She’s always been unusual — and we love her for it even more now
It’s not just about having fun anymore.
For Cyndi Lauper, music runs deeper than her ‘80s-era eccentricities may have seemed to suggest. A collection of classics from the Great American Songbook, deep Memphis-based blues, the feel-good Broadway romp Kinky Boots, which won her a Tony in 2013 for best score — Lauper changes musical guises like she changes dye jobs.
The 62-year-old singer takes another sharp turn on Detour, her latest reincarnation, this time as a full-on Southern belle. The spunky pop priestess trades in her pink for plaid and saddles up with a slew of Nashville mainstays, including Willie Nelson, Vince Gill and Emmylou Harris, to sing signature mid-20th-century country ditties.
To talk about her twangy transformation, Lauper called just as she was leaving Los Angeles, where she recently received her much-deserved star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Lauper was her usual chatty and chirpy self as she dished on longing to be the “unknown singer,” shoe struggles and forever wanting to take on Joan Crawford and Bette Davis’ infamous revenge relic What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? How exactly? By starring in a version of it alongside Madonna, of course.
— Chris Azzopardi
Dallas Voice: I love the irony of you, mega LGBT activist, taking on a genre that’s not historically known to embrace the LGBT community. Cyndi Lauper: There are a lot of LGBT people who love early country music! They love Patsy Cline, they love Loretta Lynn. I loved Loretta Lynn when I was little and when I heard her sing “The Pill” [a cheeky take on birth control] it was like, “Holy cow!”
But I just know that when I went to Nashville everyone was very kind and they were sweet to me, and it feels like a small town and it doesn’t seem like everybody is like that — it just seems like they don’t talk about it a lot. I talk about it because we did a lot of research about the kids running away, the homeless LGBT kids [in 2011, Lauper opened a homeless shelter in NYC for LGBT youth]. We found that if the parents just said, “You’re my kid and I love you and you gotta give me a minute to get my head around this gay thing,” because where the heck are parents gonna go? You can’t go to the preacher man because he’s gonna condemn you and your kid to hell. You’re not gonna go to the school and out your kid. You can’t go to the neighbors. So, where do you go? You have to have an outreach program for the parents and the kids, but you have to have the information to help parents because, you know, I think most parents just love their kids, and when they’re teenagers, you’re gonna fight about everything — I know, I have a teenager. You fight. Hell, that’s the dynamic.
I didn’t think about that; I did this for the love of music. I did this because I saw a segment on CBS’ The Early Show about all the great Nashville session players. One group called the Nashville Cats played with everyone back in the ’60s and ’70s, and I was a little jealous because I felt like I missed out. I saw the Muscle Shoals documentary and I kind of wished sometimes — I felt like I was born in the wrong time. I was so busy being famous that I missed out on all these wonderful things. I just wanted to go back. In the beginning everything is, “You can’t do this! You’ll be ruined!” And you believe it!
At what point in your career did you feel creatively liberated? I guess in 1991. I wanted to work with Muff Winwood [English songwriter and record producer known for his work with Dire Straits] and he believed in me as an arranger and as a producer. You know, I should’ve moved to England but I didn’t. I loved New York. I was born there and I would’ve missed my family and my friends, so I didn’t go. But it was a lot easier in England; the English people were different. And he wanted me to do this thing for him. It was around that time that I realized, “If you’re gonna be doing this, maybe you should start practicing the rhythm of your own beat and sing your story, not try and do a story with other people’s stories,” which is OK because that’s what singers do, but at that point I wanted to do that and then I wanted to work with [Detour producer] Seymour Stein. I wanted to go and do a blues record. I wanted to do the blues since 2004, and then when I finally got to do it in 2010, you know, I felt blessed because I was able to do something I really wanted to do as a singer. And then I wanted to do this country record, and I hoped that I could sing as best as I could sing. I wanted to do a good job.
You’ve called your new label, Sire Records, your “dream label.” Madonna’s self-titled 1983 debut was released on the same label. Do you think you and Madonna might have done a duet if you’d been on the same label back in the day? Was there ever talk of that happening? Oh, not by business people. You know, I always felt for me, I would’ve loved to do What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? with her… ’cause I think that’s very funny! [Laughs]
Which part would you play? Come on! Who do you think I’d play? I’d play Baby Jane — I’d be torturin’ her. Because she’s always viewed as the bad girl, you know! They’d make her the good girl and I’d be the bad one. Or [we could do Joan Crawford’s 1954 western-drama] Johnny Guitar — she’d be the righteous one [laughs]. But whatever. Who knows! For me, all I wanna do is a good job. I wanna be a great singer. I wanna learn. I wanna always learn. I study music constantly. I try and listen to what’s happening. I try and listen to what’s happened, to what I might’ve missed. I think music is… I love it and I think it lifts people up. I think I finally did a record that makes people happy, ya know? Maybe I learned that from Kinky Boots.
Pop, rock, country, blues. Is there anything you can’t sing? Really, this is the roots of rock, that’s what I sang, you know what I’m sayin’, hun? It’s all the roots. The blues was the roots of what we sing and so is this. There was a time when country and R&B were very linked. The songs would go from R&B to country, country to R&B. A perfect example of that would be the Wilma Burgess hit “Misty Blue,” that was a hit in 1966 and then in 1975 for Dorothy Moore. But they were pop songs.
When I was little, Patsy Cline was on the radio. She was not country radio — she wasn’t segregated to country radio, and neither was Loretta Lynn and neither was Johnny Cash. Those guys were on the pop stations. And we had three AM stations, and everybody was on ’em in New York. You know, some of the stuff, especially “Funnel of Love,” it was a rockabilly song and Wanda Jackson was one of the earlier rockers, and when I was in Blue Angel [Lauper’s pre-solo career rockabilly band], oh, she was prominent on my playlist because she was an early rocker and there weren’t a lot of women rockers that you listened to, but you always listened to her. You listened to the amazing Brenda Lee, but Wanda Jackson was just a little dirtier.
Do you have your cowgirl boots picked out for the tour? I’m having trouble with shoes — a lot of trouble. I think some of the shoes I wear are ugly but they don’t hurt. I just don’t want my feet to hurt anymore. You know, I just want a nice pair of wide combat boots and I’d be happy. But I don’t know. I’ll probably find somebody who can actually make me shoes that don’t hurt so I can dance! I don’t want to dance barefoot anymore because I think I beat my feet up that way too.
How about some comfy slippers? Slippers aren’t strong enough. We do rock. When you slam your foot down, you gotta have some weight to it. You can’t just have a little slipper on.
Why is it important to you to perform in North Carolina despite the state’s new discriminatory “bathroom bill?” North Carolina is a very important place to go because once people are disenfranchised the way they have been, it’s very important to bring light to a place where people have none and also educate people on what the real concerns are and get people involved in their own destiny.
It’s hard to ask this, but because you were on Celebrity Apprentice I must: What if Donald Trump becomes president? Ugh. Everybody keeps asking me the same question. I don’t know. I really don’t know. I wouldn’t feel that good about it. I don’t think people should campaign to stop Trump. I think people should vote, for one, and vote for the person they feel is most responsible and can really understand the way the government works right now and make it move forward instead of stopping it every frickin’ two minutes and costing people who pay taxes a lot of money. It’s a little disconcerting — the whole frickin’ thing — and it’s gone on for too long.
You’ve won just about every major award — so, then, what does getting a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame mean to you? It’s funny because I had been approached a few times over the years and this time felt right. It was surreal — and to get a star on the same day as my good friend Harvey [Fierstein] felt awesome.
It’s been seven years since Bring Ya to the Brink, your last original non-musical album. Do you write? Are there plans to release original material under your own name? Well, I’m probably gonna write another Broadway show.
Oh, you are?! Yes. I think if I wrote [for a solo project] I’d probably write under a pseudonym and sing under a pseudonym because it’d just be a lot easier to have it be received better.
Why do you say that? Oh, you know, I like good music [laughs]. There’s a really great sound coming out of California — the Southern Bay area has a whole kind of surf, kind of rock sound. Little bit of what we did on “Funnel of Love,” but there’s a whole resurgence and group of people doing that kind of surf bass-y sound but rock.
Why can’t you put your name on it? I don’t know. Because I don’t want to be judged. I’d rather do new music with a paper bag over my head and be the unknown singer. [Laughs]
But you’ve been in the spotlight for decades. Aren’t you used to critics? No, I know, but there are things that I can do as Cyndi Lauper and things that I can’t. Just ’cause I can’t doesn’t mean I won’t. I just won’t do it in a conventional way.
You never have, though! That’s why you’re so adored. Well, thanks. I mean, with this record, I was very fortunate to have some really incredible people on it. I don’t even know — it just happened. It snowballed and the producer, Tony Brown, knew somebody and I knew Emmylou Harris and wanted Emmylou Harris to come and sing. It’s a kind of small town, so I had met with [songwriter / producer] Buddy Cannon who was working with Alison Krauss and Willie Nelson and all of a sudden it started to come together just like that.
I had gone to see Vince Gill and kind of knew him through his wife Amy [Grant] when I did a concert years ago and he had liked a song that I did called “Water’s Edge.” I went to go see him with the Time Jumpers, and when I went to do Detour I felt like if we had him lay down the track with a couple of the Time Jumpers it would really make sense and feel right because they understood real cowboy swing. Tony contacted him and he said he would come in and he did. It just fell together. And if you went to see him with the Time Jumpers, you wouldn’t believe it because he’s really that good. I just thought to myself, “Oh my god, these musicians are great – pinch yourself now because you’re actually really doing this.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition April 29, 2016.