Cyndi Lauper: The Memphis Blues Listening Party at Downtown Records

Last Friday, I was invited down to New York for an official listening session for Cyndi Lauper‘s upcoming album, Memphis Blues.

The showcase was held at Downtown Records in Manhattan, Cyndi’s new label (and home to such acts as the Scissor Sisters, Amanda Blank, and Miike Snow). “The people here reminded me of the old days…it wasn’t just business as usual,” she’d explain to us later during the listening session of her choice to do this album under this label.

About ten minutes prior to the event, I met up with my friend Matt (The Music Slut himself) who was also invited to the showcase. By ‘met up,’ I mean he found me on the street as I was quick-changing into a new pair of shoes that I bought from TopShop and hurriedly stuffing my old pair into my bag. Got to look sharp for Cyndi, right?

So we got to the label, hurried into the building, and took the elevator. When we got out, we began to walk down a long hallway that led to a lounge which was filled with fliers announcing Lauper’s new record. There were also several gorgeous, moody promo shots from the album campaign, all shot by the incredible Ellen von Unwerth (See Rihanna’s Rated R campaign.) There, we made a beeline for the chardonnay we helped ourselves to the beverages at hand, as well as copious amounts of chips and guacamole.

The real reason I was there.

At around eight, we were invited into the label’s recording studio, where Matt and I took front and center on the comfy couch inside. The room was completely gorgeous–a massive piano, candles everywhere, and an old-timey microphone in the center.

Without any announcement, Lauper came striding in shortly thereafter–or at least her hair did first: a wild, fiery plume of red hair not unlike a more fabulous Carrot Top. She herself was decked out in black leather leggings, an off-the-shoulder black-lace top, and loads of chunky bangles and necklaces. The crowd of about twenty people began to applaud. “Oh don’t, don’t applaud,” she said in her signature New York accent, crinkling her nose and motioning us to cut it out. About five feet in front of me, she perched on the stool in the center of the room and began to tell us about the album we were about to hear.

She told us that Memphis Blues is the album she’d wanted to record since 2004, but that her ability to do so did not come until now. She lost her voice for a time for one thing. She also originally wanted to record with Jeff Beck, but due to business issues, it just didn’t work out. Lamenting the fact that today’s music is more often used “to sell advertising time” than for the love of music-making, Lauper wanted to create a genuine album in Memphis Blues.

After being introduced to someone in Memphis, she went down to record. “I was hungry for real music,” she told us, “and it was an extraordinary moment for me as a singer.” There, she became interested in the sounds that inspired all other forms of music–even her own.

The recording studio. Nice, right?

As she went on, she explained the purpose of Memphis Blues. “Blues is the basis of everything. They started it. It goes back to Ma Rainy…she didn’t create blues, but she created a whole new genre.” Lauper said that she wore the chunky necklaces today in honor of Rainy, who was known as “the woman with chains” and sported a grill well before the term grill was even coined.

For the most part, Lauper solely discussed the album–though she did divert off course a few times. She told jokes about staying at the hotel in Memphis (there were ducks in the lobby!), her experiences in the city (“they love their food, and they love their music”), and struggling to eat said delicious food with her dietitian in tow.

As for Celebrity Apprentice (which she is still currently on), she could only offer us this: “High school is still right there…you grow older, but it’s the same bullshit.”

I want it in my room.

Returning to the album, Cyndi explained that Memphis Blues was recorded on an 8-track to preserve the authentic, older sound, and was recorded with some “wonderful players” including B.B. King, Ann Peebles, Allen Toussaint (“as soon as he played the intro to ‘Shattered Dreams,’ I was in another place”) and some familiar faces to Lauper including Bill Whitman, her engineer ever since the She’s So Unusual sessions. The record will also be released on vinyl to remain true to that authentic sound.

She insisted that everything be left in the recording–wrong lyrics, bum notes–because she wanted to include the spirit of the live session.
“I feel like I was born to sing this stuff,” she concluded after about ten minutes. “This is what I wanted to do as a singer. I hope you enjoy it.”

As she walked out, the music began to play from the speakers in the center of the room. You could immediately hear the slightly crisp crackling of the recording, complete with all of the notes–good or bad–from the singers and musicians. Swaggering guitar solos, flourishes of harmonicas, and jaunty piano riffs colored all five of the tracks we heard, as Cyndi yelped and cooed over the heartbreak-heavy sounds.

Everything, from the swaggering “Just Your Fool,” to the slow, slinkier sound of “Shattered Dreams” and the whining, aching sound of “How Blue Can You Get?” felt rich, alive ,and authentic. She sounds reawakened and full of spirit on each one of these recordings, hollering at the top of her lungs and giggling with glee along with the musicians. Her enthusiasm was infectious, as many of us began tapping our toes to the rhythm and smiling at her vocal antics. From what we heard, it was obvious that Lauper was truly passionate about making this album.

As the fifth song ended, the session was complete and we filed out of the recording booth. Matt and I stayed in the label’s cocktail area, schmoozing with our friend Martha, as well as a few of the other guests. While the 7 p.m. listeners began to slowly dwindle down, the 9 p.m. session started to fill the room. At some point, St. Vincent and Lissy Trullie walked in for the session. Not five minutes after Matt giddily pointed them out to me, St. Vincent was squeezing by to help us open a bottle of bubbly (we struggled with this all night) and chat with us for a bit. Girl knows how to open a bottle, and quick!

Cyndi posing with a rabid fan. He was later carted off by security while screaming “I WANT TO HAVE FUN TOO, CYNDI!” Embarrassing.

Finally, Cyndi resurfaced into the main lounge at around 9 for some chips and dip. At that point, the room was basically empty aside from Matt and I, so took up the opportunity to tell her we enjoyed the record. “No really, did you guys like it?” she asked us sincerely. We said we did, and she looked a bit relieved. You could tell that this was the album she truly did want to make, for no reason other than for the artistry of the affair. “Well, we’ll see,” she said, turning for a quick dip of the guacamole again.

I nervously told her that I really appreciated her making this album because it was important for her fans to hear the influential music from the past that we don’t know from a voice we already recognize and love. “It’s important to know your music history,” she agreed, nodding. Then we discussed her last record for a bit (“Guess radio doesn’t want to hear a fifty year old singing dance,” she shrugged) and the delicious guacamole we were eating.

It was around that time that the second listening session participants were just beginning to file out of the recording booth and invade the lounge. Taking it as our cue, Matt and I thanked Cyndi again and quickly left as the room began to swell with people.

It’s still surreal to me to think that I was chatting with Cyndi Lauper. She is absolutely one of the most down-to-earth, ‘real’ musicians I’ve spoken to thus far.

While I may have been too young to appreciate when Cyndi was first breaking out on the scene (forgive me for aging myself), it’s incredible to believe I was standing with someone so influential–not only within the music scene, but for the gay rights movement as well.

As she said to me, it’s important to know your music history: Cyndi Lauper is a legend. If I wasn’t already in awe of the singer prior to meeting her, I am now.

Memphis Blues will be released on June 22.

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