Donna Summer can be credited – in conjuction with her producer Giorgio Moroder – with the invention of electronic disco: the songstress’ hit “I Feel Love” essentially paved the way for the future of dance music. With 14 number-one hits, five Grammys, six American music awards and 130 million albums sold worldwide, Donna Summer has written music history.
A living legend famous for bringing her special brand of rock-pop-R&B-disco-electronica out of the clubs and into the mainstream charts of the ‘70s, Donna Summer was the first female artist to have a number one single and number one album on the charts at the same time, while still retaining credibility and relevance through collaborations with luminaries such as Moroder and Quincy Jones. July 2009 saw Summer taking the stage at the Electronic Beats Classics concert series in Berlin for a triumphant comeback. We spoke with the 60-year-old dance music icon on the phone prior to her arrival.
Donna Summer picks up the phone.
Hallo, wie geht’s?
Ah, you speak German?
A little, a little. I used to live in Munich, but I haven’t spoken any German for such a long time that I don’t know anymore how good I am. Maybe it’s better to speak English. I don’t know if I’ll say something I shouldn’t say. (laughs) I will hopefully have enough chances to speak German as soon as I arrive in Berlin.
How do you feel about being the first artist to launch the Electronic Beats Classic events series?
Well, it’s special for me because it’s the first time I’ll be playing in Germany since I became famous.
Why did you choose Electronic Beats Classics for this premiere?
I always wanted to come to Germany, but it needed to be worth it for me to come. You know it’s very expensive with the weak dollar to go to Europe at the moment. So it’s an extreme expense for American artists to come there unless they are doing a very, very big show and a long, long tour. I don’t want to lose money if I play somewhere. I want to hopefully make money or at least a living. I have to pay the people that work for me, so even if I did it for free, I would still have to pay my expenses. Electronic Beats has been kind enough to offer me this gig and help me with everything to make it possible. I did not really hesitate: I wanted to come and do this show because I have been waiting for it for a long time.
You moved to Munich in 1968 to perform in the musical Hair. Four years later, you married the Austrian Helmuth Sommer and gave birth to your first child, Mimi. What is your relationship with Germany today?
I have a very loving relationship with Germany. A lot of the time, foreign people think of Germans as being a bit cold, but I always say “no, no, Germans are very warm and they have a very warm side. They just like to get things done right, and that’s their characteristic.” Sometimes the language seems a little harsh to the outside ear, they think that the people are just tough all the time and I’m like, “no, that’s not the case”. So I know a different Germany and I try to explain to people how Germans are and why I love this country. Germany is very good for my temperament and that is another reason why I wanted to come back again.
Do you see collaborating with Electronic Beats also as a way of connecting to a new younger generation of fans?
Well, I hope so! Maybe I’ll find some young writers and collaborators and we’ll make some new music. I heard Berlin is famous for its creative people.
Disco and house music are having a huge comeback at the moment and your sound is more in demand than ever. How exciting are these times for you?
It’s extremely exciting, because it just shows you that music never dies, it finds its own life over and over again. For myself, I have had many incarnations and other people such as Beyoncé Knowles have used pieces of my music. It’s a huge, huge compliment for me to be carried into another generation.
Other artists might say that they would feel robbed if younger artists released cover versions of their songs.
I feel very honoured because I feel that they must have really liked my music then. Do you know the TV show American Idol in Germany? Well, they use my songs a lot on that show because they are not so easy to sing. They use them because they feel that if you are going to be able to sing these songs, you’re going to have a good voice. So in every sense, to listen to somebody sing in a new way and to approach it differently with a new mindset is eye-opening to me. It even helps me.
How do you feel the electronic music scene has evolved since its beginnings?
I think electronic music is like a big circle: it goes around and then it comes back to another formation of the beginning. Then it goes again and somebody adds something else to it and spins it a new way. With all the devices and possibilities of mutating sound we have today, the electronic beat is going to be able to blossom even more and become an even different sound in an even different format.
The gig comes at an exciting moment in your life. You haven’t released an album for 17 years, but now you’ve had a major comeback with your latest album Crayons. How would you describe your relationship with fame and success?
You have to remember that I am married; I have children and grandchildren now. So for me to be able to go on the road and to be able to play in places without too much effort of getting people to come is an amazing experience. I am extremely honoured that people would even pay money to come and see me. It validates me and makes me think I can go on. If that didn’t happen I would probably quit and say “OK, my time is over”.
That’s what a lot of people originally thought. 17 years is a long time.
It’s true: I haven’t had an album out for many years, but that was just because I was tired of the record company situation. But now with the Internet you don’t have to deal with that so much. So I think I could still find places to meet my audience and develop new relationships that way. I feel more empowered.
What were the problems during your break?
My record company didn’t allow me to grow as an artist, so I told them to forget it. I am not going to redo ‘I Feel Love’ or re-sing ‘Bad Girls’ or any other song that I have already done. I’ve been there, done that, and I want to move on. I always was creative and wanted to keep creating and I was writing songs all those years. Even though they weren’t coming out, I have truckloads of songs. I want to still continue to write and to put those songs out there to let people hear them. The people need to hear them, not the record company.
What is your life like when you are not performing? I hear you are a passionate painter and that you live in Nashville, Tennessee. Sounds like you chose a very calm way of life after your crazy times during the seventies.
I haven’t painted in a long time, but I do paint and I have had a quite successful painting career. But I do a lot of creative things. I write scripts for the theatre, I write songs and I write books. I also travel a lot. I live in Nashville but I also live in Florida. I travel frequently between New York and Los Angeles. I am still all over the place and take a close look at what is happening around me.
Has the pressure in the industry to be young and beautiful gotten worse since you started?
No I don’t think it has gotten worse, I think that there are just more people out there because the world is growing. There are so many people trying to be successful that it raises the requirement to be successful. But at the same time as the young and the beautiful are successful, you have somebody like Queen Latifah: she is enormously successful and she’s not the norm. So at the same time people are still hungry for people that are not just beautiful. We want people who have substance – or let’s put it a bit differently: people who have substance want people who have substance.
How important is it for you to stay in good shape?
Well I am not as thin as I used to be, but I try to stay in shape as much as I can. It’s always good to be healthy, right? (laughs) You just do what you can do. Obviously, you change and your body changes as you get older and you can do what you want but you can’t always help all of it. So you just have to live with what it is. But when I am on stage I am pretty active and it’s a lot of work being on stage, it’s very stressful, but if you love it, you don’t notice the stress.
You turned 60 recently. Would you say that life is getting better the older you get?
I think you are allowed to be young a lot longer. My mother at my age was already old.
No wonder: your songs had such a big impact on the seventies and eighties that your music became almost an acoustic metaphor of a crazy, colourful lifestyle. Can music really change the world?
I think that music has the power to change the world, absolutely. I think it changes the way you think. Sound therapy is a good example. When we play classical music by Beethoven or Brahms, our bodies actually feel more peaceful. If you want to get stimulated, you play some rock ‘n’ roll and go “Come on, let’s do it!” Music changes the way you are, without a question.
“Pray always and keep the faith” is written on your website. How important is it to believe in something?
I think it’s totally important. I mean, you can live without it but when you come into a situation where something serious is happening, I don’t know what you have to fall back on. If you are the means to everything in your own life, what do you do if you feel weak? Who do you trust and what do you lean on? So I think faith is a powerful thing because it helps you to get above things without any other outside thing. For me, I can’t live without it, I have to have it in my life. Other people may be able to live without it, but I don’t know how to do it.
Do you also teach this faith to your children? Or how do you prepare them for the ups and downs of life?
Well, they see the ups and downs in my life and in the lives of those around them. And they are experiencing them in their own lives. They have to know that there are some things that they can control and some things that they cannot control. And they have to believe that the things they cannot control are under the control of God. They have to believe that He will bring things into order. But if they fear or they don’t have that faith, then they are looking at life in a very grim way. I teach them to believe in themselves. They have to be able to look at something that happens and say, “You know what, it’s OK that it happened. Now I am looking for something good to happen in my life”. I teach them to change their outlook. The way you look at life is sometimes what you bring to yourself.
Did they become musicians?
Of course! One of my daughters, Brooklyn Sudano, is a singer and my other daughter, Amanda Sudano, is in a band called Johnnyswim. This is new music and, by the way, my daughters are extremely beautiful. (laughs)
How can they not be?
No, no, no. They are way more beautiful than I ever was. They are really beautiful. I have one other daughter named Mimi who is also a composer but right now she is being more of a mother. But the other two are actively involved in their careers right now. My husband, Bruce Sudano, has had a number one on the Adult Contemporary charts for seven weeks, which is very good for him. My daughter just got married and he wrote her wedding song. Everybody in my family is working really hard and they recognise that hard work is part of having a good life.
Stay out there and be active?
It’s important to do good things and to do charitable things and to donate your time to give to the poor. All the things we need to do make society whole.
Can you still listen to your own songs with pleasure?
Sometimes I don’t want to hear a certain song because I just get tired of it, but then others I can hear over and over again and when I get ready to perform them, I love them. I love them because of the response they get. Each listener in the audience has a totally different story about that song. That excites the heck out of me because I want to stimulate the memory of that for them.
Talking about those memories: were the sixties and seventies really that crazy?
So how did you get through it? How did you survive?
Because even though I was part of it from the musical end, I didn’t participate in the negative part of it to that extreme. I mean, I participated in it but not to an extreme. So I was able to pull myself out and to look at it and draw a line for myself and say “No, I am not going past this line”.
What is your concept for your concert in Berlin? Will people hear a mixture of new and old songs, and where will you put the focus?
On both. I think that it’s all part of who I am. What would be a good German song to sing? I want to find a good, historical German song that most people would know. When I was home in Munich I might have sung something like a Marlene Dietrich song. But at this stage of the game, I don’t know what this youthful group knows, so I would like to find something that is a song they would all kind of know. Maybe you guys can help me?
What’s your message to Electronic Beats fans who are coming to see you perform?
I hope you like what you hear! I hope you get inspired! I hope that you keep the electronic beat going!