BluesWax Sittin’ In With
Two Memphis Albums Solidify
Lauper as a Blues Singer
By Charley Burch
Last week Charley Burch spoke with Cyndi Lauper about her background in the blues and the idea behind her two latest releases, Memphis Blues and To Memphis, With Love. This week they continue with how the songs were selected.
The song Lauper selected turned out to be a perfect fit for Allen Toussaint and the rest of the crew. She insisted on keeping the original intro intact, belting out in her beautifully classically trained voice “Hey, Pedro…” to me over the phone.
One really gets a sense of Lauper’s passion and creative skill sets by watching this DVD. Amongst the amazing album lineup of session players, Charlie Musselwhite was introduced to Lauper during the album recording, as was Charles “Skip” Pitts and Archie “Hubby” Turner Mitchell, all of whom went out on tour with Cyndi’s regular band working the album in between the studio album release and the release of the DVD.
When speaking with her about how Willie Mitchell was my mentor, Lauper responded “…and Scott Bomar’s and just about everybody in Memphis. I’m just sorry it took me so long [to make these recordings] and I didn’t even get to meet Willie.”
Lauper is a very serious musician who focuses almost obsessively on her vocal instrument and has had a hand in virtually every arrangement of a song she has ever performed on or written. Other players that appear on both the album and DVD include Johnny Lang, Lester Snell, Leroy Hodges, Howard Grimes, Marc Franklin, Kirk Smothers, Derrick Williams, Steve Potts, Michael Toles, Steve Gaboury, William Whitman, and Tracy Nelson.
Are the scenes from Scott Bomar’s studio that were actual recording sessions for records or all rehearsals for the concert?
The album Memphis Blues was released June 22, 2010. It is amazing that such a great album was shot and recorded only a few months before its June 22 release. The “live performance” aspects of the DVD were shot over a couple of days beginning December 2, 2010, and released in December of 2011 accompanied by a live 14-song album with the DVD titled To Memphis, With Love. The production of this wonderful DVD came to fruition more as a necessity and gift for her fans after the release of the Grammy-nominated studio album a year earlier. Lauper professes that there was so much happening in the studio that was not captured on video, “that it would be so nice that before the audience saw these guys go on stage, they got to hear them talk. A connection is now being made that they [the audience] is not just seeing a bunch of great musicians on stage that is biased by their previous work.” Thus it was necessary for a documentary element to be combined with a live performance.
Charley Burch for BluesWax: You also brought in some pretty big pinch hitters from out of town, i.e., Allen Toussaint, Charlie Musslewhite, Lester Snell, Tracy Nelson, and Johnny Lang. Was that to help you with the arrangements?
Cyndi Lauper: Many people think of these guys as arrangers, they are essentially players.
Lauper was quick to clarify that she is responsible for her own arrangements while working well with others and their ideas and contributions.
“They were focusing mostly on the writing…these guys are used to coming into the studio and recording together and whatever the singer does, that’s gravy.” Lauper had previously drawn out a game plan with Bomar anticipating that these session cats were going to focus on writing and dictation where Lauper was searching for a way to bond with these master musicians and create something familiar but new. ”I was more focused on finding a way to connect …it’s all based on call and response.” Lauper gives an analogy referring to her studio drummer stating that “the drums are my dance partner. You and I are tight and everything else goes around us, and the interior rhythm that is created by listening is what makes the music.” Lauper stated that her approach was interpreted as “head arrangements” (arranging things on your feet in the open-hall recording session instead of afterwards in an ISO booth or with a producer/production team after the rhythm tracking) by the session players coining her style and approach in comparison to how they did it in the “old days” with Willie Mitchell. “Even with the different approach, styles and the fact that we had not worked together before, there were times that were otherworldly!”
For all the gear monkeys out there, I asked about the hardware she most likes to work with, both in the studio and live. Lauper prefers working with Neve boards/modules and recording with analog outboard equipment to analog tape. She likes the RCA ribbon mics that are so popular with our recording community here in the Delta and around the globe, but also is partial to her German Brauner VM series microphone (also popular by Peter Gabriel, Stevie Wonder, Anita Baker, Frank Sinatra, and Lenny Kravitz) that was a prototype when she started using them. They are made for recording singing that is dynamic, loud, and hard. “Neumann are great, but this one was better for me.” Lauper also likes the round lollypop C90 for intimacy and diversity regarding live performance mike selection.
BW: I have followed your music since the ’80s and seen you perform live in each of the last three decades. You still look and sound amazing! Any secrets for the rest of us of to preserve both our musical and physiological chops?
CL: I try to keep my body strong and healthy. Let’s face it, if you are a singer and your body is strong, then your voice is strong so I try to take care of my instruments, body and voice. You have to keep in shape. I lost my speaking voice during The Apprentice and chose to go back into training with my vocal instructors [First a guy at Dwyer who developed a method for Broadway singers using a mask technique stressing the break and then with Katie Agresta whom she still works with to date], who I have studied with my whole career using a method called “vocal therapy” based on an operatic Italian method, so that I can sing whatever I want to sing and not just what I can sing.”
When asked “What’s next on the horizon for Cyndi Lauper?” she replied, “I just recorded a Christmas CD which has “Home for The Holidays” with Norah Jones, “Blue Christmas,” and others. I so enjoyed working with Michael Toles, Henry Butler, and Steve Potts…They were just amazing…Jones [Norah] has a voice just like buttah.”
When Lauper is not touring, recording, acting, or writing, she is a wife and mother.
“I am very dedicated to my family and very dedicated to my work. I juggle both of them and work very hard at being the best I can at both. When I am not working on my music, I am working hard at being a parent. When I did the Bring You To The Brink album, I did the vocal recording in my house so I could be with the family. Most people think that I am a party girl, but I’m not. I don’t go out much.” Lauper has been married to David Thornton since 1991. They have a 14-year old son, Declyn Wallace Thornton, who attends school in Connecticut. They currently live in Manhattan, New York.
It is a must for all Cyndi Lauper fans to own both the Memphis Blues CD and To Memphis, With Love DVD. You will appreciate the genre and this artist more than ever as a result. I know I do.
Charley Burch is a Memphis-based writer and producer.
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