“There is nothing more awkward than going to a karaoke bar and hearing drunk chicks sing ‘A Whole New World,’” Anna Rose Menken reveals, referring to her father’s megahit from Aladdin, on a crisp evening late in March. Cutting gamely through the din of a hotel bar in Manhattan’s Union Square, the 28-year-old singer-songwriter, who performs under simply “Anna Rose,” explains the paradox of being so close to some of the most instantly recognizable songs to enter the American songbook since the late 1980s — the evergreens her father, Alan Menken, helped plant into the popular consciousness as arguably the most essential composer in the Disney canon —and yet having so few, if any, points of reference in common with the generations that grew up internalizing her father’s songs.
A few days later, taking a call from his home upstate, Mr. Menken couldn’t sound more empathetic — as a parent, but also, more deeply, as a fellow composer. In separate conversations both father and daughter discuss how they differ, as well as the common threads that tie them to the BMI family.
1. What is your earliest musical memory?
Anna: From what my parents say, I was singing right away. Music was always around me, in general. I really started to attach myself to classic rock, in particular to the Beatles, and then my dad introduced me to Joni Mitchell. I really wanted to play what I was hearing. I remember being able to mimic Barbra Streisand, or Joni Mitchell’s voice — you sort of learn as a singer by mimicking.
But I had something that I wanted to say, and even at that age I remember it just felt good to put my hands on a guitar. I started playing guitar when I was five. At that point, I started getting into guitar rock. The first thing for me – it was Jimi Hendrix. He’s so daunting to me. He’s this pinnacle of innovation; he changed rock and roll. I’m in awe — still. I don’t try to understand it. I just love it.
Alan: My sister and I would make up musicals in the backseat of the car. But of course that all went out the window when the Beatles came along, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. But, somehow, remembering those musicals — “Guys and Dolls,” “My Fair Lady,” the early Bock and Harnick shows, “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” — all that stuff stuck with me in a very big way.
2. These days your two mediums may sound a bit polarized to some, with Alan working in musicals and considering the rock-edge of Anna’s upcoming album Behold A Pale Horse. When, or how, did your early musical tastes come to shape your current craft?
Alan: Before college, I was writing songs to further my dream of being the next Bob Dylan. A lot of guitar songs — I was composing on piano before that. But while I was in college and had hair down my back and was a wild-eyed hippie, I was still writing musicals at NYU. My sister was in the Hall of Fame Players, so I was commissioned to write a musical. I always kept my hands in that.
Anna: While I write music that’s very different than Disney music, or musical theatre, everyone from Disney really nurtured me. I wouldn’t be playing hard rock right now if it wasn’t for them, in some respect, because I knew I didn’t want to go in that direction — and I didn’t let anyone put me in that direction. You should’ve seen a producer try to put me in a dress one time!
I relate more, and I admire more, that image of the male rock star. It’s not something I fully understand yet. I will watch concert films and footage over and over, and there are female performers I hold dear. Chrissie Hynde and Joan Jett: Those are some fearless women. I love Stevie Nicks. I think it was the fearlessness of a male front man — you watch Mick Jagger, Jimi, Jim Morrison: They’re completely within the music. There’s no discomfort about their bodies. It took me working through those male idols to realize what I wanted as a female. I want to get to that point where I’m so free and comfortable and within the music that it doesn’t matter: There’s a lot of sexiness in rock and roll, but I don’t believe that that sexiness is male or female.
3. Where do you prefer to play or see music? What’s your favorite venue
Anna: I love the Bowery Electric; it’s a great size — the basement area. I’ve always loved playing Rockwood Music Hall. You could have five people in that room and feel like the king of the world because it’s small but it’s also a great place to hone your skills. It’s a room where people really want to hear music. In LA: Hotel Café. That venue is awesome. Great sound.
Alan: I don’t know the clubs very well. I don’t go to the theater all that much. I’m a Tony voter, so I go when I’ll be voting or to see a friend’s work. I go as a support. My experience is pretty much limited to seeing Anna and her band, or [my other daughter] Nora when she’s performing. There’s a whole generation of kids — now young adults — who I feel an investment in, particularly because they feel an investment in me. And I do love young people. I love the passion about the arts and creativity. It’s irresistible to be around that.
4. Is there anything you look for in a new project, or for inspiration?
Alan: For me a lot of it is relationship based; that’s the main way I choose projects. But also that the music takes you someplace; if it doesn’t do that then it’s wasting the medium, as far as I’m concerned. Every musical I take on has to suggest some kind of a world that can be expressed in music, stylistically — an era, a sensibility. That world really should be ground that isn’t overworked, or overexposed. Coming up with the music for Sister Act was great because it was fresh.
I do look for a storyline that has the right sort of bone structure to it. You need a certain kind of character or structure so the story can be told through a variety of songs that move the story forward. It’s got to have an emotional contour to it for the songs to really soar.
Anna: I’m kind of a people-watcher. Whenever I get stuck, I read a lot of articles. I talk about Kurt Cobain in that way, because he wrote “Polly” about a serial killer in Seattle; he started pulling from places like that, and I find I do that sometimes as well. When it’s so uncomfortable to be in my own head, I’ll write for a character. In that way I’m very similar to my dad.
5. What do you prioritize when writing or recording?
Alan: What I generally do is work out an entire structure for a musical before I write a note of anything: “What is the story? Where are the song moments? How does the score move forward?” And doing that, not alone, but with some lyricists, probably with the book writer, sometimes the director. It’s a very collaborative medium. I like the sense that the person who’s going to write the words is right there in the trenches with me in terms of the conception. Then we write a song and see if it works.
Making sure it’s got the stylistic stance I need it to is enough. I have a number of orchestrators who are my guys, who I go to. So I create blueprints, essentially. I’ll work in MIDI and send a MIDI file to an arranger; it could be an internal arranger, a vocal arranger or an orchestrator, and I pass what I do to them. With a film score I’ll do maybe two or three piano reductions that I’ll give to an orchestrator. I know a lot of shortcuts I do as a writer to get a song demoed — those are not shortcuts Anna finds acceptable, which is great. I’m sort of an architect. Anna is an architect and also someone who inhabits what she creates, lives with it, redesigns it, takes it out there and shows it. It’s a different relationship to the work.
Anna: The thing we differ on is effects vs. rawness. One of the things I love about Son House is you can hear his hand hit the guitar, the slap on the strings; you can almost hear the roughness of his fingers, him spitting on the microphone. I love that. As a songwriter I love that, being able to hear the little nuances of the songwriter doing their song.
My dad loves — I don’t want to say perfection — but he loves that ease and smoothness of pop music. I have an appreciation for it. I just don’t make that kind of music. As a songwriter I know that I will probably at one point start writing for other people. I know I can write pop music. But in terms of me as a performer, I draw the line at that. I don’t want to make things slick like that; it feels like a lie to me. I like to say, if I’m doing a scratch vocal we’re using it as a real take. I always record live.
6. Why did you choose BMI?
Alan: Prior to my association with BMI, I was a conspicuously underachieving composer, premed at NYU. I didn’t really want to pursue music in any sort of an academic way; I didn’t have the interest and, frankly, the aptitude. I would go to the piano practice room and fill notebooks with songs; it’s what I felt compelled to do.
My parents said, “Look, you’re not going to go to medical school. You’re not going to go to graduate school. At least look into this workshop, because it could help.” And I joined the musical theatre workshop with a wonderful teacher named Lehman Engel, who BMI had brought in to work with accomplished songwriters, but people who were not accomplished in writing for theater. That led to starting the class with a lot of younger writers coming in, and that, of course, became this whole tradition that’s spread all over the country. There are workshops like it, but frankly BMI was the pioneer. And BMI was my family. The workshop was my family… and of course it changed my life — in ways I never expected.
Anna: Well! I am a legacy [laughs]. BMI did very, very right by my dad. They really helped him as a songwriter, and I think they’ve proven that with me. They’ve really paid attention to my growth as a songwriter, and I know that it has nothing to do with my dad — that it’s because I am a songwriter, just like the rest of the people that they represent. [BMI has] given me performance opportunities, critiques and valuable opinions. It’s sort of the family business, I guess, but I’m not disappointed with that. I’m very happy with the family business.
7. How valuable has cowriting been to you as a writer?
Alan: Writing on your own, which many of us do, can be wonderful, and yet, to be honest, really, really hard. Collaboration has been one of the most important things that has sustained my career. A song with Howard Ashman is different than a song with Tim Rice…. they’re all different flavors and personalities. Part of it can be a reflection of a relationship, as well as a statement, because it’s two sensibilities coming together about a sentiment they feel strongly about.
Anna: If I sit down with another songwriter I will always find a connection with them. I really enjoy it. I was anti-cowriting for a number of years: “That’s giving up. Blah blah.” When I’m writing on my own, until I know where I want the song to go — meaning with words — then it’s hard for me to finish it. The melody somehow follows the meaning. In that way, I think I write very differently from my dad.
8. What’s your advice to fellow songwriters?
Alan: Certainly hanging around the people who do it is kind of essential if you want to have a rich, strong career. You could have an album of the eight songs you’ve written in your life and that’s it, but music is a very interactive form. It elicits an immediate emotional reaction of some kind and, at its best, you create something addictive that people will want to keep going back to.
Songs have the ability to wildly exceed the goals you set for yourself depending on what you come up with. And sometimes they don’t. You set the bar for yourself as high as you possibly can, and be willing to throw things out — a lot.
Anna: I loved recording and writing the songs for Nomad. But I think with any songwriter, your first album is a compilation of all the stuff you’ve written since whenever you started writing. Performing songs that you wrote between 12- and 18-years-old, not having it come out for years, you’re emotionally beyond that.
So I feel like with Behold A Pale Horse I have caught up. This record is kind of my arrival at a sound that I love, where I’m comfortable and excited to be: I’m not a female rocker. I’m not a male rocker. I don’t write for musical theatre. I don’t have to subscribe, and being comfortable with the fact that I don’t subscribe to anyone else’s category opened it up. Now I’m so ready to write the next record.
9. Were you ever reluctant to critique each other’s music?
Anna: Once he started letting me into the process, no. I have an incredible amount of respect for my dad; he’s been a great dad. So I never want to offend him, and at the same time, the door was always open for me to analyze or criticize or question, because I felt like I was being taught to question.
When I was in middle school and taking the guitar seriously, writing my first songs and recording demos, I was really focused. And my dad would take me out of school to LA with him to listen to him record with these huge orchestras. I would get to sit in the control room. That was my educational trip, and for him to notice I really had a passion for this and to allow it to be that way is so incredible. I would be much more naïve, my aspirations would probably be a lot more grandiose if I hadn’t seen the reality of a lot of that work, if he hadn’t let me start singing demos for him. He let me see what it was really going to be like.
Alan: I’m very afraid of pushing my sensibilities onto Anna, and I know there are a lot of pressures that weigh on her. Anytime I open my mouth I’ve got to be very careful that I’m not sending the wrong signal, because the truth is Anna’s career is all about Anna. I love the fact that she feels a connection to me in her career, but I look at her career and see even more than she does that it’s entirely something she’s created and is being won by the strength of her personality and passion.
I do like to be an example. The fact that I’m still actively writing shows is a great example, because art is not an end; art is a life. It’s a process. You live it. I’m very proud of the fact that she’s at a place where it’s in your guts. You have to create like you have to breathe.
10. What have you learned from one another as musicians?
Anna: I’m not playing in a popular genre, and that being said I don’t mind the hard work. My dad works harder than anyone I know. It was not easy for him for fifteen years. He wrote jingles — like, roach-killer jingles — played for ballet classes, whatever. He works his ass off, and worked his ass off to get there. For me, if I didn’t work my ass of, I’d feel like I didn’t deserve it. So I’m down for the struggle.
Alan: So much of Anna’s persona is the performer that I did not become. In a way, maybe on some level she’s fulfilling some dream I never fulfilled. I do perform, but not like Anna, not at the level she performs, and I think that’s fabulous. There’s a connection and yet there’s a completely separate root system that’s growing in its own direction. It’s been a challenge and it’s been a joy, because I’ve seen her develop her own voice and style. You get scared when you watch your children try to walk, and then one day they’re walking and you go, ‘Oh, my God! She’s doing it.’ You can take no credit for that, except that hopefully you gave them the emotional support they needed to get on their feet.