The Donna Summer Tribute Site

Donna Summer exits dark phase, scars and all.

by Larry Flick.
Billboard, Sept 25, 1993

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 syllable.

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 like?

DONNA SUMMER: It depends on what's happening. I've been writing a lot of country music lately.

BB: Really?

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 anthology?

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 music.

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 people?

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 as hurtful.

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! [Laughs]

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 On?

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 Stuff?'

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 of life.

� 1993 Billboard

 

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