‘Maybe I’ll dye my hair, maybe I’ll move somewhere,’ sings Cyndi Lauper on her new album. ‘Maybe I’ll get a car, maybe I’ll drive so far, they’ll lose all track. Me, I’ll bounce right back.’
The song, Hard Candy Christmas, was originally written for a Dolly Parton movie, but it could just as easily be about Cynthia Ann Stephanie Lauper who, aged 17, left her home in Queens, New York, armed only with a toothbrush, a change of underwear and a paperback copy of Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit. She was moving somewhere – anywhere – to escape her violent, predatory stepfather, and pursue her dream of being a performance artist.
‘That song could be about anyone,’ says Lauper. ‘That’s what’s so great about it. There’s a commonality, a human experience for women. That’s the goal for any singer, because it enables you to sing a real story that will touch people.’
Perhaps, but it seems particularly relevant to Lauper, whose troubled adolescence was followed by a long, dispiriting period singing in bars and failing to make it with her band, Blue Angel. Then, in 1983, her ‘do or die’ album She’s So Unusual turned her into an overnight sensation, selling 22 million copies and becoming the first debut by a female artist to spawn four top 5 US hits.
Over the next couple of years, Lauper’s rainbow-dyed hair and kooky, thrift store chic brought a riot of colour to magazine covers from Rolling Stone to Time and Newsweek, while Girls Just Want to Have Fun – her subversive, feminist rewrite of Robert Hazard’s queasily un-PC 1979 single – became one of the decade’s defining anthems.
But, having worked so long to get noticed, Lauper found superstardom sat uneasily with her; a succession of producers trying to mould her idiosyncratic style to their own vision, coupled with no longer being able to walk down the street, left her feeling ‘like a bird trapped in a cage’.
‘I used to walk a lot and sing to myself, that’s how I wrote,’ she tells Weekend. ‘Once I became famous, I couldn’t do that any more, because people would jump out of corners or pull over their cars. It was really scary. And I didn’t want to walk along with bodyguards – I didn’t want that life.’
At her lowest point, she wrote in her 2012 autobiography, ‘the only thing that prevented me from suicide is I never wanted to read a headline, Girl Who Wanted To Have Fun Just Didn’t’. Then, following the perceived failure of her third album, 1989’s A Night to Remember (‘I call it A Night to Forget,’ she deadpans), Lauper set out to reclaim control of her career, writing and self-producing increasingly personal, political records covering subjects like abortion and domestic violence. She also co-founded the True Colors Fund, which works to end homelessness among young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people – part of a lifelong commitment to LGBT rights activism.
All this brought mixed commercial fortunes, but Lauper insists she’s happier that way. ‘I don’t think I’m famous any more…’ she begins, until Weekend protests that she’s actually one of the most famous women in the world.
‘No, I know, I know,’ she says. ‘But it’s not crazy famous. I just couldn’t take the craziness.
‘A woman told me once: you’re going to have many chapters in your life. And that’s what you gotta remember, and not get hung up on one thing. When the super fame left, at first I didn’t understand why. But you don’t understand fame when it happens, either – there’s no book that comes with it. There’s no book that tells you, if you behave badly, sometimes people aren’t even going to tell you, because of who you are.’
In 2010, Lauper released Memphis Blues, a collection of covers of songs by the likes of Muddy Waters, Albert King and Robert Johnson. It went on to become the biggest-selling blues album of the year, and now she’s turned her attention to a similar period in country and rockabilly.
Recorded in Nashville, Detour finds Lauper bringing her four-octave range to back porch classics by Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Wanda Jackson and more, with help from such rhinestone royalty as Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson and Alison Krauss. The project was suggested to Lauper by legendary producer Seymour Stein, and marks their first collaboration.
‘Seymour was under the impression I could sing anything,’ she says. ‘And I thought, well, some days…'
Part of the appeal, she says, is they’re the songs ‘my Aunt Gracie was playing while I was riding my pony stick around her kitchen – they were part of the background of my life’.
Stein, of course, was the man who signed Madonna – Cyndi Lauper’s great rival, according to the press at least – for pop’s mid-80s crown.
‘It was really sad they would pit us together because I always thought sisterhood is powerful,’ says Lauper. ‘When Like A Virgin came out, I went right up to her at this awards show and said, “That track is slammin’ – it’s so good”. And you know she had a lot to do with everything – she’s not a sit-by kind of gal. I love her.’
Recently, Lauper revealed she’s been known to sign autographs as Madonna. ‘I thought it was very funny,’ she laughs. ‘They would say, “Oh I know you, you’re Madonna”. And I’d either say yes, and sign her name, or I’d say, “No, I’m the other one”.'
Now 62, Lauper is still kicking down walls and chalking up new victories, her songs for the Broadway and West End musical smash Kinky Boots making her the first female solo composer to win a Tony Award. Thanks to a well-received role on the sitcom Mad About You, that puts her in the rarefied position of being a GET (Grammy, Emmy, Tony) winner. She’s also been immortalised in plastic as a Barbie doll and in yellow on The Simpsons, and is cited as an influence by everyone from Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera to Nicki Minaj and Lady Gaga.
Factor in a happy domestic life – she’s been married to the actor David Thornton since 1991, and they have an 18-year-old son, Declyn – and you feel the woman who once declared she’s ‘always searching’ must finally be closer to finding what she’s looking for.
‘It’s been an interesting career I’ve had,’ she reflects. ‘Every step you take gets you to where you are. Did I go the long way? I probably did. Have I made mistakes? Yeah. But what’s that song Dolly Parton wrote?’ She starts singing: ‘My mistakes are no worse than yours, just because I’m a woman…’
And that’s a good mantra for life?
Published in Waitrose Weekend, May 5, 2016
(c) Waitrose Weekend