Image by Alex Arroyo
A massive, era-defining hit song can be as much a curse as a boon to one’s career. Indeed, Mick Jagger famously said he’d rather be dead than sing “Satisfaction” at 45 (but guess it’s okay at 75); and commercial success was certainly partly to blame for Kurt Cobain ending it all at 27. Gloria Gaynor, thankfully, has no such issues regarding her 40-year old uber-smash “I Will Survive.”
Immediately successful on release, the ubiquitously disco-era empowering anthem was not only a platinum-selling #1 single, but also won a Grammy, and is included in the Library of Congress National Recording Registry. Silver lining, all these years later, the song rings just as powerfully as it did back then (it remains an anthem of gay pride).
Still, it has been Ms. Gaynor’s boundless talent and formidable pipes that have sustained her over the decades. And while, she did take a decade and a half break from making music, since returning to the studio in 2002, nothing has been able to stop her.
Always outspokenly spiritual, Gaynor has released a number of religious albums – and her latest, Testimony, continues that trajectory in its repertoire of rootsy gospel. BlackBook checked in with the beloved icon between one of her many transatlantic engagements.
Your new album Testimony sounds so good. How nice it is to hear analog-sounding recordings, real recordings, the real sound of the bass.
I had fun doing it, especially with all of the musicians in the studio together. That’s something that hasn’t happened in years. At least not for me.
I saw a little video footage of it. You did pretty much cut everything all together?
Yeah, a lot of it. Not all of the songs, but most of them. Yes, yes. I’ve always said, because I really believe it to be true, that the best recordings come when musicians are performing together and live.
Obviously, it’s a gospel record but not your first spiritual recording – you did a Christian record a few years ago as well?
Yeah. Gospel just means “good news.”
Is that what it is? I was going to ask the difference.
Gospel has come to be a genre that is basically the good news set to rhythm and blues music…
That’s a good way of putting it.
…where Christian music is the good news set to pop music. There’s another genre of quote-unquote Christian music that is set to country music. And that’s what’s from the south. So it’s all the same ideas with different genres, and as I said, the “good news.”
Did you always consider yourself pretty religious?
It has. But I didn’t become really serious about it until after “I Will Survive.”
You include a Bob Dylan song “Man Of Peace” How did you decide to do that? Are you a Dylan fan?
It was totally (producer) Chris Stevens’ idea; but the moment he told me about it and let me hear the song, I was like, “Yes. You got an arrangement for that? Absolutely.”
I haven’t looked into it that much, but I wonder if that came from Dylan’s own Christian period.
I don’t know. I was wondering about that myself. I cannot wait for him to hear it and get some feedback on what he thinks of this, how we did it.
Dylan’s amazing, he’s still so prolific and active as a performer and songwriter 50 years on. Do you still feel a connection to your songs from so long ago?
Oh, yeah. Especially “I Will Survive.” I’ve come to…at points it was a double-edged sword, you know? People think it’s the only song I can sing, people think it’s the only thing I recorded. Others think it’s the only hit I’ve ever had. It has come to be the foundation and the core of my purpose.
At least you love it. It must be tough for an artist to have successful songs that they maybe don’t like, and they have to sing them for 40 years.
I know! Yeah. That can be rough. But I have to say, I never get tired of doing “I Will Survive.”
And the story around its recording and release is pretty epic.
[After falling from the stage at New York’s Beacon Theater in 1978] I was in the hospital with this surgery on my spine. My label sent me a letter saying that they were not going to renew my contract. They were just going to let it run out that year, and they were going around the company saying, “The queen is dead.” Then the new president came and decided that he wanted to repeat the success that he’d had in England with a song called “Substitute.” And he wanted me to do it, to record the song. He sent me out to California to do that and the producers had made a deal that they would record that song if they could write the B-side.
And gee, what could that B-side have possibly been?
When I asked them what it was, they said, “We don’t know yet. What kind of songs do you like to record?” I said, “Well, I like songs that are meaningful, that touch people’s hearts, have good melodies.” They said, “We think you’re the one we’ve been waiting for to record this song we wrote two years ago.” So I’ve always believed that God told them, “Sit down, write a song, hold onto it. I’m going to send you somebody.”
What was the process of recording Testimony?
It was three years in the making, because we were trying to get some duets – we were trying to get Yolanda Adams. We had finally decided, okay, enough. We’ve spent enough time on this album. We’ve got to put this out. Sorry we can’t have Yolanda, maybe another time. And just before we were about to master it we found out she was going to be in New York at the same time I was going to be in New York. We decided to have her come in and re-do “Talkin’ Bout Jesus” and remotely produce it from Nashville. She’s awesome. She brought the thunder on that ensemble, she did.
She does sound great. You live in New Jersey now – did you like traveling to and working in Nashville? Had you done that before?
No, I hadn’t. I’d only performed in Nashville once, in one day and out the next. But it was nice to spend some time there, get to know the people, figure out the lay of the land. I really love Nashville, love the atmosphere. People are very friendly and helpful. Love that it’s a music town.
I know you still are out there performing quite a bit. What’s the schedule like in the coming months?
Last night – no, not last night…night before last I came back from Dubai. Before that I was in Mexico. The week before that I was in Manila and Singapore. So yeah. I’m getting around, and I am loving every minute of it.
What do you hope for the new album?
I’m really hoping that this album inspires, uplifts, encourages, empowers people. And that there is more to come.