For years, my mom has related tales to me of her footloose days in Athens. She’s most fond, however, of the one about Teresa, aka the former child model for Little Miss Sunbeam. Apparently, since her mother nabbed all the profits from the endorsement deal, teenage Teresa defected from Indiana and ran wild in Athens. So the story goes that my twenty-something mother met this headstrong rebel, and that night followed her (or rather, my mum got dragged along, as she tells it) to a house party, where they mingled with some crazy folks who called themselves the B-52s. And Teresa introduced her to one of them, the recently inducted Cindy Wilson.
Of course, those crazy folk would decamp to New York and become Athens’ first and greatest export (sorry, R.E.M), a global sensation that spurred thousands of parties for over 40 years. And Wilson, who co-wrote bunches of the band’s most memorable singles (y’know, like “Love Shack,” and the rest of Cosmic Thing, too), would build a lively career of her own through television appearances, voice acting stints, and plenty of guest vocal gigs. Needless to say, my mum never again crossed paths with Wilson, or the rest of the B-52s, or Teresa either, after she moved out. Such was life.
Now, while Athens’ prismatic history would draw me in several decades later, mum’s anecdote—and, by extension, Wilson—would totally slip my mind. That is, until this year: back in July the 60-year old Athens native surprised the world with the declaration of a blush-hued solo project, all soft edges and mirror ball shimmer, with her first solo full length somewhere down the line after two tantalizing EPs. What’s more, I encountered Wilson in the unlikeliest place—at the (now infamous) Mountain Goats gig at Terminal West in May, when she strode out on during the band’s (first) encore. This was too serendipitous to ignore, dear reader.
Thus, five months later, I’m cruising down a sylvan lane in Athens’ Five Points, scanning for Wilson’s address. They’re all quaint little houses, each with their own autumnal touches of décor, none more ostentatious than the other. Only after I’ve parked do I spot the right number, above a modest front yard with a cheery scarecrow in the back. On the porch, a small pile of trinkets rests on one of the tables, as if some crafting session were still in progress—a familiar sight, given that my mum’s work desk almost always harbored some ongoing project. I haven’t even rung the bell yet, but already this feels correct.
Inside, the faint scent of incense greets me as Wilson opens the door. Of course she’s in a leopard-print blouse; of course I’d sit on the shag chair in the corner; of course she spoke with the cultivated twang that most distinguished southern ladies adapt in their later years. What startled me was her company: two younger folk attending other affairs as we chatted. I’d soon be grateful for both: project manager Dan Mistich would lend valuable insight, while social media manager Abbie Stein would aid me outside in (gulp!) my first professional photo shoot, a glamorous affair with capes and boas and hats and all the muted charms of a southern lawn. (In other words, I needn’t have sweated over it. Cindy’s a natural.)
All that aside, we talked, Wilson and I. She’d gravitate often to memories of the B-52s—a natural deviation, when you realize that she’s devoted over half her life to that indomitable gang. Fun and joy permeated her answers—starting over, playing to smaller crowds, working with fresh faces, every new challenge merely delighted her. “I’m built that way,” she told me. “I’m built where I can do blues, or different other types of music. And I love that.” In thirty minutes, we’d discuss the nurturing ebb and flow of Athens, the new live show, the then-unreleased video to her Oh OK cover song “Brother,” and how she landed on a label normally devoted to underground Riot Grrrl bands. Which was all well and good, but none of this touched on the one question I wanted to ask.
I’d finally pose that query rather disingenuously, as we walked back to her porch after the photo shoot: “Do you remember Teresa?” I feared an awkward Henry James moment, a missed connection left hanging that wouldn’t ruin the moment, but possibly strain her congeniality. To my surprise, though, she did remember. “Oh, you mean Teresa Randolph?” she said. In fact, she pointed across the street, to a nondescript house on the other side. That house, she told me, was the pad where the B-52s played their second ever house party, and, incidentally, was also the house where the rebel Miss Sunbeam once lived. I stared in disbelief—perhaps, the same wonder that struck her when she learned those facts for herself, after settling into her new home. Somehow, serendipity had drawn us both to this place, and rather than shrinking the world, that single revelation seems to stretch this secret garden of a lane across both directions in time. If we’ve both landed here, we could end up anywhere. So, hey, thanks Teresa.
I imagine you’ve been stewing on the idea of recording a solo album for some time. When did this idea start welling up in you, and why is this just now coming up?
Cindy Wilson: Well, I’ve always been satisfied with the creative outlet of the B-52s. You can’t believe how creative the band is. In fact, we’ve got many tapes of songs and jams we just threw away. And Keith Strictland has a lot of that, and we’re sifting through it these days, so it’s interesting that we might have some halfway songs to put out.
So I’ve always been happy with the band. But it’s always good, at this stage of the game, to pick up some new paints to paint with, and it’s really fun to be working with younger musicians, who come from a different space and time. So it’s been a big learning experience for me.
Yeah, I wanted to talk about your band, since they’re all musicians that you’ve met in the past—what, 3 or 4 years?
CW: Well, no, I actually met Ryan [Monahan] and Leumuel [Hayes] about nine years ago. It’s a funny story, I met them at…
At your son’s birthday party?
CW: OK, you did your homework!
I did. But I then wanted to ask—so you met them, you saw them play. What made you decide that you wanted to work further with them?
CW: Well, I was impressed, obviously. It was the best party we’d ever had, and everyone was just blown away by the musicianship of these young guys. They were really, really great. And they became friends of the family, because we used them often. And then there came a point where someone asked if I wanted to do a few songs for the R.E.M anniversary show in Athens. And a lot of local bands were doing tributes. And I was around, so I said, sure! And of course, immediately [I] thought of Ryan and Lemmuel. Because they were so great, and I’d gotten to know them, there was an ease. We worked well together.
And we did rock cover songs, garage rock songs, that all rock and roll bands do. And some were really b-sides—you really had to reach deep to get some of these songs. And they weren’t born at the time that these songs came out! Ryan could do anything that I threw at him, from Jimi Hendrix, to whatever. He was that good.
So I had some time off from the B-52s—we took about a year or so off. And so I started going to the studio with Ryan, and just started kicking around in the studio to see if we would work well together, and how that dynamic would be. And there was a real comfort level there. So when I met Suny [Lyons]—these young guys were really bright. And I love new projects, and coming from a different direction. So we did that, and it worked out very well.
Yeah, I wanted to talk about the new direction, because it’s very different from the B-52s—very positive and sensual, at times. So I was wondering: were you thinking about these ideas before you met Suny, or did you, after hearing the way Suny wanted to take it, shape your lyrics to that sound?
CW: Well, I have to say, we took our time to figure out a sound, and also a direction. I was listening to a lot of Tame Impala at the time, which has a lot of electronic stuff combined with guitars and pop. [I suspect she’s referring, in particular, to the last Tame Impala album, Currents, which indeed drove the Aussie band into prog rock hybrid territory back in 2015.]
And we wanted to play with my vocals; instead of doing what I was doing with the B-52s, we decided to come up with a new sound. And more modern. So we did a quieter sound. And it was an eye-opening experience, because there’s so many things you can do. Like you said, there’s more of a sensual [element]. But you can do demented too, with that! It’s like in acting, you don’t have to do all these dramatic gestures, you do a quieter thing, and you can be more inward. There’s just a lot to do with it.
And the melodies. It’s been a big learning experience for me. I’m the student and I think you can hear the joy in it.
Oh yeah, absolutely! Especially in one of the covers you did, “Things I’d Like To Say”—that’s a very, very sweet song.
CW: Oh yes, I think so too! Yeah, I was listening to that, it came up on Pandora, and I hadn’t heard that in a very long time. I was around when that came out! So I thought, “Damn! That is just gorgeous!” So I played it for Suny and Ryan, and they said, “Yeah, let’s do it!” And we got violinists, and it was really fun, just to build these songs. I usually don’t have a good time in the studio, but this was like a blast! I was learning so much.
Another thing that’s interested me: You’re an older musician, in a field that’s usually reserved for the young. You’ve mentioned that it’s been a bit of a challenge, adjusting to modern recording techniques. What else has been a challenge?
CW: Well… yeah, I’d say it’s been a bit of a challenge, but challenged in a good way! It demands the artist to give up their old ways and adapt to new ones. But I’m built that way! I’m built where I can do blues, or different other types of music. And I love that. So I embrace this. And it’s a path that we’ll continue to go down.
I do want to get back to Athens, though. And I only insist, not only because I grew up in and around here, but also because my mom also lived here, around the time that you were starting out, actually. Since you’ve relocated back to Athens, how has the town changed since from back then?
CW: Well, there’s something consistent about Athens. As soon as you get past the city limits, you feel this energy, and it’s very sweet and positive. I feel very relaxed when I’m here. And it’s a very creative and young town—and it changes, part of the population changes every year, which brings in a new energy. But I was born here, so I got a little bit of the old and the new. But the students are like a stream, or a river, that come in. And there’s an energy that comes from that.
But I have friends who’ve managed to make a niche for themselves here, and when you do that, you won’t leave.
Yeah, I’ve heard that so many times.
CW: And a lot of musicians stay here, because of that. There’s a lot of older musicians living here that still [play] and, in fact, are making big strides, [like] Vanessa, with Pylon.
Yes! She’s been out and about quite a bit lately. I saw her back in August. And she’s still AMAZING. Speaking of being out and about, I wanted to talk a bit more about some of your more recent experiences on the road. For instance, I saw you not too long ago, when you jumped out during the encore of that Mountain Goats gig.
CW: Wasn’t that fun?
Yes! How did that happen?
CW: Well, and I’m looking in this direction [i.e. towards Mistich]—Dan was a big fan of the Mountain Goats, and he turned me on to them. And they were coming through town.
Dan Mistich: So we just reached out, and John [Darnielle] was a fan. So he was like, “So what do you think of her jumping on stage?” And I was like, “Of course! You read my mind!”
CW: And they blew my mind. It was so much fun.
Yeah! It was SUCH a good show. And it surprised me how welcoming that crowd was, because I came in, and I was so out of place, because I was wearing all black in celebration of the Goths album, and everyone else is in their plaids and being all cuddly. But they were so nice. And everyone sang every song! It was awesome! It’s a very rare thing these days—and I wanted to ask if you’ve experienced this—that when I go out, it’s difficult sometimes to just get down, because people can be so stiff and unwelcoming. Have you noticed a change in crowds at your shows?
CW: Well, the B-52s were a very different gang. Not to say that we don’t have a lot of fans come to our show to check it out —and I get to talk to a lot of fans after the show, and that’s been great, because it’s much more intimate. And I’m at the t-shirt table! And it’s been fun.
But, with the crowd’s energies—we’re building. And it’s a different kind of vibe. Our show… it is a show, [the songs] just flow from one end to the end of the show. And the B-52s is just a completely different thing. It’s a dancing thing, and there’s a joy. With the solo show, there’s a mixture of emotions, and there’s a mysterious, I’m hoping avant-garde part of it, that really hypnotizes the crowd.
DM: I think it just depends on the room, in a lot of ways. We did Venkman’s in Atlanta, and while it’s a very cool place to see music, we learned that the sit-down thing is not the right thing for this project. So we did Zanzabar in Louisville, and we crushed that! At the end of the show, everyone was a little intoxicated…
CW: Well, I’ve found with B-52 shows that, the drunker the crowd, the better!
DM: But you know, I think it had a lot to do with the room. It’s a brand new room that the Zanzabar just built with a lot of air flow, people weren’t uncomfortable. But at the end of the night, we had to peel people off of Cindy. It was one of these weird experiences where it was like, “She has to go to the van now.”
CW: And it’s not like that, usually. It’s very, very intimate, and I love that! I love starting over again. A lot of people think, “Oh! Don’t you want to be in a bigger thing?” But I’m like, “No!” I love building again. And I love earning the audience. And the band is so frickin’ good, and the material is good. I’m not scared. And that says a lot. And I feel a wonderful connection with the environment around me.
And I feel like, we are building, we are seeing progress, but even if it stopped now, it’s been worthwhile, everything we’ve done.
Speaking of intimacy—you have advertised, on the show coming up at the Earl, that you were going to have a VIP tier.
CW: Yes, it’s part of the structure of trying to get people [to participate], and fans that want to contribute, or they want a closer thing. And it’s a way to make more money, to pay for gas.
Why’d you choose Kill Rock Stars?
CW: Well, we did the songs, and I wanted to make [the music] come alive. So we came up with the show, started touring with it. And it was around SXSW, so we did a lot of shows around then, and a lot of interviews. So Portia [Sabin, current owner of Kill Rock Stars] and some of the guys were around there, and it blew them away! So it was a really fun time, and we started talking, and they came on board as a partnership. Which, really, is so helpful, because of their expertise. And everyone I ask is like, “Kill Rock Stars? Are you kidding?” But they’re so good with their artists, and so respected. So we were like, “Hell yeah, let’s do it!”
DM: It’s interesting, too, because Portia, when we first met, was like, “This isn’t typically our thing, but it’s good, so we can make this work. We normally do this Riot Grrrl, punk thing, but Cindy’s, like, OG punk rock.” So we were, like, no argument there!
I think, oddly enough, Cindy’s background with the CBGB world helped a lot in establishing her credibility. But I think Portia just looked at it like, “It’s got disco drums, but I like it. Let’s do it.” So it’s a big boost in confidence for a label to take a chance on something that they don’t normally do.
CW: And it keeps being just a great relationship.
Well, let me ask you this: Do you have plans for another full solo album?
CW: Yes! We’ve already got another song in the works, but it is an important thing we have to do. I can see where all our schedules are getting filled up, so we have to make it a priority to go, a weekend here and there, and work. Back in the day, you used to be able to take a year or two, but you can’t do that now. You have to follow up very quickly. In fact, we’ll probably have another EP when we do the European run.
Oh, wow. And that’s, what? Another half a year from now, or…
DM: Four months. A quarter of a year from now.
CW: But we’ll be able to do it.
DM: February is not just around the corner.
No, it’s not, although the music press wants you to think so.
CW: Well, I’ve been in this game for a long enough time, and it’s not that long. You have to be forward-thinking.
Yeah, so we just found out we’re going to do Paris, and—what else?
DM: Amsterdam. We’re going to do several German dates. And we’re waiting on a few more offers, but as far as whats been more publicly announced—the UK has been announced. So we’ve got a few in the queue.
CW: And the tickets have been selling [well]. We’re surprising everybody.
Cindy Wilson will perform on Fri., Nov. 10 at the Earl alongside Olivia Jean and Material Girls. Doors open at 8 p.m. Admission is $20. 21+ to enter.