It’s hard to get a word in edgewise when you’re talking to Cyndi Lauper. The 54-year-old pop veteran converses the way she approaches live performances — which is to say, like a teenager with a touch of ADHD. In concert, unwitting fans might find Lauper landing in their laps or wind up with a crick in their necks watching the woman bust a move up the aisles and hop across the armrests of theatre seats (as was the case when she played Toronto’s Massey Hall a few years back). Today’s manufactured pop stars would do well to study Lauper — she remains one of the most thrilling performers in contemporary music.
Lauper attacks conversations with a gusto — not to mention a thick Brooklyn accent — that leaves you breathless. She’s just so genuinely excited about, well, everything — whether it’s hitting dance clubs or educating kids about equal rights. Though she’s been in the business for decades, Lauper retains a sense of wonder. Peers like Madonna radiate entitlement when it comes to fame; Lauper still seems amazed that she is able to do this for a living.
'I wanted to promote new music and educate people about civil rights, and we get to do it while we’re singing loudly, dancing wildly and having a good time. Knowledge is more fun that way.'— Cyndi Lauper, on her True Colors tour
Her engagement with the world means she instinctively makes music that sounds current and fresh. It’s a laudable accomplishment for a woman whose mainstream breakout happened way back in 1983, when she released the album She’s So Unusual. After putting out a series of exhilarating pop records, Lauper experimented with different genres. At Last (2003), a collection of jazz-inflected standards, garnered her a Grammy nomination while several tracks from The Body Acoustic (2005), which featured stripped-down covers of her greatest hits, wound up on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary charts. She recently released Bring Ya to the Brink, a punchy album of club-friendly collaborations with everyone from house producers Basement Jaxx to ex-pat Canadian electro crew Dragonette. Lauper says it marks a return to the energy she’s been missing.
A long-time feminist and ally of the queer community, Lauper upped the ante last year with her inaugural True Colors tour. Named after her platinum 1986 single — which became an unofficial anthem in gay circles — the multi-artist road show was designed to raise money and awareness for the U.S. Human Rights Campaign, which fights for equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people. The second annual True Colors tour stops in Toronto on June 4. We managed to corral Lauper at home in New York City, where she talked about growing up in the heyday of the civil rights movement, nightclubbing with Alan Cumming and how she learned to sing like a drum.
Q: You’re getting a lot of attention for the work you’re doing with the True Colors tour, but your work has always had a political element. For example, you deliberately included a racially diverse cast in your Girls Just Wanna Have Fun video.
A: Oh yeah, it was very important. And the message was clear: all girls should be able and entitled to have fun, not just the white girls. I like when everybody’s all together, when you have an inclusive little community. I tried to do it with the True Colors tour, too. In Vancouver, for example, I asked one of my heroes, one of my all-time faves, Joan Armatrading, to play. I think I’m actually gonna die! And I’m a big fan of the Cliks; oh, and I’ve always been a fan of the Indigo Girls. [Both acts are also part of the True Colors lineup.] Actually, I’ll probably watch them play guitar very carefully: "Mm-hmm, so now she’s playing with a capo on this song." [Laughs] I really do feel very blessed. My friend Sarah McLachlan is coming out in Vancouver.
A: Well, she’s going to do whatever she’s gonna do. But maybe, if she wants to. With her, I’m like, "Man, I’ll do anything you want to do; you’re an angel." She has the voice of an angel! So I guess when I sing with her, it’s like an angel and a devil singing together. [Laughs] I just think it’s such an extraordinary experience to have a tour and be blessed with all these artists. I wanted to promote new music and educate people about civil rights, and we get to do it while we’re singing loudly, dancing wildly and having a good time. Knowledge is more fun that way. And knowledge is about power — this whole tour is about empowerment.
Q: Does it feel particularly important to be taking this tour on the road in an election year?
A: Oh yeah, of course. The HRC [Human Rights Campaign] is coming with us in the States, and PFLAG [an organization that provides information and resources on sexual orientation and gender identity] and Centerlink, which is an outreach program for youth in the LGBT community. Those kids are at risk.
That said, when a kid comes out [as lesbian or gay or trans], they’re not the only ones affected. That’s why PFLAG is coming with us, too. We’ve got every chapter in every place we’re going. Everyone’s affected in an LGBT person’s friends and family, and who are they gonna talk to? Not the church —they’re just gonna damn everyone to hell.
So with PFLAG, you get to talk to similar people in similar situations. You’ve got therapists and meetings and talk groups. You get to hear from people who study human development. Knowledge is power, like I said. If you love your kid, you wanna be there for your kid and help them make good choices that aren’t self-destructive. Nobody asks to be different. And the thing is, you’ve gotta have some heart and compassion. You can’t just be a hard-ass. This tour is about embracing humanity and our differences.
Q: It seems like Bring Ya to the Brink is about having fun and getting back to your dance roots. Why did you decide to do that after your last two albums? At Last was all standards, and The Body Acoustic was stripped-down acoustic versions of —
A: Look, At Last was a special project that [the label] wanted me to do. Then they wanted me do another special project, so I was like, "I’ll do it, but I’m gonna put freakin’ dulcimer on every single track!"
Don’t get me wrong – I enjoyed the [Body Acoustic] tour and everything, but I just wanted to go back to the energy again. I wanted to go back to dancing! I was going dancing with Alan Cumming every single night when we were doing [The Threepenny Opera on Broadway in 2006]. I knew I had to go back to my real life, but I wanted to leave something in the clubs for my friends, as sentimental as it sounds. And so I reached out to the dance community. I was looking for artist-producers, ‘cause that’s what I see myself as. I wanted the songs to have distinct personalities, so the album would be like a jukebox, with, like, a bunch of different bands.
And then I heard this Goldfrapp single, produced by Jeremy Wheatley. I was immediately engaged by the singer’s vocals, because of the way it was mixed. I thought it was fantastic. I mean, Goldfrapp is a fantastic band anyway, but the way Jeremy heard it, he didn’t compromise either the rhythm or the music of that track away. It was very spare, and the simplicity of it was so modern. I love modern music. That, if anything, is what I strive for — to do something modern, not antiquated. Or if it is antiquated, it really has to be antiquated, like you’ve gotta turn the knob up to 11. It’s all about extremes.
Q: You worked with a whole spectrum of producers, from Kleerup to the Basement Jaxx. Who stood out for you?
A: I had a wonderful time working with Peer [Astrom] and Johan [Boback]. They probably thought I was just gonna go over there and sing overtop of their track, but I wanted to collaborate. I said to Johan, "You’re a drummer, so teach me to sing like a drum," and that became [the song] Echo. I like how the melody is a rhythm with that part. And then I said, "You’re Swedish — write one of those fab melodies Swedes are famous for, but don’t make it too sad." And he said, "We’re Swedish — sad is what we do."
Q: You seem to be more hands-on than most singers working with big-name producers.
A: I am the master of my destiny, because I’m gonna be paying for it, anyway. The idea that you wouldn’t be hands-on, it’s like going into a restaurant and letting someone else order everything for you, even though you’re gonna be paying it off in the end. That’s completely ass-backwards to me.
This album was a journey for me. I wanted… My family always says the same thing to me: "Yeah, Cyn, it’s art and commerce — but don’t forget the commerce!" But I think that aesthetically pleasing things can be commercial. It’s like, look at that beautiful cover art [on Bring Ya to the Brink]: the photographs, the plastic flowers. You’ve got those red shoes, and they represent the red shoes, how you can never take them off. And then there’s me on the inside looking out. I collaborated on those photos with Stefanie Schneider, an artist in Germany. And I’m there wearing the power tie and those red shoes.
I think [the photos] symbolize where women today are. We went to the demonstrations; we fought for civil rights for women — which we don’t really have since women still don’t make as much money as men. We are wearing the power tie, which nobody trained us to tie, and the red shoes that we can’t take off. And then there’s the disco ball [in the photos], which stands for how we were sold a bill of rights in the ’70s, how housework was supposed to be so glamorous, that whole Stepford thing.
There’s a lot of humour in all of this. That’s part of what makes me love [poet] Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s work, too. I like his poetry and sensuality, but I also like the humour.
Bring Ya to the Brink is in stores now. Cyndi Lauper’s True Colors tour comes to Toronto June 4 and hits Vancouver July 2.
Sarah Liss writes about the arts for CBCNews.ca.