Thirty-five years after leaving an indelible imprint on Broadway in Cats, Betty Buckley, 69, has hit what feels like a creative renaissance. The Tony winner (for her portrayal of Grizabella - and unforgettable performance of "Memory" - in Cats) kicked off the year starring opposite James McAvoy in M. Night Shyamalan's thriller, Split. And on April 7, she'll release her 17th solo album, Story Songs.
Though many fans primarily associate Buckley with her larger-than-life diva roles (Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, anyone?), she's as comfortable relaxing on her Texas ranch (and singing along to Led Zeppelin on her car stereo) as she is on the Broadway stage. Story Songs, a 2-disc set comprised of live tracks from concerts in California and New York, showcases Buckley's diverse artistic leanings.
Picking up where her 2014 collaboration with T Bone Burnett, Ghostlight, left off, Buckley channels her inner rocker on songs by Peter Gabriel, Emmylou Harris and Radiohead. Among the Broadway selections on the album, her choices are forward-thinking: Three brand new tunes by contemporary musical theater composers Jason Robert Brown (The Last Five Years, Bridges of Madison County) and Joe Iconis (season two of TV's Smash) are undeniable highlights.
Buckley gave Billboard an exclusive first listen to Brown's "Cassandra," which you can listen to below, and shared her thoughts on feminism, musicians' political responsibility, and her rock and roll dreams.
What was it about "Cassandra" that spoke to you?
I think it's a compelling piece musically, and I loved the song's message. Jason has two daughters, and he's just as disturbed as I am by the political scenario that we're all living through. He's written some beautiful music in response to that, and I was thrilled to get to debut it.
When you mention "Cassandra" in the album's liner notes, you thank Gloria Steinem. How do you feel that the song reflects the feminist movement?
It's about a young woman who can predict the future, and no one's listening because everyone's interested in the status-quo, white-male perspective. It's a wonderful story, and I think it speaks for itself.
You're politically outspoken on social media, and you reference the 2016 election in one of the album's asides. What role should artists play in the political sphere?
It harkens back to the role that music and art played in the 1960s, in that it's important to remind people on a deeper level - which art can reach - of the truth of things. Our political climate is upsetting because it goes against the grain of our humanity. So it's incumbent upon those of us in the arts to share [our views].
You and producer T Bone Burnett are lifelong friends. What did you learn from him while working on your last album?
He's got an incredible ear, so it was bliss being in the studio with him… he's like a film director. He directs the musicians and the take of a song very cinematically. There's an expanse and feeling on Ghostlight of wide, open spaces. That, to me, feels like home - like Texas, where we're both from. I'm interested to hear what he thinks of Story Songs.
Who are you listening to right now?
I think Sara Bareilles is a great writer. I love Sting - I listen to everything that he does. I love his song, "Practical Arrangement," which I included on the album. He cut it from [his musical] The Last Ship, and I don't understand why because I think it's a brilliant love song. I love driving around the Texas countryside playing Led Zeppelin… and I love Keith Jarrett. He's one of my great teachers. He doesn't know that, but he is!
Did you every consider pursuing rock music?
Yeah, I wanted to be a rock and roll singer! When I was a young singer-actress doing Promises, Promises in London, there was some interest from a producer who wanted me to be like Shirley Bassey, [but] I was really in love with Joni Mitchell and Carole King. I wanted to have my own musical identity, so I passed.
Years later, when I was in the film Tender Mercies and doing Cats on Broadway, there was interest in me doing a country album, and again I passed, because I didn't know if that's who I truly was, either. I have tremendous gratitude that there are 17 recordings of my work that don't fall into one category or another. I don't think of my records as definitively theatrical.
What's your secret to keeping things fresh at this stage of your career?
It's important for me to keep exploring. There are a lot of points of view about aging in our culture that aren't kind. We're taught to think that, beyond a certain point, life doesn't have the same potential for passion, excitement and creativity. Fortunately, I've known since I was young that my best work was going to be in my later years, and I kind of woke up this past year and realized that these are my later years [Laughs].