The Empress Strikes Back
Words by Bob Henderson
Donna Summer, the original queen of Disco, is back with a brand-new studio album, Crayons. She talks to GT about embracing new sounds, disco, homos… turkeys and owls. We feel love
It’s been awhile! What have you been up to?
Promoting the album, rehearsing, doing TV shows… I haven’t done this in a long time.
Has it really been 17 years?
Since my last studio album, yes. I’ve had albums where I’ve had two new cuts, but this is a full-blown studio album. It took me over a year and three months to finish. It’s like having a baby without giving birth. It would have been easier to get pregnant!
Your song says, The Queen Is Back. Are you coming back to reclaim your title?
It isn’t so much about reclaiming a title. I’m just saying I’m back on track, making music, back here for my peeps, you know?
Yeah, it’s a fun song.
I’m poking fun at myself. People haven’t stopped calling me “the queen” for the last 20-30 years. I’m like “OK, I’ll be the queen!” I actually decided I’m going to become the Empress – I’m too old to be the queen.
There’s something of a Disco revival going on. Do you feel proud to have been at the forefront of Disco?
It’s an honor to have been at the forefront of something. It’s not a bad thing. It keeps coming back. It goes to sleep for awhile – the queen sleeps then wakes up! It’s kinda fun.
But listening to your album, Crayons, it’s quite diverse. How did you settle on its different sounds?
For me, every song had t be different. I really felt I [ought to] avert the pigeonholing of the past. I didn’t want people thinking I was coming back to be what I once was. I had to still give people a bit of what they remember, but also move forward into who I am now. I don’t want to be considered any particular type of singer. I just want to be a singer who sings.
You’ve had quite a range of co-writers. Who’s been best to work with?
The group I’ve just worked with. I’ve worked with great writers like Quincy Jones, Michael Armarni, so many wonderful writers, and all of them have brought incredible wealth to my understanding of music. But the group I’ve just worked with are young, excited, talented, exploratory, open. That was great. Everyone I worked with on this album was the best. I’m not trying to be politically correct; I would pick one if I felt there was one. It’s kinda hard to do because everybody is different.
Have you performed your new songs live yet?
No, but that’s my favorite thing. If I didn’t ever have a record, I’d still want to perform live. That’s the greatest of all gratifications.
Well, you are a performer…
Yeah, it’s in my guts. (shouting) IT’S IN MY GUTS, BABY! (laughing)
One of your songs, Fame (The Game) seems quite critical of celebrity culture…
It’s critical, but in a funny way. There’s a certain amount of tongue-in-cheekiness about it. Sometimes when I listen to entertainment programs, they’re [interviewing people so] quickly on the red carpet it sounds like, “(turkey noise) bloahblblblblblb.” It’s really funny. [The song] pokes fun at that. We think we’re getting a whole lot of knowledge out of soundbites when, in fact, we’re getting almost nothing. Anyway, the song isn’t negatively critical; it’s meant to shine the light on what it is and just question, “Is this what we should all be struggling to have?” Well, no.
You’ve had some cruel experiences in the past with the press, particularly when they’ve upset your gay fans. Do you think your relationship with the press and your gay fans has improved?
I hope so. I’ve not gone anywhere. Whatever all of that was – 25 years ago – it’s so long ago to me, let me out of prison already! When the press writes anything, you can’t refute it or defend yourself. You just have to keep living your life, keep doing what you know is right and being who you are. I can’t imagine how many times people have written bad things about me – I mean, they wrote that I was a man, c’mon! I think my heart is pure, that’s all I can tell you. I love my fan base. I’ve never denied them or it, so let’s move forward.
Do you have anything special planned for your gay fans?
I hope they love the album. I hope when we come to London we’ll get to have some party time together.
Cool. So what does the future hold for Donna Summer?
I just hope it’s really good. I’ll tell you one thing that was kinda funny. I drove up my driveway – it’s very long, I live in the middle of 25 acres – and on top of my house was a huge, fat turkey. On my roof! I’ve never seen a turkey fly in my whole life, even though I’ve been around quite a few of them. Wow! (laughs)
I think it’s funny, but it’s probably a good sign. There will be plenty of food in the future! (laughing) So now if I can just get on the roof and get it, we can eat! I’ve been having very unusual experiences with birds and creatures. I had two baby owls on my back porch, and several encounters with the owls in which I sang to them. They stood, just stared at me and listened.
What was the feedback from the owls?
I didn’t sing one of my songs off the album. Maybe that’s the next move – I gotta sing my songs.
Crayons is out on now on RCA, as is Donna’s retro-tastic Disco single I’m A Fire. www.donnasummer.com