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Her Ship Sailed Away From the Mainstream

Jennifer Warnes' Untitled New Work Is a 'Little More Brave' Musical Mix

March 03, 2001|JOHN ROOS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Jennifer Warnes knows how baffling her career has been.

Despite breakthrough commercial success in the 1980s--performing the most Oscar-winning songs (three)--the pop singer-songwriter now has neither a record label nor a manager. In fact, her last album, "The Hunter," was released nine years ago.

So what's the story behind the virtual disappearance of one of the most sought-after session singers and vocal arrangers in the business?

Warnes, who performs Sunday in Anaheim, knows exactly when her career derailed from the commercial fast track.

In 1988, her duet with Bill Medley, "(I've Had) The Time of My Life"--the theme song from the film "Dirty Dancing"--not only reached No. 1 on the Billboard pop charts, but also went on to win an Oscar and Grammy.

That success followed Warnes' performance of two other Oscar-winning songs in the '80s: "Up Where We Belong" from "An Officer and a Gentleman" and "It Goes Like It Goes" from "Norma Rae."

But soon after the "Dirty Dancing" hit, Warnes declined a high-profile, lucrative opening slot on Neil Diamond's U.S. tour.

Instead, she hit the road opening for Leonard Cohen, the critically praised but obscure folk singer-songwriter from Canada. Warnes had toured Europe as a backup singer in Cohen's band, and her 1986 tribute album, "Famous Blue Raincoat: Songs of Leonard Cohen," garnered critical raves on the way to selling more than 1 million copies worldwide.

"Probably no one person owns both the 'Dirty Dancing' soundtrack and 'Famous Blue Raincoat'--they appeal to entirely different audiences," said Warnes, 53, by phone from her home in Culver City. "Talk about being confused. . . . Boy, was I confused about my future. I decided to tour with Leonard because my feeling was his material had this soulful punch, and I'd much rather be inside that music for an hour every night.

"So ever since, Leonard and I kid about it. I tell him that he's really to blame for me veering from the pop pathway. But he's also responsible for the fact that I'm actually happy because I did do what I wanted to do.

"You have to understand that I grew up in Orange County, where we learned about poetry in school, God in church and sex only if you were lucky. And here was Leonard Cohen, putting all of that together in song after song. It made me realize that I needed to put all the different aspects of myself into one big thing, and that thing is wholeness. I just refused to fragment myself out by doing something my heart wasn't in, like touring with Neil Diamond."

Because Warnes--who grew up in Anaheim and attended Mater Dei High in Santa Ana--has released only one solo album since "Famous Blue Raincoat," some fans think she's abandoned her craft.

Not true. Two subsequent solo recordings were finished but never released, and Warnes has lent her emotive yet warm voice to many benefit concerts and recording projects. These have included songs for the soundtracks of "Life With Mikey," "Barney's Great Adventure" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer"; a duet with Chris Hillman titled "Straight From the Heart" for the Lowell George tribute album "Rock and Roll Doctor"; and "Dear Old Honolulu," recorded for a forthcoming album by Hawaiian musician Rick Cunha.

Most recently, Warnes completed a new, as yet untitled recording she describes as "a little deeper and more brave in terms of human commitment and development." Ranging in styles from rock and R&B to jazz to heavily orchestrated pop, the songs feature a supporting cast of, among others, multi-instrumentalist Van Dyke Parks, folk singer Arlo Guthrie, drummer Vinnie Colaiuta, bassist Abraham Laboriel and guitarists-vocalists Doyle Bramhall and son.

In a pop climate that champions youth and image over substance, Warnes knows all too well that industry-born obstacles remain as imposing as ever.

"We've been talking to some labels, and one executive at Sony [Music Group], who hadn't even heard my new songs, told me they're simply not interested because the music business is going younger and younger," she said. "At least he was honest about it, and I thanked him for that."

So why not pluck a respected indie label to get behind her or, for guaranteed creative control, self-release her next album on her Web site (http://www.jenniferwarnes.com)?

"Well, my audience is part of a world market. . . . I've sold well in Europe, Japan, Canada, Sweden," Warnes said. "I could put it out myself, but it would be preferable, and a lot simpler, if we had one company with an international arm that covered all the bases."

In the meantime, Warnes is performing live dates, interspersing new tunes among her catalog of hits and misses. When she returns to her home turf Sunday at the Sun Theatre, where she headlines an attractive double-bill with blues singer-guitarist Sue Foley, the feeling will be bittersweet.

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