Folking Around

Witty onstage and cheerful in life, folk singer Cheryl Wheeler can offer both a song and an opinion with a smile

Interview by Randy Shulman
Published on January 19, 2012, 4:19am | Comments

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MW: Did you play the D.C. area early on?

WHEELER: Not too much. The folk music scene in the early '70s was pretty much dead in D.C. -- everything was disco. I moved up to New England in '76 because I had realized that I was gay, and my mother had passed away, my father had remarried, and I didn't know how to incorporate this into my father's family. So I just decided to leave. My best friend, Michael, a gay guy who is no longer with us, lived in Providence [R.I.] and I went up there and was going to stay there for two weeks and then go on to Nashville, but I just fell in love with Providence. For a long time I did bar gigs where I hauled my own sound system and set it up and stuff. It seems so long ago. When Dan Seals had a No. 1 country hit with a song of mine called ''Addicted,'' that was a huge boost for me. Soon after that, Susie Boggus had a big hit with a cover of my song, ''Aces."

MW: Would you say songwriting comes naturally to you?

WHEELER: When I was in fifth grade we had an assignment to write a poem. I wrote one, and was like, ''Oh, I love this.'' And then I wrote another one, and then another one. When I was 10 years old, my second favorite book was The Golden Book of Poetry. I would sit on the floor in front of it and make up melodies to my favorite poems. I'm just kinda thinking about this now that you're asking it so I guess it was natural to me. I was 10 years old and was singing my favorite poems. I still like to write lyrics, poems. I love words.

MW: You are known in your stage shows for your extreme casualness as well as your engaging rapport with the audience.

WHEELER: I am definitely very casual. I wear sweatpants to my gigs. If I'm dressed up, I feel insincere. I hate being dressed up. I look like Klinger when I'm dressed up. I just don't do it. I try to be presentable – and I'm always clean – but I just wear T-shirts.

And yeah, I hope that I have a good rapport with the audience. I want them to think that I'm no different than them. I don't want to be other than the audience. We're all the same. I mean I'm up here playing guitar and singing, but I don't feel that I'm somehow exceptional and different from the audience. It's uncomfortable to feel apart. I literally always make them turn the stage lights down. I hate bright lights in my eyes, and if I'm in a club and they can't turn them down, I make them turn them off and just turn the house lights up, so we're all in the same light.

MW: Are you finding that Internet music services like Pandora and Spotify are ultimately good for artists?

WHEELER: I'm going to assume that they are good, yes, but I've never given it any thought. I've had a lot of discussions recently about kids today, how they're always locked to their devices and everything. I think that these devices will ultimately affect our evolution, but I think it's just a change, just the next step. You can't call it bad. I'm sure people were flipping out when Guttenberg invented the printing press because, Oh, my God, now people are going to have their noses buried in books! These kids today are the first generation ever in the history of the world who are almost never really alone. They can communicate with one another all the time. That's never happened before.

MW: You're married.

WHEELER: Yeah. We got married 10 days after it was legal in Massachusetts. It became legal on May 17, 2004, and we got married on the 27th.

MW: How long had you been together prior to that?

WHEELER: On and off we'd known each other a long time, but we cohabitated in '97.

MW: So, did it change anything for you for the relationship, symbolically or otherwise?

WHEELER: If it did, it was a positive change. Even when I was a little kid, I knew I wasn't going to get married, though I didn't know why. It's not just one of the things that's gonna be in your life's passing. You don't ever give it another thought. I've always loved that Joni Mitchell line, ''We don't need no piece of paper from the City Hall,'' and that's kinda the way I felt about it. What difference does it make? Well, it made a big difference. Not in the relationship, but in the way that each of us felt as we faced the world, that, ''Wow, it's so cool. We are official.'' I love it.


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