Barbra Streisand: ‘I’ve always had the right to sing what I want’
By Mark Savage BBC music reporter.
It’s shortly after midday and Barbra Streisand is taking it easy.
“I just had my coffee and my blueberries and now I’m still in bed, but I’m talking to you,” she says, on the phone from her home in Malibu.
She’s joined in the boudoir by her “precious little sweetheart” Violet, a fluffy white Coton de Tulear; while an assistant bustles around in the background, fetching lyric sheets and acting as a fact-checker. “Did Jim Henson bring Kermit with him to the recording studio?” Streisand asks at one point. The answer, sadly, is a “no”.
A showbusiness legend and an award-winning director, Streisand undoubtedly knows the effect her mise-en-scene will create. But if she’s keen to stress her diva credentials, at least she’s earned it.
At the age of 79, she holds two Oscars, 10 Grammys, nine Golden Globes, five Emmys, a special Tony and 42 platinum records. More than that, she redefined what it meant to be a superstar.
Take her singing voice. Streisand’s ability to shape a phrase so that it seems like she is speaking the lyrics – as if they are occurring to her for the first time – created an intimacy and freshness that has informed generations of performers.
More importantly, she changed what it meant to be a female entertainer. When Streisand started out in the 1960s, she was constantly told she was too ugly to be a star. Against all advice, she refused to get a nose job, and became a leading lady anyway.
After her award-winning turn in Funny Girl, she helped establish First Artists – a production company that enabled stars to make films outside the studio system. There, she produced one of her biggest hits, the the 1976 version of A Star Is Born, because she liked that her character “owned the feminist spirit”.
In 1983, she became the first woman to win best director at the Golden Globes for Yentl – the story of an orthodox Jewish woman who, after her father dies, passes herself off as a boy so she can study the Talmud.
It was such a trailblazing moment that, until Chloé Zhao picked up a Golden Globe for Nomadland this year, Streisand was still the only woman to have received the award.
The 79-year-old has never let her gender hold her back. Even at the start of her career, aged 21, she struck a deal with Columbia Records to take less money in exchange for full creative control.
“It wasn’t important to me to know the amount of money I’d get,” she says. “All I wanted was to sing any song I wanted to.”
Sweet and saucy?
The deal almost immediately proved necessary. Columbia wanted the singer’s debut album to be called Sweet And Saucy Streisand. Instead, it was released as The Barbra Streisand Album.
“I said, ‘What is the truth of it? It’s the Barbra Streisand album.’ If you saw me on TV, you could just go [to the record shop] and ask for the Barbra Streisand album. It’s common sense.”
Twenty-two years and 13 top 10 albums later, she was still relying on that original contract to stop the label pushing her around.
“When I did The Broadway Album, they said, ‘Oh no, that’s not pop songs’, and I said, ‘But I have the right to sing what I want to sing.’
“They wouldn’t even, at that time, pay me until it sold two and a half million copies [but] it became a number one and I think I won Grammy for it, too. You have to trust your own instincts if you’re an artist at all, and go with what you believe and not anyone else.”
So Ms Streisand has always called the shots, ever since she strolled on stage for her first Broadway Show – 1962’s I Can Get It For You Wholesale – and turned her single number into a standing ovation that reportedly lasted five minutes.
“I wasn’t counting, so I don’t know,” she demurred, when asked to confirm the story five years ago. “All I know is that my salary was $175 dollars and the next day it went up to $350.”
A smart businesswoman, who has made millions trading stocks, she also owns the master tapes to all her recordings – something The Beatles, Prince and Taylor Swift never managed to negotiate.
They’re stored in a specially-curated vault, where the floor-to-ceiling shelves are crammed full of tape boxes, movie canisters and reels of television specials.
And it’s here that Streisand put together her latest album, Release Me 2, delving into the archives and dusting off 10 hidden gems from her six-decade career.
It opens with Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s Be Aware which, according to the liner notes, Streisand commissioned for a 1971 TV special after being struck by the plights of child poverty and homelessness.
“It was during wartime, so I think it was about the Vietnam War, too,” she says.
“It’s such a good lyric, isn’t it, by Hal David? ‘While your stomach’s full, somewhere in this world, someone is hungry. When there is so much, should anyone be hungry?’
“Don’t you worry about that today, or wonder why that is? It’s very modern. I can’t believe we’re still in that same position now.”
Elsewhere, the album is more playful – notably on the Kermit duet Rainbow Connection, which she recorded just to please her son, Jason, in 1979.
“It was so long ago that I forgot even singing it,” she laughs. It wasn’t until her co-producer Jay Landers found it in the vault that the recording was uncovered.
“He said, ‘Look, you’ve sung with all these people like Lionel Richie and [Andrea] Bocelli and Celine [Dion] but you’ve never sung with a frog who is evergreen!’ And I said, ‘Absolutely. I love it I love it.'”
There’s even more fun to be had on the Barry Gibb duet, If Only You Were Mine. An offcut from 2005’s Guilty Pleasures, it features a mischieveous back-and-forth between the singers, who critique each other’s vocals over breezy bossa nova groove.
“I was having fun with him,” Streisand recalls.”The rhythm of the song gives you that leeway to play. And I love to play.”
Their relationship goes back to 1981, when Streisand enlisted the Bee Gees star to write and produce her 22nd album, Guilty, at the same time as she was working on the script to Yentl.
“It worked out perfectly for my life, because I could be writing, while he was mixing the track,” she recalls. “Then I would sing the song 10 times. That’s what he wanted me to do, sing the song 10 times – because every time I sing any song, I do it differently.
“And so I was able to trust myself with him and it was just the easiest album I’ve ever made.” GuiIty became Streisand’s most successful record, producing hit singles like Woman In Love and the melodramatic duet What Kind of Fool.
Streisand is one of the best-selling female music artist of all time, with global sales of more than 145 million albums.
Several of the songs on Release Me 2, including Sweet Forgiveness and Once You’ve Been In Love, were captured in a single take – and that is the process Streisand prefers.
“I don’t think about my voice so much,” she says. “The songs on my first album I had sung in little nightclubs, so I knew them very well. Some of these songs that I record now, the first time I’m singing them is in the recording booth.
She thrives on the spontaneity. Even when, for technical reasons, she has to re-record a vocal, she tries to approach it from a different perspective.
“I see [the song] differently every take,” she says. “I just let my mind wander and the voice follows.
“That’s why it’s maybe hard [for producers] to mix my songs because I don’t breathe in the same place, I’m just singing it in the moment.”
It’s an approach she brings to her movie roles, too.
“When I see a script I always ask the writer for his first version, because that is the intuition, you know? That comes from the heart and I always like to look back at what was lost in the next draft.”
She hasn’t starred in a film since 2012’s Guilt Trip, and her last directorial outing was on the romantic comedy, The Mirror Has Two Faces. But it’s not for lack of effort. For the last 10 years, Streisand has been trying to make a film about the love affair between pioneering photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White and author Erskine Caldwell. Announcements have come and gone, but the project is currently stuck in limbo.
Streisand says one solution might be to bring the project to England, where she had a magical experience making Yentl in 1982.
“I loved working in England,” she reminisces. “I was surrounded with wonderful talent. When I came in the morning, all my sparks [electricians] had their Finnan Haddie [Smoked Haddock] in a pot, and I would sit with them and eat it because I loved it. And I would bring them sometimes pasties and tea in the afternoons. I think it’s the right thing to do, to stop for tea.”
A first-time, female director, she had expected to meet some resistance from her male-dominated crew, but was pleasantly surprised to discover she was treated with the same respect as any other film-maker.
“Then I realised you had the Queen and you had Margaret Thatcher at the time, two powerful women. So it was not a big deal.
“When I got back to the United States, it was so different. There was the boys club. In making a film in New York, if I wanted to stay to capture something from Nick Nolte, for example, they would gang together and say, ‘Oh no, we can’t do that.’ I was horrified. I write about it in my book.”
The book in question is her long-gestating memoir, which still has no official publication date.
“I actually started eight years ago, writing in longhand,” she says, “but I [recently] realised I have to concentrate on this, which the quarantine year helped me do. It’s almost finished now.”
Evergreen for her version of A Star Is Born
With an album of archival recordings and a book about her life story on the way, the star seems to be taking stock of her life’s work. Does she think often about her legacy?
“I do, I do. I have to plan on what universities are going to get my proceeds. And we’re still fighting climate change. You know, it was 1989 when I gave my first grant to the Environmental Defence Fund.”
But Streisand is also driven by a more personal concern: The loss of her father, a high school English teacher, when she was just 15 months old.
“My father died at 35 and in a way I’m trying to carry on his legacy, too,” she says.
“And that’s what I love about making movies and recordings, it lives on, after you.”