The first thing you notice when chatting with Berlin’s Terri Nunn is her laugh. It’s big and infectious. You get the feeling that she could tell the world’s worst joke but her punchline laughter would have you doubling over right alongside her. The next thing you notice is her honesty, her nonchalant comfortability talking about herself and her songs. She is bold and she is quiet. And if the only song you know her for is Top Gun’s soaring “Take My Breath Away,” you have missed out on one of the most interesting voices in music. Breaking through in the electronic dance explosion of the eighties before metal and grunge virtually wiped it out, Nunn has survived. Holding her chin high, she kept singing, did some acting and continues to host a radio program on Saturday nights.
With a fascinating new album titled Animal dropping into our laps last week, that boldness that sparks through every ounce of Nunn’s psyche, comes into full wide-screen 3-D Technicolor. On songs like the energetic title track, “Break The Chains,” “With The Lights On,” a cover of Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody To Love” and the lilting “It’s The Way,” you marvel at how her voice still sounds so fresh, new and young. While she was enjoying an “absolutely gorgeous” day at her home in California, I asked her about this anomaly before digging in and talking about the honesty in her music.
Your voice sounds so vibrant on Animal. How did you find the fountain of youth?
Wow, I’ve never been asked that before. How do I keep my voice sounding like the fountain of youth? First, I’d have to say love. I love what I’m doing. My mom used to tell me that, cause she was so beautiful so long and as you know a person, especially women, for a long time, for decades, if they’re healthy and they’re happy, you see them go through different stages of beautiful. They’re this kind of beautiful at twenty and then they’re this kind of beautiful at forty. And I watched her until she passed, she was seventy-nine. So I saw so many different aspects of her and one of the things she told me early on is that the best beauty secret is to be happy. You can eat all the right stuff and exercise and all that but if you’re not happy it shows up. It’s on your face and it kind of tears you down. So I would have to say for me she’s right because I follow that and I love what I do. I follow my passions and it really does rejuvenate me and make me feel alive in a way that no food or exercise does. So that would be number one.
Two, I do watch what I eat now. I quit smoking in my early thirties and that changed the whole playing field for me. I didn’t even know the kind of range that I had because I started smoking at fourteen years old. So all through the early days of Berlin and the first decade and a half, I was a smoker. It limited what I could do and when I quit and started to get healthy, became a vegetarian, started exercising – cause when I smoked I didn’t care so that changed cause when you quit smoking I got like an extra butt (laughs). I just started getting fat and so the exercise had to get started and that helped, I still do that; I have to do that, especially as I get older.
What else? I don’t know, I have some steady sex with my man (laughs). I’ve been with him for fifteen years and I love it. I can’t believe I still want to have sex with him after this long. I mean, you hope you will when you get married but it’s still kind of daunting, like, wow, it’s just this one guy forever? (laughs) He’s got quite a few things that keep me feeling good (laughs)
Why did you go back into the studio with Berlin and not have this be a Terri Nunn solo CD instead?
Because I wanted the sound of Berlin to be part of this particular album. If it was Terri Nunn, then it could be pretty much anything. But I really wanted the Berlin stamp on this kind of music that I wanted to do. So that’s why I decided to go forward with making it a Berlin album.
What about this kind of music – the synth-heavy dance music – got under your skin that made you want to do this kind of music over other genres?
It’s more interesting to me. It has more possibilities to me. I think that’s probably what drew me to it in the beginning as well. When I first met John Crawford, it wasn’t even going on in America. It was going on overseas but when I heard what he was doing and I mean, he had like the first synthesizers and I heard the sounds it could make and I heard the drum machines and the different sounds they could have. And it was fascinating to me that instead of having four instruments like rock & roll has, you know, bass, drums, guitar and keyboards with the vocal, we could have all kinds of different sounds and we could create soundscapes that had never been heard before. That is what interested me about it and still does. God, that was back in 1979 when I met him.
Now, it’s even bigger. Now, the stuff we can do on a record and live is exponentially increased. So now that toy box that I have to play with is even bigger. And that to me makes electronic music infinitely more interesting than rock & roll. I love rock & roll, I grew up on it, we all did, but it’s limited, limited just by the nature of what it is. It only has certain sounds. A guitar can only sound a few different ways and there’s a few different guitarists that sound different from each other. But it’s still not that different, you know what I mean. Whereas electronics can have any sound and make it anything. I love it, it’s fascinating. I’m endlessly fascinated by it.
What’s interesting, especially with you, is that there are all these sounds but your lyrics are still meaningful. They’re not just no-nonsense bubblegum. You sing about a lot of very personal things and that’s a big difference.
That’s what attracted me to music in the beginning was the messages as well as the music itself. It was the messages in it. I would listen to this stuff, and I was just talking to my brother yesterday and we were marveling at how The Beatles, how many powerful messages they put in their songs. And they would do it with such like innocuous music. Like the most important line you can ever learn in your life is “All you need is love” and they put it to this lilting, laughing kind of music. (singing) “All you need is love.” I mean, they just made it this happy little romp so that it gets in there in your brain. But it’s a message that is the most powerful message we can ever learn. All you need is love, love is it, love is God, love is everything. I mean, that’s just the most powerful thing in the world. And that kind of thing for me is what’s great about music, that it can be a vehicle for philosophy, for messages.
That’s what I grew up listening to over and over and over, and learning how to think and how to act and so for me, I think that’s why I’ve kept going in music, kept going with Berlin and thinking, “Ok, we have a place in EDM music too.” Because not only have we always been an electronic band but I see that missing in a lot of it. A lot of young people do EDM music now and there isn’t a lot of messages because they’re twenty, you know what I mean (laughs). I didn’t either. I didn’t have much to say. I was twenty. I wanted to have sex all the time, I wanted to go party all the time, that’s what twenty year olds do. You just basically look good and strike a pose and shut the fuck up, cause that’s really what your twenties are about. We look great but I was an idiot. I didn’t know what I was doing. So now, with the whole dance scene now, I feel that I can add the messages of experience and of life that I’ve learned that might make it a little bit more interesting to listen to. Like The Beatles did. It was just more interesting to listen to them cause they weren’t talking about nothing.
Did you ever feel like maybe you were going too far in any of your lyrics?
There was a time that I did go too far. It was right after I left Berlin and I was working on material for the solo album in the early nineties and I was writing this stuff and I remember playing it for my best friend Lorraine because she was a good person to bounce music off of, because she was my age and because of that and her honesty, she was a target audience, she was someone that would tell me if it resonated with her or not. And I was writing this dark shit, because I felt lost, you know. I’d been in Berlin forever and I didn’t know where I was going and I was scared and I had a relationship with a married man and it went awful as usual but I was an idiot and I did it anyway. So I was suicidal at one point and I was writing this stuff that was so dark and she listened to it and she said, “Terri, I know this is what you’re feeling but I don’t really want to go there. I don’t want to buy an album and feel like this.” For her, it was too far. So I got it, it can go too far. Yes, it can.
Like what you and I were talking about earlier. If I’m going to go there, there has to be a point. It can’t just be, “Oh my God, my life fucking sucks.” You can’t leave it there. I remember there was another female artist and I would listen to her album. She used to be really good but then this one album she came out with was like every song was, “My life sucks, I’m a drug addict, I’m a victim, the record label is screwing me over” and every song was like that. And I was like, why am I listening to this? What’s the point? What am I supposed to learn from this? So that’s where I went about myself, that if I’m going to go dark, there needs to be a message in there that’s empowering or loving or there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. There has to be something, there has to be a point.
With Animal, did you have a lot of songs to choose from or were these twelve tunes basically it?
Yeah, I’m not someone that just writes and writes and writes and writes. There were a couple we didn’t put on the album but it wasn’t like, “Oh my God, we have fifty songs so let’s just pick these twelve.” No, we probably had, I don’t know, fourteen or fifteen songs maybe and narrowed it down to that.
Who did you co-write with?
The one that you would know the most is probably John King from the Dust Brothers. He’s well-known for his productions with Beck and the Beastie Boys and the Rolling Stones and the Fight Club. He’s just a brilliant composer of music and when I heard his stuff as a possibility to co-write with him, I was pretty excited cause he’s so cutting edge and I was hearing things I’d never heard before. It really was exciting.
Then I met Derek Cannavo through another writer friend of mine who is more of a rock writer. He writes with Aerosmith, has had hits with them, and Sheryl Crow and his name is Marti Frederiksen and he’s more rock than I wanted to go so he said, “I know this guy, I know this kid, and he’s from this band called Elogy and I think his stuff might be what you’re looking for.” So I listened, he played me just a piece of music that ended up being “With The Lights On.” And I just heard this music and said, “Holy shit, I love this.” So he came over and we hit it off and the first song that we wrote together was “Animal.” When that came out we were both like, “Fuck me, hello,” so I basically like chained him to my office desk and didn’t let him leave (laughs). So we went on to write quite a few more songs and I think five of them are on the album; ended up being half the album.
And then Bryan Todd, who wrote the first single, “It’s The Way.” That was the last song that we did and that was back in January, because the label said, “Well, we need another ballad” and I thought, well, you’re not going to get one. Derek’s gone, Derek Cannavo had left for Nashville to do another project and I said, “You know, it’s really hard to find goods songs. I don’t think you’re going to find it, especially if you want to put it out this year.” I mean, they wanted to put it out even earlier than September. And my manager said, “Well, just give me a minute” and in a week he sent me Bryan Todd. He sent me some sketches he had done and I went, wow, I really like this one song. So yeah, we banged that out in two days. That was wonderful.
And I was just kind of writing stuff, trying to find some collaborations that would really spark something and “Mom” came from a lady named Beth Waters. She sent me the song and I just fell in love with this song and I said, “I would really like to write to that,” cause my mom had died. She sent it to me in 2008 and my mom had died in 2007. So it was the perfect time to address that for me.
Was it hard?
Yeah, it was hard but it was great. It was the first time I’d ever written anything about her. Then “Blame It On The World,” I wrote for my solo album in the early nineties. That was about my dad and that was hard. It was so hard I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t put it on the record, I didn’t want to sing it, I didn’t want to play it; just dealing with the memory of him was too hard for me to want to actually perform it. But I’m a different person now. I’ve gone through a lot of forgiveness for him and myself and it’s ok now. I’m different, I’m better, a lot has gone through. You go through a lot and realize people are doing the best they can.
You have also finally recorded “Somebody To Love,” which you have been performing. What made Grace Slick stand out to you above all the other female singers you heard when you were first starting out?
She was ballsy. She was as strong on stage and in her person as the men were. In those days, that was not happening. Nobody was doing that. The big singers of the time were Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro, Joan Baez. Janis Joplin was pretty strong. She was ballsy but it was Grace for me. It was like, she’s taking her top off on stage, she’s flipping people off and just like, “fuck you.” I mean, she was the epitome of what I was hoping I could do but didn’t really see out there. She was the first time I saw it. I wanted to be a man. I wanted to do what the guys were doing. But I didn’t really see a role model until Grace. And that woman, she was everything to me. I wanted to be her. I want to do that.
I was so fortunate because about a year or two years ago, she agreed to let me interview her for my show in exchange for, she was doing a song for Hurricane Katrina victims to raise some money. So she asked if I would guest on the song and in return I would get to interview her for two hours on my show. And that to me was, wow, you could have knocked me over with a feather.
What did you think when you finally met her?
She was awesome. I think she is the most honest; you know, she just tells it like it is. She’s always come across that way, like, “I got nothing to lose, you don’t like it, tough. This is who I am.” And it’s honest and it’s heartfelt, it’s loving. She does not sing anymore. She paints. Her hair is completely white. She smokes like a chimney still (laughs). But she is a huge animal rights activist. She put things together to help people but she has no interest in the spotlight really anymore. It was wonderful to have some time with her and get to ask her everything I wanted.
You’re not exactly a wallflower on stage either. Have you always had that kind of persona or did you go through some awkward years like the rest of us when we were young?
Oh yeah, lots of awkward years. Who doesn’t? (laughs) Do you know anybody that sailed through without an awkward year? (laughs) And everybody’s timing is different. Like my brother was just a star in school. He was a god. He was such a god in school that UCLA out here wanted to meet me because I was his sister. They were hoping that they would get him and if not him, then at least me; only because I was his sister. That was so intimidating. I think it was helpful, though, cause I was not great in school. I was not like a star in any way. But I thought, fuck you, I’m going to get my own thing going. I’m going to be good at something of mine and it’s going to be music and so there (laughs). And then I just tried harder to have my own like star quality in something because my brother was such a big shot that I couldn’t live up to that.
What was harder: Being a singer or being an actress?
For me, being an actress because I don’t love that life. It’s not for me. It’s a great life. I mean, it’s a lot of money and there are aspects to it that are wonderful but for me I’m not a morning person. And you’ve got to be a morning person because, especially women actors, you need to be first there in make-up and hair; and if you want to be a star, then you’ve got to be there for eleven hours at a time, sitting around the lot and then getting to act a few minutes a day. Plus, you’ve got to have a thick skin. I didn’t like to constantly have to get a new job. Every time a movie was over or TV episode, then I was back trying to get another job. Get an audition somewhere. It’s hard. For me, it wasn’t my thing. I’m a night person and music is a night job. I like having a job, I like running my own job (laughs). So this is better for me.
What was it like working with producer and songwriter Giorgio Moroder? He was a big deal back when you were working with him.
He’s a fucking big deal, man. That guy is a genius. To me, in fact to a lot of musicians, he’s as big as Prince. He was that kind of guy. He could play, he could write, he could produce. He wasn’t a singer, thank God, or I wouldn’t have gotten a chance to work with him. He was a sound that everybody wanted: Bowie, Blondie, movie people from Flashdance to Top Gun. We all wanted his sound. We all wanted to work with him, just to get a little piece of him; because everybody sounded like him. He wasn’t a producer that made you sound like you. If you worked with him, you sounded like him. And that was fine with us. John and I were like on our knees, like, “Please work with us, please.” (laughs) And he finally said yes and we got one song. We got “No More Words” because that’s all we could afford. He was so huge that there was no way we could afford a whole album so he agreed to do the one song. And luckily, while we were doing that one song, Top Gun came into his life and they asked him to produce it. So he came in one day with “Take My Breath Away” and asked me if I wanted to sing it and if the band wanted to be part of it.
In your opinion, as a performer, what is your greatest asset and what is your weakest link?
My greatest asset is probably one of my weakest links in my personal life. My greatest asset as a performer on stage is my connection to the crowd, my connection to the people. When there is music playing, I find it so easy to connect with people and look into people’s eyes and to really enjoy the music together and get off on the people and the people getting off on me. Just that whole connective thing is easy for me in that setting. And yet, connection is one of the hardest things in my life that I’ve had to learn to do in my personal life. One on one relationships and friendship and marriage, it’s hard. So it would also be one of my weakest links in my life too. It’s the same thing, but just more in the personal relationship area.
Why don’t you tell us what you have planned for the rest of the year.
Well, basically, playing as much as I can in America and overseas, because I love this music and I want as many people as possible to hear it. I can’t tell if they’ll like it or not but I want people to be aware of it and hopefully they’ll like it. That’s my plan.
And what about your radio show?
That’s every Saturday night on 88.5 KCSN. You can also stream it and hear it online or hear the archives. It’s every Saturday night from 10:00 to Midnight and it’s at www.kcsn.org.