INTERVIEW: Mark Tremonti (May 2022)

Mark Tremonti—guitar god of Alter Bridge, Creed and Tremonti fame—found a new purpose in life when his daughter Stella was born in March 2021 with Down syndrome. As the first project with his new initiative Take a Chance for Charity, he’s releasing an album titled “Tremonti Sings Sinatra” (May 27, 2022; read Live Metal’s review), featuring 14 classic Frank Sinatra tunes recorded with surviving members of Ol’ Blue Eyes’ orchestra, including band leader Mike Smith. All proceeds from the record will go to support the National Down Syndrome Society and the work it does to advocate for and support individuals with Down syndrome and their families.

Listen to Tremonti discuss the project and his passion for both the cause and the music of Frank Sinatra is obvious, making it a surprisingly natural fit. It’s also clear that he put in a tremendous amount of work to capture the spirit of Sinatra, which shows in the final product. Live Metal’s Greg Maki caught up with Mark to discuss the record and everything that went into it, and get an update on the forthcoming Alter Bridge album (“Pawns & Kings,” coming Oct. 14).

LIVE METAL: You took a lot of people by surprise when you announced this latest album, “Tremonti Sings Sinatra,” but as you said, you’ve been a Sinatra fan your whole life. How did you get into his music originally?

MARK TREMONTI: Just growing up, around Christmas time, I’d always hear him singing and in movies and radio and whatnot, and it’s just always kind of been my happy place. Sinatra’s music always kind of lightens the mood a bit. I think about three years ago, I became really determined to sing along with him and try to learn his mannerisms and whatnot. Didn’t know what I was going to do with it for years, but then finally, this new purpose came into my life. My daughter was diagnosed with Down syndrome, so I was like, you know, I’m gonna sing a Frank Sinatra record and do my best to raise as much money as I can for the National Down Syndrome Society.

How did the project come together? How did you meet up with Mike Smith and Dan McIntyre and the other Sinatra orchestra musicians and get the ball rolling for that?

My manager’s teacher growing up was Dan McIntyre. So when I told my manager about the project, he’s like, “You know, my guitar teacher played with him.” So that was our in with Mike Smith. Then he set up a lunch meeting with Mike Smith and Dan McIntyre, told them about the idea and the guys were like, “Can you can your boy sing?” (laughs) My manager had never heard me sing a single Sinatra song and was like, “Of course he can.” So they kind of went in there blind, not knowing what to expect. After the first session, they were all like, “Guitar player in a rock band, didn’t know what to think. But you did your homework, kid.” They were very complimentary.

What kind of homework and preparation did you do for this? Because when you listen to Frank Sinatra, he doesn’t have this incredible range, so I think people probably have a misconception that what he did was easy. But obviously, it wasn’t because if it was, everyone would do it. So what did you do to get ready for it?

I first just listened and listened and listened—nonstop. I went through his catalog, and I wanted to tackle not just the newer “My Ways” of the world, but to go back and tackle some of the early Columbia Records days tracks, as well. Once I honed in on the songs I wanted to do, I would take each song and I would type out the lyrics the way he pronounced them—not in the English dictionary but the way he said them. And I would phrase them on my Word document to where he placed them in the phrase. So if he started on the one, it would be right on the beginning, and I would scoot words around, and then I would make little notes, like on “Luck Be a Lady,” he sings in the back of his throat, and then in “That’s Life,” he’s in his mask. So I listened to those little things that he did, and then I would write down where he would put vibrato specifically in a word or how long he’d hold that vibrato or those notes.

And then I would just sing them over and over and over again, and keep redoing my notes, because sometimes I’d be like, “Oh, I didn’t notice this. Let me write this little note.” There’s certain words you become familiar with, like whenever he says the word “be,” he loves it. He’d always dive into that “be,” and now whenever you hear a Sinatra song, you’d be like, “Oh, I know what he’s talking about. He likes that word.” So I just learned all his mannerisms, where he would take his breaths, how he’d pronounce, where he’d use vibrato and not use vibrato, and do my best to follow along.

Was it hard to choose the 14 songs you did?

It was hard. It was hard to cut out all these other songs I wanted to do, so I’ve already got a playlist on my Apple Music of volume two going on. A lot of songs I had to leave out.

Was it intimidating to actually be working with people who worked with Sinatra himself?

No, I was just excited to do it. A lot of my friends were like, “Aren’t you terrified to go in there and do this with Sinatra’s band?” And I was like, “Absolutely not.” I’m doing this for charity. What are these guys gonna say? You did a terrible job raising money for charity? (laughs) That’s a point I want to make when I’m talking about the Take a Chance for Charity thing. When other people do it, there’s no need to be nervous at all, because you’re doing it for a good cause. If you’re a professional quarterback and you want to sing a country song, don’t be worried about it, because you’re raising money for charity. This project is pretty much the greenlight to go do whatever you want to do artistically and get away with it because you’re raising money for charity.

Did Mike Smith and those guys tell you stories or give you tips or about Sinatra?

Mark Tremonti shows a packet of the brand of tea Frank Sinatra used to drink.

Oh yeah, absolutely. These guys, it must have been the highlight of their life playing with Frank Sinatra, so when you ask them about that time, they want to tell you about it. So we got some of that stuff on camera when we were up there filming, some of the stories. One thing when I started singing, Mike gave me a cup of tea, and he’s like, “This is what the old man would drink before he sang.” And I kept it. I’ve got it right here. (Mark takes a small tea packet from a notebook.) He was like, “This is the brand and the tea that Frank would drink,” and it says “Frank’s” right on there. He gave me the exact tea that Frank would use, so that was pretty cool.

So that’s the notebook you were just referring to with all your notes. I guess you’ve probably had that with you almost at all times for the past couple of years, right?

Oh, yeah. I did my first show last week, and we had a rehearsal party the night before and it rained and we had the 17 piece band out there, and I had my notes on a music stand and they got rained on. So now I’ve gotta go back through this. It’s like, man, this book means so much to me. I’ve gotta go back and print out everything again, make the same notes and put it in another notebook because it got all wet. It’s like my Frank Sinatra diary that got all jacked up. I’ve gotta fix it.

So how was that show? It’s obviously very different from any show you’ve ever played before.

It was a lot of fun. I started doing some homework on other people performing Frank Sinatra songs and how they would approach their stage mannerisms and how to be a performer when you’re singing Sinatra songs—because this would be the first time I ever performed on stage without a guitar, just a microphone. After I saw a couple videos, I was like, you know what, I don’t need to do this anymore. I see Lady Gaga and she’s larger than life, and I see some other guys wearing the fedora and snapping fingers like Frank. It’s like, you know what, I’m just gonna be myself and see what happens, and if I need to do more work, I’ll do it then. But it just felt really natural.

The best thing was when I performed that show, all the people up front were fans that I’ve seen for decades. So it made me feel comfortable right out of the gate. I got to wear the suit for the first time performing, as well. And everybody got dressed up. It was a formal event, so all these people that I’ve known for all these years wearing black T-shirts and jeans showed up in ties and suits.

Are there plans for more shows in the future?

Yeah, we’re planning on doing some shows in September in the States and then over in Europe in December.

Was there a particular song or a part that stuck out as the most challenging part of this?

Well, there’s one note in the song “Wave” that’s really deep, and I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to do it live, because it was in a controlled environment in the studio. Sometimes during the day, I’d practice that song and the note wouldn’t come out. So I’m like, “Ah, maybe I’ll just leave this off the set list.” Thankfully, we got to do that rehearsal show and I put that in the set, and it worked out great. I just pretty much have to eat the mic. I don’t have to be loud. I can sing out here and then be real quiet and hit that low note. It worked out great. So that was probably the most challenging, other than “Nancy with the Laughing Face” had a lot of tempo changes and a lot of space. The more space and the more sparse a song is, the more Frank Sinatra’s phrasing shines. He’s so great at doing that, so to replicate what he’s doing in that was probably the toughest on that song. But it’s one of my favorite tunes.

For the most part, you stuck with the traditional arrangements of the songs, but on “My Way,” for example, you changed it up a little bit. What was the reasoning for that?

I tried to do some arrangements for the songs, brought them into the band, and then the band was like, “Let’s do it the way Frank would do it.” And I was like, “Alright, let’s do it.” So Mike pulled out the original chart, Frank Sinatra’s charts, for “Luck Be a Lady.” They were willed to him. So he hands me Frank Sinatra’s vocal chart that I was holding in my hands as I was singing that song. And I didn’t notice until afterwards that I looked around and it would say “trumpet one,” “sax two,” “trombone two” or whatnot. Mine was the only one that said “Frank Sinatra” on it. So I was holding Frank’s actual vocal chart when I was singing that song, which was pretty nuts.

So anyways, when he breaks out the original arrangement of that, I’m like, “Alright, let’s do that. Let’s play this.” So then after we did a few tracks, when we spoke with the Sinatra estate, Charles Pignone was like, “We want to support the project, but we need some original takes on the songs. We can’t just play the old Sinatra arrangements because people are going to want to hear his voice and not somebody else.” So we took “My Way,” put a nylon string guitar as the feature in that. We took “I Fall in Love Too Easily” and added the rhythm section—the original just has pretty much piano and strings. We took “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” and added a swing bridge in that song. We took “The Song Is You” and “All or Nothing at All” and made those swing versions instead of ballads on those. And I can’t remember what else we did differently, but I think it was about five or six songs that we did our own spin on as best we could.

Did it take some convincing to get the Sinatra estate to go along with this?

It definitely did. That was one of the hardest things. When my manager initially called, they were pretty much, “Nope, can’t do it.” Like, “What do you mean?” I’m sure they get 100 calls every month to do projects revolving around Frank Sinatra’s music. So they’re very protective and rightfully so. So we had to prove ourselves. We had to tell them about the whole project, tell them that it was for charity, tell them that we had the guys that toured with Frank Sinatra. And then they got to hear the recordings, and then they greenlighted it. I’m very happy, very honored because they only did that for, off the top of my head, Tony Bennett, Michael Buble. I don’t know who else. It’s been quite an honor.

You also did the painting that’s the album cover. What were you going for with that?

Mark Tremonti shows an original painting by Frank Sinatra.

My publicist Kevin Chiaramonte was like, “You know, Frank was a painter and you’re a painter. It’d be cool if you had one more layer to this thing and added your artwork to it.” He didn’t have to ask me twice. I love art. My wife had bought me a book on Frank Sinatra’s artwork, so I know all his stuff pretty well. And I actually have an original painting right here that he did right in front of me. I won this on a Julien’s Auction. It’s a Christmas card that he painted. But anyways, all his art was this kind of modern, abstract, not a lot of realism. So I just went down the rabbit hole and looked up some cool stuff online and then found the style I wanted to do and did some acrylic pouring. I probably did about 15 pieces, and I think there’s five in the album. There’s the cover, and then there’s the album sleeves. So there’s a painting on the front and the back of each vinyl, and then when you take those two out, the back panel’s another painting.

As you mentioned, you’re doing this for charity. Can you talk a little more about that part of it?

When I did all my reading—I bought the biographies of his life and everything—I read that he was such a charitable guy, big philanthropist. He wasn’t the type to do it just out of publicity. He did it because he had a big heart, and he did a lot of things under the radar he didn’t want people to know about. So I think that’s a huge part of his legacy that people should talk about that people don’t really. When we got the diagnosis that my daughter had Down syndrome, I was like it makes all the sense in the world to do this for charity, because Frank Sinatra was such a huge, very generous guy in that regard.

So me and my manager looked up the biggest organization that helps out with funds and awareness for Down syndrome, and that’s NDSS. So we partnered up with them, and they were nice enough to let us have anybody who buys a record, it goes straight to them so they can use it as any kind of tax write-off or whatnot. Initially, we were going to set up (our own charity), but it’s a lot of red tape, a lot of work, and thankfully, NDSS obviously is their own organization and we can just go straight to them. We’ve raised a lot of money so far for them, which I’m very proud of, and one of my goals now is to keep the Take a Chance for Charity thing rolling and have other people’s projects keep spilling over to the next project to the next project, so everybody challenges their friends. I want to raise $100 million through Take a Chance for Charity. That’s my life’s new goal—not this Frank Sinatra record but just everybody’s project.

Are you taking things you’ve learned from doing this about singing or just music in general into what you’re doing in Alter Bridge and the Tremonti band?

Yeah. Before when I’d go into the studio, I’d write lyrics and write a melody and just go sing it without really practicing it too much because it’s just new. Let it kind of happen in the studio. Now I’ll do the same thing. I’ll write out my vocal chart before I go in and my notes that I understand of how I want to approach it. The only bad thing is when I sing the rock ‘n’ roll thing, it completely takes me out of this territory, so all the things that I can apply to this don’t really help me on that front. But now I’m not going to be afraid of my lower register, I’ll tell you that much.

Before we go, what can you tell me about the new Alter Bridge album? I think you just wrapped recording recently, right?

Yeah, I finished my parts this week. It comes out Oct. 14. It’s gonna be called “Pawns & Kings.” We tracked 12 songs. We’ll probably have to keep one of them off for a B-side. But we’re very excited about it. Everybody in the band loves it. The producer, Elvis (Baskette) loves it. I think if you’re a fan of Alter Bridge, I think you’ll definitely be a fan of this record.

You’ve got the European tour with Alter Bridge starting in November, and then coming up very soon you’ve got European dates with Tremonti too, right?

I head out on Monday for Europe for Tremonti, through the first week of July, and then I’ll come home, hopefully do some Sinatra shows in September, and then head back out. The Sinatra record comes out this Friday. Monday, leave for Europe. Come back. Do some Sinatra shows. Release the Alter Bridge single at some point and then go on tour with Alter Bridge this winter. Oct. 14, the record comes out. And then after the European Alter Bridge tour, I hope to stay over there for a little bit and do some Sinatra shows on the tail end of that tour. I mean, I’m already over there. Might as well put on the suit and do it.

You’ve got so much going on, and to me, the most impressive, incredible thing is that you’re doing it all with a 1-year-old daughter at home.

Oh, definitely about 85 percent of my day is with my daughter. When she goes to sleep, that’s when I get all my work done. This next European tour, the biggest thing I’m worried about is since she’s been born, I haven’t been out of the country. So I’m begging my wife to come over with her and my other kids. So they’re talking about maybe jumping on some trains and following the tour for a little bit. Hopefully that happens.

Buy “Tremonti Sings Sinatra.”
Donate directly to NDSS.

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