Cyndi Lauper: 'In North Carolina I insisted on a transgender bathroom'

Having conquered pop and musical theatre, Lauper went to Nashville to record a country album, Detour. She talked about working with legends and why she chose to perform in a state with anti-LGBT laws

While Cyndi Lauper will no doubt be remembered for her mid-1980s pop hits (Girls Just Want to Have Fun, Time After Time), since then she has very successfully turned her hand to musical theater and traditional roots music.

Besides winning a Tony award for her original score to her Broadway show Kinky Boots, she earned a Grammy nomination for Memphis Blues, a collection of traditional blues covers. Next week she releases Detour, a collection of country music covers spanning the genre’s earliest days of the 1930s through the 1960s. Three days later she will launch an international tour at the historic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.

Lauper, 62, traveled to Music City to record with many of the city’s top artists and session musicians, as well as Tony Brown, the veteran producer known for his work with Reba McEntire, George Strait, Vince Gill and more. Once there, she texted hometown stars like Jewel, Allison Krauss and Emmylou Harris, with hopes they would join her in the studio. They did.

In making this album you were the quintessential outsider coming in to work with some of Nashville’s finest players. How did you establish a working relationship?

I spoke to Tony Brown about what we were looking for. I saw the [BBC] documentary Nashville Cats [about Bob Dylan’s experience in Nashville recording Blonde on Blonde]. For me, I want to take the singer out and replace them with myself. I was in my own movie. But when I got there it wasn’t like a movie. Those guys play all the time together. But you could be Joe Blow. I didn’t want to do a cookie-cutter record and I didn’t have a lot of time.

The first song I sang, I sucked. The next one we tried was [Wanda Jackson’s] Funnel of Love. It was when I realised, “Oh I’ve been down this road before.” Because I cut my teeth listening to great rockabilly rock’n’rollers like Wanda Jackson and Patsy Cline. I remembered singing in my rockabilly band. It became very natural. Once they connected with me, it took everything to a different level. It was an extraordinary experience once it became real. It’s not going to be like Dylan or Johnny Cash. It was going to become like who you really are. They’re very soulful songs. The root of country music is soul.

How did you pick these songs?

I picked the songs with stories I could relate to. I loved Begging to You. Marty Robbins, his voice is so beautiful. Even when Vince [Gill] came down and we put together a different kind of western swing band, it gave the record the variety and depth I thought it needed. I was very much aware of choosing material that had energy together that would flow nicely. I guess I was prepared because I did that musical [Kinky Boots] and had to watch [an audience] as they were listening to the music and I adjusted it while I watched them.

I would bring the record home in the computer and play it really low in the room and see how the mood would change. It made people happy. Then I thought, “OK, I’ve got something.” I think it has to do with Vince Gill coming down. The guy is a great player and has a great voice and a great vibe. It’s almost like angel wings when he walks in. I feel very blessed.

Probably the best-known song you recorded for people who are not country music fans is Willie Nelson’s Night Life from 1960.

Back in the 80s, I knew he was songwriter and he wrote Crazy and other songs that were hits for people. So I revisited all of that stuff. We met with [producer] Buddy Cannon. And Buddy was working with Willie and Allison [Kraus]. And I got an email saying Willie wanted to work with me. He came by in his bus ... When he walked in I had a lot of reverence for him. I knew that Night Life was one of those great songs. It had the blues riffs it needed and the jazz riffs it needed and it didn’t need any more. And I know because I tried to put them in! I tried to be very faithful to the original version he wrote and recorded. I think it really touched him.

You have a lot of support on this record from people with their own distinguished careers, like Emmylou Harris.

I knew Emmylou because I did a benefit [with her]. We shared a dressing room. I gave her a facial and then we talked about cosmetics, guitars, music. [laughs] We became friends. Then every time I went to Nashville, I would text her. Right now she is writing her autobiography, so she is very immersed in that. But when I started my album it was before she got going with that. She sang on Detour.

We also had some great players. The pedal steel guy, every time he played, he didn’t know where he was going but he went. I always look for the magic, not just the music. The whole idea is to escape. To find that magical place where things are better. And then you bring people with you if you can.

How do you expect to incorporate many of these country standards in a live show where people will be expecting your pop hits?

Two new, two old. And a few songs that I haven’t done for ever. Even if they’re country, they’re all pop songs. When I was a kid, Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn were radio stars.

You’ve often said that your career was a happy accident. How would starting out feel today, in a more regimented music business?

My kid is starting out. He wants to do hip-hop. He’s pretty good. But it’s a different ballgame because of social media. I wanted to be a background singer. I had my heart set on being like [Gimme Shelter vocalist] Mary Clayton. I just happened to become a lead singer because the platform shoes I was wearing kept falling off. And our manger would only manage us if the girl in the back who kept falling would come up front and be a lead singer.

I don’t think I could put up with doing The Voice. You get tortured. Did Dylan do it? Would he make it through? I don’t know – if those shows were back then, would there even be a Bob Dylan today?

Unlike Bruce Springsteen and others, you chose not to cancel your June concert in Raleigh, North Carolina despite your opposition over an anti-LGBT law passed by the state recently. Instead, you announced all profits are to be donated to a LGBT charity there. What was your thinking?

Fear is fear. And education is the way. Educate people on the facts and how to protect their civil rights; that there’s all kinds of people in the world and room for all of us. I lived through the civil rights period, I’m still living through the women’s rights period, because obviously all our rights are being stripped, one by one. So I felt that we could go down to North Carolina and teach people how to help themselves and each other – and also at the venue where we were playing we insisted on a transgender bathroom. That’s going to be there forever.

Are you looking for other artists to speak out?

I can’t speak for anyone else. I’m a friend and family member [to transgender people] so where I come from, you don’t allow somebody else to hurt your friend or family member. You don’t allow people to strip other people’s civil rights. In America everyone is a freaking immigrant. Everyone, including Donald Trump. Unless he has some Native American action going on. They can try to change the facts and try to rewrite history and try to lie through their teeth, but they can’t shove that down my throat. Because I don’t have amnesia. Knowledge is power … I don’t know about you, but there was always a unisex bathroom in the studios where I worked. Nobody gave a hoot.

What really bothered me was the fact that they passed a law that would try and make it difficult to have anti-discrimination built. Because once you take that step, you’re playing a dangerous game. And you never know when that discrimination is going to turn toward you.

Contributor

Mark Guarino

The GuardianTramp

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