Q&A: Cyndi Lauper
While it’s practically impossible to not hear “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” in one’s head when she’s mentioned, Cyndi Lauper has followed her muse from daring albums in the ’90s to stage success in the new millennium with her Tony-award winning score for Broadway hit Kinky Boots. For her latest album Detour she drew on her lifelong love of classic country music, which she told Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen she approached with the rule “First, no crying.” She performs at the Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel on Oct. 8.
I just saw a video of you and Kurt Vile performing “Money Changes Everything” and “As Tears Go By.” It was beautiful the way you worked together.
I love working with other artists. I think it’s great. You listen to other artists, and it’s just amazing how many different approaches there are, and then how many similarities there are.
It made it clear how well you relate to all kinds of musicians and all kinds of music. I think a lot of people’s perceptions of you are based on your mid-’80s foundation, but you’ve accomplished a lot in the past five years and really upended all of those notions.
But I also did Sisters of Avalon in the ’90s, and Hat Full of Stars. When I was doing Hat Full of Stars I was just so wishing … I had yet to find a handful of artists, which I knew there was somebody doing it, and there were a few people doing it, where I was trying to mix hip-hop and folk, and blues, and country. And I think that, because it’s so much a part of the fabric of our culture, that whole hip-hop thing … that whole hip-hop thing was like the birth of rock ‘n’ roll. It was that big. Rhythmically, it was that big and that exciting. All kinds of music will change and develop and not be what they were in the beginning. But all the influences, to me, even in the ’70s, living through the ’70s and loving the Staple Singers, or that one time I was in college and was a DJ at the station in college, I got to see and hear all of that, all that stuff that was coming, you know, because it’s like the largest record collection you’ll ever see in your life. I learned a lot about blues because they were so much into blues, and like bluegrass and things. That was kind of 1970 … ’72, ’73, and when I came back I joined a band, like a cover band, just to start someplace because I knew I wanted to sing. I didn’t want to sing a combination of the bluegrass and the blues that was happening in Vermont, where I was. I didn’t know what I was going to do. When I came home to New York that’s when I heard Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” and it just fucking changed my life. I knew I had heard Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” in school. I had watched him, watched Patti Labelle – watched incredible, incredible singers that were creating a whole new sound. I think all of that ebbs and flows into today music, and the fact that I did this country stuff or that it has cowboy swing … when I was in a cover band I couldn’t ever sound like Rod Stewart no matter how many times I sat in the shower and tried to squeeze my throat together to make it sound … although I did, and after a while I was sore because of him and Maggie Bell. There was a whole thing happening in the early part of my life with rock ‘n’ roll, and when I joined the band you took old stuff … I never did well in those situations actually because you weren’t supposed to have people not drink and stand there and watch you. That’s what usually happened. They didn’t drink. They watched me, and that was not a good thing for the bars because they wanted people to drink. Deborah Harry. … She’s another one that influenced me. All these women’s shoulders that I stood on, especially Wanda Jackson, who was not given credit for singing rock ‘n’ roll. They just called her “The Devil Woman” because she was singing the devil’s music. In those days that’s what they called rock ‘n’ roll. Then all of a sudden they told her to quit doing this, she was going to be country. She wasn’t country. She was rock.
What were the best parts about recording Detour?
I was really blessed to have guests come and sing on my record. The fact that they would is extraordinary. And when Willie Nelson walked in I gotta say I saw him at the recording session for “We Are the World,” but there were so many things going on that, you know, I got a little choked up, but I said to myself “First, no crying in rock ‘n’ roll. You must not cry, you are professional. You will scare them.” So I shook their hands and brought them in. I tried to keep his song pretty pure, because he wrote this “Night Life” song so long ago, and it was so on the money. It didn’t need to have any jazz or blues, because I tried to, all of a sudden … I had grown out of jazz because I didn’t want to become a jazz singer. They wanted me to quit rock ‘n’ roll and I never did, so I started doing these bad jazz records where you don’t have to do anything. It’s just there. So I sang in the full tone—a clean, full tone—to complement his sound, and it worked. And he really liked it. So I was glad because sometimes you do an artist’s song and they come in and go “What the heck is that?” Not good, so I wanted to be respectful.
I read an interview in which you said some of those songs you cover on Detour used to come on the radio when you were in the kitchen with your mom. They sound like songs you have a long relationship with.
Well, listen, Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn, they were TV stars when I was little. I saw them on TV, and I gotta say, Loretta Lynn, when she did “The Pill” and I was growing up, and she’s the woman and all of a sudden she’s on television and she’s singing about the Pill, I thought to myself, “Wow, she’s one of us.” Usually nobody would talk about that stuff that was so important for a woman at that time, in that time in history. So I felt a kinship to these women, and then of course when Dolly came out … her voice just grabbed me, and then I saw how sweet and fun and joyful she was. When she went on to write “9 to 5,” that song really captures what most working women were feeling at the time.
I don’t think there are too many artists who have her combination of strength and vulnerability. It’s interesting that her and singers like Loretta Lynn didn’t exactly identify as feminists …
They were so feminists. What are you talking about?
I mean not overtly. They spoke for women but they didn’t say, “I am a feminist.” They said …
Pretty overtly! It’s pretty overtly! Hell, yeah! She had to fight her way to write her songs and sing her own material, be her own person. Hell yeah, she’s a feminist. Hell yeah she was. As a little girl, that was inspiring. I was so little thought when I first heard Dolly Parton. Then when you see her, she plays all these instruments, with long nails (laughs). It was exciting, very exciting. Of course, I sang Patsy Cline songs in my Blue Angel days and honestly Patsy Cline to me is like Edith Piaf. You gotta sing those songs. It doesn’t matter. I love them, always sang them. I sang with k.d. lang one time way back in the ’90s. We sang together, and we sang “I Fall to Pieces” because that’s all I knew. And she looked at me and said, “Cyn, why aren’t you singing country? I detect a little country in you.” And I said, “No, I’m not.” And she said “Oh, yes you are. You play dulcimer, don’t you?” And I said “Yeah,” and she said, “You should sing country records one day.” She saw first, I guess.
The Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel, 8 p.m. Oct. 8, starting at $43 plus tax and fee. 888.929.7849