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Unless you were hanging out at the Beverly Wilshire hotel circa 1991, you probably don’t know Alicia Witt is an accomplished classically trained pianist. The flame-tressed actress is usually recognized for her roles in films like “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” “Two Weeks Notice” and, most recently, a stint on “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.” But before the Worchester, Mass., native made it in Hollywood, she was tickling the ivories in the Los Angeles hotel at age 16 for guests like George Burns and Kenny Rogers. Now, the actress is writing and performing her own “pop, folk, alternative” songs at venues in L.A., Philadelphia and New York.
Tonight, she will take the stage at Joe’s Pub with a full band, including frequent collaborator Jeff Fiorello. Witt, 32, chatted with WWD about the competitive pianist circuit, her current influences and big tippers.
WWD: Why this new live-performance streak?
Alicia Witt: It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I’ve been writing songs since I was 18.…This actually got jump-started on my birthday [Aug. 21] last year. They have this live blues jam night at the Cutting Room [owned by “Law & Order” co-star Chris Noth] and I just decided to show up. I thought it would be a nice way to start my birthday. At midnight, I took the stage and sang “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered.” I ended up meeting some people who, for whatever reason, had this feeling that we should do some music together.
WWD: Who are some of your inspirations?
A.W.: Both Paul Simon and Elton John are definitely influences of mine. They’re obviously both piano-driven musicians. And some others are Billy Joel, Fiona Apple and Rufus Wainwright.
WWD: You were seven when you started playing the piano. How did you first get into it?
A.W.: My parents knew I was into music and they felt that I should be taking piano lessons, but they couldn’t really afford a piano. We were lucky to end up getting a Baldwin piano lent to us. I played, like, four hours a day and I started entering classical piano competitions and actually went on several national ones. It was something I took really seriously.
WWD: And then when you moved to L.A. at 16 to pursue acting, you were supporting yourself as a pianist.
A.W.: It was basically the same sort of idea as somebody who has moved to L.A. to be an actor and waits tables.
WWD: Except a bit more glamorous…
A.W.: It didn’t feel glamorous, but it was certainly a lot more free because I didn’t have to focus on anything, like remembering people’s drink orders and being polite. I could just get lost in my own world. I’d been playing in restaurants since I was 10 to help pay for piano lessons, so I actually had a big repertoire by then of all sorts of standards, big band songs, jazz numbers and show tunes.
WWD: Any popular requests?
A.W.: There were people who would get really drunk and start doing sing-alongs and get escorted out of the place. There was one guy who kept giving me $100 bills to play Elvis songs. I thought that was great until the host came up and said, “You’ve played five Elvis songs in a row and not everyone here is giving $100 bills. You have to stop with the Elvis.” But I made $500 bucks that night.
— Vanessa Lawrence