She's still so unusual: Cyndi Lauper on her rockabilly roots, the song that makes her sound like Ethel Merman, and her special kinship with Patsy Cline

Salon talks to the legendary singer about "Detour," her new star-studded collection of vintage country covers

Published May 4, 2016 10:59PM (EDT)

Cyndi Lauper   (Chapman Baehler)
Cyndi Lauper (Chapman Baehler)

As the title implies, Cyndi Lauper's new album, "Detour," is a curveball of sorts: It's a collection of vintage country covers recorded with a who's-who of Nashville musicians and collaborators such as Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Alison Krauss and Vince Gill. However, within the context of her illustrious, three-decade-plus career, "Detour" makes perfect sense. Lauper's work has spanned the entire continuum of popular music—between the Technicolor new wave of 1983's "She's So Unusual" and the blues explorations on 2010's "Memphis Blues," she dabbled in electronica, reggae, R&B and soul, to name a few—and her nimble, expressive voice can handle any genre.

The scope and approach of "Memphis Blues" informed "Detour," as did the suggestions of the album's co-executive producer Seymour Stein, the Sire Records co-founder who Lauper had wanted to work with "for a while." The resulting track list suits her to a tee: Not only does she tackle classics popularized by her beloved Patsy Cline ("Walkin' After Midnight," "I Fall To Pieces") and standards such as "Heartaches By the Number," but the musician also nods to other trailblazing women (an organ-burnished take on Wanda Jackson's rockabilly classic "Funnel Of Love"; the rollicking, fiddle- and pedal steel-augmented title track, a duet with Harris) and doesn't skimp on humor.

Jewel shows up to add raucous yodels to a cover of Patsy Montana's "I Want to be a Cowboy's Sweetheart"—the first country single by a woman to sell over a million copies—while Gill and Lauper trade barbs on a version of Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty’s “You’re The Reason Our Kids Are Ugly.” Throughout, Lauper embraces these different songs and styles with gusto—as her early days in the rockabilly-tinged rock band Blue Angel proved, she's a natural country vocalist who imbues these classic songs with depth and grace.

In late February, Salon and Lauper connected via phone to talk about the genesis of "Detour," her connection to country music and the artists on the record, and the slipperiness of genre designations.

You've wanted to do this album for a while, correct?

Well, I wanted to work with Seymour Stein for a while. I thought about it, like when I first met k.d. lang and I jammed with her. She said, “You got a little country in your voice.” I was busy doing other things. And I figured, hey, I wanted to work with Seymour, Seymour wanted to work with me. He had a couple ideas, and this was one of them. I thought this would be a good idea and a nice counterpart to the "Memphis Blues" thing that I did, because it’s all around the same time period. It was a time when blues and country walked hand-in-hand, so I thought it would be really interesting.

As I did the discovery, and he sent me songs to listen to, I became surprised that these were songs when I was a kid that were hits. Because they’re country songs, and in a lot of ways, you didn’t think it was country, because they played everything on the radio. It wasn’t segregated like it is now. So it was just pop songs. Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn, even though they were country, they were pop artists. When I was a kid, that’s how I remember it, except I liked the cowboy outfits. They didn't always wear cowboy outfits—Dale Evans did, and Roy Rogers. I was very impressed with them. [Laughs.] And Sky King. It was a different kind of horse with Sky King. It wasn’t Trigger—it was an airplane. But they still had the hat, you know.

As you were growing up, what role did these artists play in your musical memories and development as a vocalist or musician?

All I can say is, I heard their voices on the radio when I was little. When I mean little—I had a pony stick. I was little. [Laughs.] The first time I saw Patsy Cline, I might have been four-and-a-half or five. I was sitting on the big chair with my grandmother, and Nana and I were watching Arthur Godfrey’s "Talent Scouts" show. And Patsy Cline sang, and we were really excited and happy and thought she was really great. Nana cried for all the winners all the time—I don’t know why, really. She watched another show too that influenced me, “Queen For A Day.” Usually it was about a woman who toiled a lot and did everything by hand, so they put a crown on her head, and maybe a mink stole over her shoulders and gave her a washing machine. And I used to think to myself, “You know what, I’d rather sing. I’m not doing laundry.” The nerve, calling a woman “queen” and giving her a washing machine and making her have to do the wash. So. [Laughs.] You know, it was a big influence on my life.

The two Patsy Cline covers are some of my favorite songs on the record.

I loved her. In the '80s, when the movie came out ["Sweet Dreams"], my friends worked at MCA, the music company. But she would send over all the Patsy Cline greatest hits packages. In the '80s, when I didn’t go out much because I was famous… Really, it was too much, so I wouldn't go out. So I would be in my apartment singing on the top of my lungs with Patsy. [Laughs.] I sang harmony with her; I sang with her. I was very, very close to Patsy. It was almost like when I was nine and I used to sing with Barbra Streisand. She had no idea how close I was with her. No idea. It was like that in the '80s with Patsy.

[On "Detour"] I didn’t even sing my absolute, absolute favorite song, because I’d just rather hear her sing it, and sometimes you have to forget. The first time I sang “Walkin’ After Midnight,” I thought it should be faster, because I walk a lot with my husband, and he’s always a lot faster, so I sped it up. [Laughs.] I mean, it almost sounds like “Just a Gigolo.” I didn't realize it, but when I was listening to it I was like, “Oh my God!”

You know, I’d never really heard Skeeter Davis [who popularized the "Detour" song "The End Of the World"]. I only knew [the version done by] Herman’s Hermits. I knew about Marty Robbins when I was a kid. You gotta remember what was on TV, what was in the movies—big, big western movies in the '60s. Huge. And always like, you know, “Who Shot Liberty Valance” and these theme songs. I knew that Marty Robbins wrote a song for a movie, but when I heard [Robbins'] “Begging [To You],” I just thought, it’s a really simple story, it reminds me of a Roy Orbison story. Which I’m not sure if Roy Orbison was a country artist or just a rocker—I have no idea, because the lines bleed together. Like Willie Nelson—yes, he’s a country artist, but you kinda think of him as a bit of a rocker, you know what I mean?

Even today.

Especially today. And so I thought to myself that all of these were stories, and picked the best stories. Like "You're the Reason" is just a funny song. I mean, "You're The Reason Our Kids Are Ugly?" Come on. That’s funny. Vince Gill has a sense of humor, so I thought that would be so much fun. But I also thought, when I saw him in the Time Jumpers, what no one really realizes about Vince Gill is what an extraordinary guitar player he is.

Yes, he is.

His voice isn't just like butter—his guitar playing is tremendous. When it came time to cutting “Detour,” the band that we were using, the Nashville cats—who I adore—were not really available. I just asked ["Detour" co-producer] Tony Brown… And I did work with Tony Brown because he was Elvis [Presley]’s piano player and because I heard some of his work and it had an edge to it, and because he'd worked with Emmylou Harris. In fact, I didn’t realize [Tony] was in Vince Gill’s band until I looked it up, and then I looked up some old Vince songs, and that song “It’s Hard to Kiss the Lips at Night That Chew Your Ass Out All Day Long,” that was pretty funny. And I saw Tony Brown in it and said, “You’re kidding me!”

Anyway, not that there weren’t really great songs on that album too, that Vince did. And he has a new album that’s really pretty terrific. But when [Gill] came to play, and we were gonna cut [the song] “Detour,” Tony got some other players and said, “Why don’t you get some players from the Time Jumpers? Because these guys know cowboy swing and ‘Detour’ is a cowboy swing song.” So he started playing, and honest to God, when Vince plays, it almost feels like Christmas. Kind of like Christmas—I don't know how you feel about it. Or maybe the style of music was on some of my mother’s Christmas records when I was little, I have no idea. But it just sounds like Christmas to me. And his vibe is great, he's such a nice guy.

And so everything kind of came together. And then we recorded “You’re the Reason [Our Kids Are Ugly].” He and the guys he was working with, they must have worked together forever, because the way they talk. We stood live and we did it. And as everybody felt stuck, everybody would chime in and say, “Well, what about this, and what about that?” and say, “That’s good, let’s try it, you never know, let's do it.” And it’s live. That’s what live is. I was so grateful that I could do things live. It’s not like I’m reinventing the wheel. If it doesn’t sound good after a couple of times, then we won’t do a song, you know what I mean? But mainly, I was excited to do it live. I was excited to sing with these guys playing.

At first, it was a little daunting. Everything you try and do that’s a little different with new people is a little daunting sometimes. But you gotta hang in there. It’s like being a surfer: You’re looking for that wave you’re gonna ride in. [Laughs.] And for them, they were used to playing together. The first song we did together, they were great and I sucked. I even said, I was like, “Well, you guys connect together great. I didn’t connect with you guys. And, therefore, it ain’t good, so we gotta try to connect.” And after that, I think it was a conscious effort to really connect to each other. I think the first song we did where we all connected was “Funnel of Love.” That was live. And then the next one we did that we really connected was “The End of the World.” After that, we kind of had a vibe. The first two were like, ehhh, not really. But that’s how it is.

Then I went back and fixed the Patsy Cline song, because I had in my head because I was singing with her that I would sound like her. But the truth is, I’m not gonna sound like Patsy Cline. And if I did sound like Patsy Cline, that wouldn’t be a bad thing! There’s only one of her, and I know for a fact that no matter how I try to change my voice, there’s that sound that never goes away. It’s just there. No matter what I sing, it’s always that sound. It doesn’t change. So I thought, "Just surrender to it, sing what you love, and make it as great as you can. Tell these stories." And so I sank into the sound of whatever sounds my voice made in that key, or whatever it could do well in certain keys, and married that.

Like in “Heartaches by the Number,” I knew there’s no way I can sing like Ray Price. Singing in that way makes me sound like I don't know who, like Ethel Merman, it's not a good idea. Just like when I tried to sing "I'm Gonna be Strong" and sing it like Gene Pitney sang it, I sounded like Ethel. Not a bad thing to sound like Ethel Merman, but not in those kind of songs.

I just kind of looked for what I loved. And I realized I was in a rockabilly band, so why not let them play country? But country and rockabilly is the same thing, so I did it as if I was in Blue Angel. And then I also loved singing "Funnel of Love" because I felt like I was back in the rockabilly band again. Wanda Jackson and Elvis Presley and Brenda Lee, and all the early country people—even Patsy Cline—well, I always thought they were rockabilly. I cut my teeth as a singer when I was in a band listening to them. When I started writing rockabilly, I was listening to them, and all of Sun Records and then everything old I could find.

And you're right that it's hard to define. It's not like it's a well-defined genre or sound. It’s slippery, in a good way.

It's a slippery slope. It is different—it's just that I always thought Wanda Jackson was one of the original rockers. And everybody, as soon as you say that, goes, "Well, she was country.” But you know, Elvis Presley, not for nothing, is country, too. And what he was doing was mixing blues and country. And so I thought, well, this is the perfect thing. A little homage to both, you know? Just kind of mix 'em together.

As a musician, what was the most gratifying thing for you having worked on this record?

Well we did it in two-and-a-half weeks, and I didn't think we could. I'm scared, you know, it's like "Uhh, are you kiddIng me? What, more than two songs a day? My voice will sound crappy." And I sang "Walkin' After Midnight" and I said "I'm definitely going to have to sing that again, because I can't sing three songs in one day." Then I listened to it the next day, and I said, "That sounds good to me." [Laughs.] So, you know, I think that sometimes it just was easy.

And I had William Whitman with me, whom I've been working with on and off since "She's So Unusual." Long, long time. He's a great engineer, he knows my voice. I don't have to turn around and argue about the cue system. He knows what I want to hear, and I don't want to argue about anything. After I finish warming up and I'm ready to sing, I want the mic right. I don't want to argue about your shit-ass cue-system. Oh, excuse my language. I just bring William Whitman, let him take care of it. This way I know my mic. I even bought my German mic with me, but I just used the Neumann 47.

You didn't really want to hear about the microphone, did you? No, sorry—I don't know if it's a 46 or a 47. I can go on and on. Like, the 49 is what Billie Holiday used, but nobody uses that anymore. The 67 is good sometimes, for certain songs. You gotta know your mics, you know? Now you know a little bit.

By Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

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