Actress Alicia Witt is set to release her long-overdue debut album, “Revisionary History,” on Tuesday.
There are two ways to look at that. The first is to say, “Oh, not another vanity album from an actress of some acclaim. Couldn’t she just be happy with her impressive resume that included roles in dozens of films and TV show like ‘Dune,’ ‘Cybill,’ ‘The Sopranos,’ ‘House of Lies,’ ‘Justified,’ ‘The Mentalist’ and ‘Friday Night Lights’?”
Or you could just listen to it and quickly realize that the piano prodigy’s album is a brilliant collection of piano-driven rock a la Billy Joel, Carole King and Ben Folds (Miss Witt’s onetime lover, who produced the album).
The actress and songbird took time out to reflect on her creative duality in this exclusive interview.
Question: Which came first for you: acting or playing the piano?
Answer: I started talking piano lessons when I was 7, which was the year I did “Dune.” I started competing a few months later.
[Acting and playing piano] were running parallel to each other. After “Dune,” I wasn’t able to do any more acting living in Worcester, Massachusetts, so I started begging my parents to move to LA. They weren’t keen on the idea when I was a child, so the music became much more serious for a long time.
I started playing pop songs when I was 10 to pay for the piano lessons. I would play in a restaurant a night or two each week: show tunes, jazz standards the music I loved growing up. Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald.
Q: How soon after that did you land the role on “Cybill”?
A: I was 18 when I shot the pilot, 19 when the series started. That allowed me to quit my so-called “day job” playing piano at the Beverly Wilshire hotel. I had been playing there four to five nights a week and earning enough of a living to pay my rent and my bills.
Cybill had a piano on the set, and the writers incorporated me doing music into the first episode.
Q: Since you are so well known as an actress, is it difficult to get people to take you seriously as a musician and songwriter?
A: I think some of the female actors that do music have cabaret acts. People assume I just do jazz standards or cabaret now, which I did [before]. That’s why I love when people come to the shows and see what I’m doing with my music.
I describe it as piano rock. If people like Carole King and Sara Bareilles, they will like my stuff. I think it also helps that I am somewhat known as an actor but not super well known. People are willing to check out the music without the instant judgment they would have if I were a really well-known actor.
Q: After a lifetime of playing classical music and covers, was it hard to transition to pop/rock?
A: It certainly took awhile. I always knew that I wanted to do my own music. But I didn’t grow the [nerve] I needed to do that until about seven years ago. I had tried to write songs before that and felt they were never good enough.
Q: The record is produced by Ben Folds, with whom you were also romantically involved. Which came first, music collaboration or the relationship?
A: The creative process came first. We first met in Nashville the day I was scheduled to play a show with a singer-songwriter friend of mine who was friends with Ben. We started talking about classical music. After that, we communicated via email and wrote a couple of songs that way. I mentioned I was more a lyricist, and he mentioned he was more of a music writer. That is how we first started to know each other.
Then the romance happened, and the creative connection remained. Recording didn’t have that, “Oh, I’m recording with my boyfriend feeling.” It seemed like they were two separate issues, and we were just about making some amazing music.
Q: Why does your debut album, “Revisionary History,” feature only nine songs?
A: Because it was difficult to coordinate my schedule with Ben’s. More him than me [as] he is very busy. At first, we talked about just doing a four-song EP. We got back into the studio, and we were very ambitious.
Q: If you were forced to choose just acting or music, what would it be?
A: I won’t; I never will. I don’t think I could choose. They are both equal parts of what I have to say and what drives me. I’m more of a complete person when I get to do both.
Q: Actingwise, what do you have coming up?
A: I don’t know. I worked a lot this past year on “Justified,” and it was one of the most fulfilling roles I’ve ever done. I just did “House of Lies” and got to work with Don Cheadle. I also shot an episode of “Elementary,” which was really fun because I got to play a sociopath. But next, I don’t know.