Women in Music 2016
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Debbie Gibson Talks New Music, Healthy Living & the Secret to Taylor Swift Staying 'Graceful'
'I'm finding what my life should be, for me to be happy,' the pop music vet and actress says. 'I don't want to always feel like there's a grizzly bear nipping at my heels and I have to keep up.'
"Can I indulge you for, like, four minutes?"
On an early April visit, Debbie Gibson is holding court in a conference room at Billboard's New York City offices for staffers who've packed in to meet and greet her. With unanimous approval of her request, Gibson commandeers her manager's iPhone, gets it hooked up to the speaker system and plays a song that almost no one else has previously heard: "Turn It Around," which she only recently wrote.
The track starts as a piano ballad and eventually kicks into disco-tinged dance, all while showing off Gibson's uncommon gift for hooks that scored her five Billboard Hot 100 top 10s in 1987-89, before she'd even turned 20.
Upon the song's conclusion, all agree that those four minutes were well-spent. (Gibson hears the song as a ballad, while a majority of attendees seem to lean toward its eventual release as an uptempo track.)
"This must be what it's like to send your kids off to kindergarten," Gibson, 44, muses after letting her new song out into the world.
Listen to Debbie Gibson's "Promises." You can purchase the song here.
After a lengthy break from releasing new music – she last charted when "Say Goodbye," a duet with New Kid on the Block Jordan Knight hit No. 24 on Adult Contemporary in 2006 – Gibson is back with new single "Promises," from the UP TV movie The Music in Me, which premiered April 12. The film casts Gibson, in the role of lead character Jessica, as having traded in her dreams of becoming a professional singer to care for her parents. Once home, she becomes choir director of a local church and her musical aspirations are revitalized. (DebHeads will appreciate that "Promises" is central to the movie's plot and score.)
If you missed The Music in Me the first time, UP re-airs it tonight (April 24) at 9 p.m. ET.
While at Billboard, Gibson chatted one-on-one about a variety of topics, including steadily overcoming a battle against Lyme disease, how she looks back now at the hits that made her a household name and a dominant Billboard chart vet and what advice she has for young pop stars currently traveling the path that she originally helped forge so expertly.
Billboard: First, and most importantly, it's great to hear that you're feeling better.
Gibson: Thank you. To be very honest, even two weeks ago I wasn't feeling so good and I had to figure out, "OK, what's going on now?" The weird thing with Lyme disease is, one day you wake up and you're like, "It's gone!" And that's the day that gets me in trouble, dietary-wise or by over-exerting. Not only am I back to square one, but it takes me a month to get back to where I was that day.
So, I've been finding my way. I think the biggest key for me is I want to feel good. I don't want this to be some black hole I fall into. So, I'm in good spirits.
When you were first touring back in the '80s, did you even think about your physical limits? That is a crazy schedule to keep.
I've always been a person that's wanted to go-go-go. And, I've always pushed myself. But, truth be known, my body and immune system have always had a hard time keeping up. And, I had anxiety issues. I was on Xanax. I was on Prozac. And, for singers, you take antibiotics at the jump of a hat. So now, I find that I'm undoing the damage that all that [medication] did. I'm also finding … what my life should be, for me to be happy and comfortable and not always feeling like there's a grizzly bear nipping at my heels and I have to keep up. If you're running to keep up with your own life, how much fun are you having?
So, I'm really reassessing what it means to do what I do. I want to have another pop chapter, and tour, and part of that scares me, because the energy of that is insane. Then I remember you can do things differently. You can hit it for two weeks and you can rest for two weeks. You don't have to be on the same treadmill you were on as a kid. I am in no competition. I don't want to be Katy Perry right now and perform 300 shows a year. God bless her.
[Ed. note: Gibson may not want to be Perry, but she did want to be her mom: Gibson cameoed as Perry's mother, with Corey Feldman as her dad, in the fun video for "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)"]
I would want to do that in a way that's healthy for me, where I'm strong and wouldn't always be recovering. That's what always used to happen. I was a crash-and-burn girl. I was an adrenaline junkie. I still have those tendencies. I have one good day and I want to run and do everything. I'm an over-indulger, I'm not good at moderation. But, I'm learning I have to be if I really want to enjoy my life.
Would you say you did enjoy when everything was so fast-paced in the first part of your career? Or was it all a blur?
It was partially a blur. It's funny, I finished a press day [recently] and I turned to Heather [Moore, Gibson's manager], who worked with my management company years ago and I remember doing an Asian tour with her when I was 25. I said, "If we were in Korea right now, it would be like, 'Oh, that's a tenth of the day done.' " And now, that's my whole day. If we finish at 2 p.m. now … well, back then there still would've been an in-store … a club appearance … a TV performance … a dinner with the label … a late-night TV show. If it could fit on the itinerary, it was put there and you felt this responsibility to do it all.
And, I did it. And, it was insane. If my pick-up was at 6 a.m., I was up at 4, in the gym, doing a vigorous vocal workout so that my voice would stay warmed up all day. I never had one of those roll-out-of-bed-and-sing voices.
So, the schedule back then was intense. I do remember a lot of joy, a lot of, like, "Oh my God, I can't believe all these people are here for me and I'm singing my songs for them!" And, then, I remember breakdowns in hotel rooms and feeling if I couldn't sing that day that I was going to disappoint people. You think everything's the end of the world, and that the world is revolving around you in a really unnatural way. It's a trip.
Is there one thing you've come to appreciate the most, from all the highs and lows?
… That I can release a new song and people still get excited. Or, I can go play a Gay Pride in Chicago and people are packed in the streets to see me. It really blows my mind, the loyalty.
And then, I can do a movie, something in 28 years I've almost never done, and I can still be excited by new things.
It's like, I love watching Madonna perform live on TV because it always seems nerve-wracking for her. It always seems like she's that little girl who still has something to prove. It always feels like, "People don't feel like I'm the best singer, but darn it, I'm gonna sing a ballad, and it's gonna be acoustic." I love that. The people who roll out of bed and do it easily bore me. I love seeing the hunger in artists, and Madonna, you'd think at this point, would be like, "Oh, hand me the microphone, whatever ..." And, it's not that way. And, it's not that way for me, either. When I showed up at the movie set, I was like, "I'm here to serve." There's a humility that comes over you when you're out of your comfort zone. I enjoy that.
How do you feel you did as an actress in The Music in Me?
I've watched it twice. The first time … I hated my performance (laughs). The second time … I liked my performance. Because I'm a very animated person, and in my acting roles I've done mainly theater, I project. So, the director was, like, "Pull back."
The first time I watched it, I thought, did I pull back so much that I was … blah? And then, when I watched it again, I thought, no, I think I captured the fact that this is a girl that lets herself get a little old before her time – which is not me. So, what I considered maybe flat or boring I think worked for the character.
Continued: "If [Taylor Swift] needs to come apart at the seams … she should."
Are you similarly critical when you listen back to some of your earliest hits, like "Only in My Dreams"?
It's like ... I remember who that person was then, so I understand where I was at, but I would never [sing] it that way again. What I hear when I listen to "Only in My Dreams" is I was so concerned with being pitch perfect – we didn't have Auto-Tune – that I can hear myself "placing" the notes a little bit, instead of letting things "roll" a little more. Back then, I would go for the note a little more than the emotional impact. Now, it's completely different.
There are vocal nuances in "Promises" that [stem from being] vulnerable, because I'm playing somebody in the movie not polished. I could sound like I swallowed a compressor … or, instead, let that vibrato get a little loose and rugged. To me, that's where the magic is now. Back then, that was a flaw.
But, I also remember every ad lib, every string run, every keyboard fill [from early on], because I was so in love with that part of the process. It's fun to think back on piecing that stuff together.
Last time we spoke, I bugged you, fan that I am, asked you what your favorite songs of yours are. What's your favorite album that you've released?
I'm gonna say … [1995's piano-driven] Think With Your Heart. Brian Koppelman [who discovered Tracy Chapman] executive-produced it, and I had him induct me into the Long Island Hall of Fame last year. The reason is because he was the first person after I got out of the big [major-label] machine who was able to fly to London – I was in my flat, doing Grease at the time – and say, "Sit at the piano, just play the music. I want to help you bring these songs to life." It was just a very artistic moment where he wanted to see my vision through. It just allowed me to live out my musical fantasy, so I thank him for that.
And, it's a fan favorite. It's melodic. Ultimately, my gift is not my singing and it's never been my lyrics … I think melodies are what come innately to me.
And, a piece of that album is in the new movie, at the beginning …
Yes! "Didn't Have the Heart." I sang it in Nashville at Tin Pan South [when the album was released]. I performed that whole album acoustic that night. We got the original video clip and used it. [The Music in Me executives] were like, "Oh, it's VHS and it's fuzzy …" I was like, yes. It'd be brilliant that the parents [in the film] still have it. And, you can tell it's me.
It's exhausting to hear myself belt that high, though. Whose idea was it to write it in such a high key? (laughs)
It's been a bit since you've released a proper new album of original material in the U.S., 2001, to be exact, for M.Y.O.B. When might we expect your next one and what do you think it will sound like?
I started putting time frames on it and then I realized you just can't. Like, when I went into the studio to record the demo for that new song, "Turn It Around," it was one of those weirdly magical vocal days when I felt awful, but my voice was doing something cool. You just can't predict it.
There's some stuff I want to self-produce and there's some stuff where I want to collaborate with people.
I mean, everyone wants to work with Pharrell. But, Pharrell: add me to the list. The reason is I just feel like he just understands music, the spiritual nature of music, and melody.
And, I think there's something in me that has yet to be drawn out by a great producer. I've worked with some great producers … but I steamrolled them! I want to actually show up and put myself in someone's hands and have them take me places I didn't know I could go.
Can we wrap with discussing Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber? They, like you, conquered the business at similar young ages. Swift has essentially never missed a step, public image-wise, while Bieber has had his well-documented troubles. Granted, you didn't grow up in a social media world where every move could be dissected so closely, but how do you view that familiar landscape in which young stars find themselves now?
My whole life flashes before my eyes when you ask me that question … You know, it's an odd upbringing, so it does not come without its twists and turns and moments. Again, I feel like just now I'm emerging into who I really am.
You start out, and you're yourself, and then your image becomes so prominent that you start living up to the image. I've watched Taylor Swift from a distance and she seems like she's very authentic. However, people are expecting her to be a certain way. But, if she needs to come apart at the seams … she should. That's what I've realized as my life has gone on.
I was so accustomed to doing interviews where you won't read anything [emotionally]. Then, I realized that that's an exhausting way to live and an inauthentic way to live. It's more interesting to be vulnerable. I'm not perfect. I have meltdowns constantly. So, I think the more open you can be, it saves your own sanity.
I do think Taylor Swift is handling her life so gracefully and eloquently. I think, "I don't know how she has time to host dinner parties, perform at awards shows, host everything …" Hats off to you, sister! And, musically she's taking chances. I love the fact that she came out with 1989 and said that she's not country now. She's not worried about alienating people. She's owning what she's doing. That, for me, is my favorite moment for her.
I also look at Justin Bieber, and Miley Cyrus, and think … they're really age-appropriate. There's a line in Jersey Boys: "You give a guy from Jersey millions of dollars and hit records and see how you would act." I look at Bieber and think … he's pretty much acting like a college boy, with a lot of money and a lot of toys. I think he'll come around. He can get to know who he is.
And Zayn [Malik], from One Direction, leaving the band. I go, "How cool!" From what I understand, he has anxiety issues. I had anxiety issues and, at a certain point, if you have to medicate to get yourself on-stage … maybe you're just not supposed to be on-stage. Or, at least not right now.
That's what I've been in tune with, regarding Lyme disease, knowing what my adrenaline can handle right now. Maybe it can't handle this superhero image from my past, or the expectation I have for myself.
Getting in touch with who you are, and where you are … is a gift.
I think more than any new music, that's the greatest gift you can give your fans: anyone would just want you to be happy.
Yeah, flaws and all. Flaws are what make us interesting. There's a reason I never got my nose done (laughs).