Most people know Donna Summer as the celebrated 'Queen of Disco,' with a
stream of over a dozen hits which include "Love To Love You Baby," "Bad Girls,"
"Hot Stuff," "Last Dance," and "She Works Hard For The Money." However, upon
listening to her extensive compilation CD Endless Summer it becomes
apparent that the four-time Grammy winner is capable of just about anything.
As Ms. Summer explains in the following interview, she approaches every song
differently as both a singer and songwriter, and upon speaking with her,
one gets a sense of consummate artistry that may have been slightly overlooked
in the midst of such a rigidly defined musical phenomenon as 70's dance music.
In fact, her songs have even been recorded by country artists Reba McEntire
and Dolly Parton.
Donna Summer is currently on tour in the U.S, where she took some time to
talk with us from Atlantic City, NJ. Her "A Midsummer Night" '96 tour is
unique, in that it combines her passion and talent for art with her music,
in which she is enjoying a whole new generation of fan support. With two
singles on the Billboard charts in '95, (a new song "Melody of love", and
remake of her '77 hit "I Feel Love,"), various art gallery exhibitions, and
plans to do a musical, Donna Summer is as busy as ever.
Lopresti: In your current U.S. tour, you've combined your artwork
and your music together with an art gallery setting, encompassing works that
you've created yourself. How have you put that together?
Summer: Well actually, these are older pieces. For a long time I didn't
want to have an in-house exhibition while I was performing because it I felt
it was too taxing. Normally what I had done in places like Atlantic City,
and New York, is when I'd been performing I'd have an exhibition going on
simultaneously so that I could visit, and sign autographs and pictures and
so forth. But, now I've left the gallery I was with and have gone on my own
so I'll be in different galleries all over. In the interim, what I'm trying
to do is develop a market for the younger people that come to the concerts.
They collect posters, and could possibly afford lithographs, but maybe not
originals. There's a market in terms of opening people's eyes to art, even
people who aren't even necessarily interested in art. It's all art. Music
is art so I think it's a natural marriage.
Lopresti: So then, how do you feel about the video medium? Is there
a way to incorporate your artwork into that as well?
Summer: C.C. Winans just used 2 or 3 of my paintings in her video
so in terms of that, they've already been in videos.
Lopresti: I noticed you produced the track "Melody of Love," which
charted in '95. Are you going to be doing more of that with the new material,
taking even more creative control?
Summer: Well, to tell you the truth I've always had a great amount
of input into the records anyway even when I don't get credit for them, and
it's not necessarily an area I need to get credit in. I want to make sure
that I feel like I accomplish what I would like to accomplish. On that particular
song, I had started writing it with the kids from C&C Music Factory
(Clivilles & Cole), and when one of them got sick and wasn't able to
continue, I had to finish it. I had produced other tracks before, but that's
the reason it went down that way. I don't personally care to do the whole
production deal. It's kind of time consuming, sifting through the vocals
and all that stuff. I think I could do better things with my time when there's
someone else who could probably do a much better job and have a more objective
opinion about things. You get very close to certain things you do, and it
may not be always the best thing for the record so you need to have some
objectivity, unless you tend to be a very objective person which most artists
I don't think really are. It's kind of hard to separate yourself from your
children, whether it's creative children, or your real kids.
Lopresti: You're getting material ready for a new album. Can you
tell us a little bit about the direction?
Summer: Well you know, I'm a songwriter. When I'm not singing, I write
songs, and being on the road with my band called "Now," I was thinking of
putting together an album with them. I've been working on that, and writing
songs for myself and with other people, and just writing. A purely pop album
will probably not be out until next year.
One of the things that I'm hoping to get which would be the next thing for
me, is the soundtrack from a musical I'm working on. That's really what I'm
working on the most to tell you the truth, and that would probably be the
next big album I put out, hopefully by September and a year, God willing.
With the other songs being written, there are a variety of directions. What
I try to do is write what I feel, and then decide the direction later.
Lopresti: I notice in a lot of your songs, the chord structures
are actually fairly sophisticated for the pop music norm, and not really
traditional, almost having some jazz overtones. It sounds like there really
are a lot of influences in what you do.
Summer: Well, I think a lot of times people don't understand where
I'm coming from. I'm not an artist that's trying to establish a style so
much as I am an actress who sings, and that's kind of how I view myself.
I'm not just a singer, but a performer who sings and as a result of that,
whoever the character is in the song is who I try to become. If it's a simple
song, I try to become that character and lend my voice to that song that
way. I think Mariah Carey approaches it from a different perspective. Everything
she puts her mark to she puts her particular style to, whereas I don't go
about it that way. In some ways I think it's probably been a handicap for
me, but it's still the way I choose to approach my singing career. I like
to try a lot of different styles and directions because to me, variety is
the spice of life, and it would be too boring to continue to sing everything
the same way all the time in the same voice. Even when I'm performing on
stage, I won't learn dance steps and apply them in the same place every night.
I will learn the steps, and apply them at the appropriate moments when I
feel in whichever song that it belongs there.
Lopresti: So it's the song first, and you work outward from
Summer: I work from the inspiration of what the audience is giving
me in the moment, and what feels right to me. I don't just go through motions
because that audience might just prefer me to be still. I try to be receptive
to what input I'm getting from them on a spiritual level, or whatever level
you want to put it on. There's a flow that happens between the audience and
the artist, and when you walk out, you perceive a sort of wave, and I accommodate
that wave. It's the same way I perceive my music. I try to accommodate it
the way that I feel whoever the character is in the song. If it's a four
year old girl, I don't get up and try to sing like Ella Fitzgerald, you know
what I'm saying? I feel love as light, and kind of airy and fluffy, because
that woman in that song was in that head space with that person. "Bad Girls"
was a different woman. If I do "Evita", I'm doing Eva Perone, and I'm applying
that personality type to that song. That's kind of how I approach everything
in my life pretty much.
Lopresti: So, as far as selecting songs, although I know you co-write
a lot of your material, you would have to feel a connection of some kind,
maybe with different aspects of yourself.
Summer: Oh absolutely without question! You too when you write a story
don't you? Things that you can immediately address because it's part of your
psychic history, or your emotional history, and you would relate to it
immediately. Then there are other things you have to reach for, and the reaching
part isn't bad. You know, it's a lesson.
Lopresti: Currently, we're experiencing a huge resurgence of 70's
dance music, at least at the club level in Los Angeles. With the mega-success
you've had from the 70's on, are you seeing more young people at your
Summer: Absolutely. My whole theory on that is that people were in
their 20's and just starting families when that wave of dance music came
out, while their kids may have been anywhere from 1 to 5 or 6 years old.
These kids heard their parents going out, playing the radio, playing the
songs of the period, and were inundated with this music. Okay, now they're
of age, they go out and someone throws on a Donna Summer record or whatever,
and it goes right into their memory bank and they go "I remember that," and
it hits a bell. Now it's their turn to establish their own identity with
that music, and that's how I perceive what's going on. That's why I think
this whole resurgence is coming back. It's like one big fat cycle that just
had to come.
Lopresti: Do you have any plans on touring abroad?
Summer: We did some abroad touring at the beginning of this year,
to Brazil, England, France, Holland, and are possibly going out of the country
towards the end of this year. I'm not planning on it in the next 3 months
as I'll be touring the U.S. pretty much through the summer. I get a break
Lopresti: Do you get to see your family?
Summer: Actually, two of my daughters, 14 and 15 years old, are performing
with me. They're doing one little number and it's really kind of cute.
As our conversation comes to a close, there is a sense of gratitude from
Ms. Summer for all that she has been able to achieve, and so the intensely
focused diva returns to her multi-faceted tour, where she commits wholeheartedly
to the roles of star performer, songwriter, painter, and mom.