Q&A with ‘70s disco icon Donna Summer

by Michael Hamersly

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

15 February 2008


The Queen of Disco is still going strong at age 59. Donna Summer’s groundbreaking disco anthems have provided the soundtrack for countless gyrating hedonists on the dance floor.

Summer took time to talk to The Miami Herald—from her secret hideaway somewhere on the Gulf Coast—about her shows, taking up painting, and the notorious orgasmic moaning on her 1975 hit “Love To Love You Baby.”

Q: Which of your songs tends to get the best audience response?

A: Different songs get different responses. They usually like “She Works Hard for the Money,” “MacArthur Park,” “On the Radio,” “Last Dance,” “Bad Girls,” but there’s always different kinds of response. We’ve had some unusual ones, too: Last year we were playing in the Midwest—we don’t get there very often—and this woman in the audience kept yelling to me, “I have to talk to you!” and she wouldn’t stop, so I had to stop the show and talk to her. And the entire audience was completely silent, not complaining or anything—and this went on for at least five minutes.

Q: If “American Idol” were around when you were young, would you have auditioned?

A: I probably would have. I did audition for a couple of things when I was younger. One response I got was, “You’re too good for this show—you’re like a professional.” And I said, “No I’m not!” And they didn’t accept me for that.

Q: When did you begin to get serious about painting?

A: All my life it’s been my hobby, something that takes me out of the music vein, but art is the reverse of singing for me. When I paint I can only paint when I’m happy or content, which makes me know that it’s not my first talent, something you have to do no matter what. I do it when I feel peaceful and happy and I’m ready to pull something out of myself, not put myself into something.

Q: What’s the status of your Broadway musical based on your life?

A: Unfortunately, every time I get revved up to do it, something else sideswipes me and it goes on hold. A couple years ago we were gearing up to get involved with it and we had some personal traumas in our families we just couldn’t get out of.

A friend said, “Donna, you have to give something like a musical 10 to 15 years to get going.” And I said, “Are you “kidding” me?” So we’ll see what happens.

Q: Do you think there could ever be another musical movement like disco in the `70s?

A: I’m sure there could be. Hip-hop in its own way was a musical movement that’s held its own. I think that the alternative-music movement didn’t last as long even though it’s still around. I think we just keep changing, morphing, doing new things and we’ll stumble upon the next movement. Some young kid will create something in his room that’s totally different and everyone will go “What is this—I love it!” and then people will copy it.

Q: “Love To Love You Baby” was a ticket to stardom for you, but weren’t you uncomfortable with its sexuality—specifically the orgasmic moans?

A: Oh, yeah—coming from a nice Christian home my parents were like, “Uhhhhh, this can’t be my daughter.” We were basically goofing around in the studio, and then someone heard the song and played it while they were making love and thought this song should be longer, and we extended the song to almost 18 minutes. And it was banned—you couldn’t play it during the day. I couldn’t go anywhere—people were drooling on me and I was like, “Hello? It’s a song, not me!”

Q: Does the song still bother you?

A: No, it doesn’t bother me now, but having that as the first single, people didn’t think I could sing beyond whispering, so that was a challenge.

Q: When you were working with pioneering producer Giorgio Moroder, specifically on “I Feel Love,” did you have the sense that you were breaking new ground?

A: Yeah, I think we did—the very first day it was very clear to me. We had the music and we wrote so many lyrics that didn’t work—they were too dense. And I said, “This is a chant—this is euphoric” and started to singing simpler things overtop the music and it was so natural.

And it still sounds great—when you’re on the cutting edge of something and you hear it back, sometimes it sounds so dated, but this still sounds fresh to me.

Q: You’ve won multiple Grammys. Any favorites among this year’s winners?

A: I love Amy Winehouse—she’s great, so different. I pray for her, that she gets over her drug problems—it’s rough. But she can do it—she’s got so much going for her.

I love Rihanna—she’s a hot little number. She’s got a really good look, a good sound—she’s working it. But usually by the time I like something my kids say, “Mom, that’s been out for six months!”

Q: Do you still live in Nashville?

A: Yeah, but last year we actually spent seven months in L.A. and we were in Florida for about two months—and only eight weeks we spent in Nashville. And that’s sprinkled out over two days here, a week there. It’s like the road is our home.

Q: Where do you stay in Florida?

A: We live on a dirt road right on the Gulf—just a small, quaint incredible place, like you’re in Bali. Everybody here doesn’t want anyone to know where they live, so people won’t be able to destroy what we have here. It’s a place where somebody like Britney or Brad and Angie could live and no one would know it. And that’s a miracle.

Q: Tell the truth: Which song has sillier lyrics—“MacArthur Park” or the Captain and Tennille’s “Muskrat Love”?

A: Oh, Captain and Tennille, without a question. “MacArthur Park” is an analogy, a metaphor for love. If you put out a cake and set it in the rain, it would destroy it. Just ask the diva—she’ll tell you.

Topics: donna summer
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