Welcome back to Composer’s Corner, Subito Music’s informal composer-chat series. This time, we’re featuring Randi Driscoll, an award-winning singer/songwriter whose noted, original songs “What Matters” and “Love is Love” are part of the Yelton Rhodes Music catalog, a collection that features choral music for GALA choruses. Subito Music is the exclusive distributor of Yelton Rhodes Music.
Driscoll’s music is a blend of piano-driven singer/songwriter works with elements of pop, country and jazz. Based in Nashville, TN, the New Jersey-native studied music and theatre at the University of San Diego and has released seven studio albums of her works, and also participated in or performed on over 50 additional albums for other artists and bands of varying genres. Driscoll has shared the stage with artists including: Pat Benatar; Dar Williams; Bruce Hornsby; Bonnie Raitt; Linda Ronstadt; Anthony Rapp; Max Von Essen; Jason Mraz, and Dave Koz. Her music has been featured in theatre (The Laramie Project; Epilogue), film, television, and a commercial directed by Spike Lee. Her performance credits include appearances at Lincoln Center, Le Place des Arts (Montréal), The Japan Center for the Arts, and The Ford Theatre.
Driscoll’s original song “What Matters” was written in 1998, in response to the death of Matthew Shepard, a young man killed in a brutal hate crime. The song was written to honor his life, his family and the unconditional love they represent. “What Matters” has become the official benefit single for the Matthew Shepard Foundation, which was founded by Shepard’s family with the goal of replacing hate with understanding, compassion and acceptance. The choral version of “What Matters” – arranged by Kevin Robison – has been performed internationally and by over 50 choirs, and has been featured at Carnegie Hall in New York City, Le Place des Artes in Montréal, and Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, CA.
On October 8, 2023, Driscoll returns to New York City for the Matthew Shepard Foundation’s 25th Anniversary Benefit to perform the work live at The Cutting Room, where she first performed the song and filmed the official video. (To view Driscoll’s original video of “What Matters,” click here.) For more information for the benefit event, visit the The Matthew Shepherd Foundation. Driscoll’s songs “What Matters” and “Love is Love” – in their various choral versions (SATB, SSAA & TTBB) – can be found in The Subito Store.
S: Welcome, Randi! Thanks for chatting with us, so let’s get to it. The 25th Anniversary Benefit of the Matthew Shepard Foundation is coming up, and your powerful song “What Matters” is based on the tragic events that led to his death. Why were you so moved to write it and to get involved?
Driscoll: Thanks so much for inviting me to discuss my song with you, and for your support of the piece. Most songwriters, I think, will tell you that often times inspiration for our songs comes directly from feelings we’re having at the time – and that when we are able to tap into those feelings and allow ourselves to write in the “now” – we sometimes land on something that’s true and real. I was feeling a range of emotions when I heard about Matthew Shepard’s murder: anger, rage, sorrow, grief, and hopelessness. So the song, truthfully, was just a way to process it all. I remember that once I finished it, I thought I would simply send the song, or the lyrics, to the Shepards, to let them know how their family and their son’s story had affected me. It wasn’t until I sang the song a few days later at a coffeehouse, and saw the reaction of the audience, that I truly realized how far-reaching Matt’s story was. Strangers began to hold one another and people cried, as I sang the chorus. A wonderful woman named Dana was there that evening and she actually encouraged me to record the song. She also donated studio time, for the recording process. It was then that I decided we would make the song a benefit single, and see that any proceeds raised from the sale of the single (CD at the time) would go to the foundation, which was started by Matt’s parents in his name. I suppose it was my way of trying to contribute, as best as I could.
S: Please tell us more about your partnership with the Matthew Shepard Foundation. How has it changed your life and how have you helped with its mission?
Driscoll: In early 1999, Judy Shepard and I met, and I felt an immediate connection. In truth, I’m pretty sure everyone who meets Judy feels a sense of “knowing” and love. She’s been so open about her grief and her healing, it makes you feel like you know her. Our friendship blossomed, and with Judy and Dennis’ support of the single, I became directly involved with their newly formed foundation. I was immediately taken with the work they were doing. They dove in head first, trying to combat the hate that took their son’s life. It was inspiring to watch and a powerful thing to be a part of. In the early years, my work with MSF involved traveling with the foundation to share Matt’s story and, often times, to perform my song. We spent a good deal of time talking about hate speech, and how it can lead to acts of violence. Hearing Judy – and then Dennis – speak from their hearts, from a place no parent would ever want to sit, was unlike anything I’d experienced, and audiences were moved. After years of this work, I continued to share Matt’s story at Pride festivals, colleges, and theaters around the country. I would share the song, and share Matt’s story with audiences. I would also perform my other original pieces, which tend to focus on the themes of family, hope, love and oneness. As a performer, I was able to connect with people who may not have known about Matt. I was simply using the tools that I have, and that are so close to my heart, to communicate love.
S: “What Matters” has been featured in several stage productions, films and documentaries with all proceeds going to the Matthew Shepard Foundation. Have you been directly involved in any of these projects?
Driscoll: In the early 2000’s, I won a contest by performing “What Matters” for a handful of judges, one of whom was Spike Lee. He then asked me to perform the song in a commercial he was directing that aired during the Academy Awards. I’ve also had the great pleasure of perfuming “What Matters” for several productions of The Laramie Project: Epilogue, and even directed one for a Unitarian Universalist Congregation in San Diego, with a wonderful cast and co director, Lauren Shulz. That will always be a beautiful and moving experience, especially because of my own history in theatre arts. I’ll never forget performing in a 2013 production of The Laramie Project: Epilogue, as “Romaine,” alongside Bradley Whitford and Mary McDonnell, and my husband Andrew McGinnis. I’ve known Romaine for years, so it was particularly important that I play the part with great care. I was also a musical guest, and along with GMCLA, we performed “What Matters” and “Love is Love.” That was one of the most moving stage experiences of my career. That same night, theatre companies across the country, performed the same piece, all at the same time. I’ve always thought that was a testament to the power of live theatre, and how important the Arts are!
S: In its choral version,“What Matters” has reached international audiences, and over 50 choruses have performed it. It has been featured in New York City, Montréal, and Los Angeles. Will you please share how the choral versions came about?
Driscoll: We’d been approached by several choirs to create a choral version of the song. To the best of my recollection, I was put in touch with Kevin Robison, and we instantly connected. He had been working with GMCLA, and he came to the piece with an open heart, donating his time and talents. Kevin and I met to talk about what the arrangement might “look” like. What I distinctly remember (and this is going back almost 20 years) is that Kevin was fully committed to keeping the choral version close to my singer/songwriter version and that meant the world to me. We sat in my little apartment and I played the song for him on a keyboard. He and I talked about what I heard – the harmonies, the tone, the builds. A short while later, Kevin came back with the most beautiful arrangement. I will always be so grateful that he shared his talents.
S: “What Matters” has also earned several awards, and the song itself was named one of the top Pride Anthems, by The Advocate magazine. Have you been taken part in any special Pride events through the years because of “What Matters?”
Driscoll: So many wonderful Pride events over the years! San Francisco. Los Angeles. San Diego. Toronto. New York City. Montclair, NJ (my home state!). I could go on! However, the one that truly sticks out in my mind, is a Pride Festival, years ago, in Bangor, Maine. The city wanted to shut down the parade, and they succeeded; but, a small group of individuals managed to have the first ever Pride festival in a small park. I was invited as the special guest. The event was attended by probably no more than 30 people…but I sang “What Matters” that day, and I knew, I was exactly where I was supposed to be. Today, they have a much larger, well attended festival, proving that a small group of dedicated individuals really can make a difference!
S: Let’s talk a bit about your process. Your music features elements of pop, country and jazz. Is there one style in particular that you enjoy writing for the most?
Driscoll: When I’m writing for myself, my keyboard is my instrument, and the song becomes whatever it becomes. I’ve been hired to write in a wide array of genres but when writing for myself, I find I gravitate towards my own interpretation of singer/songwriter/musical/Disney pop/twang. I made that up, can’t you tell? I sing from my soul, and I’ve been very blessed that, often times, that comes together in song.
S: You’re also a trained actress. Do you think that your background in theater impacts your song-writing process, and if so, how?
Driscoll: What a neat question. I imagine the idea of storytelling has always been a throughline in my career. In my life, I share in my art through common experiences, uncommon ones, emotions (raw truth, the fun, the hard, the ugly, the light and the heavy all of it), songwriting, storytelling, and dialogue. It’s all a means to communicate. In the end, I think that’s mostly what I want to do…to communicate and connect. It’s probably no coincidence that my first independent CD was called “The Play” – the songs were broken up into scenes, and the liner notes even had stage directions!
S: As an award-winner, you have amassed quite the vast and varied range of accomplishments through the years! Is there one in particular that stands out as a life-changing moment for you?
Driscoll: Awards are wonderful; but to me, they mostly serve as a little “high five” – you’re on the right track. There was a “love song” contest at a local bar in Nashville, where I live. I performed a song I wrote for my mom and dad (who have both passed) about their love story. Well, I won the song contest that evening, and the bar hosting the event, was called, “Betty Lou’s,” – that’s my mom’s name. Not a coincidence, I think, a God moment.
S: Finally on October 8th, you – and your friends – will be performing in “What Matters,” an anniversary benefit concert for MSF in New York City. How does it feel to be a part of this 25-year journey?
Driscoll: We’re so grateful to be back at The Cutting Room – in New York City – where the original music video for “What Matters” was filmed years ago. The night will be a look back at Matt’s legacy, and a look forward with hope, all though song. I will be joined by a diverse group of musicians, all of whom have used their art to help social justice causes. Our special guests include some of the Tri-State area’s most beloved artists and award winners: Natalie Douglas; Jann Klose; Brian Nash, and Josh Zuckerman. My long time musical collaborator Noah Heldman, will also join me here from California. We certainly hope to fill the room with love – and I believe there are still tickets available, for this one night only event!