It's tough being Donna Summer.
She is easily among the most vocal and influential artists the dance
music community has ever sent into the pop mainstream, and as such, she is
still not allowed to reside in the comfortable gray zone of public perception.
Rather, she teeters on the brutally sharp and extreme edges of black and
white; people either worship her every breath, or curse her every
At her disco-era peak. she seemed unstoppable. Polygram/Chronicles' new
"Donna Summer Anthology" --two CDs and cassettes of pure heaven--is testimony
to the power she still wields. Listen closely, and you will hear the continued
influence her music has on even the most cutting-edge new releases. How many
trance jams are direct descendants of "I Feel Love" and "Sunset People?"
And let's keep in mind that before Madonna and "Erotica," there was "Love
To Love You Baby" and "Hot Stuff."
Although the disco crash in 1979 triggered curious forays into
new-wave-shaded pop/rock ("The Wanderer") and kitschy synth musings ("All
Systems Go"), Summer ruled a sizable throng of disciples so loyal that seemingly
nothing could shake their ardor. That was until an alleged remark during
an interview was construed as anti-gay. Ten years later, and a string of
statements refuting the quote, and she is still feeling the sting of disgruntled
fans. The repercussions and pain are now a recurring theme--both in her music
and in interviews. Songs like "Carry On," her brilliant reunion record with
longtime producer/writer Giorgio Moroder (which was released in Germany earlier
this year), and "Friends Unknown," a sterling ballad from her underrated
1991 Atlantic set, "Mistaken Identity," lyrically cast her as a woman finally
reaching the exit of a dark phase of life--scars and all.
What she did or did not say during that fateful interview is academic
at this point. Lots of artists say and do things that many of use find unsavory.
The fact that so many are unwilling to move on is actually further testimony
to her power and reach as an artist--something that even Summer, herself,
does not seem to get. Her connection with people, in and out of the gay
community, has apparently been indescribably deep. After all, it is only
when an icon or a legend shows the imperfection of a human being that people
are so shattered.
But Donna Summer is moving on--regardless of whether others are willing
to join her. In many ways, this anthology is a coda to her tenure as the
world's leading disco diva. All of the classics are accounted for (and are
still sparkling like gorgeous new gems), with a few cool near-misses included
for historical perspective. Diehards will revel in a pair of cuts from Summer's
never-released, mid-'80s Geffen album, "I'm A Rainbow." One of them, a ballad
reading of "Don't Cry For me Argentina," is rumored to be up for single release.
We're praying for a house remix.
In the meantime, Summer is a red-hot concert draw and has been on a sold-out
U.S. tour for much of this year. And while she is reportedly being courted
by Mercury Records, her next musical move remains a mystery. That's where
our recent chat began.
BILLBOARD: Have you thought about what you'd like your next album to sound
DONNA SUMMER: It depends on what's happening. I've been writing a lot of
country music lately.
DS: Believe it or not. I've always loved country music. Bruce [Sudano, Summer's
husband] and I have been writing country songs for a long time now. We've
already had one country hit, 'Starting Over' with Dolly Parton. Bruce and
I have been putting off going to Nashville for quite a number of years. But
we're seriously thinking about finally doing it. I love country music; it
tells stories. I like the honesty and sensitivity in the writing.
BB: You've always written a lot. I wonder if people realize that you've
been creatively involved in a lot of your bigger hits.
DS: Oh, they don't at all. Even some of my good friends don't realize it.
Most people don't stop to read the credits. I don't think people who don't
work in music care that much about it.
BB: And the perception about dance music is that singers are the puppets
of producers, and are just singing what they are given.
DS: I think that's true to a large extent.
BB: What was it like going through all of your old material for the
DS: It was a good feeling. It made me feel like wherever my life is at this
moment, or whatever I've gone through in recent years, that I did something
that was worthwhile. It made me feel like I shouldn't always be so down on
myself. I can be proud of my career, which frees me up to do things besides
BB: That reminds me, are you still actively painting?
DS: Yes. It's like an extension of creative and emotional expression.
BB: What motivates you to get in front of the canvas?
DS: I don't paint for other people. I do it to get things out of myself.
I just lose myself in whatever is in front of me. I may stare at a single
color on a page for hours before I see a clear image that inspires me. At
the same time, I'm not an overly defined painter.
BB: Your work is expressionistic.
DS: Yes. It's very emotional. I pour my so much into my paintings. On more
than one occasion, I've had people stand in front of my work and cry. That's
the greatest compliment. You want to touch a chord in people that words can't.
And when you can create something like that on canvas, it's a heightened
blessing. You've taken words and molded them into a fixed image that gives
everyone a foundation for further thought.
BB: Are you more creatively inspired by the difficulties in life?
DS: Not completely. It's more how I relate to those tougher times and get
through them that inspires me. I've had hardship after hardship in my private
life and professional life. There were times when I had no place to turn.
In a way, it was like dying a thousand deaths. But I came through it, and
I'm still here.
It's like taking a picture, and placing it under the sun. After a while it
gets faded. But it also takes on new colors. And instead of colors being
vivid as they once were, they change into different and perhaps richer colors.
I think what has happened to me is that in the process of life, the colors
that were me have mutated into other very unusual colors. There are things
in me, and strengths that I have, that I would have never discovered unless
I had gone through a lot of adversity. I'm proud to have gotten through it
all ... and with all of my body parts intact. [Laughs]
BB: Does it trouble you that you are still viewed as a controversial person
in a lot of circles?
DS: I think if you want to believe the worst in people, you do. People have
preconceived notions about me. Add that to what the press might have to say.
It's easy enough for people to conjure up with negative feelings.
BB: Does that mean that you no longer feel compelled to respond to those
DS: I have said it a hundred times. If I had gone to jail, would I have not
already paid my debt to society? When I told the press that I did not say
those things, that the printed words in that story were not even structured
in the way that I speak, what can I do?
At times, it felt more like me being attacked because I read the Bible, and
I was saying, look, I need to do this for me, for my life. I'm still going
to love you, but don't kill me because I say I read it. It's like, I may
be an alcoholic, and you may not agree with that, but if you're my friend,
you're still going to love me. Just because I believe in Jesus Christ doesn't
mean that I want to kill you. It's been very painful.
BB: It has to be frustrating to feel so misunderstanding by so many.
DS: It is. It has been 10 years, and I'm tired of talking about it. I'm going
on with my life. I refuse to be angry. I refuse to be bitter. If someone
wants to pin something on me that doesn't belong, then I'll take it off and
keep going. For argument's sake, let's say that I did say it; it didn't change
the world, did it? And it's not like I haven't heard some gay men make horrible
jokes about women. To them it's funny. But to others, it might be perceived
BB: Let's move on. What would you say was one of your fonder memories
from the old days?
DS: Watching 'Last Dance' win the Oscar.
BB: Did you think back then that your music would be so durable?
DS: I think every artist hopes that will be the case. I'm watching people
rip off 'I Feel Love'--you hear little licks on these records. There must
be validity to the work, because people are certainly stealing parts of it!
BB: What song do you refuse to sing now?
DS: 'Love To Love You Baby.'
Never again. I just hate it.
BB: What was it like working again with Giorgio Moroder again on 'Carry
DS: Giorgio is like my big brother. No matter how much time passes by, there's
a wonderful closeness between us. We always have a lot of fun in the studio.
BB: What do your daughters think of your music?
DS: They love it! But they haven't heard all of it. I never play my records
at home. I don't have a record player. And I only have a lot of my old stuff
on vinyl. They've never heard something like 'Once Upon A Time' and a lot
of the real early stuff. They're going to hearing it soon with this anthology.
It will be interesting to see what they think of it.
BB: What would you think if you heard your little girl singing 'Hot
DS: She wouldn't take the song that way. She'd be relating more to the rhythm
and the sounds.
BB: Would you encourage your daughters to become singers?
DS: They all do.
BB: And how do you feel about that?
DS: I think it's great. I tell them, 'Please, honey ... make me rich!' [Laughs]
I'm ready for my kids to support me)--'cause I'm tired! I'm tired of working
my butt off, tryin' to stay skinny.
You know, there must be something connected to the age of 35. From that point
on, you say, 'I love food, and I'm gonna EAT!' There's no in between. [Chuckling]
Besides, what do I have to live for ... bring me huge bowls of pasta!
BB: So you're no longer caught up in stuff like imaging?
DS: [Sighs] I figure at this point in the game, there are some things you
just do because you do them. I won't beat my brains in anymore over how I
look. I just try to be whoever I am. I'm just getting on with the process