Idina Menzel Talks New Album, Being Vulnerable, and Giving a S— About What People Think
Idina Menzel is often associated with highly identifiable and iconic pop-culture characters, from Elphaba in Wicked to Elsa in Frozen, among other roles in Rent, Glee and more. Though she tells Billboard that while exploring work in theater, film and television has allowed for creative balance — “I get to vacillate from different mediums” — her solo work, which allows for a more solitary and intimate experience, helps her feel at balance in her personal life, too.
Finding that balance — both sonically and emotionally — is exactly what Menzel has done on her latest self-titled album idina, which arrived on Sept. 23. “This album in particular, I had so much that I wanted to say. I had been through so much over the last couple of years simultaneously — going through a divorce, and all of the sadness and regret that that brought about, while experiencing this incredible professional success with Frozen and the Oscars and singing at the Super Bowl,” she says. “It was such an interesting, complicated couple of years that I just knew that it was a really rich time for me to get in the studio and put all of that down in music.”
While she says she set out with the intention of releasing “some of my anger and frustration” during the writing and recording process, she didn’t always find it easy to do so: “I would sit in the studio and want to write a really dark song, and inevitably, I’d come out with a song that was about survival, or finding a path to a new beginning, or finding strength — and I hate that. Sometimes I just want to be angry and pissy and dark.”
Menzel explains that this frustration reflects the album’s underlying theme of wanting to be seen and perceived in a certain way — something she has struggled with outside of the studio, too. She says she’s often worried that because she has found success across so many different platforms, the diversity of that success had become more of a curse than a blessing. “The fact that people couldn’t pigeonhole me into one place made everyone’s job more difficult around me,” she says.
However, the powerhouse singer recently came to an empowering conclusion: she has nothing to apologize for. “It might have been easier to sing one style of music my whole life, but that’s not the path that I’ve taken, and that’s not the experiences that I’ve had,” she relates. “I’m many things, and it doesn’t seem like that matters to my audience.” She says her fans sing along to every song, whether it’s from a musical, film or her new record — “It doesn’t matter, it’s more about what I’m saying.” She says a commonality among all the characters she portrays is that they have “these big voices and this big presence… and when they finally let themselves be themselves, that’s when they change the world for the better.”
What enables her to wear so many hats (quite literally, in the sense of Elphaba) is the realization that, “Whether you’re in green makeup or speaking or singing someone else’s words, it’s still me up there,” she says. “It’s still the vulnerable, insecure performer inside that has to find enough strength to peel away all the layers and let herself be seen, and that’s tied into the whole theme of the album.”
Menzel can trace her insecurities back to when she was just starting out, and remembers how her mother often told her if she wanted to be successful in this industry, she would need a thicker skin. Though, even despite her success, Menzel says, “I still give a shit about what people think of me.”
The word “success” in relation to Menzel’s career weighs heavy with accolades: she won a Tony for Best Actress in a Musical in 2004 for Wicked and was nominated in 2014 for If/Then, her “Let It Go” won an Oscar for Best Original Song (though the award went to the song’s writers) and Frozen won a Grammy for Best Compilation Soundtrack for Visual Media, among many others.
Even with all those achievements, she says she has yet to reach her biggest goal. “I’ve never really had a big hit song, I’ve had Frozen but I’ve never really had a song of my own that was at the top of the charts,” she says. “I’m totally happy with all of the successes and things that I’ve achieved, but it would just be the cherry on top if people would let me depart for a minute from the theater background, and let me do the other things that really influence me, and reward me for those. Because I think I’m really capable, but I think there’s a stigma about being from Broadway that makes it hard for people to listen to you with that integrity, with that peace.”
She adds: “I put out this album that I feel is really universal, and I just want to be given this chance to be heard.” Considering how wide-reaching and genre-hopping of an album idina is, it seems as though that chance has arrived.