Originally from The Herald, 9th April 2005.
When Nancy Sinatra’s assistant answers the phone with the greeting “Hello, Boots,” it serves mainly to remind that her charge’s career has spent thirty-nine years in the shadow of her first and biggest hit, ‘These Boots Are Made For Walkin.’’
It highlights the dilemma facing her as she breathes new life into a lengthy career: reshaping the misconceptions that have followed her since her early appearances in the charts, on TV and in a series of sixties’ film, while simultaneously celebrating her rich past.
Often perceived as little more than a camp icon, she remains disproportionately recognised for a very small part of her past. Indeed, in the late sixties and early seventies, Sinatra scored twenty-three U.S. hits, and while her U.K. impact was not on the same level, she did clock up sizeable hits with both ‘Sugartown’ and ‘Something Stupid,’ a duet with her father, Frank.
The second misapprehension is to thus view her career as merely the outcome of a series of familial and artistic connections. Undoubtedly, her father, her late husband (Hugh Lambert died of cancer in 1985) and her two daughters, AJ and Amanda have played significant parts in her career. So too have Lee Hazelwood (her writer during her most prolific period), and more recently, Morrissey and Quentin Tarantino, who used ‘Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)’ in the opening sequence of ‘Kill Bill.’
However, to do so would be to neglect her own steely determination. After nearly two decades out of the limelight, she embarked on a series of attempts to re-establish herself over the course of the 1990s, and, undeterred by a series of setbacks, released a laudable, self-titled album on Sanctuary last year.
“The album was the culmination of three failed albums in the last ten years,” she explains. “I was desperately trying to get back into the business and had reached a stage where I just didn’t know what to do anymore. It was at this point that I said to my daughter, AJ ‘please help me,’ and she put most of the album together.”
“She was a aware of the people like Morrissey and Thurston Moore who had been quoting my work in interviews and set about contacting them to see if they would do something. My other daughter, Amanda, also became involved in the visual concept and the sleeve artwork.”
For Sinatra, the past decade has presented both opportunities and frustrations. If her most infamous act (appearing on the cover of Playboy at the age of 54), failed to ignite much interest in her new output, this was offset by a resurgence of enthusiasm for her back catalogue. Re-issues label, Sundazed, picked over her work, re-issuing a series of her albums on both vinyl and CD, though it turns out that Sinatra was dissatisfied with the releases.
“The Sundazed reissues were a tremendous help,” she reflects, “but they did a number of things that I didn’t like. They insisted on keeping the recordings in mono, which was the way they were originally released. The way these songs were recorded had the voice on one channel and the band on the other. When I heard ‘How Does It Grab You’ in a department store, you could hear me in the men’s department and the instrumental track in the women’s!”
“I now own the rights to all my albums and I am still hoping that someone will reissue the older albums properly, and I also hope to make them available through iTunes.” Prior to the intervention of Morrissey and Sanctuary, Sinatra encountered a number of barriers to her re-emergence in the market place. Both record labels and the press appeared reluctant to engage – and her last album, a reunion with Hazelwood (‘Nancy and Lee 3’) was released only in Australia.
“It is difficult to know what is age appropriate when you are over 60,” she reflects. “Here the critics tend to savage people over 60 – look at someone like Mick Jagger. In Europe I have found people much more interested: they have done their homework. They know that there is more to me than my father and ‘These Boots Are Made For Walkin.’’”
The turning point came when Morrissey, as part of his career rehabilitating deal with Sanctuary, was offered his own label (the revived reggae imprint, Attack) and he facilitated the release of Sinatra’s version of his composition, “Let Me Kiss You.”
“The album came about through a mixture of co-incidences,” she says. “Ironically, Morrissey was writing ‘Let Me Kiss You” and I was doing an album. I had also started sending mp3s back and forwards to the band Reno in Liverpool. They had sampled me on some of their work and we had kept in touch and they started writing some songs for me. The end result was that we were able to release something on Attack and get Sanctuary to commit to doing the album.”
Simultaneously, Nancy and AJ set to work on emptying their contact books to come up with a stellar list of collaborators for the remaining tracks on the album. Highlights come in the shape of the aforementioned single, 2 contributions from Jarvis Cocker and the opening, “Burnin’ Down The Spark,” written by Calexico. Among the other tracks are “Two Shots of Happy, One Shot of Sad,” a Bono/ The Edge composition.
“AJ made got in touch with some of the younger who contributed,” she says, “and I spoke to Bono to ask permission to use the song he had written for my Dad. I also spoke to my old friend, Steve Van Zandt, about getting a song from him.” “I think all the writers really knew my catalogue. The Calexico track really captures the Billy Strange feel (he arranged many of the sixties’ hits and was part of her touting band/ orchestra), while Jarvis has gone for the over-the-top feel of the Lee Hazelwood songs, particularly lyrically. He worked on them with Richard Hawley, who is also an amazing musician and is supporting me on the European dates.”
For a sixty-four year old, it would appear that Sinatra has a solid grasp of contemporary music: few others would be able to align Bono and Sonic Youth or Mick Hucknall and fellow Mancunians, Doves, who along with Elvis Costello, Billy Idol and Debbie Harry have all contributed to her next batch of recordings. “That is mainly down to my daughters,” she laughs.
“Otherwise, I would be completely out of touch. I still love listening to music and hearing new things, though I am maybe a little behind. I have recently been listening to Franz Ferdinand, who are great, and Avril Lavigne, who is young and has both truth and time on her side.” “Having daughters has been fantastic in that respect. Amanda introduced me to people like the Beastie Boys and Queen Latifah. She also had a poster of The Smiths above her bed for years, which is how I first became aware of Morrissey.”
In spite of the acclaim enjoyed by ‘Nancy Sinatra,’ there remains uncertainty over her recording and touring future – her insecurity brought on by a combination of age and the abortive release of her three previous albums – “One More Time,” “California Girl” and “Nancy and Lee 3.” Tellingly, Sanctuary has yet to commit to another album in the wake of unspectacular sales.
“In a lot of respects, I have been looking for recognition as much as sales,” she explains, “and one of the best things that has happened in the last twelve months was when Billboard magazine named the album in its top ten albums of the year. That’s all I needed – someone to say that it was good work.” Recognising that age and profit margins are a barrier to substantial touring in Europe, she acknowledges that this, her second visit to Scotland, may be her last. “We were overwhelmed by the response when we visited Edinburgh (in 2002),” she recalls. The Liquid Rooms was very loud and packed, and everyone seemed to be drinking, singing and carrying on. Even the Lord Provost was there – it was hilarious and fun. I am sure Glasgow will be the same, if that is anything to go by, and I am hoping that we might even have a few hours this time to get out into the countryside.”
She promises old hits (“I couldn’t not do them, that’s what people are expecting”) and tracks from the recent album at the forthcoming shows, but it encapsulates the severe bout of career insecurity at the heart of her current work. Nancy Sinatra has made an album to be proud of and has a back catalogue that many of her contemporaries would kill for, yet the confidence she lacks in her present seems tied up with her recent experiences.
Typically, she appears concerned by the prospect of selling sufficient tickets for the Carling Academy show: “Oh, I hope it is not too big,” she exclaims. “We have trouble selling tickets.”