands and the audience was full of rocker/hipster types who were a little put off at first but then by the end people were into it. I like playing with people's expectations of me. The old "you can't judge a book by its cover."
But that happened at Central Park this summer at a comedy show I did called Max hosted by Jenny Rubin and Matt McCarthy. People were really "whatever" about it and then by the end of the set there was this little Asian kid breakdancing and this guy jumped on stage. It was awesome, I want to bring them on tour with me. “Adira Amram with the Crazy Legs Dancers."
But I love to be part of the comedy world; there are so many wonderfully innovative performers right now. I watch people and am inspired to keep on keepin' on. I'm very lucky to be part of it.
What are your favorite venues to perform in, and why? What's the best place to bomb at and which venue has the most enthusiastic audience members?
I love performing at The PIT, Mo Pitkin's, Galapagos, UCB and Ars Nova. These are all places that are supportive of new and established artists and at the same time encourage excellence. They are nurturing but also very professional, I like that. It's not like people don't care and just want butts in seats; the work seems to be the most important thing. And they are all places that are choosy about what they produce.
It really sucks to bomb. There is no elegant way to say it, it feels awful. But it's a good thing too, it makes you reevaluate what you are doing and work harder. I usually bomb when I'm not being honest on stage, trying to pull one over on the audience. And the collective mind of an audience is powerful. When you get the freeze you know it straight away.
Different shows have different audiences, rather than the venue itself. I think Rubulad parties are the most enthusiastic crowds, everyone is WILD. I think everyone should go to at least one Rubulad party, there is nothing like it.
You sing, play the keyboard, and do your own beats, which you wittily refer to on your MySpace page, crediting yourself as Adiricle, L'Adira, and Adirita. Do you prefer performing solo or are there times when you'd rather have a band with you?
I'd like to have a band but at this point it's just not practical. I would feel horrible asking someone to come along with me to a show that I'm most likely doing for free, where I wouldn't be able to pay them for their time.
But it would be very fun to try to play with a band. When I do the Garden I'll have a full band. But the drummer would have to be in one of those Tommy Lee Upside-Down drum cages, the guitarist would have to play a golden flying V guitar and swallow swords between songs, and the bass player would actually be a Tiger. A real Tiger on Bass. That would be awesome.
When you're performing live, how much improvisation do you do? How much are your live shows about working with (or against) the crowd vs. performing whatever you've planned for that evening?
For the most part everything that I say is not planned. My songs are the structure and whatever else happens, happens. I don't know how successful that always is but I'm not a stand up comedienne. I love improvising. It's where the danger is too.
The crowd always tells you where you are. You can gauge if something is working or not. There is an honesty that exists when people are in a group, so I depend on the audience for that. I love making people laugh; it makes me feel wonderful, right in my heart. Seriously.
Your video for "Wanna Make Out" features you licking an iron, among other racy poses. Can you take us behind the scenes of the video shoot⎯where'd you do the shoot and were there any particularly funny blooper moments?
I shot the video in an empty apartment in the building I live in. I called my landlord and he said I could use it for the day. We shot all day long and I kept having to run back to my apartment for different costumes and ran into my landlord, who is also an Orthodox Jew, and I'm wearing a bra, hot pants and a red cape. I was like, "Hey, thanks for letting us shoot the video." He looked so weirded out⎯it was really awkward. But feeling awkward seems to be a running theme in my life.
Onstage, you're almost always wearing skin-baring outfits such as leotards, or a jacket over a bra and fishnets, or your American flag-inspired attire for the new show. Where do you get your outfits, and what are you trying to say to the audience through your clothing?
I get my outfits from all different places, mostly thrift stores. Whenever I go on a trip, I always try to stop at a Salvation Army to see if there are any goodies. I think the costumes are fun to wear, it helps me get into the mood to do a show. It makes life a little less dreary.
Your new show is called Adira Amram is an American Idol. How are you an American Idol and is this something to be proud of?
I'm an American Idol just like anyone else is. It's such a stupid thing to proclaim, I'm trying to make fun of the whole celebrity thing without being a hater. Celebrating the frivolousness of it all.
How does your American idolatry compare and contrast to the show of the same name?
It has virtually nothing to do with the actual show American Idol, I just like the idea behind the name. But it is a bit frightening that people tell us who our idols are, especially people like Paula Abdul.
Our society has kind of created an American Dream 2.0, now not only can you come from nothing and be somebody in America but you can also be on TV. The American value system has become one where making money has surpassed the quest for knowledge in education, fame has replaced talent as a marker of success as an artist and fear has replaced reason in politics. It's just the world we're in at the moment.
Is this your first solo show? What can we expect to see and hear? What do you want people to take away from your show?
This is the first run I've done of a solo show. I did a one time version at Galapagos in May called "Adira Amram is: Glitterally Speaking". You have to come see the show to know what it's about. But it's pretty magical stuff, stuff that dreams are made of. You know, the usual. Plus singing and dancing. I want people to be glad that they came to the show.
Being a true American idol, you must have a plan for taking over the world (or at least, our TV sets). What is it?
I want to not have to work a day job anymore. How's that for ambition! Oh, and I want to conquer the world.
Adira Amram Is an American Idol plays at The PIT,154 West 29th Street, New York, Fridays October 13, 20, and 27 at 7 p.m. ($8). Me and Bill is on sale now from North Street Records. Find out more about Adira at www.adiraamram.com and listen to samples of her music at her MySpace page.