SHE was the girl who just wanted to have fun and now Cyndi Lauper is back with a blues album and a new tour. Chris Bond talks to the Eighties pop icon.
With her couldn’t-give-a-hoot attitude and shock of spiky hair the colour of a Ken Dodd tickle stick, she lit up the pop world. Girls wanted to be like her and boys wanted to go out with her, or failing that, someone who looked a bit like her. During her 80s pomp she was as big as Madonna. Her 1983 album, She’s So Unusual, was a worldwide hit making Lauper the first female singer to have five, top 10 singles from one album. Songs like Girls Just Want to Have Fun, Time After Time and She Bop made the New York-born singer, song-writer a household name, to the bane of many a parent and no doubt the delight of hair product companies everywhere.
By the end of that decade her popularity had already peaked and although she continued to make records over the next 20 years, during which time she dallied with a TV and film career, she wasn’t the A-list celebrity she had been earlier. Then in 2008, her Grammy-nominated dance album,Bring Ya to the Brink, brought her back into the public eye and just so happened to coincide with an ’80s revival.
But rather than climb on the bandwagon and milk this particular cash cow she followed it up with… a blues album. This might sound an odd choice but Lauper has always walked her own line and with Memphis Blues she proves she can sing the blues as well as anyone. The album features the brilliant Allen Toussaint, BB King and Charlie Musselwhite on harmonica and is Lauper’s highest-charting record since True Colors back in 1986.
It turns out that the ’80s pop icon is a huge blues fan. “I started out in a blues band myself doing cover versions of songs by Janis Joplin. It’s the starting point for all modern music and I wanted to do a blues record for a long time because I think you have to go back and start again sometimes and the blues are my roots,” she says.
“When I was living in New York, I would go and watch Eric Clapton, or the Allman Brothers, playing at the Fillmore East and they would play these blues songs by people like BB King and that’s how I got to learn this stuff going to these concerts.”
For Lauper, making a blues album meant travelling to the centre of its beating heart, Memphis. “I wanted to go to Memphis for a lot of reasons. All the blues musicians in Mississippi went there years ago to try and get a record deal. With all due respect to Elvis [Presley], and I’m a huge Elvis fan, but rock n roll didn’t start with him it came from those blues guys in Memphis.”
It was also a chance to pay homage to one of her heroes, Memphis Minnie, arguably the only female blues singer and instrumentalist regarded as good as her male peers. “When she was around women had little chance of making a living. You were either a prostitute, a housekeeper, or perhaps a schoolteacher. But women like Memphis Minnie were writing and singing songs and earning their own money and to me that’s such an inspiration.”
It’s an inspiration she channelled into Memphis Blues. “All of these beautiful songs, and all of the great players on the album, were carefully chosen because I’ve admired them my entire life. And I knew from the moment Allen Toussaint hit the keys in Shattered Dreams that we were creating something really special.”
Lauper, who plays Sheffield City Hall later this month, says music has been part of her life for as long as she can remember. “I was always into music, my dad got me a guitar and I learned to play along with my sister. I was brought up when the Sixties counter-culture was going on so I was a huge Beatles fan. The first two records I had were Meet The Beatles! andMeet The Supremes. I loved Motown, The Supremes sounded like girlfriends my own age and listening to that record was how I learned to harmonise with my sister.”
She left home to go to art college and it was there that she got the taste for singing to an audience. “I complained that there were no women on the bill whenever there was a gig so they gave me my first show. It was like being in a toy shop because you could play anything you wanted.”
If singing on stage was liberating, then singing cover versions of other people’s songs wasn’t. But after several years spent honing her vocal skills in New York’s well-trodden music venues she signed up to a record label and released what became the life-changing album, She’s So Unusual.
The record was a pop phenomenon turning Lauper into an overnight sensation, but she struggled with the unwanted attention that fame thrust upon her. “Nobody gives you a manual or a lesson on how to be famous. If you’re a creative person you like to go for a walk and think about new ideas, but I would have crazy people jumping out of cars and following me and it got so bad I couldn’t go for a walk any more. When I went out I had to hide my hair which I’d coloured for me to make me feel more alive, not for other people. All of a sudden I had this crazy stuff to deal with and it wasn’t good.”
Lauper’s rise to fame coincided with Madonna’s and because of this and their similar backgrounds, both are Italian-American Catholics, the two are still compared to one another, even though their careers have followed different paths. But Lauper doesn’t regard herself as the poor relation. “Everybody influences everyone else in some kinda way. She was never a rival, she’s a wonderful performer and she’s still doing stuff that is inspiring for me.”
By the early ’90s, Madonna was on her way to becoming one of the most famous people on the planet, but Lauper harbours no feelings of envy. “It was actually a wonderful time because it allowed me to stay under the radar, it gave me the breathing space I needed. I learned how to direct, I learned how to produce better and I learned how to write better.”
She branched out into acting appearing in several films, most notably alongside Christopher Walken in The Opportunists (2000), and TV shows like Bones, Mad About You and American Idol. Not that she has much time for the Hollywood suits she encountered along the way. “Doing the movies made me realise the movie business is not much better than the music business,” she laments.
One constant throughout her career has been her campaigning. For several decades now she has been a vocal advocate for gay and lesbian equality and in 2008 founded the True Colors Fund, a not-for-profit organisation, to help raise public awareness. Last year she teamed up with Lady Gaga to help educate women around the world about HIV/Aids and was impressed by the young superstar. “She’s a young artist and like all talented young artists she has her own individual perspective on the world. You can see her influences, she’s doing a lot of stuff she learned in the theatre and at art college, you can see that in her work.”
With regard to her own career, Lauper is enjoying something of an Indian summer at the moment. Last year she performed songs from her new album on Later With Jools Holland and is about to kick off a short UK tour which takes in Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall and the Hammersmith Apollo. Unlike some artists, she’s happy belting out the old hits that made her famous.
“I’m on stage with these wonderful soul musicians and bluesmen so why not play some of the old hits? None of the pop stuff is trivial, it’s always about something but it’s also a lot of fun. Whenever I meet young artists I tell them not to listen to what other people tell them and just go with their instinct because we aren’t making disposable art.”
And while some singers struggle to reach the notes they once could as they get older, Memphis Blues shows that Lauper, who turns 58 this year, has lost none of her vocal power.
“I’ve learnt how to keep my voice up and to take care of my body because my body is my instrument,” she says. Surely, though, singing the blues puts her voice under greater strain? “The blues is easier to sing than the stuff I normally sing, sustaining notes, which you do in pop music, is actually more difficult than singing the blues.”
For someone who has sold 25 million albums and had 13 Grammy Award nominations during her career it seems strange to be talking about Lauper’s musical renaissance. But it has, she says, allowed her to concentrate on writing songs.
“I love songwriting it allows you to escape on the page and the songs you write are who you are, because you’re talking about your life. Songs are about the story and the storyteller. You wear a dress that you like that fits your body, and it’s the same with songs.”
Lauper’s autobiography is due out next year and with people, once again, appreciating her music the singer is in a happy place. “I still have so much to say and share,” she says. “I’m grateful for each and everyday that I get to make music. As long as there’s a corner of the world where people want to hear me, I’ll be there.”
Memphis Blues is out now. Cyndi Lauper plays Sheffield City Hall on June 24. For ticket information call 0114 278 9789.