Karen Akers keeps running into New Orleans, which apparently keeps her running to New Orleans. Back in the 1980s, Akers, one of the world's most critically acclaimed cabaret singers befriended Mickey Gil and George Patterson while they were all in New York City; later, Gil recruited Akers to play a Krewe of Petronius event back in the late '80s.
"Mickey was very sweet to me," recalls Akers, who met the two when she was singing at, appropriately enough, Mickey's on West 54th Street. "He and George were just wonderful."
But it is her most recent run-in that has Akers making a rare two-weekend stand at Le Chat Noir starting this Friday; Akers met Le Chat Noir owner Barbara Motley at a cabaret convention this past spring, and Akers was so taken with Motley that she agreed to make a return trip. Akers' appearance is a major coup for the venue, which over the past three years has redefined how a local cabaret venue can entertain this city.
"I'm thrilled to be coming back," Akers says by phone from Washington, D.C., of her return. "I think Barbara Motley is just a fabulous lady. She sent me a thoughtful packet of information about Le Chat Noir and what our surroundings would be. She just couldn't be sweeter. They really have it together."
She should talk. Over her two-decade career, Akers has carved out a cabaret career that has critics comparing her at various times and in various ways to some of the world's greatest vocalists. "It's a great voice, an instrument with the power of (Barbra) Streisand's, the dark passion of (Edith) Piaf's and the lean irony of (Marlene) Dietrich," The Los Angeles Herald-Examiner once wrote. And yet, at the same time, Akers has done an incredible job of finding her own voice, both literally and figuratively. For whatever you might think of a cabaret singer, Akers' delivery is so perfectly modulated that she deftly walks that very thin line between subtlety and impassivity. For a woman with such tremendous power, she never over-sings.
"My husband will be glad to hear that," she says of her husband and producer, Kevin Power. "He can take the credit for that, because he's the one pulling me back from overdoing it. When I'm not jet-lagged, my voice can be big, I guess you can say.
"I think very often the character of the song is not well served by a big, powerful, 'Sing it, Louise!' style," says Akers, whose first vocal teacher hails from Baton Rouge. "The song is much better served by a softer, more focused, don't-hit-things-over-the-head approach. I'm not saying I don't hit them over the head, but when you sing live, there's a temptation to really let go and let fly, and that's not always the best thing to do."
It's that kind of awareness that has served Akers well over her career, which started with a bang in 1982. Producer Tommy Tune was fishing for candidates in his Broadway run of Nine, which features 21 female singing parts. A friend tipped him off on Akers, and once he heard her he immediately cast her. Nine earned her both a Theatre World Award and a Tony Award nomination. She followed that with an appearance in the Tony-winning musical Grand Hotel, as well as sporadic film appearances (Heartburn, The Purple Rose of Cairo). Her popularity has led to sold-out shows at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center.
Along the way, she continually honed her voice, at first realizing she was too young to be taking such overwhelming works as those by Kurt Weill or Stephen Sondheim or matching Piaf's iconic voice -- earning those privileges later as she matured. That maturity is crystal clear on last year's CD, Feels Like Home, where her richness fills such tunes as the Michael Vaucaire/Charles Dumont classic "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rein." She wonderfully embraces honorary Louisianian Randy Newman's title track, nodding to Tennessee Williams' definition of home in her liner notes: "a thing two people have between them."
"When I was 28 or even 32, I didn't have any context to sing anything like 'No Regrets,'" she says. "How crazy is that? OK. Now, I'm in my 50s, I've lived a good deal more and still realize there is much to learn which is unfathomable. I think the quest of developing your voice has to do with being true to who you are. You recognize that certain things suit you because you believe in them, and you espouse whatever sort of life philosophy is behind them.
"Either that, or you've just been through the mill in a particular way. You have to be true to yourself, and very often be true to the composer's wishes, not messing around a lot. If a song is beautiful, and simple, why muck it up?"
- 'Very often the character of the song is not well served by a big, powerful, "Sing it, Louise!" style,' Karen Akers says of her wonderfully modulated delivery. 'The song is much better served by a softer, more focused, don't-hit-things-over-the-head approach.'