Cyndi Lauper is tired, but she's not letting it stop her. I meet her right at the end of her gruelling week-long UK press tour, a few hours before she flies back to New York. It's 9 AM and Cyndi's at a London radio station where she dropped in early for a breakfast show interview. She's talking a mile a minute, full tilt into telling me a story about working with the legendary Willie Nelson on her new country album, Detour. "When he walked into the studio, it was like Yoda walking in,” she exclaims. “For a moment, I thought I was going to cry. And then I thought to myself: Don't cry, you're a professional. You don't want them to walk in and have you crying—that's not a good look!" Her eyes crease with a mixture of self-deprecation and awe, tossing back her head of bright pink hair.
Of course, Cyndi Lauper is kind of a legend too. After starting out in New York rockabilly band Blue Angel, she released her debut solo album She's So Unusual in 1983 and saw it spin off four top five singles (including two of the decade's most iconic songs, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and “Time After Time”) —which was a first for a female artist. Her next album's title track, "True Colors," was adopted as a gay anthem and Cyndi became one of the LGBT community's most prolific and formidable allies. Right now, she's working to reduce LGBT youth homelessness, writing in a recent essay for Advocate magazine: "Up to 40 percent of homeless youth identify as LGBT, yet fewer than 7 percent of kids nationwide are LGBT. That discrepancy is outrageous, and it’s something we can't ignore."
Cyndi has never really stopped touring and recording, but over the last decade her career has been more diverse than ever. In 2008 she released an underrated dance record called Bring Ya to the Brink, followed it with 2010's Grammy-nominated Memphis Blues album, and then she won a Tony for scoring the hit Broadway musical Kinky Boots. This week she returns with Detour, which features her take on country classics from the 1940s-1960s. It's a retro affair that works because Cyndi clearly connects with these songs from her childhood, investing Skeeter Davis's "End of the World" with gut-felt emotion, capturing the pheromone rush of Wanda Jackson's "Funnel of Love," and having fun with Vince Gill on their tongue-in-cheek duet "You're the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly." In short: country is another genre conquered for an artist who refuses to be pigeonholed.
Noisey: What made you want to make your first country album now?
Cyndi Lauper: These songs to me are pop music because when I was a kid, the radio wasn't so compartmentalized. I can remember hearing Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn on the radio at my aunt's house. The women in country music were so strong and glamorous that as a little girl, you can bet I was listening. I mean, I think I had a pony stick myself at the time.
Your version of "I Want to Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart"—a song which dates from the 1930s—is definitely one of the album's highlights. Why did you pick it?
I did that song because I thought a lot of people don't realize what a woman's history really is. For a long time, if you wanted to be something, you couldn't necessarily be it. But you could be married to what you wanted to be. In this song, she sings "I wanna be a cowboy's sweetheart" and then never mentions the guy again. She sings "I want to pillow my head near the sleeping herd" because she'd rather sleep with the cows than him! She don't really want to be married to a cowboy, but that's the closest she could get. It’s a funny song but I thought it was important in my history as an American woman.
Over the last 10 years you've recorded dance, blues, and country music, and written a Tony-winning stage musical. What makes you want to keep trying new things?
Why can't I? I'm sick and tired of being told what I can and can't do. What am I going to do, fuck something up? I think I've already done that, so what the hell. If you diversify, you grow as an artist, and that's all I ever wanted. Everyone always goes on about Thriller being a phenomenon, but Michael Jackson made another record before that which was equally great [Off the Wall]. But they put him in a box and said, "Oh, it's a black record, it's R&B." No it freakin' wasn't, it was a dance record and it shouldn't have been relegated to one group. So he set out to break the color barrier and he did. I always thought he's not only a great artist, but he had a good head on his shoulders to do that. The reason I say this is because I don't wanna be stuck in a little corner and that's what was happening to me. If you tell me I can't do something, I’m not just gonna kick you into next week, I’m gonna kick the door you're trying to close on me into next week! I don't want a glass ceiling, I don't want a racial barrier. Not for me, not for anyone. I think music is richer when it's together. And that's why I did all these different things because it's the basis of all the music I’ve ever made anyway. I was in a rockabilly band for God's sake, I learned to sing listening to Wanda Jackson.
You've had a few battles with record labels over the years.
I mean, I wasn't allowed to put [my song] "A Part Hate" on the True Colors album. [The song] was all about comparing racism in South Africa to racism in the United States. They said, "You're going from "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" to something so serious?" I was like, "Yeah, so?" I saw "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" as more of a political statement than anything else. I was going to get the women inspired by hook or by crook, and maybe I got 'em by both. I put every different race and color of kid I could get hold of in the video so that any girl who sat and watched it would know that she too was entitled to a joyful experience of life. And that's because I knew my history. I’m from an Italian immigrant family that came to the United States on the sweat and the broken dreams of a young woman, my grandmother. And then my mother's life was disenfranchised and my aunt’s life was disenfranchised, so by the time I came out, it was like I had boxing gloves on. I've put up with a lot of crap but I believe that the guy who's still standing wins. You wanna try and out-stand me? Well, you better take a lot of vitamins.
Did you have trouble getting "She Bop," your infamous song about masturbation, onto the She's So Unusual album?
No, not at all, because I made sure when we were writing it. I kept saying, "Look, I don’t wanna mention anything to do with hands." I want little kids to think it's about dance and grown-ups to have a chuckle when they hear it. That's how I wanted it so that's how we did it.
Back in the 1980s, you were often pitted against Madonna, even though there was no actual rivalry between you. We still see artists like Taylor Swift and Katy Perry being pitted against each other now.
Why? They're so different. It's like apples and oranges.
Why do you think certain sections of the media still do this though? Because Taylor Swift's fans respond more to the message of female friendship she promotes than any of her supposed "feuds."
Well, they oughta ask their daughters then. She's a young woman who's very friendly and funny and bright, so why shouldn't she have a large group of friends? What, do we expect her not to be social because she's successful? What the hell is that all about? I cherish my friendship with other women and I'm grateful to know other women who are in the business. When I first had my son and I was a working mom, I was grateful to know anyone who was a working mom so I could ask them, "Well, how is it for you?”
Finally, is there anything you haven't done yet that you want to?
I think the only thing I never did that I always dreamed of doing was working with a hip-hop guy. Just doing a hip-hop record. But now I have an artist at home, my son, who's a hip-hop artist. So I let him do that. I don't wanna pollute his stuff. I did one song with him because he asked me to, but just one. But I listen to what he's doing and try to let him grow. The only thing I'll say to him is, "Remember, a song is a story with a beginning, middle of an end." But I guess the new, new kind of hip-hop isn’t that. It's sound bytes. It's a whole different type of music, but look at our culture now, the kids are just reflecting what’s happening.
Nick Levine is a writer living in London. Follow him on Twitter