Singer Cyndi Lauper shows off a more mature sound on her latest album. But does she still just want to have fun? Larry Flick reports.
With her brilliantly crafted new Epic collection, Sisters of Avalon, Cyndi Lauper is working overtime in her desire to be viewed as an artist of far greater creative substance than the often cartoonish figure who became a leader of the MTV generation in 1984 with the kitschy ‘Girls just Want to Have Fun.’ Produced by the ever quirky and ebullient singer with Jan Pulsford and Mark Saunders, the album plays to Lauper’s considerable strengths as a vocalist and her marked maturity as a songwriter, with broad stylistic leanings that range from textured hip-hop and dance to guitar-driven alterna-pop.
Despite its seemingly disparate musical elements, Sisters of Avalon is a cohesive and powerful collection that is notable for the absence of the novelty ditties that have long been associated with the singer.
But is the world ready for the “serious” Cyndi Lauper? She certainly has some preconceived notions to overcome, but she firmly believes that her music will be met with open minds. ‘I believe in my heart that a great song will always find a home,’ she says. “These songs speak with an honesty that I hope others will connect with. I’ve always been open and free in my music, but I’m proud of the growth I’ve experienced in the last few years.
The secret to getting Sisters of Avalon heard is in the magic of live performance. In the past, Lauper’s records have been built almost exclusively around MTV and radio. And while those will remain key elements in elevating the visibility of this project, more emphasis will be placed on the singer’s chemistry with an audience. A smart move, because Lauper is never better or more beguiling than when she’s onstage. To that end, punters will have numerous opportunities to bare witness to her otherworldly presence in the coming months.
She is tempering a massive summer tour with Tina Turner with a handful of intimate club appearances. She recently turned the New York bar Splash upside down when she did a four-song acoustic set to the frothing approval of the bar’s patrons. ‘Sometimes, it’s like stepping into an alternate universe when I do a show,’ she says. ‘It’s like meeting people on a different plane and we’re sharing our hearts before resuming our real lives.”
Epic recently started the campaign for Sisters Of Avalon with the single “You Don’t Know,” a biting diatribe on the sheep-like mentality of society. It’s a commercially viable, funk-fortified pop jam that has been deftly remixed with a variety of trend-conscious dance beats by Tony Moran, Prince Quick Mix and Junior Vasquez. Response to the song has been incredibly positive, fueled by the fact that a number of indie retailers have been selling a Japanese pressing of the album since November.
“She’s one of those unique artists who has loyal followers that literally clamor for every bit of music or memorabilia they can get their hands on,’ says Marlon Creaton, who manages the Record Kitchen in San Francisco. ‘I agree that there are some people who will initially write off this album without listening. But it’s a good enough record to change a lot of those minds if the label stays committed to the record for longer than a couple of months; I think they will.’
Ironically, Lauper doesn’t view Sisters of Avalon as such a dramatic departure. “To me, this album is a natural progression from the songs on Hat Full of Stars,’ she says, referring to the 1993 album that had her dabbling in more textured and experimental rhythms and weightier lyrics.
If there is a difference between this album and those from her ’80s heyday, Lauper says that it’s in the way these tunes were assembled. “While I was on tour for Hat Full of Stars, I found myself fortunate to be working with musicians I felt I could record with,’ she says. “Remember, I started out as a singer/songwriter in a band called Blue Angel. Those are my roots. It’s always been strange to go into the studio with one set of people, and then go on the road with an entirely different group of people. I was longing to have a more cohesive experience.”
It was during the worldwide tours supporting Hat Full of Stars and the 1995 greatest-hits collection, 12 Deadly Cyns and Then Some, that some of the songs for Sisters of Avalon started to take shape. “I cannot begin to explain what a fabulous experience it was for all of us to be jammed into my hotel room every night, spontaneously putting our ideas together,” she says. “It was exciting because everyone comes from such different backgrounds and perspectives.”
Among the band members with whom she most closely connected was Jan Pulsford, a keyboardist who first tweaked Lauper’s interest with a tape of a world beat-spiced groove that would eventually evolve into the song “Searching.” ‘It was while I started putting words to that piece of music that I started to understand that we were on a special journey that felt so right,’ the singer says. ‘Jan and I are extremely compatible collaborators because she is so well-studied and I approach music in a real primal manner.
We complement each other perfectly.’ When the tours ended, Lauper and Pulsford recruited producer Mark Saunders, and together they began seeking an ideal setting in which to assemble the various ideas accumulated on the road. Their search lead them to a mansion in Tuxedo, New York, which they renovated into a studio. “It was ideal in that we were able to make it as technically proficient as we needed it to be,’ Lauper says, ‘but it also provided a warm and homey space that fed our souls. It was so beautiful to be working on a vocal and smell lilacs.”
With the experience of recording Sisters of Avalon a pleasant memory, Lauper says that she is itching to get out on the road and perform again. “I’ve never been more proud of a group of songs,’ she says’ ‘It will be interesting to see the shape they take onstage. I can’t wait to find out”.