5 Questions With ... Donna Summer

The pride of Beantown, Donna Summer.

There’s no musical genre that defines a particular decade better than disco defines the 1970s, and no female artist even comes close to personifying that segment of music history than Donna Summer.

Many learned the meaning of the word “diva” when Summer stormed her way onto the radio waves back then and drew that constant reference — her sultry voice responsible for hit after hit, the majority of which she co-wrote or wrote herself. Later she showed remarkable versatility with crossover hits outside the realm of disco, and her diversified musical background is rooted in gospel, R&B, pop, folk and even psychedelic rock. Prior to solo success, her early career included major roles in Broadway musicals (in the United States and later Europe).

Among her most recognizable hit songs are “Love to Love You Baby,” “I Feel Love,” “Last Dance,” “Hot Stuff,” “Bad Girls,” “She Works Hard for the Money,” and “This Time I Know It’s for Real.” She is the only artist in history to have had a No.1 dance hit in every decade since the 1970s.

Born and raised in the suburban Boston area, the five-time Grammy Award-winning (12-time nominated) singer is also a formally trained painter who has sold an estimated $1 million of original artwork. Summer visits the Trump Taj Mahal’s Mark G. Etess Arena on Saturday, Sept. 4. The show is at 8pm and ticket prices are $35.50 to $75.50. She recently spoke with Atlantic City Weekly by phone.

How has your latest tour been going, and can you talk a little about how your shows are structured?

The audience has been great. They’ve been fantastic. It’s alive and jumpy and supportive and loving. I couldn’t ask for more. I like to try to give people some of what they came for right off the top, such as two or three hits to open the show, and then go into maybe some material that’s newer and then get back to the hits. I sort of go in and out of the hits so that it’s not a long wait for them to come. There’s talk and interaction with the audience in between, there’s dancers, background singers, the band and some visual effects. There’s a plethora of little things going on. For performers, live shows these days are a lot easier than when I was first starting out. As a singer you used to have to sing against the entire band, and they were a lot louder than you were. Today everyone wears in-ear monitors and I think, actually, it’s helped a lot of singers retain their voices longer because you can hear yourself. It’s very important to be able to hear yourself.

You just released a new single called “To Paris With Love” — what are your thoughts on how that turned out?

My daughter (Amanda Grace Ramirez) is a model with Louis Vuitton and I’ve been a patron of theirs since the beginning of my career, since I lived in Europe. I’ve had a long relationship with them and am friends with several designers for the company. They asked me to come and sing at the opening of their London store and I did, but because they had been so kind to my family I wanted to do something for them sort of as a payback, so I decided to write a song with a friend of mine and include their name. It was not intended for the public, to tell you the truth. It was really an inside thing, but that’s how the genesis of it got started. My co-writer, in the process, started playing it to some of his DJ friends and they all started groveling for it, so he said let’s do some remixes. They liked the remixes and started putting them out in the south of France. From that point on, and literally from the day they put them out, they started to get picked up all over. It’s not something I could have foreseen happening. I thought it would just be localized in that area, not that it would be picked up everywhere, but then again this is the age of technology. You really have to think differently these days. There’s almost nothing you can do that will not be around the world in seconds. Nothing. So you have to behave, dress right, put your makeup on in the morning. I mean, someone could snap a picture of you looking really frazzled and put a caption with no context to it, making it appear that something’s going on that really isn’t. You have to be careful these days.

Donna Summer's classic "She Works Hard for the Money" video:

In 2008 you released your first studio album in 17 years called Crayons. Why was it so long between studio albums?

I had no idea it has been that long. The funny thing is, I’m always writing. I’m writing songs all the time. I go in and out of the studio constantly. But for some reason I didn’t even realize that it had been that long. When someone said 17 years I’m like, “What are you, out of your mind?” They said no, it’s been 17 years since you had a studio album out. I’m thinking that’s impossible when, in fact, they were right. I mean, I put out some compilations, a Christmas album, that sort of thing, but a real full-out studio album I hadn’t done. But by the end of this year I will have released a standards album and full-out dance album. I’ll get off the road shortly after Labor Day and then, hopefully by middle to the end of September, I’ll start selecting the songs and getting the production situation ready.

It is true you were influenced by the music of Janis Joplin early in your career?

Yes. I used to be in a rock ‘n’ roll band called The Crow. It was just around the time Janis Joplin was coming on the scene. She wasn’t even famous at the time, she was just making her way. Actually, the [bygone Boston nightclub] Psychedelic Supermarket was not that far from my boyfriend’s apartment and we would run over there all the time to see who was playing. Well, he comes back and says, “Donna, you’ve gotta go over there and see this chick singer.” I’m like OK, so I run over and see her perform. She was so wild and so radical at the time that I didn’t know what to think. She was braless, she had this sort of granny dress on, her hair was wild and all over the place, she had like a country jug of liquor and was drinking out of it with one hand while singing. I was thinking to myself, “What the heck is this? What am I looking at?” I think they cleaned her up and gave her more of [an acceptable] look after that, but she did have a great voice. I was like “Wow, this girl can sing.” It wasn’t just as if she could sing. It was like raw. She was telling it like it was. It was an experience being able to see her live, and I’m glad I did go next door and see her. Had I not done that, I doubt I would have seen her anywhere else.

I understand you’re also an accomplished painter. Did you ever consider that as a professional career?

The first painting I ever sold went for $38,000. I thought, “I may want to stop singing now.” (Laughs). I’ve sold some expensive paintings, and probably sold close to a million dollars worth of art. Why that is, I’m not sure. I studied art when I was younger and it took me a while to get my own style. I paint abstracts but not too abstract — I mean you can tell what it is that I’m painting — but I like be abstract and paint what’s in my head. Realism is all around me, and when I paint I want to express myself beyond what I see and feel in the real world. I want to paint something that nobody else can paint outside of my head. 

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