With three prime-time animated series to his name and a feature film in the works, Seth MacFarlane doesn’t seem like someone who has a lot of free time to indulge in personal side projects. But as devoted fans of his Fox comedies know, it takes a lot to keep MacFarlane away from a microphone and a big-band musical number.
On Saturday, MacFarlane is set to perform a concert of big-band songs, primarily from the ‘40s and ‘50s, at Club Nokia in downtown L.A. The evening will feature 14 numbers, many of them seldom performed, including “It’s Anybody’s Spring,” “Anytime, Anywhere” and “You’re the Cream in My Coffee.” A 36-piece orchestra will accompany MacFarlane, who will sing with guest Sara Bareilles.
MacFarlane often includes retro-style musical numbers in his animated comedies “Family Guy” and “American Dad.” The 37-year-old multitasker said he’s been a fan of big-band music since he was a teenager.
“When I was a kid in high school, my cousin got me into Woody Allen,” he recalled, by phone from Massachusetts, where he was working on his new movie “Ted.” “I saw ‘Radio Days,’ which was a wonderful platform for music in the ‘40s and I hunted down more of it. Then I discovered music of the ‘50s, which is the golden era of big-band orchestration. You get a little more experimentation and richness.”
MacFarlane said the sound of a full orchestra is something lacking in today’s popular music. “One of the reasons that nothing really hits me in the gut in contemporary music is that there are just too few instrumentalists,” he said. In big-band music, “if you take vocals out of the track, you have orchestrations that are ingenious works of art. That just doesn’t happen anymore.”
Performing voice-over work on all three of his animated series (including “The Cleveland Show”) takes a toll on MacFarlane’s vocal cords. “It can be detrimental to your voice, like when you’re screaming as Stewie [from ‘Family Guy’]. I try not to record the animated shows too close to performing the music,” he said.
The Club Nokia concert comes out of MacFarlane’s upcoming album, scheduled to be released in September. “Music Is Better Than Words,” produced by Universal Republic Records, was recorded in analog, to reproduce the imperfect sound quality of albums from the ‘50s, and features a 55-piece orchestra. MacFarlane even recorded with the same microphone that Frank Sinatra used, courtesy of Capitol Records, where the album was made.
MacFarlane considers Ol’ Blue Eyes as one of his key vocal inspirations. “His skill as an actor was what separated him,” he said. “There were vocalists who were more technically proficient, but Sinatra was an actor, so you had that storytelling element. Of course, I’m in no way comparing myself to Sinatra.”
Joel McNeely, who produced and arranged the album, said that MacFarlane’s voice is notable for its breadth and versatility."He has a big booming baritone voice that goes deep, that Gordon MacRae sound,” he said. “But then he has another gear up higher and his voice doesn’t thin out.” (McNeely will conduct Saturday’s concert.)
Over the years, MacFarlane trained regularly with Lee and Sally Sweetland, who also coached Sinatra. Lee Sweetland died in 2009, and MacFarlane still trains with Sally and her son, Steve.
MacFarlane will spend much of this year working on his feature directorial debut “Ted,” which begins shooting in May. Starring Mark Wahlberg and Mila Kunis, the movie is a mix of live action and computer animation, with voice-over work by MacFarlane as a teddy bear that comes to life.
Musicals are never far from MacFarlane’s mind and he has even entertained the notion of doing a spoof of “The Sound of Music” on “Family Guy.” But the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization may put the kibosh on that idea.
“They don’t allow lyric changes,” MacFarlane said. “So we would have to use sound-alike songs, and I despise them. That’s been the big hurdle. But it would be such fun.”