B-52s singer discusses her debut solo album, the 40th anniversary of the B-52s, and the influence Athens has had on her
For 40 years, Cindy Wilson has worked with the B-52s. A founding member of the Athens, Georgia-based band who brought listeners classics such as “Rock Lobster” and “Love Shack”, she had never released any solo material until 2016. Now the vocalist and songwriter is releasing her debut LP, Changes.
Like most things associated with both Wilson and the B-52s, her solo project came about through relationships she formed in her hometown of Athens. She met her new supporting bandmates, Ryan Monahan and Lemuel Hayes, after hiring them as a Beatles cover band to play at her son’s 10th birthday, and after about a decade of fun playing shows around town, the trio finally decided to hit the studio, teaming up with producer Suny Lyons.
ARTISTdirect’s Christopher Friedmann caught up with Cindy Wilson to discuss her first ever solo album, the 40th anniversary of the B-52s, and the her hometown’s influence on her.
Christopher Friedmann: We are talking because you are about to release your debut solo album, Change. Just to start, how is the mood in camp?
Cindy Wilson: We’re thrilled, the solo band and the B-52s. I’ve filled them in on all the news and we have to coordinate because I’m doing both at the same time and it’s a big year for the B-52s, and, obviously, it’s big for me and my solo band. So it’s one of those times when you just have to stand up and do it, and it’s really thrilling. It’s been adventurous and amazing, really. I’m thrilled to be doing it and getting the reaction I have, and having Kill Rock Stars as a partner in releasing the album is really wonderful. They’re really experts and they’re really good to their artists. I was thrilled when Porsha, who runs Kill Rock Stars, was interested.
Now we’re here at the date almost. It’ll be out December 1st, and actually we just recorded a video for “Brother”, which is one of the songs on the album. It was written by a band called Oh-Ok from the early 80s, and they were an Athens band. It just turned out great and the video turned out great. I can’t wait till it’s released. It should be released in about a week. Apple Music is going to premier it.
CF: As you alluded to, for years you’ve played with the B-52s and you continue to play and tour with them, but can you tell us about that moment when you decided that you wanted to do something on your own?
CW: The B-52s have been a very creative band, so it’s been very fulfilling and challenging to do the B-52s songs because it’s very upbeat-uptempo and there are harmonies and really amazing different kinds of music melodies, and it’s a lot of fun. But a friend of mine and I were just kicking around an idea, we’ve been doing music locally, just for fun, doing garage band covers, so we thought, “We work well together, let’s go into the studio – which was Suny Lyons’ studio in Athens – and see if we can work in the studio together.” So that’s what we did.
We started working with Suny, and it was obvious that he was a genius and had to be in the band [laughs]. He’s just fantastic. So we worked hard on getting a consistent vibe and sound, and it went on from there.
CF: I know you and Ryan started working on this a decade ago. Could you tell us a bit about how you and your current band met and came together?
CW: I actually hired him for a party, for my son’s 10th birthday party, and the theme was a Beatles birthday party, and it was fantastic. Everybody came dressed as one of the entourage around the Beatles, or one of the Beatles, and we a hired a Beatles cover band, and it was Ryan’s band, and we’d never met before. It was such a fun party, and they were just amazing, so we were very impressed, and I kept hiring them for different things, different parties, and then we got to be friends, and I would get up and do a song with them, and then it just kind of went on from there.
We didn’t start working together till a few years later and doing, like I said, local shows, and just cover songs. But that showed me what Ryan and Lemuel could do. Lemuel is our drummer and he’s just top-notch too. I was just really, really impressed with these young guys, and they became friends of our family and it just became very easy to work with them because I knew them. So that’s how it came about, just knowing them and being impressed with their ability.
Then they introduced me to Suny, who, like I said, is a genius, and he produced the album and actually wrote songs, and he’s had so many great ideas, it’s been really fun, too. We pulled in other artists in Athens. There really are just a lot of people you can choose from to do violin – we did violin, and there’s a flute, and there are horns on it, and kettle bells even. What I’m saying is we had a lot of fun with the whole thing, and I think it shows in the album. I think every song is really strong.
It took us about three and a half years to write it. We started touring with it as of last February, and then went to South by Southwest in Austin and did a tour around there, and started getting really good interest, so here we are about to release the record, and we are going on tour, and Olivia Jean is opening. We are starting to just get our touring legs again, and start pulling in new audiences.
CF: What keeps coming up is Athens, Georgia. It is your hometown and where your band was formed. How does the landscape affect your creative process?
CW: I hate to sound corny, but you can feel the vibe as soon as you’re driving over the city limits. It’s just a very easy living place and very creative and so many wonderful people live here. Of course, I was born here and there’s that element too, which has all my memories. So there’s a lot of history here for the B-52s, and my personal history, and what is going on with my solo band now, and there are other artists that I get to go and see. And there are a lot of good clubs here you can visit. We get a lot of great acts coming through. It’s amazing.
CF: As you alluded to, there are a few covers on the album…
CW: … Yeah, there’s the Junior Senior one, the Oh-Ok “Brother”, and also “Things I Would Like to Say”, which is a cover. They turned out really great. We were wondering if that was too many covers to have on the album , but I think it’s okay because we put a different spin on all the covers.
CF: What makes those songs resonate so much with you that you wanted to give them your own spin?
CW: I have the ability to do a lot of different styles with my voice. I’ve played around with, of course, what I do on the B-52s, which is varied. I can do the harmonies, I can do the harder singing, kind of screaming or whatever and singing a regular kind of softer sound. But also I can do blues and I’m playing around now with this more intimate kind of sound. It’s kind of like acting, where you don’t have to do extreme gestures or facial expressions to convey what you mean. Sometimes less is more, and this is a lesson for me about that. And I’ve really been growing as an artist to kind of play around with that kind of thing.
CF: Earlier on you mentioned this as being a big year for the B-52s and for you because you are also celebrating 40 years in the music spotlight. When did you know that music was going to be a major part of your entire life?
CW: I was born in the generation where we were watching Ed Sullivan, and I remember Ricky and I sitting in front of the television and watching the Beatles, and that changed everything, of course. Then the British Invasion, I loved everything British. So every week I would buy a single until I got older, in my teens I bought albums, and also I had the luxury of having a big brother who had very good taste and so when he wasn’t around I got to go to play his albums in his room [laughs].
So I had a great knowledge of the era leading up to… when Ricky and Keith [of the B-52s] came back from Europe, they did the grand tour as students, and when they came back that’s when they were interested in doing music and that’s when Fred and Kate and I, and Ricky and Keith started jamming in a friend’s basement. We were rolling on the floor laughing it was so much, and it was crazy, we decided to do a friend’s party, and then it went on from there.
I can’t believe it’s 40 years. It’s been really a privilege to do it. And as an artist, to still be able to look into the faces, and people are having such a good time, too, that’s a wonderful thing to bring as an artist to your audience. I don’t get tired of doing that at all.
CF: Over the course of your career you’ve had a fair breadth of experiences, but I was wondering if you could tell us of the most grounding moment that you’ve had so far?
CW: Humbling [laughs]. Throughout my life, it’s been very humbling. I told you about that party that the B-52s played for the first time, I met my husband there [laughs]. So I started my career and I met my future husband at the same party. The planets are crazy.
I was lucky to have my brother and my husband around, and also, Keith was like an old friend, too. He’d been coming to the house since he was 10, so I knew Keith real well, so the most grounding…
I realized when we were working, in the early days especially, that you can’t take yourself too seriously. You’ve got to make fun of some of yourself sometimes, or what’s around you. That can be making fun of status quo music. I’ve always taken that to heart, to know that I’m not a big opera singer or some studied vocal voice. I’m more of a primitive voice, more kind of rustic, but with that primitive and rustic voice, I probably can convey more sincerity in some ways, and you just work with what you have and push as far as you can with it. That’s why I said I love to experiment, and the solo thing has been wonderful. I feel fulfilled.