It’s been more than an hour since I’ve been on the phone with singer Cyndi Lauper for more than an hour. And I’m wondering: “Am I open? Am I standing in the center of the rhythm? Am I allowing myself to be the channel for which creativity can pass through me? Is my head clear?” Lauper’s self-reflexive joi de vivre is better than therapy and definitely less expensive. In fact, the musical stormtrooper who triumphed in the ’80s with her rainbow’d tresses and the hit singles “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” “She Bop” and “Time After Time” is deep and real, raw and edgy, and just as outspoken as you’d imagine her to be. On the eve of her upcoming appearance at Saratoga’s Mountain Winery, Lauper, now 50, attempted to answer questions about her marriage, being a mother to her 6-year-old son, living in Connecticut, touring with Cher and last year’s debut of At Last, an array of cabaret standards and pop classics, her first major-label recording since 1998. I say attempted, because the more one gives Lauper room to speak, the more opportunity there is to listen to her reflect on life, and living, and being a human being. Somehow, all the questions get answered—just not at the moment they’re asked …
Cyndi Lauper: To me, rhythm is king; or queen, which ever you prefer. For me, hey, maybe it’s queen. I sang against it and found a new meter; a new life for it … I always thought, if Bruce Springsteen can be the boss, why can’t I?
Good Times: You can. Well, you are.
CL: Well, I don’t really have time for the mundane. Everything in our life is mundane and boring. I think you should stir it up a little and reach for a higher place. Go for it—keep the channel open. Inspire other people; be involved; make mistakes; do it better next time; just try; don’t fuckin’ sit there. Ya know? Take a photograph; take a photograph that somebody would want to put in their book. Don’t just make a boring ass photograph—make something interesting. Make art. It’s in an artistic field, it should be artistic. Not autistic. Artistic. So, you know, for me, this whole process of At Last, and doing the CD and the live shows and the DVDs—At Last seems so much better than ‘It’s About Fuckin’ time.’ I didn’t come to this planet, and I know this will sound very Star Trek, but I didn’t come to this world to be a puppet; not to have a mindset, and not to do what I intuitively know is the right thing to do because that’s what I want to do. I didn’t come here to march through the paces. I came here to make a difference. You know, everything in my life and the whole of my career, and all the songs that I sang, was to make a difference, not just to sing some song.
GT: What do you love most about performing music?
CL: Didn’t I already tell you? (Laughs.)
GT: Well, I guess you did in a way.
CL: What do you mean, in a way? Be thorough. You’re a great communicator. That’s what you do. C’mon …
GT: Actually, you explained that quite clearly. I mean, in the last half hour, you’ve basically told me that performing/making music is what you’ve come here to do, right? As a writer, I can relate to that. That’s what I’m here to do—to communicate through stories.
CL: That’s it. We’re storytellers! You’re a storyteller. You write stories in a paper, in a book; you write stories about people. For me, it’s similar to storytelling, so in that tradition, that’s how I approach things. Because these [songs] are stories. So I think, OK, here’s a group of stories—who’s telling these stories? For At last, I thought, who’s telling these stories? I kept looking at these album covers [for ideas]. And I thought about it and thought about, and then I saw her—I saw a storyteller. She was in a cocktail dress and there was a cityscape behind her at night and she was in the moonlight … and eventually we set it up in New York. I started dancing around, and I started dancing to the Statue of Liberty and we were on this barge and I knew that was eventually going to make it into it. And there I am in this cocktail dress right by a manhole cover and I thought the juxtaposition in that was fascinating.
GT: Quite stellar, actually.
CL: Yeah, right? You know, she’s in profile. There’s the moon, there’s the cityscape and she’s dancing to the statue of liberty and for me, growing up as a female, the fact that the symbol for liberty, and civil liberties, was a woman holding a beacon …
GT: That says a lot.
CL: That says a lot. That spoke to me miles and miles and miles as a girl.
GT: You know, I was scanning your bio last week …
CL: God only knows what it says …
GT: Well, let me tell you. One of the things it says, is that you’ve sold more than 20 million albums around the world. So, when you hear that, what goes through your mind?
CL: What goes through my mind? Huh—that, internationally, I made a penny a record. (Laughs). No! I don’t know. What goes through my mind? Nothin’ … I think, ‘That’s nice. That’s very nice.’
GT: You’re not someone who’s attached the results, then? You show up, do your work, let go?
CL: Well, I wanna win. (Laughs.) Because I didn’t come here to do mediocre work. I say, ‘Shake it up a little.’ I’m not going to just stand there. And, you know, if there’s no human experience in it, then what the hell are you doing? What are you singing about? For me, I gotta know what I am singing about. And I want to sing about something extraordinary. I don’t want to sing about mediocre. I don’t care about that. I want to do something that I care about. I don’t care if you think it’s a hit song. It sounds like a hit song now, but not a year from now, when the record comes out. You’re just dreamin’! Is it catchy? Well I’ll find out if it’s catchy because I’ll sing it live. I’ll find out tonight, tomorrow night, the day after, the day after that. And I’ll figure out how to make that thing work, and if I can’t, it’s out. Ya know? It’s as easy as that. I’m not going to listen to somebody who sits behind a desk who doesn’t do what I do. I hear the voice of the people and I sing back to them. That’s what I do. I try to communicate with people. I try to find that space between here and there where we can both dance in a different variety. And I guess that’s why I do it; that’s why I love it so much. I’m extraordinarily blessed that I feel that stuff. The good news and bad news of it? The good news is that I am very passionate about everything. The bad news is … I’m very passionate about everything. You probably are too, because you are not going to write about something you don’t care about. And if you do, you’re probably like ‘Oh brother!’
GT: Exactly, and it’s refreshing to actually have somebody to relate to and converse with. Most people …
CL: Yeah, well, most people figure if you’re going to talk to somebody, they’re not going to care about what you’re saying or listen to what you’re saying, and well, I take exception to that because, I think, ‘Wait a minute—I’m talkin’ to another writer.’ You don’t want to just be safe and plastic-fantastic. Don’t you want to be real? Yeah, I mean, why would you phone something in? What is that about? No pride in your craft; no pride in your art? No pride in keeping the channel open; to be standing in the center of the rhythm of something; to be grounded and have your head open so that top and bottom are channels so that you can feel that being in the right place at the right time and letting it come through you; so you continue to be creative? We’re all creative beings. You have to have pride in what you do. You have to have pride in yourself. What is this ‘It doesn’t matter-no-integrity-who-cares’ stuff? You know, ‘fuck them before they fuck you.’ You know, I’ve actually had people speak those words and I thought, ‘What the heck has happened here? What’s going on?’
GT: They’re shut down.
CL: Yeah. You’re right. They’re shut down. I will not shut down. I will not shut down and I don’t think other people will pay to see other people’s spirits broken, let alone mine. Unless I get a lobotomy and that would be a far cry for me. I mean, what happened to everybody? Stand up! Stand up for yourself. Be awake! Don’t sleep walk. It’s not healthy.
GT: I think a lot of people are numb.
CL: Yeah, it’s kinda rough out there, but if you don’t care anymore that ain’t no life.
GT: What’s the best advice you’ve been given lately?
CL: I’ve been given a lot of advice, but do I always listen? No. Someone recently said to me, ‘Why do you always have to tell everybody what you really think? Don’t tell everybody!’ And I’m like, ‘Well, because you lay your cards on the table.’ But they can’t hear that, because they don’t understand; they feel threatened by it. So the advice I’ve been given was, don’t lead by your chin. And I actually used it in this song … and it goes: ‘I have a friend I confide in/He always says, doll, you got to learn not to/Lead by your chin/But you can’t help it/It all comes up again.’ … God, I must have talked you into the ground.
GT: No. But I think it’s 1:30 in the morning where you are in Sydney, Australia.
CL: Omigod! I was on the phone an hour with you?
GT: It’s cool. One more question. What would you say is the most interesting thing you’ve learned about yourself lately?
CL: That I’m able to achieve what I want. That you can never give up. I never give up, but sometimes I have to remind myself,’ ‘OK, whatever! I’m not givin’ up.’ And, that you can actually win. I think it’s wrong to give up. I kind of learned that about myself. Sometimes I think I’m too negative. Huh—I think I’m too negative. (Laughs) But …
GT: Yet you seem very positive and upbeat.
CL: No. Absolutely not. I have to remind myself all the time. Because it’s very easy to fall back into, ‘Oh, this sucks, that sucks, blah-blah-blah.’ But you know, when I get myself out of that mindset, I am fine. I did learn, if you do focus on where you put your energy, you can win; you can win. It’s what you believe you can do that helps you achieve what you want. If you don’t believe you can do it, you might as well forget it! You give it your all, or not Blanche! And that’s that.”
Cyndi Lauper performs at Mountain Winery on Thursday, July 15. Tickets are $35-$55. For more information, call (408) 741-2822. Learn more at gregarcher.com.