"Shall we sit over there?" I motion to Donna Summer, prior to our interview,
pointing towards the inviting couch and chair in her spacious hotel suite.
"Well, actually I'd prefer to sit over here in these hard chairs," she says.
"I hurt my back during rehearsals, so I need the support. My daughter, who
sings with me and is 17 did the same thing."
As far as cool jobs for mums go, Donna Summer, '70's disco queen and now
respected diva - a fact that's getting refurbished via a new "VH1 Presents"
live album on Epic released this week and featuring all the classic, plus
TV special - must be one of the coolest. All the rekindled hoopla has meant
the inevitable tour dates, rehearsals, interviews, etc and of course, pulled
back muscles. Her daughter must be the envy of her friends.
"She's learning just how hard this business is but she's learning from the
which is always the best way. It's not the easy business that
many people think it is. It's important for me to keep the "live" element
of the show there" says Donna in her surprisingly fast east coast brogue.
"Keep it interesting. I like things less stage-managed and more spontaneous.
I don't want to feel like I'm a robot and simply going through the motions.
Audiences easily pick up on that vibe. That's why we keep changing it and
keeping everyone on their toes. It keeps everything fresh."
Although the songs on her "Live" CD - Summer standards such as "MacArthur
Park", "I Feel Love", "On The radio", "Dim All The Lights", "She Works Hard
For The Money", "Last Dance", "Bad Girls" and "Hot Stuff" - have all been
around the block a fair few times, by switching up arrangements within the
live setting, they take on a fresher, re-upholstered feel. I found her version
of "Dim All The Lights" particularly interesting. Originally penned for Rod
Stewart in the '70's as an acoustic ballad, Summer sings the intro in the
form as she intended for Stewart, complete with raspy impersonation.
"I wrote that song for Rod originally and I'd walk around the house singing
it in his way. My husband said to me 'why don't you do it on stage like that.'
So I started doing it and I got a node on my vocal chord for my trouble.
Sure I was a little concerned, after all, my voice is my career. My doctor
told me that I could sing part of the song but not the whole thing. It would
have proved just too damaging to my voice. I wasn't about to argue with him."
It's ironic that despite the transient nature of much of disco, that Summer's
music, which for many defined the genre, overflow with rich, textured
arrangements, chord changes, evocative melodies and lyrics that have stood
the test of time becoming pop standards.
"I'm melody-driven" says Donna. "The best song for me is when you hear something
for the first time and the melody sticks to you like a velcro ball. Those
are the type of songs I'm instantly attracted to."
But she's also acutely aware of songs that will work for her as an artist
and singer and others that won't, even if their hit potential is obvious.
"I had 'What's Love Got To Do With It' for two years and I didn't do it.
I realized after hearing what Tina (Turner) did with it that had I sung that
song it would have never sounded that way. Her raspiness and the sensitivity
of the song is what made the match." At this juncture, Donna draws breath
and bursts into a Tina Turner impersonation. "She sounded like she'd been
beat up in her life and people related to that" continued Donna. "That aggression
worked. I'm only aggressive to my husband and my manager!" she laughs. "They're
the only two people that get my craziness because I expect them to know what
I need and want. I know they'll be okay with it. But outwardly I don't have
an aggressive nature. I'm overly sensitive to other people."
In these over-hyped 90's, the word "diva" is bandied about like confetti
but there's little disputing the fact that Donna Summer is one completely
bona fide example of the species. Incredible artists, however, they're known
as particularly hard people to live with. I inquired as to whether she feels
she's a difficult person to share a life with. Many, many superstars over
the decades have been shown to be less than concerned and sympathetic with
their partner's needs and requirements. It probably stems from those hordes
of sycophants who constantly tell them just how "wonderful" and "irreplaceable"
"It's rough at times for me and my husband Bruce (Sudano) because he has
a different identity away from me. He writes and produces with other people.
If I come into the room when he's working with another person and I suggest
something without him asking, he'll shoot me a look that says, 'you're not
welcome here'. When he's finished then he'll play for me what he was working
on and generally our opinions are pretty similar. But of course we're going
to get on each other's nerves. We're together all the time. We work together,
live in the same house and are on the road together. That's a lot of
Summer's refreshingly frank about the downside of living with her.
"When I'm on a creative binge, you can't be around me" she says. "I'll walk
around with my Dictaphone, be writing lyrics on pieces of paper. Everything
is about the song I'm writing. Also when I'm totally exhausted and PMS-ing
you probably don't want to be around me either!"
It's easy for Summer to step back into her familiar '70's and early '80's
guise for most people she will be forever associated with that era of wild
abandon. However, over the years much has changed. Albums in the late '80's
and early'90's on Geffen and PolyGram fell on deaf ears, while her personal
life was in turmoil.
"Up until about four years ago, my life was pretty hard and I don't mean
any harder than anyone else's because everyone suffers" she says flatly.
"I just came to understand that pain is a part of life. We have to embrace
that because it allows us to become better people. I just went through a
lot. My sister and mother died of cancer, my brother's son committed suicide,
my cousin was shot to death. There were about ten years in there where it
was just one thing after the next. I was so thankful that in that period
I had my children because there were times when it was really rough on my
marriage, not because of just my husband and me but because a lot of stuff
I was physically and emotionally going through was going on in my family
and not his. He became exhausted from it all. His sense of relationship was
different from mine because it didn't directly affect him in the same way
as it did me. They were really difficult years, culminating in the loss of
my mother which I was completely unprepared for."
So four years ago she and her family decided to move from the quiet, poshness
of Connecticut to Nashville, Tennessee.
"I love it there. Whenever you sat Nashville people think of cowboys or country
music. A lot of people live in Nashville - people you wouldn't suspect. Stevie
Winwood, Michael McDonald, Peter Frampton. Whitney Houston, Elton John records
there all the time. It is a complete music city. Unfortunately people think
of it as just country music. When you live there and realize the breadth
and width of this city, it's really about music. It's a great place to be
as a musician and a writer. You can get recognized there as a writer and
not just a singer. The other thing is that they're used to famous people
being there so they don't bug you. And it's also pretty secure. They watch
over your property. It's nice to live in a place where people know your name,
not just for what you do but because of who you, as a person, are. When I
lived in LA people knew me only through what I did. I have a life outside
of what people know me for and there I can live it."