The Queen and Her Crayons: An Interview With Donna Summer
Donna Summer has sadly passed away at the age of 63 and we offer this fabulous 2008 interview by way of tribute. Stay tuned tomorrow for more.
Donna Summer doesn't like boxes.
"I've been out of the box my whole entire career and I'm staying out of the box," she declares. It's a fortnight before the release of Crayons, an auspicious occasion considering Summer's last studio album was released 17 years ago. "People didn't know what to do with me when I first came out. There was no category for dance." There is no category for Crayons either: shades of rock, reggae, samba, pop, and dance color twelve new songs that were written by Summer and an equally diverse cadre of songwriters. The album is Donna Summer's most audacious effort since The Wanderer (1980), drawing upon a myriad of thematic and musical motifs. It's been a very long time coming.
Of her contemporaries, Donna Summer has mapped a relatively unconventional course. She was born in Boston to Mary and Andrew Gaines, the third eldest of seven siblings. She honed her voice through the Grant AME church, bringing the congregation to tears as a child with her divine vocal presence. Mahalia Jackson gave way to Janis Joplin as young Donna became a fixture on the Boston music scene in the mid-'60s. She fronted a rock band called The Crow and was gradually courted by many record labels.
After a brief spell in New York City, Summer fled to Germany at the age of 18 to join the cast of Hair. "I only went after I could leave home and be on my own legally because I didn't want my parents to come and say, 'Well you have to come home now.' I felt that when I did leave I was ready to leave. I was ready for my life. I had my own ideas." Summer immersed herself in the culture and mastered German very quickly. She earned accolades for her charismatic stage presence in a number of musicals including Porgy & Bess, Godspell, and The Me Nobody Knows.
Donna Summer met producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte after long establishing herself in musical theater circles. By the mid-'70s, the enterprising duo produced a string of dance floor hits for Summer that defined the era. Movie roles, high profile TV appearances, worldwide acclaim, countless industry awards, magazine covers, and a mountain of gold and platinum albums and singles made Donna Summer one of the most successful artists of the decade.
Summer changed course in the 1980s, working with a variety of producers that included Quincy Jones, Michael Omartian, and Stock/Aitken/Waterman. Following her last release, Mistaken Identity (1991), she periodically released new singles throughout the '90s while composing a stage musical, Ordinary Girl. Her 2003 autobiography of the same name documented her brush with the dark flipside of fame and the spiritual rebirth that essentially saved Summer's life.
The survivor spirit that Donna Summer embodies shapes Crayons in the form of rousing anthems ("Stamp Your Feet"), coy pronouncements ("The Queen Is Back"), socio-cultural awareness ("Bring Down the Reign"), character studies ("Slide Over Backwards"), and the harrowing reality of celebrity life ("Fame [The Game]" and "Be Myself Again").
The latter is a compelling parable about how fame unhinges a person's sense of self. With just a piano and some ambient sound effects, Summer conveys the internal wounds of our botox-addicted culture and the layers people vanish behind to calculate a certain image. Discussing the sentiment behind the song, she opines that painting a nip and tucked face is a grotesque camouflage of the true individual. "Here you have a person that isn't real in the first place, putting make-up on top of that not-realness and then projecting that as who they are. You are two layers away from the real person," she explains. The underlying theme is that America has become extremely obsessed with physical appearances. "It's like looking at one of those old English movies where everybody was so vain and so caught up with their own imagery that they walked around with a mirror behind them so they could, at all times, make sure that what they thought they looked like on the outside was what they were projecting."
Fame arrived instantaneously for Donna Summer. She became an overnight star in the U.S. when "Love to Love You Baby" hit the airwaves in 1975. The single quickly went gold in just a few weeks and Summer embarked on a frenzied media and concert tour. Suddenly saddled with a risqué image that far belied her religious upbringing, Summer precipitously entered the surreal world of celebrity life. She nearly drowned under the unrelenting current of her blockbuster success.
A portion of her own life experiences from that time constitutes the rock-tinged "Fame [The Game]". Written with Toby Gad (Fergie, Elisabeth Withers), the song brilliantly simulates the whiplash pace of fame and underscores what many celebrities do to stay in the spotlight. In a clipped robotic cadence, Summer itemizes what she calls the "accoutrements" of fame, everything from the velvet rope to the paparazzi to whirlwind travel to chatting up the CEO of the record company. The song issues an admonition, "Be careful what you wish for". In the era of TMZ, OMG!, and tawdry celebrity rags, Summer's warning should be heeded. She explains:
"As a young girl. I didn't know what fame was. I just thought fame was people knowing you. It's an end unto itself, which it should not be. I think that it's easy to become captivated by attention and by people's attention on you. I tried not to let that happen to myself. I don't think I ever got to a place where I was acting out to get attention because that's not my nature. I do think that sometimes the people around you try to create circumstances to keep you in front of the headlines so that they can keep living off of your fame."
Fortunately, Donna Summer survived the vortex. By 1980, she shed the "First Lady of Love" image that so distinguished her in the public eye. With producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte at her side, she released The Wanderer on Geffen Records. The album announced her creative and spiritual regeneration. No longer tethered to disco, Moroder and Bellotte cloaked The Wanderer in rock music while Summer covertly expressed her renewed faith in songs like "Looking Up" and "Running for Cover". Replete with an incendiary guitar solo, the latter was a captivating catharsis of Summer's spiritual maladies.
Even after modifying the grueling record-release-tour treadmill, Summer endured her share of personal travails. Whereas others might have imploded, she persevered and didn't forsake her creativity. She says her love of music and people motivates her to continue writing, recording, and performing. "It can get painful," she confides. "There have been painful moments in my life and some I could never even share with other people because it's just so painful that I can't even talk about it, but the rewarding part of it is that lives are changed. Music can change a life because I know for a fact music has changed my life at different times."
To illustrate her point, Summer describes the experience of losing one of her younger sisters in the early '90s. Two years elapsed before she really accepted her sister's passing. A song by Amy Grant called "Breath of Heaven" helped her through the mourning process. "I get goosebumps even when I talk about it," she says with a hint of awe in her voice. Like the ceremonial dances performed by whirling dervishes, Summer communicated with God through "Breath of Heaven". She remembers, "I couldn't talk because I was in so much inner turmoil. I would go into my family room and I would play the song and just dance to God. I did this for days on end. It really was healing. I really know the power that music can play in a person's life and I don't take it lightly. I really don't," she says emphatically.
Donna Summer's empathy for people is the core of her creativity. A washroom attendant at Chasen's restaurant in Beverly Hills inspired "She Works Hard for the Money". Summer observed the woman nodding off next to a blaring TV and the song's title was born. The seeds of "Bad Girls" were planted when Summer watched an employee of Casablanca Records get hassled by police because she allegedly fit the profile of a street walker. "A lot of people don't realize how connected we all are," she says. "Your compassion really kind of feeds your information about a person. You look at someone and your heart identifies with their pain. You don't know why it does. There's just something in them and you go, 'Oh, that person needs me. I need to touch that person. I need to say something nice about that person. I feel that person.'" Her compassion extends globally. "Bring Down the Reign", which closes Crayons, is a kind of prayer for Darfur. Summer's share of the royalties will be donated to organizations that aid relief efforts in the region.
Another facet of Donna Summer's creativity is her character-driven approach to singing. A random sampling of her biggest hits provides ample proof: "I Feel Love", "Hot Stuff", and "On the Radio" reveal just a few of her distinct vocal personalities. Appropriately, the multi-hued leitmotif of Crayons emphasizes this particular quality. Summer even created a name for a character in one of the songs. Singing in a husky voice with a slight bayou drawl, she becomes "Hattie Mae Blanche DuBois" in "Slide Over Backwards". Summer describes the character's background as follows:
"Hattie Mae is a bartender in the south. She grew up in a very rough environment. Her parents died when she was young. She really had to fend for herself at a very early age. The streets were pretty much her home. She had some relatives that gave her handouts but she really was pretty much on her own. She wanted to sing but her life was so hard. Finally, she evolves to a place where she owns, by default, this little po' boy restaurant. It's like a little diner that the local people love. It's actually becoming quite famous and on certain days of the week she gets a little piano player in there and she sangs. This is her moment to shine."
The song itself is an interesting assemblage of sounds. The swampy Louisiana ambiance is amplified by steel guitar and harmonica. Nathan DiGesare and Jakob Petren's electronic programming adds a peculiar but tasty flavor to the mix. Summer brings a lot of life to "Hattie Mae": her gritty performance in this song is one of the album's numerous highlights.
The title track is a whole different kind of stew. With Ziggy Marley in tow, Summer adopts something of a West Indian accent. "Crayons" is an appreciation of the cultural and racial differences between people. Written by Summer with Marley, Greg Kurstin (Pink, Lilly Allen), and Danielle Brisebois (Natasha Bedingfield, the New Radicals), the song's mantra -- "We're like crayons melting in the sunshine" -- symbolizes the "tossed salad" culture of the United States.
By extension, "Crayons" also celebrates interracial relationships. Donna Summer recently contributed an essay on that very subject to Essence magazine. "As black people, we need to accept the diversity that is emerging out of this culture," she says. "We can't all walk around holding fast to 'this is who we're supposed to be.'" The reality, however, is that people in the U.S. still have grave reservations about interracial anything. In her own life, Summer has sensed disapproval for being married to an Italian American, even without anyone overtly expressing criticism.
The spirit of "Crayons" also represents the heterogeneous bloodline Summer inherited from her parents and passed on to her daughters. She explains, "My mother's mixed and my grandparents are mixed. I have one daughter who's a little darker than the others and I have one daughter who looks like she's Italian. My other daughter, Mimi, looks like she could be anything. My granddaughters have long platinum blonde hair and blue eyes. One of them is so white she'd give Casper a run for his money."
Concomitant with the mélange of styles on the album, Summer takes a detour to Brazil on "Drivin' Down Brazil", another track she wrote with Kurstin and Brisebois. Summer wanted to incorporate a Brazilian flavor into the album since she's visited Brazil many times over the years and maintains a long-standing love affair with the Brazilian people. The song took shape in Summer's imagination one evening when she saw a man getting into a low-ride Bonneville on Brazil Street in Miami. "I just made up this story," she remembers. "He's on Brazil Street and he's headed straight down to the actual country from there. It's Friday night and he's going to go see his girlfriend. He's envisioning her and he's got this long drive ahead of him." Summer's narration about a man "dressed to kill" is a spirited Valentine to the country and culture that inspired the song.
In fact, Donna Summer has possessed a gift for storytelling all throughout her career, dating back to one of her first singles, "Denver Dream" (1974). Perhaps the biggest compliment was when Dolly Parton, one of the most prolific songwriter-storytellers, asked Summer if she could record "Starting Over Again". Co-written with her husband Bruce Sudano, Summer never recorded the song yet it's lived a couple of different lives. She remembers the song's origins:
"We wrote it because of Bruce's parents' divorce and because we were watching them struggle with their singleness. We knew they really needed to be together. They weren't seeing the forest for the trees. They were in their fifties when they were getting this divorce and they'd been married since they were young adults. It was a very painful process for everybody involved. We wrote the song basically telling their story: She moved in with her sisters. He moved out and got an apartment. Sandy Gallin, who managed Dolly Parton and Cher, was having a party. Everybody was singing so Bruce and I sat down and we played the piano and I sang the song. I (later) sang it on Johnny Carson. Dolly Parton was in the room that night but then she heard it again on TV and she was like, 'Can I have that song?' We gave her the song and she had a number one hit record with it. This is the cool part: the year that we moved to Nashville, Reba McEntire cut the song just as we were 'starting over' in Nashville. That was like a sign for us that were supposed to be in Nashville."
"Starting Over Again" exemplifies the creative simpatico Summer and her husband share. Bruce Sudano has written or co-written a number of songs in Summer's extensive catalog, including "Bad Girls", "Can't Get to Sleep at Night", "I'm a Rainbow", "Love Has a Mind of Its Own", and "I'm Free". Summer readily praises Sudano's songwriting talents while noting the key difference between their approaches to writing songs. "Bruce has an incredible ability to see things as they are," she explains. "He can draw from them in a way that I cannot. I'm much more of an abstract thinker than my husband. My husband can look at a scene and he can narrate that scene verbatim. He'll bring it together in such an incredible picture. I have a hard time being that in-the-moment."
"Sand on My Feet", one of the more stripped-down tracks on the album, is a love song Summer wrote to her husband. Written at her beach house with Toby Gad, it represents the acoustic side of Donna Summer -- a side that is not familiar to many listeners. The song also marked a departure from her usual songwriting process. "'Sand on my Feet' is one of the few times I've written from my own point of view", she says. "I'm almost always writing from a man's point of view or another person's point of view."
Of all the songs Donna Summer has written, one song holds a very special place for her: "There Will Always Be a You". Written in Lake Tahoe for her husband, it originally appeared on Side Three of Bad Girls (1979), an album that featured a number of Summer's own compositions including "Dim All the Lights" and "My Baby Understands". "For me, that was, poetically, one of the best songs that I ever wrote", she enthuses. "I just love that song. I always say that people who really know me will regard that song. They're going to listen to that song and they're going to know that it's me". Underscoring the poignancy of "There Will Always Be a You", Summer shares a story about when a friend of hers from Australia visited her in Los Angeles:
"We went to a garden center to pick some flowers for my house. She was out looking at flowers but she was a distance from me and I didn't see her. I went to ask a question of the lady who was the proprietor. As I'm standing with this woman, I hear this song that sounds familiar but I couldn't make out what it was. I started walking over to where the song was coming from and all of a sudden my girlfriend popped up – she was down looking at something on the ground – and there she was singing 'There Will Always Be a You'. I said, 'What song is that?' She said, 'That's your song. Whenever I miss you I put that song on because that's the song, to me, that represents you the most.'"
Unfortunately, only a fraction the songs written by Donna Summer are currently available since more than a quarter of her catalog is off the market. The albums she recorded on Geffen Records are long out of print and fetch upwards of $50 on auction sites. Songs like "Running for Cover", "True Love Survives", "Oh Billy Please", and "Thinkin' About My Baby" are virtually unknown to two generations of listeners, yet the story of Donna Summer is incomplete without them. She explains, "I got them from Geffen but then I signed with PolyGram. I made a deal for them to have all the songs. I wanted to consolidate my catalog because it's worth more consolidated. When I left the company the songs were still there so I should be getting them back in a couple of years. Maybe I can get them to release 'Sometimes Like Butterflies' and some of the other songs." The re-release of albums like The Wanderer (1980), Donna Summer (1982), Cats Without Claws (1984), and All Systems Go (1987) is vital to truly understanding the astonishing breadth of Donna Summer's career.
Donna Summer's journey to Crayons can best be characterized by a line on "Stamp Your Feet", the opening song on the album: "Tried to make it to the finish line / Been knocked down / Get up every single time", she sings. It's an anthem that Donna Summer lives by, a paean to perseverance and holding fast to one's convictions. "There are things that happen in life that you can't change," she says. "You just have to be your own coach. You look yourself in the mirror and you say, 'I love you. You're beautiful. You're gonna make it.'"
The song's empowering message was written in an artistically and personally nurturing environment. Danielle Brisebois says that working with Summer was one of the biggest blessings in her life. She exclaims, "Besides her ridiculous amount of talent (being in a room when she is singing is the musical equivalent of the best massage you have ever had!), she was so wonderful to me and actually helped me through a hard time. Her strength and positivity is inspiring and music just flows through her without effort." Toby Gad, who wrote three of the twelve tracks on Crayons, concurs. "I adore her", he says. "It's such an honor for me to work with her. I was blown away by her voice. With Donna, her first take is usually the keeper."
After discussing Donna Summer's first album of the 21st century, one critical question remains: "What is Donna Summer's favorite color?" Her answer: "Green is my favorite color. I am a green junkie," she laughs. "It's mentally stabilizing. I figured God used it a lot and it was a good color for him." If Crayons is like a crayon box, then green represents Donna Summer's voice. Every possible shade of green is inside that crayon box and a whole spectrum of colors surrounds its vibrant glow. "I would encourage others to climb out and color on all the walls they can find," she says. Crayons is a testimony to Donna Summer's own advice: the artist who's always lived outside the box has not only colored on the walls but created a luminescent house of rainbows.