Interview: Cyndi Lauper, songstress content to sing the blues

By Fiona Shepherd
The tantalisingly effervescent Cyndi Lauper is still a girl who just wants to have fun, but she’s never happier than when singing the blues
I HAD wanted to ask Cyndi Lauper about a whole bunch of stuff. About the enduring appeal of her signature hit Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. About touring with Cher and Tina Turner in the 1990s.

About her involvement as a gay rights campaigner and establishing her charity foundation, whose latest Give A Damn campaign aims to raise awareness of discrimination against the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. About branching out on to Broadway and collaborating with theatre royalty Harvey Fierstein and Jerry Mitchell on a forthcoming stage musical version of the British comedy Kinky Boots. About singing on David Byrne’s concept album about Imelda Marcos. About having a Barbie doll modelled after her. About having a bus dedicated to her in her native New York. About her succession of cameos on TV shows such as The Simpsons, Gossip Girl, Queer As Folk (the US remake) and 30 Rock. About appearing alongside Sharon Osbourne and former Poison frontman Bret Michaels on The Celebrity Apprentice when she has said that she doesn’t hold much with the celebrity way of life. About her decision, in that case, to star in her own reality show which is due to start shooting later this year. Heck, I even wanted to ask her about playing the Appalachian dulcimer on American Idol.

But it’s hard to get a word in edgeways. Her opening salvo goes like this (give or take a spot of judicious pruning): “I got busy this year. You know, when it rains, it pours basically. It’s not like you do it on purpose, it just happens that way. So I’m doing this, doing that, I’m talking to you and getting ready to go on tour and I’m trying to see my son at the same time. ‘Cos I live in a guy house which is ironic since I did Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. I was sure I was having a girl then my mother said to me one time when I was pregnant, ‘Do you talk to your stomach?’ and I said, ‘Mum, that’s kinda personal and I’m kinda busy’ and then when I started doing that I knew that it wasn’t a girl, it was a boy – Declyn Wallace Lauper Thornton. Declyn because Elvis Costello’s real name is Declan McManus, only we spelt it with a ‘y’. And Wallace because David (her husband, actor David Thornton] kept listening to the theme from Braveheart over and over again. When Declyn was a baby he had a hole in his heart so we called him Wallace because of his brave heart.” A pause. “Anyway, what was your question?”

Although you wouldn’t know it from her effervescent chatter, Lauper currently has the blues. Her most recent album, Memphis Blues, delivers what it says on the tin – a host of blues standards by the likes of Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Memphis Slim and Albert King, performed as if to the manner born by Lauper with the backing of a band of ace Memphis session players and special guests including BB King, Ann Peebles, Allen Toussaint (adding some New Orleans flavour) and Charlie Musselwhite, the harmonica player said to have inspired The Blues Brothers, who joins her on her current tour.

This might seem an unexpected departure if the Cyndi Lauper you know is the one from the 1980s with the hair like an explosion in a paint factory who sings hen party classics, or the Cyndi Lauper who was musical director of The Goonies soundtrack, or whose previous album Bring Ya To The Brink was a four-to-the-floor club record on which she collaborated with a host of big-name dance producers. But Lauper actually learned her trade back in the 1970s singing Janis Joplin, Led Zeppelin and Jefferson Airplane songs in cover bands. “I was very upset about the songs I was supposed to be singing not sounding right,” she says. “I realised my voice had a very unique sound to it, and it’s funny because you want to have a voice like that, but when you have to do covers, if you don’t sound just like the person you’re singing it was always a problem, so I learned to do so many different things with my voice.”

Lauper has hankered to record a blues album for quite some time. There was a chance that she and Jeff Beck might have collaborated at one point, but they couldn’t synchronise their schedules. Following the end of her deal with Sony a couple of years ago, however, Lauper decided it was time to do a road trip – of sorts…

“I chose Memphis because it was the middle ground,” she says. “People came there from Clarksdale, Mississippi. These were the inventors, the blues musicians that came out of Mississippi, stayed a while and then they went on Highway 61 to Chicago. But I don’t drive that well, and I couldn’t see myself driving around Mississippi. I’m not very good at parallel parking. So I just figured I would take cabs and trolleys in Memphis and feel out the footsteps of what to me were the original rockers and the basis of everything I’ve ever sung.

“Because rhythm ‘n’ blues is the basis of all modern music unless you’re gonna go back to gospel and, unfortunately for me, that wasn’t my church. Being a recovering Catholic…” – uh-oh, the Lauper train has slipped its couplings and is rolling off in some other direction – “…I was truly influenced by the fashion. Some of the nuns had those black and white outfits, which to me were very French and very high fashion, and the guys in the long gold gowns with the tall gold hats, those guys were snazzy dressers.

Music-wise it would have been interesting to have been part of the gospel thing but where I started was blues…” – it’s okay, the runaway train is back on course – “…and I figured this time that we were living in, everybody had the blues. There were foreclosure signs everywhere, the people were suffering and, ironically, this genre of music, written by people who were oppressed, is actually uplifting. So I went back to square one and redid it.”

Lauper is not generally one for looking back, but she has engaged a ghostwriter to help with her autobiography, which is progressing in fits and starts between her many other projects (don’t get her started on the Memphis Blues DVD she is currently editing – I certainly didn’t mean to…) and might explain why her next conversational diversion takes her back to her stint as a college radio presenter, a post she was offered when she phoned up the station complaining that they didn’t play enough female artists. Then there was that one time at art school in Vermont…

“I was the first female streaker in my school,” she announces, right out of the blue, though there is probably some lateral connection somewhere. “Guys were streaking all the time so I thought it should be done – right through the lunchroom. I had my skidoo boots on and my hat and some gloves.” Around that time, she was earning some money on the side as a life model; maybe she just fancied something more dynamic than another still life class.

However, it’s unclear whether this was before or after jazz school. “Of course, I got thrown out of that one too,” she admits. “I’ve been thrown out of the best places, and it never deterred me. But even though I was a knucklehead and an upstart, I was also really fearful and shy – me, shy, could you imagine? But, yeah, I was.”

If this whole singing/acting/writing/composing/campaigning/reality TV thing doesn’t work out, Lauper should just establish her own New York salon where she can hold court to her heart’s content. I would certainly enjoy more time in her invigorating company.

“I’ve got to stop at some point,” she says (like that’s going to happen). “Because my life is very full as you can tell. Even my interviews are full. I’ve had a very interesting, full life.” Amen to that (even though that’s not her church).

• Cyndi Lauper plays Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on Thursday. Memphis Blues is out now on Mercer Street Records

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