By Brian Ives
If you’ve seen Trisha Yearwood‘s show Trisha’s Southern Kitchen on the Food Network, you know what a warm and gracious person she is. Still, it was surprising to hear her apologize profusely for being late (less than ten minutes late, by the way, not unheard of for a major star) for a phone interview.
She had a good excuse: she’d just gotten home to Nashville after appearing on a TV appearance in New York City earlier that morning. Without taking a moment to herself, she called Radio.com the minute she got home to discuss her experience of playing the role of Mary on Fox’s live production of The Passion. She sounded like she was still coming down from the adrenaline buzz of being a part of that incredibly ambitious production. She also discussed two upcoming projects that her fans will surely be glad to hear about.
So, how did Fox approach you about The Passion? The idea of playing Mary sounds like an intimidating proposition.
Totally [laughs]. I got the call from Adam Anders, of Glee fame. He said “There’s just a handful of people that I believe can do this role, and I think you are one of them. You can do this.” And he made me believe. “If you think I can do it, it’ll be really great!”
It wasn’t until a few days after that, that it set in: I had agreed to play Mary, the mother of Jesus. But it felt like a cool chance to do different things, and stretch out of my comfort zone a bit and do some songs that are not necessarily in my wheelhouse, and to be a part of this really cool production. Nothing anything quite like this has ever been done before. There’s been some live productions, but nothing like this. I’ve been stressed out about it for the past three months.
We got to New Orleans last Thursday night, and we started rehearsals on Friday morning [March 18]. Before that, none of us had rehearsed together! There was some stuff that was pre-taped. But Friday morning was our first cast meeting; it was the first time we all were in one room together. Once we started, I was good. It was an amazing thing to be part of.
Did you notice the racial diversity in the audience
You definitely noticed the diversity in the crowd. And the diversity in the cast.
I’ve spent time in New Orleans after Katrina, working with Habitat for Humanity on building houses in the 9th district. We were there two years after Katrina, and it was devastating to see how much was needed, still. And still is needed now. So it made sense to me: New Orleans was the perfect backdrop for this story. The tragedy, the triumph, the hope, the redemption. In a way, it was really telling New Orleans’ story too.
People said to me, “What if you’re not religious? What if you don’t really believe this story?” But I think there’s still the theme of “Love one another”; that is something we all need to be hearing right now. And that’s what you saw: all races, standing together. It was really an incredible experience. I’ve been in the music business for 25 years and done a lot of really cool things, but I’ve never done anything like that. It was experience, not just a show.
As you say, it was a diverse cast. Seal, Prince Royce, Chris Daughtry probably all have very different fan bases.
It was a subtle thing. And it brought all those different audiences [to watch]. People who are Seal fans who might not know who Trisha Yearwood is, or someone who is a Daughtry fan, might learn about [a singer] that they didn’t know about. I didn’t know Jencarlos [Canela, who played Jesus Christ] before this production. But now I do!
You had to sing a number of songs in the production: Whitney Houston’s “My Love is Your Love,” Lifehouse’s “Broken,” Jewel’s “Hands,” “I Won’t Give Up” by Jason Mraz and Roger and Hammerstein’s “You’ll Never Walk Alone” (from Carousel). How was that experience?
I thought, “Man, I have to sing five songs, live.” And they’re all at the top of my register. On top of that, it rained [during rehearsals]. It was pretty intense. But the clouds cleared. It was a little chilly that night, it was a little cold off of the Mississippi River.
You’re dealing with the pressure of doing a live TV broadcast, not to mention that you’re playing the role of Mary. And then on top of that, you have to cover a Whitney Houston song! How nerve-wracking was it?
Totally, I was nervous about it. If you have an ear for music at all, you know that she’s the queen. Nobody else can sing like that. When I agreed to do this project, I went to Adam said that the Whitney song was the one I was the most nervous about. I can’t sing like that. I’m confident in my own abilities, but I can’t sing the Whitney licks. I don’t want anybody to think that I’m trying to do the Whitney licks, and not making it. So you’ve got to protect me in that you have to make it fit me. It has to pay tribute to her, but it has to be me. And he was very aware of that, and helped me shine on that song, so I didn’t have to try to carry a load that I couldn’t, or be something that I’m not. It was the first song that I did in the live show, and once I got that one under my belt, I felt good. The rest of the songs were vocally challenging too, but the Whitney song was challenging in a way to make it sound cool, but not try to be something I’m not. I’m happy the way it came out.
It’s probably easier to sing a Jason Mraz song — with all due respect to him — and not have people criticize it, than it is to sing a Whitney Houston song.
Absolutely. Her fans are die-hard fans, and rightly so. The other songs… it’s also different when you’re a chick singer covering a guy’s song, or a band’s song. Like the Lifehouse song, “Broken.” You’re going to give it a different take because you’re a girl. But when you’re covering another female, and when you’re covering that particular female, you’re fighting a losing battle. People have been really kind to me about that. Which I appreciate!
Have you heard any feedback from Jason or Jewel or the guys from Lifehouse?
All of them have tweeted or texted and said “thank you” and “great job.” I heard from Jason, the Lifehouse guys and Jewel. It’s been really sweet.
What did you think when they explained that the story would take place in modern day New Orleans?
I grew up in the church, so this is a story that I’ve heard my entire life, and it’s a story that I believe in. What I didn’t want them to do, is to be afraid to really tell the story and use scripture to tell the story. We’re in a day and age where you can’t avoid offending somebody. We’re not allowed to really have our differences. It’s: “I believe this way, and you should believe this way too.” Everybody is so careful in what they say, and what they do, and what they present. I felt like: I hope they don’t water it down to a place where it’s so politically correct. I think there was a lot of conversation about how, exactly, to do it.
What I liked about it was… as a young person, I went to church every Sunday, and sometimes I’d come home, and I’d say, “I don’t even know what they were talking about. I couldn’t relate to anything the preacher said today.” And I think, setting it in modern times, it gave a fresh new take on it. At the same time, most of the dialogue was true to scripture. I thought it was really well done, I loved it. I know someone will have a criticism of how it was done, or how it wasn’t done, but I think they did a really good job.
The choice of Juancarlos Canela to play Jesus was a bold one; Some people would have been comfortable casting a white guy for that role.
Yeah. And this kid, he’s so sweet. He not only had to be a good singer, he also had to embody this kindness and light. It’s a tall order to play Jesus! People said to me, “You must be really nervous to play Mary.” I’d say, “At least I’m not playing Jesus!” I think he had a lot on his shoulders, as a young man who was relatively unknown to the masses. He did an incredible job, I thought. But yeah, you could probably find someone who would criticize it if they cast a white guy, or a black guy, or a Latino guy. I thought he was a really good choice.
So now, you get to go back on your tour with Garth. Happy anniversary, by the way!
So The Passion must make your usual concerts seem a lot easier!
Yeah it kind of does [laughs]. Now that the song “Broken” has started to take on a life of its own, and we’re getting some feedback on that song, people are asking if we’re going to put it in the show. It might need to enter the live show for a while, so that might be fun. I’ve been rehearsing all five of those songs at my sound checks.
Have you and Garth ever thought about doing a duets album?
We’ve done duets, but we’ve never done a duet album. But we are actually doing a full on duet album for Christmas. When I hang up with you, I’m going to go find him in the studio. We’re going to do some vocals today. We’ve been working on it since the summer, and hopefully it will be ready for this Christmas.
Is it a mix of new songs and traditional ones?
Yeah, it’s a combination. We’re not at a place where we’ve narrowed it down yet; We’ve cut more songs than we’re probably going to use. Some things you’ll recognize and there will be some new things too.
Have you been thinking about your next solo album? It’s been nearly nine years since you put out a proper album of new songs.
Yes. Between the tour and the Christmas album and the cooking show and Passion, I haven’t officially started on hit yet. But I can always tell when it’s time for me to get back in the studio and make a proper album. So once I get done with the Christmas album, I’ll probably start on that. I think there’s probably a good chance of you seeing that in early 2017.
The production of country music songs and albums has changed so much since your last album; are you thinking about using loops and stuff like that, which wasn’t really the norm in country music until the last few years?
We kind of did a little bit of that on the new tracks we did for the greatest hits album [2014’s Prizefighter: Hit After Hit], and it was fun. I like to try a lot of different things. All the production we did for The Passion album was all loops and drum machines.
Don’t hold me to this because I can change my mind, but I kind of want to go backwards, I really kind of want to make my “Emmylou Harris record,” a “simple is better” album. I envision the next Trisha Yearwood album being a little bit more organic than gadgety. That’s what I think is going to happen.
Yes, I love her. I heard her music before it came out. And I don’t like a whole lot of new stuff, but when I heard that I said, “I like her.” I think she’s really talented. I hate being asked about “Who are the new artists that you like?” Because I usually don’t have an answer. [laughs] But I did, and I said, “I like Cam, I really do, I think she’s the real deal.” She makes me want to hear more.
Finally, who did the best version ever of “To Make You Feel My Love?”
Adele! But my favorite is Garth’s because I feel like he’s singing it for me.
‘The Passion’ soundtrack is out now via iTunes; you can watch the special again on Hulu.