Mandy Barnett Adapts Iconic Billie Holiday Album With ‘Every Star Above’

Taking on one of the greatest records ever made ─ Billie Holiday’s penultimate 1958 album Lady in Satin ─ might be a fool’s errand. But not in the very capable hands of Mandy Barnett. With her forthcoming Every Star Above, coming next Friday (May 7), the much-heralded country crooner sculpts her way through Holiday’s genre-defining set with reverence and charm. Magic springs from her voice, displaying both fraught emotions and great restraint that marked the original record.

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“They’re all very difficult songs, and I had to really do my homework. You’re standing there live with an orchestra and you can’t go back and fix a whole lot of places. The orchestra is depending on your entrance, so you have to know what you’re doing,” Barnett tells American Songwriter over a recent phone call. “You’re actually leading them. In places, the rhythm section completely falls out.”

Barnett had performed with orchestras before, but recording with a 60-piece orchestra in such a setting was an entirely different beast. Leading up to two days of recording, late 2019, the silky-voiced performer spent a good three or four months dissecting Holiday’s music and uncovering where her contrasting vocal tone fit within the framework. From the deeply-pleading “I’m a Fool to Want You,” co-written by original performer Frank Sinatra, reportedly about his tangled love affair with Ava Gardner, to the lush, plaintive “For All We Know” and the tear-stained “Glad to Be UnHappy,” Barnett bends marvelously timeless melodies to her every whim.

With “The End of a Love Affair,” tweaks to the key were made to further sharpen its soul-drenching melancholy.  “I remember I was trying to get the key right. It was actually written a step higher, so I had it rewritten and they lowered it. Obviously, you can’t just do that on the spot. I wanted it to be mellow and sad. I can sing really low and have pretty decent range and can also sing really high. Sometimes, it’s finding that sweet that isn’t too high or too low.”

Every Star Above finds Barnett turning to frequent collaborator and producer Fred Mollin (J.D. Souther, Johnny Mathis, Kris Kristofferson) and the late jazz maestro Sammy Nestico, known for a prolific career arranging and composing for a slew of pop’s biggest talents, including Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Phil Collins, and Quincy Jones, among countless others. Nestico also boasted plenty of work arranging with the Count Basie Orchestra, BBC Big Band, and the Boston Pops Orchestra.

“I’d wanted to work with Sammy for years, and I’m so grateful I got the opportunity to do it. I wish we could have had more time together. I really enjoyed him as a person, as well as for his wonderful talent. He’s an incredible human and legacy,” offers Barnett. “He set the tone for me and created a beautiful background for me to be able to sing the melody and put a lot of heart and soul in. What he did really inspired me. I’m glad we were able to do this album. He was so happy with it and proud of it. It’s really strange. I think back when I was in my early 20s, and Harold Bradley is telling me I should do something like this. And then, another 10 years passes, and he says, ‘You really need to work with Sammy.’ It seemed it was meant to be when this fell into my lap.”

Nestico’s final project, the record seemed to always be in the back of Barnett’s mind. Having grown up in Crossville, Tennessee, she knew plenty of Holiday’s early work, and it wasn’t until famed guitarist Harold Bradley handed her a copy of Lady in Satin that she felt the full gravity of Holiday’s legacy. “Harold said, ‘I want you to listen to this because it may inspire you to do something like this at some point with an orchestra.’ It was an album I dearly loved. It blew me away. You could tell she had really been through a lot in her life because of her phrasing. From her distinctive experiences in life, she brought something completely unique to that album.”

On the heels of last year’s A Nashville Songbook, on which Barnett tackled the work of Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley, Kris Kristofferson, and more, Every Star Above makes a hard pivot into new territory. “It’s good to grow. I love country music, and I’ll always be a country singer. But if you can do other styles and do it authentically, it’s really important to branch out. This was something that’s a great experience, a learning experience, and it gives me confidence to keep growing and trying other things. I won’t be nearly as afraid standing in front of an orchestra anymore. It’s always intimidating. This is going to bring a different thing out in me.”

“Melodically, these songs are more sophisticated than country music. Now, country music is it’s own thing, and not everyone can sing it. I have an Ella Fitzgerald record of her singing country music, so if people think country music is easy to sing they ought to hear that record. I have the luxury of being raised singing country music and gospel,” she continues, “but I was also raised singing songs from the great American songbook. I do have that in my back pocket, but I just hadn’t explored it as much on recording. It’s one thing to sing standards, but it’s another to sing them with an orchestra. You can’t just fudge around with the melody. You can’t go out and take too many liberties. You kind of have to follow that arrangement.”

Mandy Barnett’s Every Star Above arrives as much more than a covers album. And it’s not only a tribute to another of music’s finest storytellers. It’s irrefutable evidence there are no genres or styles Barnett can not conquer.

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