Pillow Talking’s Interview with Victor Micallef of THE TENORS
Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are pleased to present the following interview with Victor Micallef of THE TENORS
At the Ridgefield Playhouse May 9th
The Tenors (formerly known as The Canadian Tenors) is an incredibly talented, multi-platinum selling singing group consisting of Victor Micallef, Fraser Walters, and Clifton Murray. Their unique approach and singing style is to combine tenor-friendly classics like “The Prayer” and “Ave Maria” with custom-tailored arrangements of pop music including songs by Neil Diamond, Bob Dylan, and even Smokey Robinson. They have shared the stage with icons like Paul McCartney, Elton John, Celine Dion, and others. They are not only singers, but also talented musicians and songwriters.
Pillow Talking had the great pleasure of catching up with Victor Micallef as he was preparing for The Tenors’ new tour. Victor pillow talks with us about The Tenors, the tour and, most of all, their music.
PT: Victor, thank you for granting us this interview. You’ll be performing next Tuesday [May 9, 2017] at the Ridgefield Playhouse, a great venue which has a diverse and eclectic schedule of performers.
VM: Yes, we are really looking forward to it. It’s the first show of our tour.
PT: Really? Wow. (Stephanie) Have you ever been there before?
VM: No, I don’t believe we have, but we are looking forward to it. We are with a new agency, William Morris and it’s the first tour that they’re planning with us. The energy has been so positive and so great, we are all energized by it.
PT: That’s great. We are fans. In fact, we’ve been listening to your music all morning before the interview. (Wayne) Your music brings back such great memories for me. My mom was Italian, one of nine in a big Italian family, and I remember coming home from school and she would have her music playing – Mario Lanza, [Luciano] Pavarotti, Ezio Pinza (even though he wasn’t a tenor) – as well as the more pop people like Jerry Vale, Al Martino, and Connie Francis.
VM: That’s funny. That is very much like the household in which I grew up. My dad did radio and television for a Maltese community. He was an admirer of music so we’d listen to all sorts of music and genres. Mario Lanza rings a clear bell because he used to play Mario Lanza a lot. Malta is very close to Italy with a lot of similar traditions. I also lived in Florence for almost six years. I sang with the opera company there. I love the country. I am really happy I had the opportunity to study there. I found my mentor who was a retired tenor in Florence and worked with him for years. I got insight on how to sing the repertoire and just walking the streets, you get more of an understanding of where the music was coming from. I did my music degree back in North America, but it came to life when I went to Italy and worked on the operatic stage there.
PT: (Wayne) I love your version of “Ave Maria.” It’s quite a different arrangement than the ones I’ve heard in the past.
VM: Thank you. We love singing it. It won’t be on this tour, but it’s a beautiful piece. [Giacomo] Puccini was master at that kind of writing. That’s among the most classical of the numbers that we do, but we try to mix it up
PT: Why don’t you tell us about The Tenors. We know you used to be called “The Canadian Tenors.” Perhaps you can tell us how the evolution of The Tenors came to be.
VM: Yes. We were formerly known as The Canadian Tenors, but as we did more internationally, it seemed like the natural way to go. It actually opened some doors in the American market. Before we were The Tenors and were The Canadian Tenors, we were never invited to do an American anthem. So after the name change, we did the NBA All-Star games, we did the NFL games, NASCAR races and games – our rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner.” I think it was more of allowing the whole world to adopt our group without putting a label on us and just letting our music translate. That was about three or four years ago.
PT: Terrific. So what can you tell us about your upcoming tour?
VM: We are very excited about touring the East Coast of the United States again. We had about a year producing a new album which is going to be released at the end of this year. It’s just nice to get back on the stage and meet our audience again and enjoy a night of music.
PT: Awesome. We know your latest album was Under One Sky. We love your album The Perfect Gift as well. You had mentioned before about mixing it up for your audiences.
VM: Yes. We’ve always kind of mixed it up. So when someone comes to see our show, they still get those big operatic numbers and those beautiful classical melodies. But we also give our audiences things that maybe they grew up with. For instance, in this tour we’ll also incorporate many of the songs from the singer/songwriter catalog – songs from great American writers like Bob Dylan and Neil Diamond–
VM: Yeah. So we are venturing out and giving the audience something new. We are also doing some of Smokey Robinson‘s songs.
PT: That sounds awesome.
VM: Yes. It’s definitely stretching our capacity because we are going into an area where we’ve never really gone before. There are even some surprises in the show from genres that we definitely didn’t touch before. In this tour we want to incorporate these new kinds of themes and show how those writers influenced our own writing on stage. So we will be talking about our stories and how we came up with certain things when we were in the songwriting process. A lot of people know we sing, but they may not necessarily know that we are one hundred percent involved in our arrangements be it vocally or orchestrally, or our songwriting. So it’s going to show that side of The Tenors for sure. We are going to be on our instruments as well. I play piano. The guys will go on guitars. So you’ll see that side of us. That’s not to say that we’re not singing those big classic numbers as well like “Granada.”
PT: Excellent! Will you be doing “The Prayer”?
VM: Maybe (laughs).
PT: (Laughs) How did you guys originally get together and form the group?
VM: There have been many trials and errors with our group with [regard to] membership. Going back ten years Fraser [Walters], myself, and a couple of other members were introduced to each other. Some people come and go depending on what their road in life is. Right now the group consists of myself, Fraser and Clifton [Murray]. We found Clifton about two years after Fraser and I met and he’s been a great complement to what we do. Originally when we were introduced to each other we didn’t know what we were getting into. We all came from different musical professions. For instance, I was with the Canadian Opera Company at the time. Fraser was singing in the musical Lord of the Rings. And Clifton, who joined us later, was doing a lot of folk and gospel type of writing. That was a totally different world from the two of us. So we all bring something very different to the table – which really makes our group. We all have our strengths and when we write, we write with that in mind. Vocally, we have very different voices. Depending on the style of the song or how the lines feel, we usually know by this point who will be right for this line or that song.
PT: That’s great.
VM: Yes, it is. And we’ve had a lot of choral singing too. Fraser sang in an acapella group, Chanticleer, which is an American group based in San Francisco – Grammy Award-winning. So he’s had a lot of experience chorally. Going to the university, I was in the competitive choir. And Clifton, of course, was in a gospel choir. When you’re in a choir or an ensemble, it’s a lot different from singing as a solo artist. You have to adjust to blend. So that experience from all of us really helps when we are singing together, trying to create one voice rather than three competing voices. We are all soloists first, but that knowledge to make certain sounds as a unit really contributes when we are singing in an ensemble.
VM: So just like singing “Ave Maria,” four-part writing, a counter point involved – so unless you listen to your partner and make sure that lead line comes through – it could be a bit rough on the edges. I grew up listening to The Three Tenors. But their ensemble singing is a bit different. So when they sing together, it’s like “let’s go for it guys” and it’s all or nothing and it’s to the wall. Don’t get me wrong, my idols are Luciano Pavarotti and [Placido] Domingo, who was so musical. But it was a different time and a different kind of style. We try to approach the ensemble thing slightly different.
PT: How much rehearsal do you guys do?
VM: We are always rehearsing. We used to all be based in the same city. But for a number of years that hasn’t been necessary because of the amount of traveling we do. We incorporate rehearsals when we are on the road. So before a tour or when we have a show coming up, we put in the days in that city before we go on stage. If it is a bigger tour, we’ll have like two weeks of rehearsal. The guys will come to Toronto usually because our band is there. We’ll have two to three weeks of rehearsal and staging and we maintain that on the road. If something needs to be addressed, we take notes, go over it in sound check and we polish it. That’s usually how we work.
PT: A good part of our readership and audience is made up of artists, performers, singers, etc. They always are interested in process or technique. You guys are singers, songwriters, musicians. Do you have a certain type of process or technique you utilize when you’re creating?
VM: That’s a great question. I think everybody is different. I think there are writers where the melody comes first and then the lyrics. Other people write the music around the poetry or the lyrics. If you look at Billy Joel, it was simultaneous. He would write music and lyrics at the same time. For me, it really depends on what the song is. Everybody’s process is different – from tenor to tenor – and the way we work. For me, I find I’m in the zone late at night when I’m all by myself at my grand piano and there’s no distractions, little light. It’s like meditating almost. I kind of let it flow. If it doesn’t want to come out, then it shouldn’t be forced out in my opinion. I know that in the case of some songwriters – everyday it’s like a factory – songs coming out. I find if the inspiration is not there one night, just leave it alone. Human nature is an incredible thing. If you write something that is genuine and comes from a visceral place, people are going to pick up on it. In the same way that if they see something is produced, they may say this is pretty but it won’t connect on a deeper level.
PT: We completely agree.
VM: I find some of the songs I’ve written in the past – the ones I think are strong songs – are the ones that came actually quickly and flowed out of me. Collaboration is slightly different because you have to get into the mindset of the people you’re working with (laughs). Sometimes that is kind of a strenuous work environment and other times it’s so easy. For instance, when I was in Nashville I wrote with Adam Crossley and Rick Chudacoff. We sat there in the living room of this old, beautiful home – it was Rick’s home. Rick got on the guitar and I got on the piano and Adam and I would flip every so often on the piano and we’d just work on melody lines. That was another process where it just flowed. It worked really nicely. We wrote a song called “I Remember You” – which is not your typical Tenor song. It’s a very kind of folk, pop song. A really light love song. It’s nostalgic love of someone that was in your past and you see them again and it’s a second chance to pull up your confidence and ask that person on a date (laughs).
PT: That’s great.
VM: But it’s a cute song and it happened rather quickly. Other songs do take a little more work. Sometimes that’s okay, too, as long as you remember that if it’s not going well don’t take a making-a-circle-into-a-triangle type of approach. If it’s not happening one day, just turn it off and come back to it another day. You have to make sure it’s always inspired. For me, sometimes it will be the lyrics; sometimes it will be the melody. I’m a melody guy. I tend to draw inspiration out of things that come out of my fingers first. I’ll play something on the keyboard musically and I’ll say, “Okay that reminds me of this.” Generally, that’s how I write. But sometimes it’s the opposite. I wrote a lullaby which is on our Lead with Your Heart album. I wrote it for my son who was just a baby at the time. It was lyrics first. So it was the poetry that inspired the music. I think it’s just different for different folks.
PT: (Stephanie) You’ve shared the stage with some pretty incredible people and had some major appearances. Can you tell us about some of those experiences?
VM: Wow – there’s so many. You don’t realize until you’re at Christmas dinner with your family and you’re looking back at the pictures and you say, “Wow, that really happened.” I think if you ask any of The Tenors, we feel truly blessed and grateful. We just feel very lucky to have the support that we have with our fans and all that. To be getting on the stage with the likes of Paul McCartney and Celine Dion and company – it’s pretty amazing. And we’ve shared the stage with Elton John.
VM: The list goes on and on. To pick just one is a hard thing to do. I don’t get star struck very often – not because I don’t have respect for that person. In fact, I have the utmost respect for the people we’ve worked with. I’m not the Can-I-have-your-autograph? type of guy, but I have to say when I met Paul McCartney, I was like a little kid. I didn’t know what to say. I think my jaw dropped.
VM: I looked pathetic, I probably sounded pathetic. Oh my God, that’s a Beatle! We walked into the rehearsal space. We performed after Paul McCartney. As we were going in he was sound checking and he saw us walking in. I guess he saw the expression on my face. He started playing something on his guitar for me and smiling. He came to say “Hi” to us after he was done. A real class act. He doesn’t let his stardom build a wall between you and him. He talks to you as if you were his buddy. And that to me was something that I really kind of admired. When you meet stars, sometimes that is the case, where they are humble and they are on your level. And other times it’s not. Unfortunately the business makes them be that way sometimes. So I was the most star struck when I saw and met Paul McCartney. And Celine Dion, too. She also was very nice. She was really humble. I remember giving her a compliment like, “Wow, your voice is extraordinary,” and she said, “Are you kidding? You guys are–“ and she handed us a compliment. You’re looking at her and you’re saying, “Are you serious? You’re Celine Dion. You’re amazing!” Those were two moments that were very special for sure.
PT: Such great stories! In terms of this new tour, what do you want audiences to take away from it?
VM: You know what? We live in a world that’s full of distractions. I’m the father of an eight-year-old. As a father, I sometimes worry about where our world is going. I remember being a kid and weekends were still for family and things went at a pace that you could handle. There was still time that it was just for the family. Now there’s so many distractions. We live in a very fast time. We’d love for people to come and it can be like a release or an escape for two-plus hours. We want them to enjoy things that they are familiar with like old songs, and maybe new songs that they may not know. We want them to feel inspired, to feel loved, to feel happiness, to remember a moment that they had a cry over. We have hills and valleys in our concerts. The reason why we do is because life is like hills and valleys. So we want people to leave the show feeling like they went on this journey with us for two hours. Hopefully they will leave the Playhouse a little different.
PT: That’s a great answer!
VM: Thank you.
PT: (Stephanie) It’s so true. We see a lot of theatre, a lot of performances. And I think that is the biggest concern for everyone – that nobody ever really turns off technology; nobody is ever just mindful of these experiences. It is kind of sad for those in this generation who don’t know what it’s like to slow down and not have these kind of distractions. I think that’s really fantastic.
VM: One hundred percent! I think we were really lucky to have seen that. There was a time when the telephone was at home. If you wanted to call when you were out, you had to use a pay phone. And while that may have been inconvenient, there was a beauty to that. From home to the train station or wherever you were going, you were free – free of mind and spirit. Your imagination or memory would turn on. There was a creativity that I hope will not be lost in the future. There are definite advantages to technology; I’m not going to totally dis it, but in the past you were ready to storytell more with friends. There was that aspect of socializing a bit more rather than sitting at the dinner table and everybody is on their phone.
PT: We totally agree with that.
VM: The beauty about human beings is our ability to communicate with each other and storytell and talk about our experiences yesterday and while this is going on Facebook and other social media, I hope we don’t lose the innocence and simplicity of communication. That goes to music making as well. That is the nice thing about going to a concert and being released for two hours. We hope we have that for our audiences. For two hours switch off your phone and no one is there except the person sitting beside you and us. We want it to be a very emotional experience and something that is real. That’s what we are always after. And that’s why live performance is pinnacle for us. We love recording. Recording is fun, but nothing beats the live performance.
PT: Bravo! Well said. Well said, indeed. That’s a great answer. It sums everything up.
VM: Thank you.
PT: You’re a great interviewee and we could chat with you all day, but we know you are busy and preparing for your upcoming tour, so we won’t keep you. But we do have a last signature question that we ask everyone. Please feel free to speak on behalf of your group as well. If you were to sum up your life and career to date in one word, what would it be?
VM: (Pause) Wow! That’s hard! (laughs)
PT: We know!
VM: How many people have you asked that?
PT: Countless. We asked it of a Pulitzer Prize winner and probably America’s foremost living playwright today, Terrence McNally. He was silent for a bit and then he asked if he could have two words and we said “yes.” So his two words were very interesting.
VM: (Laughs) That’s hilarious, I was going to say interesting, but I won’t go there now.
PT: (Laughs) Don’t let us bias you. We can also tell you we’ve gotten a lot of blessed.
VM: Definitely. That is a word I already expressed. Yeah…jeez…that really does sum it up. I really feel truly blessed. I’m lucky to be doing what I do – sharing music with people. That is a gift.
PT: Absolutely (laughs). (Wayne) I feel like I’m on a game show! Is that your final answer?
VM: (Laughs) Yes, there you go. Blessed.
PT: This has been a great conversation even more so than an interview which is something we always strive for. Thank you so much!
VM: Thank you!
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