A Personal Interview

... continued from main interview at

NINA: How were you offered to sing at the closing?
Lewis: I dunno how it happened, but I think Malaysia contacted Atlanta and said Donna's been asked to be one of the acts to close the ceremony.

Given the current market, do you think that the dance version of your songs are more popular than the pop versions?
Lewis: Well, you see these days a dance mix seems to be done on every single you release, although not I Could Be The One. Especially in America and I think in Europe too that er, the dance scene is so huge over there. There's people like Soul Solution done my mix in America. It's like Toni Braxton's Unbreak My Heart and all that kind of thing so they think once you get a record like on a dance show then it crosses over to radio. Its almost like a way in to get your single onto pop radio. They just see it as another market that you're appealing to. It's interesting because when you get dance mixes you hear them and you think, ugh. I mean some of them are amazing and while others you think woo, I don't want that going out, I mean that's horrendous!

There's a one-liner in the press release that states all nightclub events in the US will be managed by the Atlantic gay marketing department. Can you comment on that?
Lewis: Yeah. You know I think what they found is that on the dance circuit there's a huge gay following. Like Gloria Estefan has a huge gay following. At the end of the day record companies are actually out to make as much money as they can. So when they see a chance there, in the gay market for that kind of dance material, then if they see they've got a song that can be mixed in the right way and sold to the market to be a huge hit then that's what they do.

If you have a heavy workload, how do you deal with it, how does it affect you?
Um, you get very tired. At the moment for me its not too bad. I did the record and I was in one place for six months and then the promotion kicked in. It wasn't too bad, I had a few days off here and there. The first record was intense, I mean I found out I have to stay extremely healthy. I have to eat the right thing. I carry lots of um, aromatherapy oils with me. I take a lot of my Japanese teas and soups, my herbal medicines, I take all that with me and I find that I have to take care of myself. When I'm on promotion and later people ask me, would you want to come to party afterwards? I don't go because if I don't get enough sleep I easily fall sick and then I can't work. I noticed that being able to do the best, when it's very intense and you have a lot work to do you have to try and get as much sleep as you can. And anything you can do that just helps.

What do you take for your voice?
Um, before I sing I always have hot water with honey and lemon and that's my drink. I think of coming to a hot country like this and its so humid. It's air-conditioned cars and air-conditioned hotels all the time is terrible for your throat. So I carry um, I have this like steam inhaler that I carry with me. Coz two days ago before the show I started to get like a little tickle in my throat. I didn't feel ill but with the air-condition and everything... you just inhale the steam. It's a little unit with dual-voltage, so you can plug it in America and you can plug it in here. I fill it with some water and its got a little thing and you just stand over it and breathe in and the steam just helps your vocal chords. I just make sure I take plenty of Vitamin C and my herbal remedies that I carry with me. If I feel that I've got a bit of a headache or I feel that my throat doesn't feel right I'll take those and I'm fine. [Touch wood] I don't get sick.

You make Martin Harris, your husband, take those as well?
You know its funny. He's totally anti anything like that. He's a guy who loves his steak. But in America, on the odd occasion that he thought he was going to get a cold and I said to him, this was about two years ago, just take this herbal stuff, just try it and if it works. So he takes it and if he's feeling under the weather he takes that kind of stuff as well because he knows it works.

So you converted him.
I've converted him, yeah. But there are some things he'll just refuse to take. Haha.

How does he define your voice?
I don't know, I've never asked him that. When he describes my voice, it's very intimate. It has a lot of strong elements too, you know, there's a huskiness and a rawness to it. And I think on the new record, a song like Beauty And Wonder shows that because its so breathy and then it gets very, very strong. But the characteristic of my sound is that breathy type of sound.

At what point in your career did you realise your voice was unique?
Um, it was interesting because all the years I first started out as a singer I mean I sound totally different. But I was covering other people's songs. You had to sound similar so, it was totally different. And it was only when I started recording myself at home and I bought myself my own recording equipment and after recording my voice and I could hear it and things that I would do and I think 'that sounds really interesting, I like that sound' and it felt right to my kind of music. I think that's where all the breathy, whispery things came out.

Why did you buy your equipment, was there some incident that sparked off the decision to purchase?
Being a musician, I think a lot of people think like this, you just wanna go into all sorts of music. Technology is incredible and when I knew that I could record myself and then I find out that I could bang lots of tracks over each other I thought it was absolutely fantastic. And you know working like that is a very creative thing and as soon as I got involved with that I just got more and more into it.

Coming back to the performance at Bukit Jalil, were you dripping with sweat?
Actually the one good thing about that was at least it was thin and it was cool. Karen., my backup singer and I were in New York beforehand and I was talking to a makeup artist who was saying 'get this new makeup from France'. It's just come out and it's called Makeup Forever. Normally I always use matte for television and I went to New York and they told me this makeup is for humid. Because I'm going to be singing outdoors I don't want to be caked in makeup and dripping. You have to wear some makeup, for the TV of course. This stuff is amazing. It's very light and the powder's waterproof so that if you sweat, I mean we were really hot you could tell that we were hot but we weren't like dripping wet, and it was fantastic stuff.

And how doyou remove it, with chemicals?
Noo, the great thing is you could keep layering your face. If you were doing like days of shooting you could keep layering it and its so light it wouldn't feel like its caked. I just take it off with my normal cleanser at night and its easy. Its not heavy at all. When I say its brand new I mean I haven't used it before. I think its been out for some time in America. I got it in New York, in a big store. It's interesting ... when I did something for CNN in America I have a makeup artist and he used it and I said well, I haven't used this product before and he said well, it's the one that every makeup artist uses these days.

Is this country that humid for you?
This condition, for us, we're just not used to it.

Haven't you been to Malaysia before?
Oh, I've been here before, and I knew it was hot but I've never performed half an hour outdoors like that. You're used to it aren't you. You live here. The British people always complain about the weather either its cold or its hot. We're always complaining (rolls eyes).

Whose idea was to speak Malay during your performance?
Actually it's something I always do. When I go to Japan, Germany and France I try and learn a couple of little things even if it just Thank You or How Are You. When I did shows in Japan and Germany I said 'I Love You Always Forever' and the crowd loved it. So before I went onstage I was talking to the record company and I got them to show me how to say I Love You Always Forever and they would say make sure you say Malaysia Boleh because that was the thing. When I walked on stage, I knew that the first two lines of my song had no sound. I said Malaysia Boleh and nobody could hear. I had my ear monitors and I could tell that something happened with the sound there.

It's tricky going live. Do you still prefer giving live performances?
I do love it, definitely. I would much rather be in smaller theatres only because I can communicate more with the audience. Because I like to chat between songs and for television I was told no, you can't. You've got 30 minutes and 6 songs took 29 minutes 30 seconds so you've got a limited amount to say so Martin was saying to me you can't chat to people because you haven't got time. So for me, I'd much rather it be a smaller audience so I can communicate with them.

You've been doing gigs for a long time. You did the Birmingham area. How much did you make when you started?
Gosh, I remember when I did the piano bars it was quite good. Like the piano bars in England you would get 60 pounds for a five hour. Which isn't very good money actually. But when I did Sweden - I went to Scandinavia to do the piano bars - I made about 400 pounds a week, which was like fantastic, because when I did those they also put me up in five-star hotels. So you didn't have to pay anything so you could save all yor money. When I first started it was like you do gigs just for nothing. For me, maybe it was like 20 pounds per gig. In the early days it wasn't a lot of money.

Was money really important to you?
No, I just needed to have enough to live. I mean when I left college to go professional, I had about 20 private pupils. I used to be a private music teacher. So I would have my income from my teaching and I would go out and sing six nights a week with a band. So long as I could pay my rent, my food and everything I was fine. Fortunately I was able to manage quite well.

Have you ever thought of being part of a band, maybe a girlband?
I've done that. I've been in loads of bands back home. (Martin says: girlbands and boybands are really fads, they didn't exist when Donna was first starting out)

What was the last band you were in?
(have trouble recalling) Gosh, I've stopped for about 15 years. I once played with a big 10-piece band, and we used to go out and do covers. Then I played with various rock bands. We recorded many different things. One band was called Rio, one band was called Gigi and The Boy Scouts. But they were like years ago.

When you did covers, which artist was your particular favourite?
To cover songs by them? We sang a lot of Abba songs, they were quite a laugh. And I used to love Kikidees. Really, it was whatever songs in the charts at the time and I mean there were so many. We never had a choice. You were given a song and that was it, you have to do. The songs I would love to cover doing piano bars were songs like Cyndi Lauper's Time After Time. Kate Bush 'The Man With The Child In His Eyes'. I used to cover Prince songs, Ricki Lee Jones, etc. There were many. When I did the piano bars then I could pick songs I'd like to do. With a band in the early days you didn't have a choice. But when I did my own piano bar thing, then I could choose the songs I loved to do.

Would you consider singing a Malay song?
I dunno. Malay isn't tough. (Martin: Donna writes down a foreign language phonectically). Actually when you write it out its not that difficult, its not as hard as German.

Very guttural and nasal?
Yeah. So even though I can't get the accent right. And the thing with Japanese, onceyou see it written down its quite straightforward its not too difficult to read and pronounce, as long as someone goes through it with you.

The team that accompanied you during the Games, was that your regular bunch of guys?
They're a bunch of guys that I've known for a long time. The keyboard player was there for my first album,and I've known Harvey Jones for about 15 years and he did my first record with me. But the other guy, I've known some time in New York and I've been to their shows and they're performed with Suzanne Vega and they've all played with very famous people. As a band they play together a lot with other artists. They're a great bunch of guys, very funny. We had a week's rehearsal and I think to be honest the show that we did was great for that week's rehearsal. Pretty talented guys.

What were you like as a teenager?
I listened to music. A rebel? No, I wasn't a rebel at all. Pretty boring actually. The thing is with me, in class, I would just get on with my work. I have my friends and stuff and through them I got to know a lot of musicians. So we were always busy with bands and music. It was never like, we were never into the bad side of drugs and smoking. We were good, good people really. And no, I was pretty normal. I loved David Bowie. People not related to music?I have a younger sister. I loved dances.I love ballet. Used to learn it. I would have loved to be involved in dancing. I remember seeing dances onstage and musicals and I would have loved to have done that. I used to idolise some of those performers. They could do everything, sing and dance and act, everything.

Are you still agile enough to dance ballet? Can you still do a split?
No, when I studied ballet I didn't go that far. I could never do the splits. That was something I could never do. But I do yoga. I bring my yoga mat everywhere, so I keep myself flexible. Because you don't get a chance to find time to work out. I used to use the gym, but that bores me to death now. I prefer to be outside, going hiking in the mountains. So I wait till I go home to do all that. (Martin: we go for walks in the morning right after we wake. Before we do anything else, even brushing our teeth).

Do you think that life is going too fast for you? How would you slow down?
Not at the moment. Its not too bad. The first record was really fast. That was just so intense. We would travel like other side of the planet and it was ridiculous travelling. Too much really. And that was too fast. And it was all done before you know it. You couldn't even enjoy it. This time, the record has a much slower start and yes, its better. Because we only did three weeks promo in Europe and then we come back to America and there's a bit of time here. We go back to America and we've got two days before we do anything else. We have a little window of time, which is nice. You can take it in a little bit more.

Why were people saying stuff like one-hit wonder after your first album?
Its was it is. Unfortunately, when you have a first hit from an unknown artist that is huge its always 'is she gonna be a onehit wonder'? So you have another record out and unfortunately .. I want people to see my record and say she's a good writer and doesn't know she produces her own records. It doesn't bother. Alanis is going to be under the same thing with her second album, even though she's a huge artist but people are going to be saying is that as good as jagged little pill? Its always the way.

Do you think Blue Planet is better than Now In A Minute?
I love it. I wanted to make a different record and make it much more mature sounding and ...

It sounds more Irish than anything else?
No. I recorded it in Ireland but I don't think it sounds Irish. Those elements in Take Me Home you can hear, some of those guitar parts are very Celtic, some of the strings on it and my guitarist is Irish so it has a little Celtic tune but I don't think it actually sounds Irish. Just another record, but it has really interesting songs. At the end of the day you've gotta be happy with what you do and its just the public and the radio who are gonna play it. I love I love you always forever but I want to move on from that. I don't wanna keeping playing that song.

Are you sick of it?
Yeah. There are other songs I would have loved to sing. But it hasn't been that bad yet.


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