Monday, March 27, 2006

from the vaults: donna summer

I was unspeakably nervous before my telephone interview with Donna Summer. I had a strict 15-minute slot, so I overprepared in a way that I haven't before or since. She quickly put me at ease; she was so approachable and earnest.

When our time came up, she said, "I enjoyed speaking with you. Feel free to call my manager if you need more time."

I never called the manager . . . I was too shy to impose . . .

[originally appeared on CDNow, Summer 1999]

Donna Summer: Still Disco's Queen
By Tamara Palmer

In 1979, Newsweek dubbed Donna Summer "The First Lady of Lust" and "Disco's Aphrodite" in response to her orgasmic dancefloor anthems.

In the 20 years that have elapsed since then, Summer has transcended such daft tags with a multifaceted career that still has no end in sight. She has proven her musical versatility time and time again, from recording a number-one country hit for Dolly Parton to winning Grammy awards in rock, R&B, and inspirational categories. She is also an accomplished painter that has exhibited in galleries throughout the U.S. (she will have her debut show in Japan this summer).

For the last seven years Summer has been preparing Ordinary Girl, a musical based on her life for which she will rightfully assume the lead role, for Broadway. Earlier this year, she released Sing Me Sleep Mommy, a collection of modern Christian lullabies, and has recently emerged with VH1 Presents: Donna Summer Live and More Encore, a companion volume to the televised live performance recorded at New York City's Hammerstein Ballroom this past February. We shared a few minutes with this most passionate, real, and articulate icon:

What inspires you creatively?

Everyone. Everything. Everything I see. People that get around me very often for any length of time realize that I'm an extremely visual/audio person. I notice everything, just everything -- people's eyes, people's clothes, people's hair, people's personalities. I'm sensitive to everything around me so I'm constantly commenting on things. That's how I live my life. I recognize people and their talents and their gifts and try to somehow incorporate that into what I do.

So it's life itself.

Life! People and experiences. Sometimes I'll see someone on the street, and they'll be dressed a certain way or going to a certain place or be a certain type of person, and I'll just make up a whole story based on what appears to me to be. It may not be the truth, but it's just in my mind. I'll say, "Oh, that person is probably getting a divorce, or it's their first love."

You've worn so many professional hats in your career, from writing and singing to painting and acting. Is there a profession that in an ideal world you might like to slip on for a day?

I'd like to be an architect, and a landscape architect. Architecture and inventing, those would be areas . . .

But you're already quite an inventor of sorts.

Well, but in the sciences, like inventing things. Doing scientific experiments and creating ways to use things that exist that haven't been done. I do a lot of my own playing around with that at different times when I'm bored, although no one in the room knows what the heck I'm talking about! It's kinda tough; my husband's like, "I think I got ya. You're too up there. You need to come down to Earth. I don't get it!" I'm like, "All right, all right -- forget it."

What did you initially think of Giorgio Moroder's style when you started working with him? It was so unlike anything else at the time.

I didn't know anything else. I started first with Giorgio, and Giorgio and I inspired each other. The idea of "Love to Love You Baby," which is the precursor to "I Feel Love," really was something that I went to Giorgio and said, "Let's do this." And Giorgio came up with [simulates Moroder's entrancing rhythm track]. I think the fact that Pete Bellotte and Giorgio did not apply any major lyric to that song left it feeling very pop-syntho. And if we had made it very heavy with words it wouldn't have felt the same. Because we did that at first and we just looked at each other and said, "Nah, it's not gonna work. We've got to keep this thing as pure and simple as the music is."

The collaboration of the three of us -- Pete was coming from an English point of view, I was the American point of view and Giorgio was the European point of view. The marriage of the three of those things kind of spawned that. I think it was the marriage of the situation -- the sound of my voice, the way I sung it. I sang it emotionally, where a lot of times [when] you hear pop-syntho stuff it's very [simulates repetitive, noisy machine sounds]. There's no emotion in it. But I didn't do that. If you listen to the track, I really sang it with feeling. That's why I think it was very special.

You've been sampled and interpolated many times. Most recently by TLC on their Fan Mail album. They sang the "Love To Love You Baby" chorus in a lascivious track called "I'm Good At Bein' Bad." I understand you weren't too pleased by the messages in that song. How do you feel about sampling in general, and how did that situation in particular feel?

[Note: This was four years before Beyonce interpolated the song for "Naughty Girl" in 2003. . . ]

I don't mind sampling as long as there is an agreement: You can't use my voice in something that I don't agree on. I don't want to be a part of that; that's not what my message is in life. To become part of something that is not what you want is not right. It's really an infringement on your copyright. If somebody comes to you and asks you can they use your copyright, and they present to you one picture and when you hear it, it's another? That's where you have problems.

Has that happened?

Oh yeah, that's what happened. A lot of times, people will pitch to you what they want you to hear and you give them your approval, and then they change it. And then it's like, I didn't approve that. But they've got your name on a piece of paper and you have to prove that you didn't hear it that way. It's really a touchy situation -- I think it's kind of fun to have people sample things, but like I said, it just has to be used in the context of what I feel like I can live with.


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