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Arts & Culture

Minnie Driver Sings, Stripped Down And Haunting

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Minnie Driver has a husky, distinctive voice that might still be more familiar from films and television than music but she has been singing for most of her life and has a new album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MASTER BLASTER")

MINNIE DRIVER: (Singing) Everyone's feeling pretty. It's hotter than July. Though the world's full of problems, they couldn't touch us even if they tried.

SIMON: That's her version of Stevie Wonder's song "Master Blaster." Minnie Driver's third and latest album is "Ask Me To Dance," and Minnie Driver joins us now from the studios of NPR West. Thanks very much for being with us.

DRIVER: Oh, thanks for having me.

SIMON: How did you choose which songs go onto this album?

DRIVER: Well, it started out as a conversation. I think it's probably completely inaccurate, and I apologize to any Japanese listeners, but someone told me once that karaoke means a version of empty orchestra. And we were talking about how - what the obverse of that was, and that if in terms of doing karaoke - how you could make it meaningful. And I was thinking, in the same way when I write songs, it has to come from a place of connectivity and emotion, and so all of the songs have a story and a meaning to me and my life. And in the line of notes, I tell the story of why I chose each song.

SIMON: By the way, we just quickly checked your interpretation of karaoke. You're right.

DRIVER: Good. Well, I can leave with my dignity intact. That's prize enough 'cause it's rare (laughter).

SIMON: Well, we still have the interview to get through.

DRIVER: (Laughter).

SIMON: Let's listen to another one of your songs, "Fly Me To The Moon."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FLY ME TO THE MOON")

DRIVER: (Singing) Fly me to the moon and let me play among the stars. Let me know what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars.

SIMON: This is a beautiful version. It really is.

DRIVER: Awe, thank you.

SIMON: What does the song mean to you?

DRIVER: Well, the story went that my - when my father first saw my mother, as she walked into a restaurant, and he watched her come in out of the rain in London and was flustered and late. And she made her way across the restaurant, actually to the table that he was at, and "Fly Me To The Moon" was playing when he watched her walk across this room. And they always told me this story and I always - it was such a beautiful title. I always had this idea of how the song sounded. And they told me that story from when I was very young. And probably when I was about 13 or 14 I actually heard "Fly Me To The Moon," the Sinatra version, which it was, and I remember being - well, not really horrified but surprised that there was a kind of swinging, gin-soaked song.

SIMON: It's a little more ring-a-ding-ding.

DRIVER: Exactly. It wasn't this - how I imagined when a man is watching a woman and falling in love with her. So actually, this version that I do is, I think, the idea of the song that I had in my head when I was little, which was this stripped down, sort of haunting ballad

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FLY ME TO THE MOON")

DRIVER: (Singing) Fill my heart with song and let me sing for evermore. You are all I long for, all I worship and adore. In other words, please be true.

SIMON: How did you wind up singing it at Ronnie Scotts, which is a pretty famous jazz club in London?

DRIVER: Well, you know, I sang in a jazz - not at Ronnie's, that was later - but just to begin with, I was singing in a jazz combo in restaurants through college and a little bit afterwards. When no one is listening to you, it's just clinking glasses and cutlery, and that's where I got to be, you know, really bad and I really learned to sing properly, I mean, with a band. And so by the time I started playing at Ronnie's, it was later and I was - had gotten better. I'd already been signed to Island Records in a band when I was about 19, and then we got swiftly dropped. And I was about to sign another deal when I met Pat O'Connor, who directed "Circle Of Friends," and he offered me the part in that film. And things really changed.

SIMON: Do you feel there's a singing career you left behind for a while?

DRIVER: Oh, I think definitely. If I'd thrown as much as I'd threw at acting as I had at the music industry, I was aware that couldn't really do, or I couldn't really do both. I think at that time, where I couldn't see it that way, I was too young to think that I could really do both together all the time. I definitely feel that I did and could have pursued a far more commercial musical career once I got - you know, there was a moment when I was really famous in my middle 20s and I was offered deals but it was - I wasn't allowed to write the first record and definitely would've been put through the machine. And I didn't really want to do that. I like how it's shaken down.

SIMON: Let's listen to another from this album. You do a version of The Cure's "Close To Me." Let's listen to a little bit of the original now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLOSE TO ME")

THE CURE: (Singing) I've waited hours for this, I've made myself so sick. I wish I'd stayed asleep today.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CLOSE TO ME")

DRIVER: (Singing) I never thought this day would end. I never thought tonight could ever be this close to me. Just try to see in the dark. Just try to make it work to feel the fear before you're here.

SIMON: This is very nice. How did you bring this one forward?

DRIVER: The way that we initially recorded it, it was a far more, less loungey, trippy version. The production, I think, is really what made that song as interesting as it is. And that was always - that was the only song boys would ever ask me to dance to. That's - the record's called "Ask Me To Dance" 'cause, you know, that's what every school dance is about when you're a kid. And no one ever asked me to dance to the slow songs but that was a fast song. So I always danced to that one, which is why it's on the record.

SIMON: I have a hard time understanding why nobody ever asked you to dance.

DRIVER: Well, that's really nice of you but I was really tall, and I had so much hair. I didn't look unlike Slash. In fact, some people called me Slash, unkindly, but I took it as a compliment. He's a great guitar player. Also I think I was probably quite an energetic dancer. I was probably just a bit too much to handle really, you now (laughter).

SIMON: Minnie Driver speaking with us from NPR West. Her new album is "Ask Me To Dance." Thank you so much for being with us.

DRIVER: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE SONG")

DRIVER: (Singing) The words I have to say, may well be simple but they're true. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.