I Feel So Much Spring: A Sunshiney Interview with Patricia Zentilli and Patti Loach

On a lovely Spring-like Friday in March I headed to Yorkville to interview the flawless duo of Patricia Zentilli and Patti Loach at Atelier Rosemarie Umetsu. Loach and Zentilli have teamed up and created their cabaret Patti with an ‘I’ and Patty with a ‘Y’ which they performed at the Toronto Downtown Jazz Festival last June. They recently released their CD Pull Me Through which is a heartfelt mixture of musical theatre and cabaret songs. We sat in Rosemarie’s back room with a camera, and later some dresses. Click below to read!

Amanda Campbell (AC): Patti, when did you start playing the piano?

Patti Loach (PL): I started playing when I was six in these group lessons after school, and we would all have our own little paper keyboard, and one at a time we would go up to the front and play on the piano and then we would sit back down and practice on our paper keyboard. And we had this teacher who was at least 140 years old- and most of the parents thought that if they sent their kids to study piano after school at some point, their kids would learn how to play the piano. But I had a mother who was…. who knew how important it was to study the craft, and the importance of self-discipline and how to teach a child to set challenges for themselves. No one can teach you how to sing, or act, or play the piano except you. Your mom can’t do it for you. So what happened was, that within two months I was the only kid who had been practicing and then I would have to wait for everyone to catch up. So, Mrs. Harriet told my mother after the first year, “Patti is wasting her time here,” and so my mother sent me to private piano lessons with the neighborhood Queen Bee Pianist. It wasn’t always easy. It’s hard. Practicing anything, for hours and hours and hours, that’s hard. You’re by yourself a lot.

*Wayne Umetsu comes in with the most beautiful dresses with photographs of Christine Horne, Sarah Slean and Kate Trotter printed on them. Patricia leaps from her seat.*

Patricia Zentilli (PZ): LET’S MAKE CLOTHES!!

PL: … And I do remember saying to my mom that I wanted to quit, and she said, “all right, but if you want to quit piano, you’ll also have to quit Brownies, if you’re so busy…”

PZ: Oooh! Smart!!

PL: Sometimes there was blackmail involved. But by the time I was in grade nine, I went to the Conservatory two to three times a week and I loved it. It was filled with pianists, and pianos playing and singers. And there were all these characters there… the teachers were characters. I went in and I thought I was in New York. And even to this day, I get this little frisson of awe and excitement as soon as I go inside, because there is so much potential there.

AC: And Patricia, when did you first start to sing?

PZ: Um, I started singing- I was talking about this with Bryce (Kulak) the other night-

AC: Don’t give the same answer! You have to save that for him! I’m not going to steal from Bryce!

PZ: Okay! Okay! Umm, I guess, in elementary school, in the choir. I was always in choir.

PL: Didn’t you have a teacher or something who said, “You have a lovely voice?”

PZ- Um… well… And then in grade six I auditioned for The Wizard of Oz at school and I thought… maybe at best I would be like… a tree or something. So, I had sort of low expectations for myself and I sang “Where is Love” for my audition, from Oliver and then I remember when the cast list was posted having to keep running my finger across from my name… like three times because I couldn’t believe that they had cast me as Dorothy. And I just floated home—for lunch, because we lived really close to the school. And I knew *laughs* something exciting had happened and maybe… maybe I could do this. I wanted to take singing lessons too, but my parents said that I had to pay for the first ten lessons myself to prove that I was serious about it, and then they would pay for the rest. So, I did. But, I was- well, I guess I was still pretty young, I was only like thirteen.

PL: How did you get the money?

PZ: Um, from my allowance, and from doing jobs around the house… I don’t even really remember. I just know I had the money somehow. I don’t think the lessons were very expensive…there is this famous quote from my mother that will someday be in my One-Woman show…. *laughs*, I had been really interested in clown and mime initially, I rode a unicycle… I was a weird kid… and so then I would come home singing these Italian arias, because that’s what my teacher had me sing, and one day I was singing one of them and my mother yells to me, “I liked it better when you were a mime!” … So… it’s a wonder that I’ve made it this far. *laughs* But I always loved singing. My mom would, like, vacuum while I sang, this little fourteen year old singing Italian arias… and then of course I saw Annie at the Oxford Theatre in Halifax like ten times. I was obsessed with Annie.

AC: What were some of your earliest musical influences and inspirations?

PL: When I was in grade six, I went to Scarborough Music Camp and they needed someone to play bass clarinet, and I could, so I was put with the big kids camp. So I was with teenagers who were like sixteen, seventeen and eighteen years old, and a lot of them went on to do music as careers. You know when you have this sort of bulge of talent in schools? Yeah, so I was with this like, amazing band and we all warmed up one on one and we were doing Concert B flat. There were about forty-five people in the room and the conductor lifts his hand and everyone went *intakes breath*- they all breathed together and then they played B flat. And it sounded so organ- well, it sounded like an organ- but it was so organic and I remember thinking, “this is unbelievable!” That’s when I realized that I wanted to make music with people rather than just by myself. It was amazing and it was a testament to how huge music can be, and I don’t just mean volume. I think it was that breath that got me, before we even played a note. It was about the connectedness. That was also where I met (my husband) John (Loach).

AC: Patricia?

PZ: You reminded me, when I was in grade two or three, my family was driving around in this VW van and we stopped in Colorado and we had to go to school. It was Golden, Colorado… close to Boulder, and there was this great Arts Elementary School that I got to go to for about two months. We did pottery and Disco dancing… it was amazing. And one day this orchestra came in and I remember being so in awe watching all these musicians come in. And they asked if anyone wanted to be a conductor. And I didn’t want to be a conductor, but I put up my hand anyway, because I think I just wanted to be a part of whatever this was. And so I was chosen to conduct this orchestra and I remember being so excited in my little nine-year-old soul- how old are you in grade three? Eight? Anyway, it was such an inspiration to me. That and singing along to my parents’ Boney M records in the living room. And ABBA.

AC: Patti, how did you get involved with doing Cabaret shows with Jean Stilwell?

PL: Well, Jean is a classical singer… and we were friends first, and we would sing through Brahms and Schumann, but I had always loved musical theatre, and I loved jazz, but didn’t improvise… so I started to do a little musical theatre with Jean, and we would find songs that would suit her voice and her training. But, I didn’t really do a lot of musical theatre stuff until Patricia.

PZ: Basically, I was snooping around at her house, and I found all this musical theatre music. And that was that.

PL: I had all this musical theatre music, but most of them were horrible arrangements. Patricia introduced me to Zina Goldrich and Marcy Heisler, and Sondheim, and Jason Robert Brown- the younger, more contemporary… Pasek and Paul, which often had more interesting accompaniment. When the arrangements are interesting enough for me, then it really makes me want to learn them.

AC: Patricia, did you do Cabaret singing before you met Patti?

PZ: I’d sung… I’d done gigs at the Economy Shoe Shop in Halifax, but I would mostly sing pop or folk. And I’d been doing some jazz, at Gate 403. Patti and my Cabaret came about when we’d get together and learn music. And then, all of a sudden we’d learned like twenty songs. It sort of just happened. We did it at her house, and we would sing one or two songs for people there. And then we did our first Cabaret… when was that? I can’t even remember. So, the answer is no, it wasn’t until I met Patti…

PL: Did we sing our songs at the Soirees?

PZ: Yeah, we did.

PL: I think we had been paddling around in the Cabaret pool and then we decided, you know what, let’s just jump into the deep end. Let’s do this for a bigger audience.

PZ: Yeah, and it went really well.

AC: Do you have a certain process for how you pick the songs you do?

PZ: We’ll both have a moment when we’ll hear a song and love it, and then we’ll get the music and we’ll try it and we’ll think, “hmmm… no. That doesn’t really work.” But, I think we’re getting better at being able to know which song is for us. It has to be a song that I feel something about and that I think listeners will feel something about and it has to have a good piano arrangement that works for Patti.

PL: The song has to be rewarding musically and acting-wise. There is usually a story there that rises above what is happening musically. The sure-fire hits are really the Bucchinos. They are just really rich musically and harmonically and the melodies are never trite. They’re difficult; there are irregular time signatures and funny leaps.

PZ: Yeah, John says sometimes Patti will be playing a song without me there singing it, and then I’ll come and he’ll go, “Oh! Now I get that song!” I mean, Bucchino is great, and so I’m sure some of them sound really nice… but there are a few-

PL: Yeah, I tell him, it’s not just piano, there’s supposed to be a singer there too!

AC: Speaking of (John) Bucchino, how did you first get introduced to his music?

PL: Oh, John’s cousin David who’s a doctor at the Princess Margaret Hospital, but who is also a great pianist, he played “Grateful” and it had the most beautiful lyric, harmony and melody. So I asked him who had written the incredible song, and I knew that I just had to learn everything this man had written because it was so clear that a beautiful soul had written it. So “Grateful” was the portal.

PZ: We’ve had a fun time.

PL: He’s got some funny ones, he’s not always sweet. And then of course- he does shows. He’s doing one on Monday Night at Birdland, and so you can talk to him and have coachings with him. I would never go to one of those without being really well prepared. I’d have to know his stuff inside out. You have to make that sort of investment before you ask these people for their time, you know. That’s just respect. He’s not classically trained but you can see a bit of the same musical quality as Brahms or Schumann, there are these inner lines to bring out that are a counterpoint to what the singer is doing. It’s very sophisticated music.

AC: Your CD is the only one I have ever heard where I am continually equally as conscious of the piano as I am of the vocals. Is that something that was done on purpose? Do you know how you have achieved that?

PZ: Maybe it’s the way John mixes it so that you can hear the piano really clearly? And the fact that Patti knows exactly how I’m going to do things and so she plays to support me. We support each other. It is really our CD, and that’s what I love so much about it.

PL: Yeah, it’s not just a singer and an anonymous pianist. I think also part of that is the arrangements of the songs and how compelling they are within themselves. I’m also a sound-junkie so I’m not hiding a line that I think is beautiful. And Patricia’s ego is big enough that she doesn’t feel like she needs to over-dominate the music. She stands in the sonic spotlight and she is so willing to share it.

AC: Cabaret has taken off in Toronto recently, why do you think it’s such an important genre for artists to explore?

PZ: I think it gives performers, especially young performers, a chance to find a voice of their own, and songs that connect to them. They get a chance to learn the patter and to put together an evening of music for an audience. And the audience gets to be exposed to new music and new performers as well. And as a performer, it can be so inspiring to go to watch other performers do a Cabaret.

PL: In these difficult times in the economy, Cabaret is a very financially viable option. It is inexpensive for people to produce. All you need is the singer, a pianist, a good piano and an audience. And it is best produced in a small space. Ideally it’s in an intimate venue, and cabaret has this huge spectrum of possibilities. It is not a limiting genre at all. And for the audience, they get the intimacy of being in the small space and of being close to the performer, and having them ten to twelve feet in front of where the singer is standing. That closeness allows the audience into the performer’s personal space- which can be frightening for singers, when people are so close they can see the spit coming out of your mouth…

PZ: I wish that the audience wasn’t just other performers though…

PL: But that’s sort of the highest praise you can get-

PZ: No, I love it. I love having performers that I respect and admire coming to see my shows and I love going out there and supporting other people, but I found that at the Jazz Festival, it was so great to look out over a sea of complete strangers, and to know that maybe I was introducing them to some artists that they had never heard before, like Jason Robert Brown. It’s really neat to be able to open up the form for someone, someone who, when they think of musical theatre is thinking of something like Hello Dolly or Phantom of the Opera. It’s so interesting, after the Jazz Festival men would come up to me… *laughs* and they would tell me that they didn’t know a lot about musical theatre, but that one of the songs I had sung really moved them.

PL: Also, after a musical theatre performance, you don’t usually get a chance to sit and talk and drink wine with the performers. But most of the time, in Cabaret, the singer comes out after and you can meet them, and audience members will come up to you and tell you the most extraordinarily personal stories about what impact and resonance what you did had on them. It’s intimate.

PZ: We’re all about intimacy here at Loach/Zentilli… Incorporated *laughs*

PL: Also Cabaret isn’t just a singer singing all their favourite songs. While that can be great too, a cabaret has a through-line. There are introductory stories about the songs, or the performer’s personal life. So the songs aren’t just a bunch of stories, but they are connected to each other, and the stories the performer tells are supported by the stories within the song.

AC: Do you have a favourite track of your CD or is that like asking you to pick a favourite child?

PZ: I find it really hard to listen to it. It’s hard to listen to yourself sing. I dunno. (to Patti) Do you have a favourite? I really like “Alfie”…

PL: No, I don’t think I could say that I did. It’s funny, after the show you think, “Okay, this is going to be the crowd favourite.” And then it totally isn’t like that. Everyone’s favourite is always different. When we were doing the Jazz Festival, we had a rehearsal… it was a sound check… before the show and a waiter was setting up the room while we were rehearsing, and after when I went to go get changed for the show, this waiter stopped me and said, “what was that song about not being ready for a relationship?”

PZ: “Just Not Now”

PL: And then he started to cry. It’s so tender.

PZ: Yeah, so I don’t think I have a favourite track. No faves. What’s your favourite?

AC: It changes every day. I think the one I’ve listened to most is “Pull Me Through,” but sometimes I’ll listen to “Alfie” like over and over and over. Patti, what is your favourite thing about Patricia as a performer?

PL: Working together, she puts a lot of work into a song, so we’re both working from the same place. And I love getting a chance to watch what she does with a song while she’s working from a recipe. I’ll play a song five times and she will tell a different story each time she’s singing. And I’ll sometimes yell out things like, “Oh! That’s neat!” and sometimes I get so excited that I’ll completely lose where I am. I don’t get to watch Patricia perform a whole lot; I usually can only see her back. So, it is a revelation to get to watch her, just even in her face, the tilt of a head, the furrow of an eyebrow, it’s all so eloquent.

AC: And what is your favourite thing- one of many, I’m sure- about Patricia in general?

PL: Um, I think her durability. That makes her sound like a washcloth. I remember this time we were singing “Taylor”

PZ: And I burst out crying…

PL: …she got a phone call, and there was a role and it had gone to someone else… or she couldn’t take it because of something else… and there were just waterworks. And then she took a moment and said “Okay” and then shook it off. And then we picked up at bar number 47. And it was a big role. And it was a scheduling conflict, and she wanted to do it, but she had made another commitment…. And John adores her.

AC: Patricia, what is one of your favourite things about Patti as a pianist?

PZ: One of them is she is very patient. And I always feel absolutely safe with her, which is the most important thing because at first when I don’t know a song, I really suck until I get it. And with Patti, I never have to worry for a second that she’s not right there with me. One time I sang a song that Patti and I usually do together with someone else and it was totally different. And I realize that Patti is someone that can never be taken for granted. She is so sensitive and that moves people. And she has a sensitivity of us together.

AC: And what is one of your favourite things about Patti in general?

PL: You can’t say John Loach!

PZ: She is one of the most loyal friends I have. She can be tough on me, but only in a way that a close friend could be. She is an incredibly fantastic friend.

AC: What is a piece of theatre you saw recently that you just loved?

PZ: Michelle Monteith in Ubuntu Project. She was fucking fantastic. Sometimes you see something that raises the bar, and she made me want to be a better actress and a better singer.

PL: I’ll say Blind Date. Because she takes such risks; Rebecca (Northan). And because the audience member she chooses has to take some big risks, well, it’s his choice. You will love it.

AC: If you were in New York right now what would you go see?

PZ: Umm… what just opened?

PL: Something with Jeremy Irons?

PZ: There’s a Buccino Cabaret, I would go to that and say “Hi!” *laughs*

PL: Can I have a coaching? Well, I’m excited about going to see Spring Awakening (in Toronto). I hope I like it. I always read all the reviews, but I always go and decide things for myself.

AC: What is your current favourite musical?

PZ: I should be listening to Dirty Rotten Scoundrels because I’m about to go (to Edmonton to) be in it (at the Mayfield Dinner Theatre). I’ve been listening to Company and Merrily We Roll Along a lot lately. If you checked my iTunes, that’s what you would find.

PL: Sondheim never disappoints.

AC: Except with Bounce. *grins*

PZ: And [I’ve been listening to] A New Brain!

AC: What is upcoming for Patricia Zentilli and Patti Loach?

PZ: We’re still working on a new cabaret, but I don’t know the details of it because I’m going to be in Edmonton for three months. I’m going to be singing with Bryce (Kulak), my new best friend, on Sunday, March 22nd at Statler’s, and he is just incredible.

PL: I’m doing some stuff with Brad Hampton, we’re working on a cabaret about food. I’m learning Nancy White songs with a few singers. Nancy White, who is a goddess.

PZ: Patti and I are working on a new Bucchino song that we sang not long ago at Curtains Down. And we’re going to be at Sing Out, Louise! (The Buddies In Bad Times Benefit. Monday, March 9th, 2009).

PL: I’m so excited about Sing Out, Louise! because I’m doing a song with George (Masswohl). It’s a song that George sings for (his wife) Sharron (Matthews) about having the courage to not miss anything. And he sings it so beautifully. I’m also doing Carmen, Unzipped in August with Jean (Stilwell) and very slowly, I’m working on a project to do an all Bucchino CD using all musical theatre singers from Canada, such as George (Masswohl), Patricia, Jean, and Thom Allison

PZ: To name a few.

AC: Where do you get the pretty dresses that you always wear to your cabarets?

PZ: Rosemarie!

PL: Atelier Rosemarie Umetsu.

PZ: 96 Avenue Road!

PL: She has a piano in her studio, which is one of the reasons we find her so appealing. She used to be a pianist, and there came a point when she had to decide whether to be a concert pianist or a fashion designer. She has that sensibility, that musical sensibility, and I think that’s why many singers and artists come to her for their clothes. You should ask her some questions.

*Fashion Designer Rosemarie Umetsu comes upstairs and joins us*

PZ: What should you tell her? Tell her all the famous people who wear your clothes…

RU: Okay, well, should I just give you a list?

AC: Yeah, sure! That’d be great.

RU: Well, I have dressed Martha Burns, Kate Trotter, Susan Coyne, Teresa Pavlinek, Deb McGrath, Patricia and all her friends… Seanna Mckenna, Fiona Reid, Jackie Richardson, Deepa Mehta, Veronica Tennant, Christine Horne, Jean Stilwell, Measha Brueggergosman, Emilie-Claire Barlow… Sarah Slean…

AC: That is so impressive. So basically everyone.

Pull Me Through is available at Theatre Books (11 St Thomas St), L’Atelier Grigorian (70 Yorkville Road), Atelier Rosemarie Umetsu (96 Avenue Road) and Song and Script (2 Bloor Street W) it is also available on CD Baby and iTunes. I strongly urge you to pick up a copy as soon as it is humanly possible.

Patricia and Patti will perform live as part of the Buddies In Bad Times fundraising event Sing Out Louise with fifteen more of Canada’s most treasured and most brilliant performers. Monday, March 9th, 2009. 8pm. $25.00. 12 Alexander Street or call 416 975-8555

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