The Queen is back. That was nearly the name of Donna Summer’s recent comeback album, after its eponymous, tongue-in-cheek track sending up her legacy as the Queen of Disco. Seems like the right way for a brand-name dance-diva with 130 million album sales, 21 No. 1 dance hits and a shelf groaning with more awards than she can even remember receiving to disco-strut on her return, but Summer opted instead for the sober Crayons. “’The Queen Is Back’, I get that, you know. But I didn’t want it to sound like a throwback to what I’ve already done,” says Summer, who’s now a 59-year-old grandmother (“gwammy”).
Crayons is her first collection of new material since 1991’s Mistaken Identity. It would have come earlier except that a pre-9/11 premonition to get out of New York freaked Summer out for a few years – and it’s family that kept her away for so long (“If you saw my three amazingly beautiful daughters, you’d understand – that’s what I’ve been doing”). But she never stopped planning a reemergence, and penned tracks on Crayons with writers who’ve crafted hits for Rihanna, Fergie and Lily Allen… “I’m a lyricist but it was fun to get with some young writers”, says Summer, who incorporated a grab bag of styles – pop, reggae, world music – into her return.
But Donna Summer means dance music, and it’s no surprise she’s already crowned the American dance charts with two new, thumping singles. ‘I’m A Fire’ and ‘Stamp Your Feet’ might not give disco-heyday classics like ‘Last Dance’, ‘I Feel Love’ or ‘Hot Stuff’ a run for their money but still allow Summer fans to bask in the warm, nostalgic glow of a voice whose pavlovian effect is to make you want to shake it on the nearest dancefloor. “I feel good!” Summer sings down the phone about landing back on top. “Am I too up for you? I just woke up!”
Summer’s path to sonic superstardom was a peculiar one. Raised by devout Christian parents, the Boston-born diva trawled through church choirs, musical theatre and Euro-trash singles before celebrated Giorgio Moroder paired her in 1975 with the salacious rapture of ‘Love To Love You Baby’ (in which Summer has 22 orgasms, Time magazine counted). Summer says her days of being the world’s favourite disco sex-bomb are a complete blur. “It was like being in fast-forward for four years. No one can keep up with that speed for very long. I was a precursor to a lot of what is going on now. When I think of those poor people having to do what I did, I do not envy them at all.”
Summer also went through her own personal backlash against dipping a toe into ‘70s decadence by becoming born again in the early ‘80s. “Where else is there to go? It was a natural response to all the chaos and craziness,” she says. “When I came back to my religious beliefs, it was at the right moment because I could have hurt myself.” And following years of hating it, she’s even got a soft spot for the song that launched her career - teasing fans on her recent U.S. tour with a few lines (although she won’t perform it). “Harmonically, I love ‘Love To Love You Baby’, the melodic structure is quite beautiful,” she muses. “The groaning and stuff I can live without...”
These days, Summer hangs out with her “really cool” daughters, paints a lot and is already planning her next album (she’s desperate to record a duet with Bono). And she doesn’t mind if people still call her ‘The Queen’. “Disco will always be part of how people perceive me and I’m not upset with that. I just think it’s time to move into another identity, sort of like Paul McCartney was a Beatle, then he was with Wings, and now he’s Paul McCartney. No matter what music I make, I’m still Donna Summer…”
(Commissioned by Wonderland but not yet published).