Nancy Sinatra: ‘Shifting Gears,’ but still walking tall
‘Are you ready, boots?”
With those four little words, Nancy Sinatra secured her place in the pantheon of classic 1960s pop songs. An anthem for the ages, “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’ ” helped to define both the era and its singer, and Sinatra went on to a colorful career that rippled beyond her sex-symbol status and famous pedigree as Frank Sinatra’s daughter.
On Tuesday, Sinatra will release her latest album, “Shifting Gears,” which gathers unreleased material from her vaults (and by “vaults,” she means boxes in her garage). The album, out on Sinatra’s own Boots Enterprises Inc. label, features her tender renditions of pop songs from the early ’70s (“Killing Me Softly With His Song”) and old Broadway shows with sweeping orchestral arrangements by Billy Strange.
On the phone recently from her Los Angeles home, Sinatra, 73, reflected on the new record, the importance of preserving her father’s legacy, her chemistry with the late, great Lee Hazlewood, and why, after all these years, she still appeals to newer generations.
Q. You recorded some of the tracks for this new album starting in the ’70s. What surprised you about the songs when you revisited them?
A. The collection of composers on this album is eclectic. You’ve got Rodgers and Hammerstein, Cole Porter, Jimmy Webb, Neil Sedaka, Neil Diamond, such a cross section of brilliant writers. Maybe the surprise comes in how well they actually fit together.
Q. In 2004, you released a self-titled album with songs written by the likes of Morrissey, Bono, Jarvis Cocker, and Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore. Were you prepared for how well it did?
A. The self-titled album was a revelation to me. My daughter A. J. pulled that together. I used to always complain that musicians hate me. I was talking about my peers. I would meet someone like Stevie Nicks, and she wouldn’t give me the cold shoulder, exactly, but she wasn’t friendly. With people like Stevie Nicks — the in crowd, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame crowd — I’m like Rodney Dangerfield: I got no respect from them. A. J. said, “Mom, you don’t get it. You’re talking to the wrong musicians.” And she pulled in Sonic Youth, Jon Spencer, Pete Yorn, Calexico. Morrissey I already knew.
Q. There’s a great clip on YouTube of you performing “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” live with Wilco over the summer. What is it about your legacy that intrigues younger artists and fans?
A. I think it’s probably Lee Hazlewood. He was kind of an idol to those kids. I think it was in 1995, I said, “Listen, we’re getting ancient. We gotta do this one more time.” I dragged him out on the road, and we did a bunch of one-nighters. We did one at the Limelight in New York, and it was an astonishing situation. We set it up so that I would open the show, and then I would get to the part [she sings], “Strawberries, cherries, and an angel’s kiss in spring” [from “Summer Wine”], and then Lee would walk out onstage. Well, you would think that building was going to fall down and implode on all these people. He was thrilled because they just worshiped that man. He was good at pretending to be a hillbilly, a know-nothing, but he was an intellectual and brilliant and they knew it. That’s the thing about discerning young people: They can tell, they know the real deal.
Q. In retrospect, your work with Hazlewood, especially songs like “Some Velvet Morning” and “Summer Wine,” were really out of step with your peers back then. What made your chemistry with Lee so special?
A. I always thought that Lee was a fairy-tale writer. He wrote children’s stories, and then when he put them to music, they had a certain connotation. But then when we did them together, it became a chemical thing. It turned from a sweet little fairy tale to a sexual fantasy. And the thing was, we didn’t have a sexual relationship, Lee and I.
I think a lot of the reason why we had the sound and chemistry we had on record was because we didn’t. It was implied and inferred, but it never happened. It was a very cool phenomenon, and I’m glad I was a part of it.
Q. At that same show with Wilco, you also did “Boots,” and you introduced it by saying, “Well, I guess you know what’s coming next.” How do you describe your relationship with that song at this point?
A. I love it. I’m joined at the hip with it. If someone wants me to do a charity event, I could do just that one song and sell tickets. The thing is, I have the audiences sing it more than I sing it and they love being a part of it.
Q. You were 25 when you first recorded it. Did you ever imagine you’d be singing it into your 70s?
A. Well, yeah. I joke about it because I have a bad knee, and I say, “I’m going to be doing that song on a walker.” (Laughs.) My audiences would never allow me to get away with not doing it.
Q. You’ve been a tireless champion of your father’s legacy, particularly with the “Nancy for Frank” program you host on Sirius XM satellite radio. Do you relate to his music differently now than when you were a kid growing up with it?
A. I still love the Columbia [Records era of his] voice the best. But playing his music on my show, it’s hard for me to listen all the time. I sometimes will program a show and not actually listen to it again because it’s too painful, even now. His voice is in my head, anyway. I look at a song title, and I can hear his voice singing it, so I don’t really need to replay it.
Q. You’re talked about in so many different contexts, from your family to the impact you made with “Boots.” Do you think you’ve gotten your due as a musician in your own right?
A. Not yet, but maybe I haven’t earned it. It’s possible that my peers are right, that I don’t fit in in the upper echelon the way they do. I mean, I have pictures of Grammys [laughs]. You get a picture of a Grammy when you’re nominated, but I don’t have any of the real thing. That’s not what I’m in it for, anyway. The people who appreciate my work, I’ll be indebted to them till I die. Because that’s how I keep my flame burning.