Cindy Wilson is resplendent in a jeweled caftan, cat's-eye sunglasses, and a skyscraping platinum bouffant onstage at Boston's Symphony Hall, belting B-52's classics like "Roam" and "Love Shack" while the crowd dances along. She and her bandmates—the acid-tongued Fred Schneider and the ebullient Kate Pierson—are accompanied not only by the musicians who have backed them on their current fortieth-anniversary run but by the July 4th-celebrating masters of American music The Boston Pops. It's a sign that the music of The Bs, the party-rock outfit whose blend of space-age kitsch and post-punk muscle vaulted the band to the forefront of the Alternative Nation during the late eighties, has become part of the American pop firmament.
But Wilson isn't resting on her laurels. Over the past year, she's released two EPs, Sunrise in September and February's Supernatural, and they show a singer who's still pushing herself as a vocalist and an artist. While they come from the same place that the B-52's did all those years ago—expansive yet catchy songs that upend the idea of "pop" in thrilling ways—they're showing off different aspects of her artistry. They're dreamy and tinged with just enough distortion to be dubbed "psychedelic," allowing her voice to shape-shift into clouds of mist and plumes of smoke—very different shapes from her forceful work with The B-52's.
"I've surrendered a lot," Wilson says over the phone, hours before she takes the stage with the Pops. "I'm working with some really, really, really smart people, and I just listened to what they had to say. We were experimenting with styles, and I'd just go with the flow—it was like a school. I learned how to sing in a different way, which was really thrilling. It's really just so perfect, the way it came together."
Wilson's new collaborators come from Athens, Georgia, the musical mecca that spawned The Bs all those years ago, along with indie stalwarts like R.E.M., the found-sound spelunkers Olivia Tremor Control, and the enigmatic troubadour Vic Chesnutt.
A one-off Athens gig with local musicians Ryan Monahan (who's played with the Athens-based bands Easter Island and PacificUV) and Lemuel Hayes kicked off Wilson's solo career. "We were all in Georgia," she says, "and I founded them to be really excellent musicians and crackerjack about learning so quickly. They just know every detail of a song."
Eventually Wilson and her new musical partners landed at the studio of Suny Lyons, an Athens-based producer.
"It became apparent—really apparent, very quickly—that Suny had to be part of the project," Wilson recalls. "Another really bright, smart guy that was really crucial to what would later become our sound."
The sound of these two EPs—which Wilson will chase with a full-length later this year—is from a slightly spacier place than Wilson's other band, which is no stranger to the interplanetary realm. The opening track of Supernatural, "Frenzy,"has a gentle pulse, with Wilson existing on a plane above the distorted guitars; "Time"is a smeared fever dream where Wilson hovers like a spectre.
On Sunrise, Wilson and her collaborators cover the Danish disco pranksters Junior Senior, fellow Athenians Oh-OK, and British electro-experimentalists Broadcast, turning the raw materials of those disparate acts' material into ways for Wilson to test her voice's boundaries. With the latticework Broadcast cover "Corporeal," she takes a super-minimalist approach, but on the Junior Senior song, "Take My Time," Wilson lets just enough of her B-52's persona shine through in order to add a little muscle to her bandmates' groove. Wilson's version of Oh-OK's "Brother," meanwhile, sprung from a 2014 benefit at the storied Georgia Theatre in Athens, where local bands past and present paid tribute to one another.
"[That cover] was just unexpected," Wilson says. "It just turned out so well that we said, 'We'll have to record it.' That's the one that we put the crazy horns on—it's a juxtaposition to the soft little-girl vocal, which is demented yet really fun. I love it."
Even on tracks like the distortion-heavy "Brother," Wilson's more reserved vocals represent a marked shift from her more familiar persona.
"In the early days of The B-52's, I was punked out a little bit—screaming, yelping, making all these crazy sounds, and also singing harmonies," she says.
But she notes that working with Monahan and Lyons, as well as the other musicians who have assisted her on this year's EPs, represents a return to the days when she and her brother, the late B-52's founding member Ricky Wilson, would collaborate one on one.
"Ricky and I used to sit in his bedroom at our parents' house and sing folk songs, and he would write and tell me things to sing,"she recalls. "[Working with her new music partners] feels like I was working with my brother—it meant a lot to me to be able to go back and do this kind of thing."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Cosmic Things."