Sandra Bernhard Talks Cover Songs, Club Music, and Liberal Comedy

​First, an obligatory reference to the old glory days of South Beach: Sandra Bernhard totally hung out there in the '90s and -- obligatory related reference to Ingrid Casares -- totally dated Ingrid Casares! 

Okay, got that out of the way. Everyone involved in that era has moved on, but ribald comedienne Bernhard makes a habit of returning to her old Miami stomping grounds. Most recently, it was for a 2007 "Evening With" stand at Colony Theatre, where she performed a variety-style mix of music and comedy. 

As part of a new slate of programming at Prelude by Barton G., Bernhard will take over the Arsht Center's in-house restaurant at 8 p.m. this Friday and Saturday. Bernhard first proved she had pipes in 1994 when she scored a bona fide club and chart hit, a cover of Sylvester's disco classic "You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)." 

Since then, she's opted for more serious musical stylings along the jazz/blues/torch-song spectrum -- usually. Her most recent album, 2009's Whatever It Takes, saw her pulling a Paul Simon and getting in touch with African sounds and issues. 

Still, her between-songs commentary and comedy riffs can be, er, colorful, so be forewarned of a choking hazard if you opt for a $110 dinner-show ticket. For the windpipe-timid, there's also a show-only option for $55. Cultist caught up with Bernhard by phone recently. Here's what she had to say. 


New Times: So you're home in New York right now. Is your show in Miami part of a larger tour?

Sandra Bernhard: I'm not on some sort of ongoing tour, I just do dates, because it's not like I have an album to support. I just perform all year round, constantly. 

All my shows are works in progress. I've put a bunch of new material together from the three shows I've done in New York over the past year, and I have some material planned that I haven't done anywhere else. The contemporary stuff is very of the moment, and then there are some set pieces, things that have a longer shelf life. And then it's all surrounded with my music and my songs, so everything stays pretty fresh.

The show is a mix-up of styles from rock and roll to cabaret to burlesque, and monologues, and little snippets of observation. It's a real post-modern mash-up of all the different styles of performing that have influenced me over the years.

How much of it is structured before you get onstage, and how much is off the cuff?

Well, it really depends on the night. I always have my outline to fall back on, but if I connect with the audience and I feel I'm on a roll, it can be as much as 50 percent improvised, and 50 percent material I've worked on. Other nights, I can feel like I need to be more on target. I always improvise something; it just depends on the crowd and my mood and the vibe. 

How does the music versus spoken part break down? Is it pretty much 50-50?

No, I'd say I talk 60, and music, 40.

In a couple interviews you've done, you've said your first love was music. How did you end up going more into comedy, with music falling more by the wayside?

Oh, well it never fell by the wayside. It was easier when I moved to L.A. to start performing, to get onstage at the comedy clubs, because you didn't have to have a band. At the same time, they would always have some sort of musician, so I would incorporate it in the comedy. 

It kind of made it weird, but it kind of made it more interesting in the same way. Just to be another singer out on the circuit, it's harder to establish your voice. But as a comedian and all over performer, I got to do a lot more that was reflective of my time and my culture and my generation. Then it just kept evolving from there, and worked that I could do both.

Did you move to L.A. with an express intent of becoming either a singer or a comedian, or did you want to approach both?

I wanted to approach both. I didn't go to college, so it wasn't like I had done a music or acting program. I really did it on my own, and kind of found my way as I went along and met up with people who thought, "Oh my god, you're really funny," or, "Oh my god, you can really sing." So I had a lot of mentors along the way who supported me and guided me in different directions.

Who were some of your musical mentors?

Well, you wouldn't know who the people are; they were just kind of local L.A. musicians and songwriters at the time that I ended up working with and doing shows with. They are still working and doing their thing, just kind of more behind the scenes.

Who were some of your biggest influences as a vocalist or songwriter?

It's very eclectic, ranging from Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro and Dusty Springfield, Dionne Warwick, and a sum of musical styles ... the Stones, a lot of jazz, and some jazz leads to rock and roll. It kind of covers the waterfront, my music. 

When you perform, is it mostly covers, or original material too?

There's original material as well as covers. 

Over the years you've also had club chart hits, like the cover you did of the Sylvester song. Those are really different stylistically from what you're doing now. Were you interested in club music specifically, or did that happen through serendipity?

Kind of both. I liked early dance music from the '70s and '80s, but a lot of times I would collaborate and write songs, and they lent themselves to doing a dance remix. A lot of people out there do remixes, and it's an easy thing to get out there. It's always been cool, not my first love by any stretch of the imagination, but a way to get your music out there, really. 

In recent years, at what point did you decide to pursue playing the format of the show you're playing now, with more of the music incorporated?

I've been doing this for years. After I did the film The King of Comedy, it opened a lot more doors for me to do my one-woman show, so kind of really since '83, '85, I've been exclusively doing venues where I could do my own thing. 

Where did you get your backing band?

Well, in Miami I'm only playing with one person, my new musical director named Carla Patullo. She plays guitar and keyboard, so depending on the song, she'll either play one or the other. 

With the parts of the show you improvise, how do you signal to her and keep it flowing?

Well, the music's all rehearsed. With the songs, we have a set list, so she just moves from one instrument to the other. She could play under me -- sometimes that happens -- but the actual songs are rehearsed and she knows whereabouts they fall in the show. 

What are some of your favorite covers that you will probably perform in Miami?

I never talk about the songs I'm going to do before I do them, because it kind of gives it away in a weird way. It's like a bummer. I'm not 100 percent sure what I'm going to do, anyways; there might be a couple surprises and last-minute changes. I just want people to come check it out. 

As far as the spoken part of the show, are there any specific topics you plan to broach?

Well, I always talk about experiential things, either things that I've observed or have happened to me, maybe talking about a crazy audition, or my daughter, or my relationship. I try to mix it up, and I do try to incorporate some global or political things. But I don't know, I don't find talking didactically about politics to be particularly entertaining. I'll touch on things, but I won't drag it out and comment, per se. 

You've almost been painted into a corner in recent years as a "liberal comic" per se. Is that something you're conscious of, or are you trying to avoid talking about certain subjects because of that?

No, I'm not trying to avoid talking about anything. My work has always been incredibly liberal; it's just who I am. I stand very strong on women's reproductive rights, gay rights, human rights. That's just a given. But I try to incorporate it in more engaging ways than to just talk about it didactically.

Your last album, Whatever It Takes, was sort of billed as a concept album where you were talking about those social issues. What made you decide, on that record, that it was time to tackle those issues in that format?
Well, actually, I was approached to do that album by the producer, Ted Mason, so he put it together with me and it was kind of his vision. It wasn't something that I pursued; I met him and he wanted me to be the singer on it, and he knew that politically we thought alike. So that's how it happened.

So, the kind of world beat, African musical influence was more his thing?


Yeah, definitely. I admire it and think it's wonderful, but it's not something I would necessarily pursue on my own. But it was fun to do it, and interesting, and culturally enriching for sure.

That album came out in 2009, so do you have plans for a new album in the works?

Well, actually with Carla, my new musical director, we've been recording some songs. So we'll probably put together six or seven songs for iTunes or something, mainly new songs. She lives in Austin, Texas so we can't always get together, so we'll get it done as soon as we can.

If she lives in Austin, how did you two start working together?

She actually persuaded my manager to bring me down there. She has a band called the White Widow, and she's also been promoting some acts, like me. So she and her partner brought me down to do SXSW, and gay pride, and a couple other dates in Houston and San Antonio. 

So I went down there three times this past year, and we got to working together. Her band there backed me up, and they're really gritty, with kind of a P.J. Harvey vibe, musically. We just hit it off. She's really talented, she's young, she's enthusiastic. It was just nice to work with somebody who had some fresh input. It looks like we're going to work together for a while. 

To wrap up, what's your next big project that your fans should look out for?

I'm writing a musical with an artist named Justin Bond, who used to do this thing called Kiki and Herb. So in March, we're doing a backers' audition for producers at Joe's Pub, and hopefully at that point we'll find people to invest in the show. Maybe by the fall we'll have it up and running. I'd like to see it on Broadway, frankly, but at the very least off Broadway with a bigger house and profile.

See Sandra Bernhard on 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Prelude by Barton G.,

in the Ziff Ballet Opera House at the Adrienne Arsht Center (1300

Biscayne Blvd., Miami). Tickets cost $55 or $110. Call 305-537-7900 or visit preludebybartong.com


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