A Conversation With The B-52s’ Cindy Wilson

If you see Cindy Wilson as part of her now-40-year-old day job—with Kate Pierson and Fred Schneider, one of three vocalists with the B-52s—she’s in a bouffant wig singing tart, dance-punk classics, wriggling through the Mashed Potato and celebrating the band’s anniversary on tour. Yet for her first-ever solo projects—two self-released EPs, Sunrise and Supernatural, and a spooky-yet-cheerful album, Change (Kill Rock Stars)—Wilson is resplendent in a Warhol-white hairdo, a cool musical reserve and a powerful, nuanced and beautiful voice that’s always sounded as if it’s come from far beyond the heavens of Planet Claire.

You’re a Southern belle from birth, and I know you just moved back to Athens, Ga. What’s the long-lasting allure? And is this the Athens of our youth?
The B-52s all moved to New York City once we signed with Warner Bros. and lived there for years. After (1989’s) Cosmic Thing came out, my husband and I moved back down to the South, first to Atlanta and, more recently, to Athens in a cute little house in Five Points. I love being back there. And you know how Athens is. Even back in the day it was ever-changing. That’s the thing with a college town. I was born there, so it’s like watching a river go by, always flowing. One of Athens’ charms is that it has new energy, that it’s constantly replenishing itself. That’s fun to watch.

Do you find yourself part of the scene again down there like you were at the start of the B-52s?
Are you asking me if I’m a regular at certain venues? [Laughs] Not really. That’s not to say I don’t ever get out to see bands. Doing this solo thing does put me back in the scene, especially as we’re back to playing small clubs. I think that I have the same new energy as the city.

I know there’s 40th anniversary stuff with the B-52s, but in the last 20 months, everyone in the band has done solo stuff. Do the three of you discuss being apart as much as you do band work?
Oh, sure, and everything works out great among us. Kate’s record came out not long ago, and Fred is constantly making new music, but we’re totally committed to the B-52s. We’re friends first and foremost and still have a great time performing. I think we’re having as much fun as the audience.

Forget about what took you so long to make your solo debut. Have you been working toward something on your own before the EPs? Was doing a solo thing much of a big deal?
Music is a lovely and wonderful stress reliever. I had some free time, and a friend of mine (Ryan Monahan) and I just started kicking it around the studio. We started working with another friend, Suny Lyons, and it became a thing. If it’s not fun or exciting, why do it in the first place? As it got more exciting, it became more and more concrete in my mind. It felt like something that I could put my energy into. Several songs into it all, we came up with a show and took it to SXSW—that’s when it became real. That’s when we decided to bring it to a label for support and guidance, and Kill Rock Stars was able to appreciate the whole package, even though we put out the EPs on our own before we toured.

I love that the EPs feel different than the album. Were you testing the musical waters for yourself with the EPs or were you seeing how a potential audience, old and new, might respond?
We kept hearing after the EPs came out that we might want to add more uptempo numbers to our repertoire. [Laughs] We agreed, so we wrote more upbeat tunes for the album and the show.

You have two sonic modes upon which you rely on Change: Germanic motorik krautrock and French electro pop. Is this stuff you’re listening to and bringing to the table? How did you know that would work for your voice, as what you do during your day job is so far from this?
We combined all of our interests and sounds, but Suny and Ryan are just genius. It was a process, but the first song where I knew we could do this was “Brother.”

I don’t love pinpointing or interpreting lyrics, but I can’t help but think that the idea of “Brother” is deeply personal. [Wilson’s brother, B-52s co-founder Ricky, died from the effects of AIDS in 1985.]
We started performing with a bunch of old friends, starting with this tribute night to Athens bands from the later ’70s and early ’80s like Pylon. It was a cool evening where we all did each other’s songs. That sort of led me to put my own twist onto the whole brother idea.

You’ve been part of a band dynamic since 1977 and friends with the B-52s before that. You keep talking about Suny and Ryan with great respect and affection. Would it be fair to say that maybe you waited as long as you did to make your own music until you found an equally comfortable nesting place as the one you had with your brother and (B-52s co-founder who no longer tours with the band) Keith Strickland? Is how you worked on Change in any way like how you used to work with Keith and Ricky?
That’s very perceptive of you. It was indeed something I was looking for, and I didn’t even know that I was looking for until I found it happened. When it did, it just felt natural. Now, I’m tripping. I’m just so happy about it. Really.

You should be. Going back to the B-52s, “Big Bird,” “Give Me Back My Man,” “She Brakes For Rainbows.” These are all your songs. Fred and Kate had a more Dadaist lyrical approach, but you seemed to be silly but to the point. That’s what I noticed about Change as a whole, that it’s more impressionistic than your B-52s work and more universal without being socially or politically tinged. What say you?
I think so. I hope so. I’m a liberal, a Democrat. I want to talk about it all but not in the music per se. What I tried to do … I definitely always had my silly side, where we’re laughing and jamming, but I wanted my songs to sound real. Even now, something such as “Ain’t It A Shame,” I wanted that to sound sincere and not as if I was making fun of a thing … I want to be amusing but with just a touch of realism.

—A.D. Amorosi