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A conversation with the musicians: You’ve Got a Friend debuts at the Laguna Playhouse

By MARRIE STONE

“When you’re down and troubled, and you need some loving care, and nothing is going right...” These might feel like relatable lyrics these days. Though “You’ve Got a Friend” was released more than 50 years ago – winning two Grammy Awards for both James Taylor (Best Male Pop Vocal Performance) and Carole King (Song of the Year) and re-recorded by dozens of other artists since – its message resonates perhaps more powerfully today than ever before. Dozens of hits by both King and Taylor have made their way into the American songbook, and for good reason. They touch on loneliness and heartbreak, but also friendship, love and human connection.

Singer/songwriter Kirsti Manna and national recording artist Jonathan Birchfield arrive at the Laguna Playhouse for five concerts between Thursday, Feb. 24 and Sunday, Feb. 27, to perform nearly two dozen iconic songs by Carole King and James Taylor. 

Like the legends they honor, Manna and Birchfield have their own inspirational stories. Before rehearsal one night, they agreed to share with me how they met, what inspired the show, their message to audiences and why they feel the music might be more important today than ever before. But first, a brief introduction to the singers behind the songs. 

A conversation 1

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Kirsti Manna and Jonathan Birchfield channel Carole King and James Taylor in “You’ve Got a Friend” at the Laguna Playhouse (February 24-27)

Singer/songwriter and motivational speaker Kirsti Manna

More than 20 years ago, Nashville-based Kirsti Manna heard an outgoing message on her friend’s answering machine. He’d recently suffered a breakup and his girlfriend had left town. In addition to the usual leave-a-message instructions, the recording ended with, “If this is Austin, I still love you.” Manna told him it would make a great song and urged him to write it. The relationship had left him raw, but he agreed to let Manna transform his words into lyrics. She teamed with David Kent to write “Austin” and Blake Shelton recorded the song in 2001. It spent six weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard country chart that year. (Incidentally, while the song hints at a happy ending, the real-life story didn’t turn out so well.) 

A conversation 2

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Kirsti Manna wrote the hit song “Austin,” recorded by Blake Shelton in 2001, which spent six weeks on the Billboard country chart

Alongside writing songs, singing and producing music, Manna also founded “Songwriter Girl LLC” and “Songwriter Girl Camps,” whose mission is to empower girls of every age in their musical pursuits and build their confidence and creativity. 

“My mantra is – whatever you do, stay inspired,” said Manna. “I loved the work I did with my Songwriter Girl Camps in Nashville for about 12 or 13 years. I want anybody interested in being creative to take their gifts seriously and really look at their potential. Try to make discoveries about your creativity. Especially young girls. I wish for all young girls sitting in their bedrooms writing songs, making up poems, or whatever they’re doing creatively to realize that’s a gift. Stay inspired. Find joy in creating. And share your gifts with other people because you don’t know who will be touched and how it might turn someone around.” 

In addition to Manna’s motivational speaking, she has numerous acting credits to her name, including starring in her own national children’s television show, Kirsti’s Manor. Numerous country music stars have recorded her songs and they’ve been heard around the world on The Tonight Show, The David Letterman Show, Friday Night Lights, ESPN and Dance Wars. Manna’s husband, Bill Warner, acts as the duo’s producer, engineer and musical director.

A conversation 3

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In addition to performing and writing songs, Kirsti Manna is also an actress and a motivational speaker who inspires young girls pursuing careers in music 

But before all this success, Manna had already met Birchfield. They’ve been songwriting partners since 1995, when Manna began as Birchfield’s voice coach after he moved to Nashville. Then the duo began recording albums together. “It’s the chemistry we have on stage that’s the magic of it all,” said Birchfield.

Traveling troubadour Jonathan Birchfield

Jonathan Birchfield (who goes by JB) grew up in the foothills of North Carolina. His southern roots influence his style, which has been described as “Americana, country rock, roots rock from the heartland with a kick.” His second album, Enjoy the Ride, achieved acclaim in 2013 and 2014 with the song “Shootout Saturday Night,” which was featured on ESPN during the Infinity and Sprint Cup series. “When You Say Yes” was anointed by Ralph Murphy of ASCAP as “the new wedding song.” 

A conversation 4

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Jonathan Birchfield (aka JB) replicates James Taylor’s sound, and his humble and accessible style

He’s shared a stage with Jimmy Buffet, Guy Clark, Allison Krauss, Edwin McCane and countless others. Although Birchfield never played with James Taylor (who he affectionately calls “JT”), he’s played with Russ Kunkel, Taylor’s drummer and a few other bandmembers. 

“When I met [Taylor] in Montana, he was as nice a guy as you’d want your hero to be,” said Birchfield. “We had an honest conversation and the last thing he said as he shook my hand was, ‘Tell me your name.’ For the rest of the weekend, every time we saw each other, he made a point to say hello and use my name.” 

Birchfield drew some lessons from Taylor’s humbleness and authenticity, carrying it with him into his own career. 

“I want people to be true to themselves. But more than that, I want to do good things for good people, and give this music to them,” he said. “I couldn’t live without entertaining people. Being a songwriter and a decent guitar player, I want to be in front of people making a difference in their lives. If I can touch one person in that audience, I’ve done my job.”

You’ve Got a Friend is born

Sometime after Carole King and James Taylor’s 2010 Troubadour Reunion Tour (which celebrated the 40th anniversary of their original Troubadour Tour), Birchfield called Manna and asked if she’d be interested in recreating that show. “I don’t know anybody else I’d like to do this show with,” he told her. Manna thought it sounded like a blast. She’d never seen King play in person, but she’d been to several of Taylor’s concerts. 

“I’ve written with [King’s] daughter, Louise Goffin, and have done some songs around Nashville with her,” said Manna. “A friend of mine, Bobby Braddock, once told me I sound like Carole King and my lyrics and phrasing were similar. That was a great compliment. Growing up, like every other kid, I was really into Tapestry [King’s bestselling album, released in 1971].” 

Birchfield interrupts her. “Every other girl kid,” he said. That’s the rapport between them – affectionate and admiring with plenty of playful banter. 

Manna and JB had a contact in Vegas who booked concerts and quickly grew interested in the idea. He helped them secure a grant to film the concert, accompanied by the Western Piedmont Symphony Orchestra based in North Carolina. “Now we had our reel,” said Birchfield. “It became our calling card to pitch all kinds of derivative shows – either as a duo, a six-piece band, or a full orchestra.” 

You’ve Got a Friend officially launched in 2014 and has toured the United States and Canada since.

How music can bridge political and social divides

Both Birchfield and Manna pointed to the power of live music to bring people together and heal national divisions. 

“People need to have their hearts touched,” said Manna. “We need to cut through the shells some people are living in and take them away from a world of loneliness.”

“Not to get political, but this country is divided,” said Birchfield. “I don’t care what side of the fence you sit on; it’s divided. I drove from North Carolina to Nashville today. I started early in the morning before the sun came up, and there were already aggressive, bully drivers. People are just off. There’s so much hate in this world. People are so frustrated and sad and stressed. I think some of it comes from not thinking they’re ever going to get what they want.”

“Songs that people love – the songs we’re talking about here – give them hope,” said Manna. “Music is so healing. When someone has gone through something terrible, if they hear a song or a certain lyric, they feel like someone has written about them and understands how they feel.” 

Plus, Manna said, the nostalgia of remembering a different time of life, a memory, can pull people out of the present and back to better times. 

A conversation 5

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Manna and Birchfield’s music routinely moves their audiences whenever they perform

“Let me just say this,” said Manna. “People should sit in a writer room. Sometimes writers get divided over songs, but we work it out. We’re not going to fight about music. It’s the same thing. Why are we fighting? Remember Dave Mason’s song, ‘We Just Disagree?’ That’s a song for these times. If people could really believe that and live it, I think things would cool off.” 

Birchfield also noted the power of music to connect with loved ones who are difficult to reach. “My dad has always been my biggest fan,” he said. “He was stricken with dementia about five years ago and it’s going downhill. But the one thing that keeps him alive is either I go over and play guitar, or he plays his record player. Music is a common denominator.”

Closing out the night

In addition to “You’ve Got a Friend,” fans will hear classics like “Fire and Rain,” “It’s Too Late,” “How Sweet It Is” and “Natural Woman.” 

What are Manna and Birchfield’s favorites? Both agree on the closer. “We end with ‘You Can Close Your Eyes.’ That’s the highlight of the show,” said Manna.

“I’m an only kid,” said Birchfield. “But one of my big brothers in music – a drummer – passed away. Every time I play that song, it connects me with him. I think of this guy every night.” 

“It’s a beautiful way of closing the night,” said Manna.

A conversation 6

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“You’ve Got a Friend” is playing throughout the weekend at the Laguna Playhouse

You’ve Got a Friend opens on Thursday, Feb. 24. For information and tickets, visit the Laguna Playhouse website at https://lagunaplayhouse.com/.

 

Shaena Stabler, President & CEO - Shaena@StuNewsLaguna.com

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