Sunday, January 20, 2013

Game Changer: Carrie Manolakos

Photo credit:  Kevin Thomas Garcia

Born in Syracuse, singer/songwriter Carrie Manolakos attended NYU's CAP 21 program and booked the national tour of Mamma Mia! before graduating. After touring for a year, she completed college, then made her Broadway debut in the role of Sophie.  She later toured with Wicked, which proved to be a very different experience.  As a standby for Elphaba, she spent most of her time in the dressing room. Here, she shares a bit about that journey, how it led to her debut album, Echo, and her cover of Radiohead's Creep, one of the most successful YouTube videos of all time.

Getting to play Elphaba was totally exhilarating when I got to go on. The challenge in being a standby is that you never know when it's going to happen, and sometimes it's six weeks between shows.  As the only standby in the show, it could also feel very isolating — not performing much and being away from home wasn't a great combination for me. But I'm grateful for the hard. The hard is what makes it good.  In fact, it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I had more time than I have ever had in my entire life and I knew I had to use it somehow. So, I started teaching myself guitar, revisiting piano (which I had played poorly as a child) and writing music. Now I really feel that that's what I'm supposed to be doing. It was such a gift. 

What was the first song you wrote?

The first song, which I don't really ever play, is called "Soar."

"-ar" or "-re"? 

Ooh, "-ar"... but I should write one with "-re"!  It was about spreading your wings and taking flight.

And it hasn't seen the light of day? 

Not really. I played it at one of my very first gigs. 

This is sort of an ineffable question... but where does the voice come from?  Not the singing voice, but the songwriters' voice?

I never thought I had anything to say. It was always sort of a, "Yes Sir, yes Ma'am," fitting-in type of thing, so I never realized I had a voice. But once I started writing music and performing it, I realized that me being myself was the thing people were responding to... Some people really connect with playing a character, something totally different than what they are — I found the opposite to be true. Being myself, a goofball connected to my music, was the best thing I could be doing with my instrument, my training and my voice. I just started writing a song a day when I realized that it's something I actually have to be doing because I have things to say.

Did that "other" voice ever come up a lot, saying, "Who am I to write a song?"

Oh yeah!  I still know, like, six chords on guitar. I don't actually know what I'm doing, but as I'm writing more and more, my songs are getting more interesting, my piano playing is getting better...  If you had told me four years ago I would be writing songs, I would've laughed in your face. I was like, "Oh, I want somebody to write for me, and I'll just sing it," but then actually doing it on my own... I remember the first moment I went up to my friend and said, "I think I wrote a song."  She was like, "Really?" I said, "Yeah, Can I play it for you?" I remember playing it for her for the first time, realizing I had created something out of nothing instead of interpreting someone else's work, which I had done my whole life.

Photo credit:  Kevin Thomas Garcia

 You "made a hat."

<Laughs.>  Exactly. 

So there must have been a different kind of... responsibility you felt. 

That's a good word. A long time ago my dad said that I had a responsibility to use the blessings I was given. It was very powerful to discover I could create my own art and do it for myself — that I was the only person I had to say yes to. 

Are you a spiritual person?  I always feel that with great art we're somehow "borrowed."

I do feel like a vessel, which actually takes the weight off my shoulders... It then becomes about doing what I'm born to do, versus what I'm "supposed" to do. I try to think of it as a job, my responsibility every single day, to share what I'm doing with the world... and it's been challenging! 

For a long time, I thought of myself as an artist in terms of getting jobs that gave me some sort of "clout." Like, "Being on Broadway — check." Doing this has totally changed my life, because I feel like an artist in a whole new way.

When that "Creep" video happened, it was the last song of the best night of my life. Somehow, everything was aligned and it was captured on film, and I felt like I actually reinvented myself at that moment. 

Photo credit: Kevin Thomas Garcia

Let's talk about that. 

The wildest thing ever. 

We rehearsed it very little, but there was something in the room... I remember being onstage, really scared to do it, but did it anyway. I like doing things that scare me, because then I start feeling fearless. Actually, the first moment I went onstage to do my own music was THE most frightened I have ever been in my life, ever, and I have done a lot of crazy stuff!

But I was so grateful to everyone in that room for showing up, everything felt right in the world. My heart just like, exploded, and then [my bandmate] Julian was just making stuff up — he didn't know where I was gonna start, I didn't know where he was gonna start. He just landed on a chord, and it was... one of those moments. I remember feeling like my most powerful self, as if the universe just aligned.  And then all I did, literally, was put it on my Facebook.

All of a sudden, I was getting all these messages, "Carrie, you're on Gawker." And then it was the most popular story on Gawker, then it was picked up by the New York Times, Huffington Post, Daily Beast... It was so crazy because it all happened, like, within a week. And I don't have a PR team! I just put it on my Facebook and it happened... I'd put my phone down for ten minutes, and there's be 50 e-mails.  It was the wildest thing that ever happened to me. But it's actually given me a lot of faith in the world, because I didn't have a cute puppy or a naked video. People just liked the song. (N.B., To date, "Creep" has had over 1,100,000 views on YouTube).

I heard Alec Baldwin picked it up on Twitter?

He just started Tweeting, "Carrie Manolakos should be on Girls."  We ended up talking and he connected me to some people, he was so cool, the greatest!  It has been sort of the gift that keeps on giving... like being invited to a different kind of party. 

Is there any kind of shift you might support in people who are looking to step into their power as artists?

First, if you're at your lowest low, there's always some sort of lesson or gift there. When you're stripped of everything you think you are — or what people say that you are —then you find out who you really are.

Second, if your gut is telling you to do something, you cannot wait around for a single person to do anything for you because nobody will. I spent years wanting this and that, and that just does not happen. You have do it for yourself because you wanna do it, and if you're doing good work, if you're at your best, then good stuff happens.

Having this album, the show, having the video explode, it was like the universe saying, "Go ahead, Carrie, keep going." Even though the music business is really hard right now, the messages has been, "Just keep going." And that was the sign I needed.

So it's really about answering the call when it's a whisper, not a scream. 

Yeah... I like that.

On New Year's Eve, Carrie crowned what many people would consider the year-of-a-lifetime joining Phish onstage at Madison Square Garden.  Her upcoming shows include Philadelphia's World Cafe Live on February 5 (click here for tickets) and February 28th at the Cutting Room NYC (here). To learn more about Carrie, visit her website,

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