Donna Summer is anything but an "ordinary girl". With her powerful vocals, equated with dance and pop chart stardom, her disco diva persona, and a career in European musical theater, Summer is more extraordinary than ordinary.
However, her autobiography, Ordinary Girl (Villard, New York, NY, 2003, 255pp, $24.95), written with Marc Eliot, which shares the title with her forthcoming stage musical, would have you think otherwise. I recently spoke with Ms. Summer about her book and her music.
Gregg Shapiro: I went to college in Boston during the '80s and it is one of my favorite cities. I enjoyed the way you captured the Boston of your youth, particularly the excitement of the fertile music scene, as described beginning on page 25. It must have been very exciting to be there at that time.
Donna Summer: People talk about being born and raised in New York, which I know is fabulous, but I have the same thing about Boston. I think that period in Boston's musical history was just phenomenal. Because there are so many colleges in Boston you get this influx of totally different kinds of people with so much youthful energy and everybody fighting to be successful. Everybody wants to succeed and everybody encourages everybody and everybody is helped by everybody else. There was just this amazing kind of energy going on and I was raised and was coming up in that energy. It was almost euphoric.
GS: You wrote about the female singer/songwriters that you admired, such as Joni Mitchell, Carole King and Aretha Franklin. Have you ever covered or do you have a desire to cover any of their songs on an album?
DS: The very first professional recording session I ever really did was (singing) three Aretha Franklin songs, and they're on tape somewhere. I think I did "Respect," "Dr. Feelgood," and another one of her songs. And I love Carole King and I love Joni Mitchell. I would like to cut a couple of Joni Mitchell songs, but I'll only do that if I can actually bring my own thing to it and make it have its own identity. I wouldn't think of bastardizing one of those songs (laughs).
GS: Are there current female singer/songwriters whose work you admire?
DS: Well, I like Sarah McLachlan. I love India Arie. I like Avril Lavigne a lot. Some of the younger guys I like. I like John Mayer's writing. There's a guy, probably a little older than that now, who lives in L.A. and his name is Danny Peck, and he's been around forever. He's one of, if not, the best writer/performer I've ever experienced in terms of energy and what he writes about. There are others ... I like some of the stuff (by) the guy from Train. I think when that guy really gets into his own writing, really getting in there, he's a great writer.
GS: You also wrote about how personalized songwriting was too painful for you and it was easier to create characters in your songs. Has creating characters ever led you to consider writing short stories, a novel or a screenplay?
DS: Well, I do. I've written several. I've written several stories and actually I have songs that emerge from these. One of the songs that I recorded, "Dream-A-Lot's Theme," is from a children's (story) concept that is about a prince and it takes place in the dream-way when people are asleep, when people close their eyes. It's what happens to us when we dream. This guy, that's the prince of dreams, he's the prince of that realm, and he guards your dreams for your life. His whole objective is to guard your dreams and your childish dreams from the time you're born. That song "Dream-A-Lot's Theme" is from that musical that I co-wrote. The music was written by Nathan DiGesare and I wrote the lyrics and melody and stuff. I've been doing this stuff for a long time; I have so much material, (that) if people don't cut me loose from the disco it'll never be heard (laughs) in my lifetime, probably. But I'm hoping that won't be the case, because I think I've become a much better writer and a more sophisticated writer over the years.
GS: Still on the subject of writing, what was involved in the process of your deciding to write your autobiography?
DS: The actual truth of the matter is that I never intended to write an autobiography. It was going to be a book based on the stories from my life but told through a fictitious character. What happened in the process was that I needed a book to finish the musical for my show called Ordinary Girl. As I began to write, it was so obviously about me that everybody kept saying, "This is an autobiography." So it just emerged as an autobiography. I wanted to take my character that went to Europe and make her a character that went on through all these experiences and begin, then, to write other experiences about it so I could tell precepts and concepts and anecdotes through these adventures of this person. I hope to write a story about that one day because I have some other concepts that I wrote when I was in Europe that I think would be very interesting to people, but I think that right now we have the autobiography and that's good.
GS: Among your many projects, you are working on an original musical theater piece. Would you ever consider taking the lead in an existing Broadway musical, in the way that Reba McEntire did with Annie Get Your Gun or Vanessa Williams did with Into The Woods?
DS: Yes, I would. I have this ... it's not a phobia ... I used to do musicals, I started out in musical theater, and I did about five of them for which I have no credit in this country because I did them in Europe, but I did them none the less. I would do them, but it's really, really difficult for me to be in one place for long, extensive period of time and so I find it's like torture. I don't know how long I could actually (laughs) be in one show night after night. For me, the advantage of all of that is that, if you have little kids or you have your husband or someone you want to be in one place for, and then it works perfectly. You've got a job; you've got somewhere to go. I think you hone your acting skills when you're able to do that for an extended period of time, and I think that's really good. For that reason alone I would consider doing it.
GS: We talked about Joni Mitchell earlier and she is someone who, in addition to being a brilliant songwriter and musician, also has a life as a painter. Can you please say something about what your painting means to you?
DS: I didn't, unfortunately, discover my life as a painter until the last ... let's say maybe 10, 12 years, but I've been painting my whole life on whatever level. I didn't take it that seriously, it was just always something that I did. I think most creative people sketch and draw. I'm finding that almost all of them do. I mean, I think it's the first thing you learn how to do in kindergarten. Like, "Hey, draw me a picture." (Laughs) It's this thing that you have your whole life and it's whether you find so much pleasure in it that you continue to do it. I think that I found it as a means of expression, and have done it throughout my life.
GS: Your latest CD, The Journey: The Very Best of Donna Summer (UTV/Mercury), contains two new songs "You're So Beautiful" and "Dream-A-Lot's Theme (I Will Live For Love)." Is there any chance that there is a new full-length studio album forthcoming?
DS: Well, as soon as I can get it finished. There have been so many things going on that kind of take you away, and I find it very distracting. When I'm doing music, I want to do music. I'm not one of these (people who) can just hop in and do one song, I have a hard time functioning that way. I like to be focused because I never know what I'm going to get. So, hopefully I'll be able to get this album done by next spring.
GS: On page 192, you make reference to a homophobic rumor that caused unnecessary pain for you and your fans. Do you feel as if there has been closure or resolution in that matter?
DS: I think, understanding where it got started and all that stuff, and why, I think it has for me. I hope it has for everyone else. I think that a person has to follow their lifestyle and know who you are as a person. Because otherwise, it's easy to believe whatever you read in print, but you really shouldn't. You really shouldn't believe what you read in the newspapers. It's not healthy. Unless you know that the person is very truthful, because people are going to take things out of context or say things that are not true, and that has happened to me on so many occasions. Originally, they (the press) had me ... I was a transvestite (laughs).
GS: Yes, you mentioned that in the book.
DS: So, at some point you just go, "Please!"