Malevolent toddler voice? Check. Boozy, foul-mouthed teddy bear voice? Got it. Silky-smooth singing baritone that can croon a saloon song all the way down to the bottom of the whiskey glass? Seth MacFarlane can do that, too.
When he’s not minding his expanding multimedia empire, MacFarlane’s personal passion project is singing and recording classic tunes from the Great American Songbook in exacting period detail. He has won Grammys and packed symphony halls across the country. Leaning heavily into Frank Sinatra territory circa the 1950s and drawing inspiration from such arrangers as Nelson Riddle, Billy May and Gordon Jenkins, MacFarlane has released five studio albums. Recorded in hallowed musical temples including Hollywood’s Capitol Records studio and London’s legendary Abbey Road, they feature upbeat swing, mid-century holiday fare, and torch songs. His latest, “Once in a While,” which dropped digitally on April 19, follows the latter path.
“It’s a contagious passion of Seth’s, this music,” says Joel McNeely, the regular composer for MacFarlane’s “American Dad!” and “The Orville,” who produced all of MacFarlane’s albums and arranged the first four (“Once in a While” features arrangements by Scottish composer and music scholar Andrew Cottee). McNeely’s seen how infectious his colleague’s enthusiasm can be, especially at live performances.
“He’s very careful to explain to the audience why he loves the music, and he invites them to come and join him in appreciating this music. And by the end you really feel that he’s converted a lot of people to the genre.”
MacFarlane has been drawn to recordings such as Sinatra’s ballads because they are “very sprawling symphonic pieces that really make use of the entire ensemble in the best way.” For his own music, he revels in sharing the studio with a full orchestra as well, to “feed off” the musicians and capture the most vibrant sound. He also relies on traditional techniques of tape recordings in order to capture “a warmth” and natural imperfection.
“The first time we recorded at Capitol, we hauled one of the big reel-to-reels out of the basement and set it up, and that’s how we recorded,” he says. “It really makes a big difference.”
“Once in a While” is fashioned in the moody style of Sinatra’s signature albums. “I love the ballad album, the rich, melancholy songs,” MacFarlane says. “You’re taking a theme or a mood or a tone or an emotion and assembling a set list where everything lives in that space, so when you put it on, you’re spending the 60 minutes or however long the album is immersed in that one emotion.”