IN CONCERT : Humbly back in the queen's seat - Former 'disco queen' Donna Summer makes a dramatic re-entry into the music scene with new album 'Crayons'
By Josef Woodard, NEWS-PRESS CORRESPONDENT
June 19, 2009 6:40 AM
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Where: Chumash Casino Resort, 3400 E. Highway 246, in Santa Ynez
Cost: $55 to $105
Information: (800) 585-3737, www.chumashcasino.com
Donna Summer, once anointed a "disco queen" in her 1970s heyday but always less than fully appreciated as a singer, has been back on the scene in recent years. She has wended her way through Santa Barbara in the '00s, including a show at the Santa Barbara Bowl four years ago chock-full of hot stuff in various styles, disco included.
But the difference at this moment — as when she plays at the Chumash Casino on Thursday — is that Summer now has a new album in the mix, "Crayons," her first since 1991's "Mistaken Identity." Debuting on the charts at No. 17, the package has yielded a few singles, including the winkingly self-referential "The Queen is Back." Indeed.
In the midst of her current tour, the affable and open Summer, now 60, spoke from her hotel room about her musical life in motion . . . again.
As another step taken in this new phase of your career, you're headed to Europe for the first time in awhile, aren't you?
Yeah, I haven't played Europe in a long time. I'm just waking up. When you're a performer, you get out there and do it, and succeed, and then you wade into the lull land. You still do your career to some extent, but it's not on the level you did it before. You raise your family, you have a life. You still perform somewhat, but it's not the focal point of your life.
Your kids leave and you think 'alright, what's next? Well, what do I like? To sing, that's what.' If you can't find something that you like better, you go back to what you love. And that's kind of what I did.
It does seem that you're fully back in action, both with live performance and now also on record. Does it feel like a new phase, a rebirth for you?
Yeah, definitely. I started writing again. I always write. I also paint. I'll have periods of doing one thing or the other. I have a theory that I don't paint when I'm not happy. That I don't have to worry about when I'm not happy. When I'm not happy, I'll tend to write a song. I think you go to your first talent.
Although you're often pegged to disco, your musical tastes and abilities really run a wide gamut, from musicals to soul and pure pop.
Honestly. Back when I was growing up, in the course of a day, every kind of music was around — country music, pop music, black pop, white pop, a black artist, white artist, folk music. It was all on the same radio. I was exposed to everything. I didn't have to turn it on. It was just there.
Now, it's way more separated. One week, I'd be at a Four Tops or a Supremes concert and then the next week, be at a folk concert, and it didn't seem to be a strange thing. Growing up, it never dawned on me that I had to separate music, or align myself with specific things. To me, music has so many different kinds of feelings that we all have.
This is my biggest complaint with music now, and this is why my album came out the way it did. I felt like I had to take a stand against that kind of marketing, that kind of stereotyping — whatever people do to us when you're a musician. You've got to have a theme, and point-of-view, a sound. Why?
And how did that go over with the powers-that-be?
Not that well. I think they would have preferred it to be one kind of an album, but I don't care. Sometimes, it's really more important to make the statement, because I think maybe fewer people hear that statement, but it's still being heard. I've had musicians come up to me and say 'man, the concept of that album has made me free. It has helped me to be free.' I think that's the point. It's OK. If you happen to like hip-hop, that's OK, but if you happen to like rock 'n' roll, too, that's also OK.
Or reggae, such as your collaboration with Ziggy Marley on the tune "Crayons?"
Or reggae. Or classical music. Why can't we like it all. That was my theory. If I'm a horn, I'll play whatever the horn could play. The horn can play anything. I'm just the horn.
"The Queen is Back" is a great tune, and at last half tongue-in-cheek, isn't it?
It was pretty tongue-in-cheek (laughs). The whole time I was thinking 'are they gonna get that this is somewhat humorous?'
But you are back.
Well, I'm trying to be (laughs), if I can stay awake long enough. They run you around. It's not like it used to be in the old days, when you could stay up all night for four or five days and keep on trucking. Nowadays, you keep me up for a night, and I'm like 'ughhh.' The years have taken their toll (laughs). Now, I need more sleep than I used to.
Do you find that you thrive on being onstage again?
Yes. For me, there's no comparison to being onstage. I started off onstage and I went from that to musicals, which is also onstage. Stage life is very much part of my vernacular. It's really about the music and about the connection that has to all those people out there. Whether you sit in a room alone with 20 people or you sit in an auditorium with 17,000 or 20,000 people, the general connection is still the same.
I would say it's empowering. It really gives you a sense of usefulness. I really feel like that's what I was born for. In my heart, I would sing for free — and I have. It's just something that is part of me. People are part of me. Making them happy is part of what I enjoy.
Live, you really do put on a show — and you're a real singer, a rare commodity on the current scene.
The requirements are different. The way people sing now is different. I think they could sing differently, but they've latched onto this idea of singing multiple licks and a certain amount of phrases. What it does, unfortunately, is that it diminishes the melodic structure, because it's more staccato or choppy in the way the phrasing sounds.
Back in our days, we had a lot of long, drawn-out melodies. People would hold notes out. You don't hear that very often anymore. Now it's more like (sings a tune with staccato notes), almost like rapping patterns, but sometimes sung.
But then you get somebody like Susan Boyle, who comes on and opens her mouth and sings a pure, beautiful song with this great voice that she has . . . (sighs). Somebody said to me the other day, 'it's the difference between anointed to sing, and singing.'
Also, she — like you — is guided by the influence of music theater. That might give you a depth you can't get from straight pop music.
I would say that's probably true. The thing I think that gives you is a sense of drama. When I hear somebody sing who has a lot of drama in them, they don't have to bend the words. They can actually sing it lyrically, the way it's written, and musically, the way it's written, and phonetically, the way it's written. There is something about the way they approach it that brings drama — or the sound of their voice, or the voice within the voice that you can't hear with your ear, but you hear it with the heart.
Some people have it more than others, but it's definitely a gift from God. It's not something you can manufacture very well.
You're one of those people who does like the element of surprise, aren't you?
Well, I like to consider myself as being out of the box a little bit. I don't like it when people think they know my next move. I hate that. It's not because I'm trying to be so different. I just don't like being told what to do. I really don't. It's not that somebody can't instruct me, that I'm not instruct-able. Certainly, I don't mind being guided when the moment is there for that.
But I think that, for an artist, you have got to be looking into the future, seeing where the wave of things are going. Even if it's not momentary consensus in the industry that you're in, if you're feeling the impulse, you've got to go for it. It might not prove you right in this moment, but down the line, it might prove you extremely right. You've got to be willing to take that extreme measure to be creative. You can't just walk around singing the same old empty songs, over and over again. At some point, you've got to sing something that means something to you.
When I get to the place where I think 'there's nothing for me to say here' or 'I'm not impressed by what I'm singing' or 'I don't have a connection to what I'm singing,' I don't' think I need to be singing. I need to be out of this and doing something that means something to me.
But it seems that you're very much in a forward momentum kind of groove at the moment.
(Starts singing) "I'm in a forward momentum kind of groove . . . " (laughs).
You can have that line if you want it.
OK. Let's see if I can turn it into a song.