Q&A with Cyndi Lauper

by Beth Winegarner
Special to the Chronicle

Cyndi Lauper would like nothing more than to help people get past the image of her as the persimmon-haired, squeaky-voiced gal in the gladrag getup. Some folks have clung so tightly to Cyndi's first incarnation that they missed an entire decade of her career, including albums like 1993's "Hatful of Stars" or her Emmy award-winning appearance as a contessa on the sitcom "Mad About You."

Lauper is back with a new record, "Sisters of Avalon," set to be released April 1. To record Avalon" the songstress retreated to a sprawling homestead in New York's Tuxedo Park with co-writer Jan Pulsford and producer Mark Saunders, who worked on Tricky's "Maxinquaye." After experimenting with everything from singing outdoors to trusting Saunder's loyalty to computerized recording tricks, Lauper's delight over the new album is all-encompassing, down to the CD booklet with snapshots taken throughout the house. "They're like polaroids that I took around the house," Lauper says, "To get a feel for the journey. Because for me the CD is like a journey."

Q:I wanted to ask about the inspiration for a couple of the new songs. How did the myth of Avalon come into play?

A: Jan is Welsh, and she happened to be reading the "21 Laws of Merlin." They mention the sisters of Avalon in there. They were, I guess, from the Druid societies where these women were like religious leaders and healers.

I was very excited about what we were doing. We were all women writing. It was great, because I had never done that before. So it was kind of a sister thing, anyway. And that's why. I don't know if there's any deep mystical meaning.

Q: What about "Ballad of Cleo & Joe?"

A: Well, that came out of all the work that I did with the drag queens on the Deadly Cyns tour, and the Gay Games. I kinda fell in love with these wonderful performance artists. I wanted to write about it, give a humanity to [their] story. I have a wonderful friend said once to me that he didn't dress up as a woman because he wanted to feel like a woman, he just dressed like a woman because it made him feel more of a man. And I kind of understood that. I know it's kind of a hard concept for straight people to understand. I wanted to write a song that was empowering.

Q: Drag queen culture's been coming up a lot over the past few years.

A: Cross-gender dressing has been going on since the beginning of time. I never saw what the fuss was, anyway. Now with RuPaul, it's great. Sometimes you might look at someone and think, "My God." But you have to know them to know if they're good or bad. It's not if they wear a funny dress or something.

Q: You've been through that a bit, haven't you?

A: I guess that's why I relate, yeah. And then when I sang in the parade, it ripped my heart wide open. I had such joy and I was crying, and I was there with my dearest friends on a float, doing every version of "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" you ever heard. There were so many people and it was all about joy.

Q: Speaking of "Girls," how do you feel about some of the stuff you wrote fifteen years ago?

A: I feel I hardly had a chance to write as much as I could have. I was always pressured into doing covers, and I would. I learned a lot about production and arranging, but then there comes a point where you redo everyone else's songs and you're losing your voice as a writer. And not to sing the rhythm of your speech, or the way you want to phrase something without a compromise, that's a wonderful thing. Every one of us has a rhythm that's very unique. I just needed to reclaim my voice.

Instead I had to go and write with all these different people all the time. And it made me a little crazy, to the point where I didn't want to write. I couldn't think. You write with 10 different people and after a while you're like, "What do these songs friggin' mean to me? Nothing." It took me a while to find somebody like Jan, who happened to be in my band, that I could relate to.

Q: Do you feel like that's why your albums weren't doing well -- because your heart wasn't in it?

A: No, when I did "Hatful of Stars" my heart was in it. I thought that was one of the best records I ever did. But it wasn't even in stores. I would go on tour and people would say, "So, what've you been doing? Got a new record?" But no, I attribute that more to my business sense, which was never great. That was always a problem.

Q: Is it getting better?

A: Yes. I hope so.

The miracle is, I never gave up the hope of doing this album with Jan. It kinda grew out of the "Hatful of Stars" tour because all of a sudden I looked around me and realized that when I sang and played music with them, there was a great vibe onstage. It was enchanting for me. I feel connected to the band that I did the CD with, and I felt that we had great moments. And thank God I was able to record them.

Q: Will you be touring?

A: Yeah, we got the Tina Turner tour! People will really hear the music, and I'm so excited about that. I think it's going to be great. She's my hero. I know she's not a feminist. I don't care -- to me, she is.

Q: Well, she's a strong woman.

A: She's a strong woman, and yet she's calm. If I could be strong and calm and smart, and still adore the process -- I really love the process of making music, of recording it, of inventing things. That makes me feel alive. Every time you create something that you think couldn't happen and then it happens, it's like a little miracle.

Q: Do you feel like you've paved the way for some of the younger women musicians who are out there?

A: I don't know, maybe I have, but then people paved the way for me. Even Boy George; I think his dress was so weird, and it was okay, that my clothes weren't strange. I think that Deborah Harry, even Chrissie Hynde -- we all do, but that's the cycle of things. Even younger musicians influence me and open the doors for me.

When I did "Hatful of Stars" it was very difficult for me because that kind of music wasn't being made. And then Alanis Morrissette came along and she made it possible for me to do the kind of music I want to do. All of a sudden using drum loops and playing harmonica -- that wasn't weird. It makes it easier for me. We all open doors for each other, that's just the way it is.

This article was originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle.