Just to clear the air, Cyndi Lauper is not the latest in a long string of pop stars attempting to “go country.” Her new release, Detour, an album full of classic country song covers, is less an indicator of the veteran pop star’s desire to change genres than it is a sincere homage to a dozen tunes she grew up listening to on a transistor radio in her aunt’s kitchen and falling in love with.
That she happens to have enlisted country luminaries including Willie Nelson, Vince Gill and Emmylou Harris, bluegrass superstar Alison Krauss and pop-turned-country chanteuse Jewel for the project merely adds heft to her purpose as she lends her vocal skills to songs both famous (“I Fall to Pieces,” “Heartaches by the Number”) and somewhat obscure (“You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly”), largely culled from the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s. Lauper recorded the album in Nashville with veteran country producer Tony Brown and a crop of Music City’s A-list session players. Sire Records founder Seymour Stein served as both the project’s executive producer and its instigator.
“It was exciting to come here and make a record that’s an homage to country,” says Lauper of Nashville. “It’s a real singer’s album.”
The cotton candy-haired Lauper, looking utterly ageless at 62, sat down with Billboard in Nashville to talk about the origins of the project (which was released May 6 on Sire/Rhino and debuts at No. 4 on Top Country Albums) and what’s left on the bucket list for a star who has already earned Grammy, Emmy and Tony Awards. That list, she says, almost certainly includes writing another Broadway show following the success of her hit Kinky Boots. Being just one award away from the coveted EGOT designation (for those renowned few who have won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Award), Lauper admits, “I want that Oscar,” and hopes to land it someday as a film composer.
While she has now worked in musical formats as diverse as Broadway, pop, dance and blues, as well as having done both acting and reality TV (the latter as a contestant on The Celebrity Apprentice), Lauper says that to her, “Performance art is performance art … It’s all about the story.”
When it came time to select songs for Detour, Lauper says, “I tried to choose variety, because I don’t like listening to a record where it’s [all] the same … I chose things that had variety to them so you could go on a journey and have different storytellers. But they were all stories that I could kind of believe.
“I wasn’t good in school, so I think I just learned on my feet,” she notes, adding that she eventually discovered “you have to diversify, because if you don’t diversify, you’re stuck in one thing with the gatekeepers, and I just will not have it. I don’t want them telling me what I can and can’t do. I don’t want to be stopped. I want to keep growing. I want to learn. I love to learn.
“How are you going to know what you could do if you never try something new?” she asks. “You might fall on your butt, but if you don’t try, you don’t know, and you won’t grow.”
She praises her fans, who she says have stuck with her through every musical journey and experiment. They will get to hear her take on country music live on her current 35-city Detour tour, which features Boy George on a few dates. Onstage, she’s mixing the classic country songs with some of her best-loved pop hits, and jokes of her stage attire, “Maybe I’ll just break down and buy that Electric Horseman outfit.”
Asked if she had a favorite among the country star collaborators on her album, Lauper says Gill was “pretty awesome” and “helped me through Detour … He’s a sweet, really wonderful and incredibly gifted musician, and he sings like butter.”
Her words are less kind when it comes to presidential candidate Donald Trump, whom Lauper worked for as a contestant on The Celebrity Apprentice in 2010. It sure doesn’t sound like she’ll be voting for him in the fall.
“It’s a scary prospect because you can’t inflate people to violence,” she says of Trump’s rhetoric. “You can’t talk that kind of talk. If you want to be president, you can’t talk like that.”
Then she adds with a laugh, “I’m not running for president. I’m just trying to sell this record.”
This article first appeared in Billboard’s Country Update — sign up here.