Girls Just Want To Have Fun: Cyndi Lauper interview
By John Earls | July 27, 2021
With Girls Just Want To Have Fun, Cyndi Lauper became one of the biggest acts of the 1980s. Now, with a storming new single and a reissue of her groundbreaking debut album out, Cyndi Lauper can reflect on the entirety of her wild career. As ever, she’ll do so in her own way.
Classic Pop tries to keep up as the inimitable star discusses sweet potato diets, climate change, pole dancing, inspiring Schitt’s Creek, fame’s cruellest trick and being a beacon of hope…
A magnificent force for staying true to yourself since she emerged with Girls Just Want To Have Fun 37 years ago, Cyndi Lauper is the wonderful company anyone would hope from her artistry. Within two minutes of greeting Classic Pop, she’s discussing the potential benefits of following the diet of K-Pop singers.
“Those girls in K-Pop are interesting, because work is all they do,” notes Lauper. “They get up in the morning, they work, and that’s it. They have some really interesting sweet potato diets which I’m starting to look at. I’ll say this: it’s given me something to think about.”
This is not, let’s be clear, the kind of introductory conversation you get from Bryan Adams.
In every sense, Cyndi is a proper pop star. From the outset, her message was positive – women are as cool as men; we could all learn a lot from the LGBTQ+ community; you don’t have to use sex to sell your records, but if you do then that’s OK, too; you might feel rough now, but tomorrow’s a new day.
Some of those messages have been normalised in pop music since 1983, but even now it’s hard to sneak an ode to female masturbation on daytime radio like She Bop managed.
Like the best artists, Cyndi’s personality is too strong to have held down a regular job. One answer, to a soft question about how much she’s missing playing live in the pandemic, lasts eight minutes and 22 seconds. Lauper just has too many bright ideas to be contained – none of her discourse is long-winded, instead leading Classic Pop into a multicoloured landscape as topics pinball around.
Girls Just Want To Have Fun: Cyndi Lauper – Working 9-5
Cyndi did at least try to have an office job when she moved to Vermont aged 17, escaping her troubled family home in New York. “I lied, saying I was 19,” she recalls. “I had no experience of an office, but my friend told me having no experience didn’t matter, as I could learn on the job. I figured, ‘OK, I can do this,’ but I didn’t take into consideration how scared I was. When you’re a teenager, you’re scared. I had a lot of moxie, but I was scared. The result was, I wasn’t a gal Friday: I was a gal Friday the 13th.”
Cyndi laughs as she tells the story, but her brief career as an office assistant still has unlikely repercussions all these years later. One of several projects Lauper has on the go is a musical based on Working Girl, the 1988 comedy drama starring Melanie Griffith and Harrison Ford.
Cyndi had been asked to audition for the movie’s lead, smart secretary Tess. “I was supposed to read for the part, but I didn’t want to,” Cyndi explains. “I was too traumatised from my time as a gal Friday. I’d never have been suitable anyway, and Melanie was perfect for it.”
Cyndi was then asked to read for Tess’ hairdresser friend Cynthia, rejecting that role, too, as she’d only just made her acting debut as a hairdresser in cult comedy Vibes. Joan Cusack – “I’m a big fan of Joan” – played Cynthia instead.
But Cyndi is finally ready to delve into Working Girl, writing the music for her second musical. Working Girl has a lot to live up to, as Cyndi’s first musical Kinky Boots won six Tonys on Broadway and three Oliviers, the West End equivalent, in 2016.
“Working Girl is coming along great,” says Cyndi. “It’s kept moving around, but the pandemic has given us extra time to work on it.”
Coronavirus has also delayed an untitled Golden Girls-style sitcom she has created with Seinfeld writer Carol Leifer and Jane Lynch, who plays megastar comedian Sophie Lennon in Amazon Prime drama The Marvelous Mrs Maisel.
Being stuck at home means there’s also time to work on more music, with 2019 single Hope reissued in a new dance mix before the US Presidential election. It’s an absolute belter of a song, perfectly mixing vintage Lauper pop with the dance music she mastered on 2008’s album Bring Ya To The Brink made with dance producers including Basement Jaxx and Kleerup.
“I love dance music and my husband has listened to electronic music since I met him,” says Cyndi of Law And Order actor David Thornton.
The couple celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary in 2021. “In the doorway of our living room, we have a little bar hanging. I strap my workout bands to it and when he plays rave music I’ll pole dance on the bar. With everything going on in the pandemic, hope is really important right now.
“Hope is a dance song, and I wanted something that’s easy to sing, so you can sing when you’re dancing. You can dance and sing something that takes you back to when you were a kid with your life in front of you.
“We can’t go to the clubs, but I’ll dance in my kitchen, too, when I’m cooking, which makes me happy. I’ve got a disco ball in the bathroom, because it means when I get dressed I can have a little party and celebrate myself.”
Hope was initially written when Cyndi was battling psoriasis, which she contracted while working on Kinky Boots. “Eight million people have psoriasis in America and working with other people with the condition gave me hope,” she recalls. “I was at my wits’ end before meeting other people with it, but I realised these people never gave up hope.
“My psoriasis was very severe, and it was at its absolute worst when I was in England, promoting Kinky Boots. When I went on Graham Norton’s talk show, I spray-painted my arms so I wouldn’t look like a freak. But I thought it’d be nice to have light pink hair, when in 2015 nobody used hair colour anymore, so that did make me look like a freak. I hadn’t thought about that.”
Cyndi’s hair has always been as colourful as the singer herself, which she believes helped inspire Moira Rose, the terrifying matriarch in Emmy-winning sitcom Schitt’s Creek, who calls her dozens of wigs “My girls”.
There’s a typical soft, infectious laugh over the audio-only blank Zoom screen as Cyndi reflects: “When I saw Schitt’s Creek, I realised, ‘Holy cow, she’s got my hair colours!’ I don’t care if people think that side of Moira is me, as I love that show. Besides, pink hair looks good on everybody – it makes you look happier and your skin healthier. Some people don’t like pink, to which I say, ‘That’s great, go with mint green.’ That’s pretty, too.”
Girls Just Want To Have Fun: Cyndi Lauper – Hope & glory
Inspired by the positivity of her fellow psoriasis sufferers, Cyndi began to write a song, admitting: “I thought, ‘I’m not going to write a song called Hope, as that’s really hokey.’ But the first thing that came into my head was that song – and I figured, ‘Don’t fight it, just write it.’”
Hope was made with Tracy Young, a dance producer who’s also worked with Madonna, Pet Shop Boys and Beyoncé. Asked if Hope could lead to her first album since 2016’s country-infused Detour, Cyndi responds: “I like working with Tracy, but there’s no plans for it right now. Maybe an EP to start with.”
Coronavirus has obviously made it harder for Lauper to collaborate, as she explains: “You can’t listen and respond instantly, you have to tell someone over FaceTime or whatever: ‘See this part here? You sing like that there.’
“You can’t sit in a room with anybody, but in some ways that’s kind of great. I can sit up all night and keep playing guitar parts until I get it right, without having to worry about somebody else being there, looking at me and rolling their eyes going, ‘Ah, come onnn…’”
Cyndi recently learned how to use ProTools – “Not great, but enough to put together a session and play on it” – but admits she neglected her guitar playing while doing so, saying: “My guitar playing is really bad right now, so I have to practise that. I just want to be able to play well enough so that the person I want to perform the real part can hear what it is I want them to do.”
Stating that “I love learning”, what Lauper next wants to study is a surprise: “I’d love to go to diction lessons, as I hate the way I speak.”
Throughout Classic Pop’s interview, Cyndi’s diction is perfect. She talks quieter than you might expect, but is perfectly clear and on the verge of whatever the New York equivalent is of the Queen’s English. And yet: “I have very soft ‘l’s. ‘Pl’ words are very difficult for me, so to be able to speak better would be exciting. I don’t want to become somebody different, just to speak better and play the game.”
Alongside collaborating with Tracy Young, Cyndi’s music for Working Girl is being made with Rob Hyman, the songwriter Cyndi has worked consistently with ever since they crafted Time After Time.
“I don’t think the way Rob and I work has changed at all over the years,” ponders Cyndi. “Honestly, I just write how I write and that’s always meant a lot of walking while singing to myself. I try to use phrases people say in everyday life and I say into my iPhone the ones I overhear that strike me.
“A lot of Kinky Boots was written at the gym, or more exactly the running track outside. I’d keep running around in a circle on that track, which had a statue next to it of Joseph Smith, the guy who created the whole Mormon thing.
“He’s up in the air, looking down on everyone, and I’d sometimes say, ‘Hey Joe!’, then keep on running around and write as the ideas came up. That statue helped give me some pretty good choruses I sang to myself, like I’m Not My Father’s Son.”
Time After Time was the first of Cyndi’s two US No.1 singles, later joined by True Colors, and reached No.3 in the UK. It cemented Lauper’s success, which had first looked possible when her new wave band Blue Angel were discovered by The Allman Brothers Band manager Steve Massarsky. The band were dropped after their self-titled debut album flopped in 1980 despite good reviews.
Girls Just Want To Have Fun: Cyndi Lauper True Colors video
In the fallout, Massarsky sued Lauper, who was declared bankrupt and developed a cyst on her throat. How did success feel after everything she’d been through?
“There’s no How To Be Famous For Dummies book,” Cyndi points out. “Furthermore, there is actually no redemption. Whatever is unresolved in you still needs to be resolved in you. The good news is, yes, you can finally eat. But not too much, or you’ll need to lose it quickly. It’s a dirty trick.”
Girls Just Want To Have Fun: Cyndi Lauper – Saved for posterity
Belated resolution for Cyndi arrived in 2019, when her classic debut album She’s So Unusual – recently reissued on vinyl for National Album Day – was placed in the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC, the world’s largest museum and home to the States’ most important cultural artefacts.
“That was really wild,” enthuses Cyndi. “Being in the Smithsonian means She’s So Unusual is on a list of the greatest albums. That’s funny, as I remember during that time period, I had very important and iconic producers on TV shows and in the music industry tell me that what I did was disposable music. I said to them then, ‘No, this isn’t disposable.’
“I made sure that what I do – whether it was singing or writing – was to make something I’d love. If it was someone else’s song, I made it something I’d love to have written.”
Cyndi cites the ballad All Through The Night, written by future MTV Unplugged host Jules Shear, as an example of strengthening songs for her own talents.
“All Through The Night was stunning by Jules,” explains Cyndi. “The demo sounded a little Beatles-y to me. I grew up listening to The Beatles, and English artists turned me on to a lot of things. As a kid, I sang Beatles songs with my older sister.
“Of course, Ellen had to be Paul McCartney, so I had to be John. And in being John, I learned to harmonise. That all came out in All Through The Night, and it comes out again in Hope, because Beatles songs always gave me hope.”
There’s another, bigger laugh, as Cyndi recalls her son Declyn’s own Beatles discovery in the early noughties: “My kid was in the car seat singing a kids’ choir version of The Long And Winding Road that was big at the time. When he started singing, ‘Many times I’ve been alooone’, I turned round to him, going, ‘You’ve never been alone! What are you talking about?’ But that’s The Beatles for you, always giving you hope.”
Cyndi needed to cling on to that hope when, despite her success, she was slowly sidelined at Epic after Lennie Petze, the A&R who signed Cyndi, left the label.
“The pressure to conform came all the time,” she admits. “After Lennie left, it was hard for me to feel like I could continue with the new regime. There was pressure to sing like Heart and dress like Katrina And The Waves. The result was my third album A Night To Remember, wasn’t the best that it could be – because I couldn’t make the record company happy or myself. I tried, but it wasn’t my finest.”
The album, which stalled at No.37 in the US in 1989, features guests including Bootsy Collins, Eric Clapton and Cameo’s Larry Blackmon.
“I worked with some great musicians,” Cyndi recalls, who split with her manager David Wolf – also her boyfriend – while making the album. “But I couldn’t think straight, because I wasn’t strong enough to create while everything crumbled around me. I got better at it.”
Lauper had already learned how to get better in one respect thanks to advice from Paul Simon, who befriended Lauper while she was making True Colors.
“Paul told me that it’s often better, when you’ve got great musicians, to just let them play,” she recalls. Acclaimed guitarist Adrian Belew, formerly of King Crimson, guested on the album. “I told Adrian, ‘Can you play like this guy?’” says Cyndi, cringing at the memory.
“Saying that to Adrian Belew, what the heck was I thinking? In my defence, I was under pressure and at the time not used to working with such great players.”
Girls Just Want To Have Fun: Cyndi Lauper Sally’s Pigeons video
After A Night To Remember, it was another four years before Lauper returned with Hat Full Of Stars in 1993. The album continued Cyndi’s commercial decline, but has rightly been reassessed by critics since, its tumultuous rock sound matched by songs tackling abortion, racism and domestic abuse, subjects largely alien to pop artists at the time.
“I had to sing about the life I knew,” states Cyndi. “Being ahead of its time was OK – at least it came out. My husband was keen on me actually singing about my life. David said I was a songwriter, so I should write songs about my life and stories that I knew, so I did.”
Cyndi was helped in that endeavour by Tears For Fears keyboardist Nicky Holland and Allee Willis, who co-wrote Pet Shop Boys and Dusty Springfield classic What Have I Done To Deserve This?
“Allee was also keen on me singing about my life,” says Cyndi. “I wrote the lyrics to the title track Hat Full Of Stars, but I didn’t like the melody in my head, so I gave the lyrics to Nicky, my neighbour who lived upstairs. She came downstairs and wrote the chords on my piano. The funny thing is, the meter of that song didn’t change. Sometimes, songs are just going to be the way they are.”
Girls Just Want To Have Fun: Cyndi Lauper – The navy lark
Released in 2008, Bring Ya To The Brink was Cyndi’s first album of new songs to reach the US Top 50 since A Night To Remember. Her final album on Epic, producers also included Max Martin and Swedish House Mafia’s Axwell.
“I loved that album, where I tried to make a modern collection of music,” says Cyndi. “I travelled with my microphone and omnichord, dragging them all through Europe. It was hard to step into one foreign situation after another and just write with strangers. I was a little intimidated, but I pushed myself through. Basement Jaxx were a lot of fun, a nutty duo.”
Known for working with Robyn and Lady Gaga, Swedish producer Kleerup was inspiring on their song Lay Me Down. In Stockholm, Cyndi stayed in a hotel named after Lord Nelson’s lover, Lady Hamilton, with pictures of naval schooners lining the walls.
“The lyrics reflect that place,” explains Cyndi. “I passed a love letter from Lady Hamilton every night in the lobby, and Kleerup showed me a school named after Ingmar Bergman near his studio. We got talking about how the grey weather in Stockholm affects the art that comes out of there. I really love that track!”
For all that Cyndi has enjoyed respect as a singer and performer, her songwriting ability seems to have been consistently overlooked from Time After Time on.
“The songs that the record company promoted weren’t primarily the songs I wrote,” reasons Cyndi. “Apart from Time After Time and She Bop, it was mostly about the songs I arranged that were made to suit my voice. In those early days, I sang a lot of sustained notes. To do that, you have to athletically prepare your voice. I’m more interested in songwriting now, and for me that’s melody, melody, melody.
“Melody is what comforts people when they hear it and it’s what comforts me when I write it. Melody is so important and, even in a dance song like Hope, you’ve got to have melody.”
The new video for Hope is surprisingly emotional for simply showing Lauper play the song live. Typically, she’s optimistic about how coronavirus is affecting the future of concerts.
“Live shows aren’t so close to happening in our new future,” ponders Cyndi. “But there are other ways to perform live, which will become a performance art side. That’s exciting. It’ll push me back to where I started from. I’m not a dancer, but I’ve always loved the art of performance – how to mix art with performance and the visuals.
“It’s what Lady Gaga started out doing at the beginning and it’s what Billie Eilish does so well. It’s true that, with Covid, I’m not out performing on tour, so I don’t get any of that intense aerobic side. I miss that.”
Cyndi might miss performing, but she’s got hope for whatever the future holds. Possibly it’ll involve sweet potatoes and pink hair, and it’ll definitely include melodies and harmonising. It feels appropriate that Cyndi is set to return with a musical based on Working Girl.
Cyndi might not think she was right for the movie, but if you want someone who’s underestimated at the time only to triumph in the end, that’s Cyndi Lauper – bringing hope as she does so.