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Cyndi Lauper has had what can be understatedly described as a storied career. Beginning as the lead singer of the nearly forgotten new-wave band Blue Angel, she won a huge audience in 1984 with the release of her first solo album, She’s So Unusual. She went on to release 10 more albums, clocking 11 top-40 hits on her way to selling more than 25 million records. But Lauper wasn’t content to be a singer. An old-school entertainer who threw herself into every creative endeavor she came across, she was part of the “Rock ’N’ Wrestling Connection” that helped make pro wrestling part of the mainstream; she dabbled in acting on film, television (netting an Emmy for her guest role on Mad About You), and Broadway; and she’s currently working on her autobiography. She’s also a ceaseless advocate for LGBT rights, and heads up the True Colors Fund and the Give A Damn campaign. Having recently finished work on Memphis Blues, an album of blues standards, the talkative Lauper took some time to answer a few questions from The A.V. Club.
The A.V. Club: Why a blues record?
Cyndi Lauper: It’s just the root of all the music that I’ve ever learned. It’s the basis of everything I’ve ever sung. I learned jazz; that comes from blues. I learned rock; that comes from blues. I learned pop; that comes from blues. Even dance, that comes from blues, with the answer-and-response. For me, this is the source. And I feel kind of proud of what I’m doing here, because this is the root.
AVC: Was there any particular reason you waited until now to do it?
CL: I couldn’t do it before, when I was on Sony. I couldn’t get everything together. I originally wanted to do it in 2004, but—I believe there are no accidents. I’m quoting Kung Fu Panda. I had originally wanted to make it then, with Jeff Beck, but I think if I had done it then, I probably would not have met [producer] Scott Bomar and come down and had a chance to work with all these wonderful musicians that I met, like Skip Pitts, and Lester Snell, who played on a lot of those old Stax recordings, and for Chess, and all those Satellite Records. And then I wondered if I could get [Allen] Toussaint, because I met him after Katrina, and he was awesome. He didn’t think my ideas for these songs were too odd. In fact, he worked them out with me, and we ended up doing this sort of mash-up. It was really interesting, actually. I met Steve Potts, and B.B. King, and Ann Peebles. That was amazing, because she was like the soundtrack to my college. When I was in college, I would be singing along with “Part Time Love,” trying to sound like her in my room. So actually having her stand next to me and sing these songs was a wonderful experience. And also, Jonny Lang was awesome, and Charlie Musselwhite—oh my God. I’m lucky. I got to work with people like that. I didn’t want to do, just, you know, “the blues record”—I wanted to do the real thing. So I feel blessed.
AVC: Are we going to be seeing you on Treme, now that you’ve worked with Toussaint?
CL: [Laughs.] Hey, well, if they ask me… I love New Orleans. I had Rockin’ Dopsie play on one of my records in 1989—it was a Diane Warren song called “I Don’t Want To Be Your Friend”—we did a really interesting take on it. Bakithi Kumalo, the South African bass player who worked with Paul Simon, played on that track too, so it was a combination of the Cajun feel and the African feel. And I loved getting Dopsie and Bakithi together for it, because it has that sort of New Orleans jazz-funeral sound. So I got to meet all these people, and if I’d worked with Jeff Beck in 2004, it probably wouldn’t have happened. I probably wouldn’t have even gone to Memphis. I had this dream in 1987, right after I put the True Colors album out—I had this dream that I was at the piano with [jazz composer] Oscar Peterson. And I’m sorry to say this, but I was kind of a jackass in the dream. I was standing there at the piano, and he was telling me about how much he liked my version of “What’s Going On.” And he told me that I should take old songs like that and kind of redo them, make them new, like what Janis Joplin did. And I really viewed that with trepidation, because somewhere along the way, when you become famous, it’s so ingrained in you what a success is, as opposed to—I mean, you try to pick material that you think is going to work for you, but it’s a puzzle, and with these older songs, you couldn’t ask for better material to work with, because it’s already so extraordinary on its own. Anyway, when I finally started working on these songs, I got frustrated, because I couldn’t find any real piano players. I was used to working with keyboard players. Do you know the difference?
AVC: Well, there’s a whole different feel to it, a weight…
CL: Yeah. That’s the sort of thing I studied before I became a famous pop personality, or whatever. But in a way, that was lucky, because when it came time to record these songs, that’s the approach I brought with me, because that’s what I’d studied. It helps you, because you need to be able to stand right in the center of the song in order to have command over the rhythm. You tend to drift away from that rhythm, from hitting it on the one, but when I saw this stuff, I realized. In that dream with Oscar Peterson, I kept equivocating, going on and on about minutiae, and he disappeared. And to this day, I still can’t get over it. “What the heck is the matter with you? Oscar Peterson is right in front of you, dream or no dream! Why wouldn’t you sing?” I just stood there being jerky with the guy. Even if it’s a dream, and dreams are meant to tell you something, it’s not that hard to figure out, right?
So when I finally got a chance to sit down with Allen, and he started in playing the first notes of “Shattered Dreams,” it’s like I fell back into that dream. I had this sort of sense of voodoo, and all of us who were working on it just slapped it together and went somewhere else. Not that I don’t always try to go somewhere else—I pay my dues—but that’s why I love Toussaint, that’s why I wanted to do this kind of music. Because it is otherworldly, in its best moments. And that’s not always something you can re-create, because it’s real. You can’t always hit the same spot. So for me, it was kind of a defining moment, that I had finally realized the advice of that dream. I’ve always had dreams about musicians, but that one really stood out in my head when I was performing, and when I was doing this album. It is like living out a dream; it’s like going back home. It’s what I’ve always wanted; it’s going to the basics of everything I’ve ever felt. I mean, I was singing “Romance In The Dark,” and I could have sworn that Lil Green had come by and was smiling at me, and kind of laughing—and then the song turned into something else. And when I told Skip Pitts about it, he said, “You know, I think so.” He said, “I think sometimes they come by, or they look down on us and say ‘Good choice.’” And that’s them giving us the okay. “Let’s give her a few bars—beat it!”
AVC: You also do a cover of Robert Johnson’s “Crossroads”; it doesn’t get much more authentic than that. Did you feel a lot of pressure to do justice to the material?
CL: Well, you know me. Before I recorded it, I listened to every possible version of it that I could find. And I realized, after we talked about it as a group—me, Scott, Bill [Wittman], and Jonny, we talked about the original speed, because Alan Lomax’s machine ran slow. So when they put it up to speed, it made Robert Johnson’s voice high, and that’s the version that most people are familiar with. But if you slow it down—someone decided to match the tones. It’s online—have you heard it?
AVC: Yeah, a lot of them are on YouTube.
CL: Aren’t they awesome? My God! It’s even better! It’s just better, knowing what he really sounds like. It’s so different from what we have on CD. It’s so vulnerable. Listening to that, it’s like stepping into another time. So when I was singing it, I started wondering—and I saw this vision of a woman standing at a dirt road in the South. She wore a dress, and heels—not high heels, but the kind of heels a woman might have worn to walk around in the late ’40s. And she had a couple of suitcases, and a clean white starched shirt, and a prim black hat—like, a straw hat that had a black ribbon that went all around it—and a long black coat that was pleated in the back. And she was smiling, but I couldn’t really see her face, because it was sunny out and it was like I was seeing it in black and white. So I just kept picturing her, and hearing her sing in this swampy kind of backwoods way. And that’s the way we were playing that song, so I felt like maybe we should capture that spirit, and put it down the way those guys put it down. Not that the other versions aren’t great, because they are! But just to go back to the way it really was, to go back home.
AVC: This kind of piano blues especially can be pretty taxing on the voice. Did you do anything special to prepare for it?
CL: Oh! Well, I had lost my voice from speaking. I don’t know how to speak. In fact, my voice coach was here for most of the interviews I’ve been doing, telling me “Shoulders back, sit up, remember to breathe.” I just keep talking until I stop breathing. I have too much talk and not enough breath. So I had this problem of learning how to talk, and when the sound came back, oh God! [Laughs.] I actually find singing the blues easier. It feels more natural. I think all my previous music—the rock stuff, the pop stuff, the dance stuff—that stuff is harder for me. It’s like you’re singing a trumpet line. It’s a very high tone, so you sound like a trumpet. But the blues is more of a low, loping tone. The blues is all inside. It’s inside shit. You can really follow along with the rhythm, and that’s different from what I’ve done for most of my career, which has been more about melody. You’re used to singing on the two and the four, but this is all on the one. The one and the three. You know what I’m talking about? The foot? So you start working with this, and with Jamaican rhythms, and—well, I’ll put it this way: British people don’t just drive on the left side of the road. They sing on the left side of the voice. They sink right into it. It’s a whole different vibe.
AVC: You’ve been involved in a lot of creative fields. Aside from singing, writing music, acting, and writing, you’ve done fashion design and production work, and you’re politically active. Do you have trouble deciding what you want to do next?
CL: Well, you know, writing my autobiography. I’m writing it with someone. I’m not doing that on my own. I do have a lot of difficulty figuring out what I want to be working on, but what’s the alternative? To be one of those people who has a million things they want to do, and then never does any of them? And then where will you be? You wind up finding out that you’re old, and you never did anything. Which would you rather be, one of those people who’s like, “Uh, I can’t decide, just forget it,” or the other kind? I want to do everything that comes to me. I want to take advantage of the possibilities that are out there. I don’t want to be one of those woulda-coulda-shoulda people. Is it hard to manage all the things I want to do? Do I have to make sure I make time for my kid and my family? Damn straight I do. But if I want to get somewhere, I’m gonna get there. I might fall asleep in my chair on the way there, but I’m gonna be there. Because what else are you gonna do? Catch up with everything after you’re dead?