News Column

At home with Terri Nunn, a soccer mom and rock star with a new album

September 13, 2013

YellowBrix

Sept. 13--To hear Terri Nunn tell it, her stint spinning electronic dance records at a small campus radio station just over the hills from her Ventura County home inspired her to put out a new album with her longtime band Berlin.

Playing cutting-edge electronic dance tunes from 10 p.m.-midnight Saturdays on KCSN 88.5 FM on the Cal State Northridge campus sparked a writing and recording frenzy that took up much of last year.

"In electronic dance music, there is so much of where Berlin came from, but they are doing so much new stuff with it," Nunn explained during a recent interview at her tastefully appointed hilltop home overlooking the Santa Rosa Valley, where she's lived for more than a year after 11 years in Agoura Hills.

"And," Nunn continued, "I thought to myself, 'Wow, there's something I can do with this. I can contribute.' "

The result is "Animal," the new 11-track CD that drops next Tuesday. It's the band's seventh studio album and the first since 2005's "4Play."

Though "Animal" is bathed in dance grooves, there are enough past echoes to satisfy fans of Berlin's 1980s heyday, when the synth pop-New Wave band reeled off a string of hits including "The Metro," "No More Words," "Sex (I'm A )," "Masquerade" and. of course, "Take My Breath Away," the smash 1986 No. 1 love ballad and Oscar-winning song that made them international superstars and anchored the blockbuster Tom Cruise-Kelly McGillis movie "Top Gun."

It's been a long ride on various metros for Nunn, who's found out that being a pop superstar and an actress -- she once auditioned to be Princess Leia in "Star Wars" -- isn't all peaches and dreams.

These days, she's part singer, part soccer mom. As KCSN promos tout, she still radiates smarts, sass and sexiness -- the last of which practically drips from the new album, especially the title track.

In the comfort of her living room, she told stories, frequently threw her head back and enjoyed a good laugh. Her buoyant 8-year-old daughter, Natalie, darted in from time to time and provided some of the amusement.

"I'm a happier person now; for me, every decade has gotten better," said the 52-year-old Nunn.

'Animal' roars to life

Nunn said it was her dream growing up in Los Angeles to be a DJ -- if that singing thing didn't work out. Early last year, she took the KCSN gig, where she plays the likes of Skrillex, Metric, Bloc Party, new Nine Inch Nails, Smokey Jones (a female singer she likes) and Kate Bush.

Soon, tunes were dancing in her head.

She collaborated with a pair of songwriters, the first being John King of Dust Brothers fame, the award-winning producers who've worked with Beck, the Beastie Boys and The Rolling Stones.

She then was introduced to a young songwriter named Derek Cannavo, and the album really got rolling. They wrote seven songs together, a process Nunn described as intense, crazy and intimate.

"It was a love relationship, but it was all musical," she said. "When I hear his stuff, I get off."

The album was recorded hodgepodge in several different studios in Hollywood, West Los Angeles and Huntington Beach.

"Some of the vocals were done right here in my office," Nunn said, motioning downstairs. "It's so portable now."

The ballad "It's the Way" is the album's first single -- picked by the record label, Nunn said, because she and Berlin are still known globally for "Take My Breath Away."

The title track "Animal," the first song Nunn wrote with Cannavo, undoubtedly will be the second single. It's about Nunn's desire for sex to be intensely physical.

Nunn has never been afraid to embrace her sexual being.

"I think I had it easier than many people because I grew up with parents who were more progressive than most," she said. "They were not particularly religious. They didn't say sex was bad. My dad painted nude models in the house, so that was a normal thing. I grew up in this environment where sex was a beautiful and wonderful thing."

She's also never shied away from writing about it. Berlin's first dent in the pop zeitgeist was the seductive 1982 single "Sex (I'm A )," a tune Nunn says was about her fear of being stuck in a sexual rut with her then-boyfriend.

"So I said, 'Let's role play,' " she recalled. "Let's try something, like you're a pirate and I'm a damsel in distress. I wrote the whole song based on that conversation. And he's the guy, he kept saying, 'But I'm a man. I'm a man.' It was my f--- you to him. Guys don't think girls think that way, but we do."

Personal notes

Elsewhere on "Animal," the raciness continues on "With the Lights On," a song about how much Nunn likes a striptease from her guy. It and songs such as "Nice to Meet You" and "Secrets" keep up the set's dance-friendly vibe, and "Don't Make Me Regret It" is a power-poppish tune that builds musical tension nicely.

Nunn also put in songs about her parents. "Blame It On the World" is about her dad, Larry Nunn, who before he was a painter was a contract child actor for MGM.

Nunn trotted out a video montage she plays in concert with the song that shows her dad with Spencer Tracy in "Men of Boys Town" and Judy Garland in "Strike Up the Band" in the early 1940s.

Her dad, she said quietly, had lots of issues. He was an alcoholic and committed suicide when she was 14 (after learning he had terminal cancer). He had just broken up with her mother, Joyce, a professional astrologer who wrote books.

Her father's death hit hard, she said, "but I also was relieved he was out of the house. It had gotten that bad. The war was over."

"Mom" is a poignant song that contains the line "God knows if you were crazy, but I loved the way you raised me." Her mother passed away several years ago. Losing her, Nunn said, was "very tough."

The album also includes a funked-up version of the popular 1967 Jefferson Airplane classic "Somebody to Love."

That song, the title track and others figure to be part of the playlist Dec. 6 when Berlin plays The Canyon in Agoura Hills. "It's a hometown crowd," Nunn noted. "It's a lot of fun."

Nunn was joined on "Animal" by Berlin bandmates Carlton Bost (guitars), Dave Schulz (keyboards) and Chris Olivas (drums). Berlin has had several lineups over the years; even in its heyday, Nunn noted, the only constants were herself and co-founder/original bassist John Crawford.

Pros and cons of a smash

Berlin's 1980s rise coincided with the rise of MTV and music videos as pop culture forces. Berlin adopted a Bonnie-and-Clyde motif for "No More Words."

The band was hot, and it was exciting. But, Nunn said, it got to be too much. It was a cycle of records, hits, tours, come back, do another record, repeat. They were pushed hard.

"I hit the wall," she said. "We were on this schedule that never stops. We were kids; we didn't understand it. It was nonstop. My friends left me, and I had no relationship because I was never here (in L.A.) long enough.

"I learned that ballads don't hug me at night," she continued. "I learned that records don't hug me at night."

As "Take My Breath Away" exploded into the international pop scene, the band "just kind of blew apart," Nunn recalled. Crawford, Nunn said, didn't like the song's production; it was composed by famed record producer Giorgio Moroder.

"And," Nunn added, "nothing excited me anymore because I just wanted to get off that train."

Nunn left the band for a solo career in 1987, not long after the song won an Oscar. She wouldn't re-form Berlin until the late 1990s.

Looking back, Nunn said she loved the opportunity to do the song with Moroder. He was, she recalled, asked by Paramount Pictures to do the soundtrack for "Top Gun," and sought someone to sing "Take My Breath Away."

Nunn was not his first choice; among the others was her good friend and former Ventura resident Martha Davis of Motels fame. At some point, Moroder asked her if she wanted to do it. "I told him, 'Basically, anything you would (write), I would sing.' "

Now, the song is a requisite in her sets, and friends and family members still ask her to perform it at weddings. Nunn said she's grateful, and also has noticed something.

"When I do it," she said, "I watch a whole room go to this other place, to their feelings and memories of it. I watch people go into their moment with the song; I get to see where they were at that time."

And, she said with a laugh, she's learned not to do it early in the show.

"In some parts of the world," she giggled, "I've literally had the whole room get up and leave after they hear that song."

Exit stage left

Nunn's acting career started in her midteens and overlapped the early days of Berlin. She did one-offs on such then-popular TV shows as "Barnaby Jones," "Lou Grant," "Trapper John, M.D." and "T.J. Hooker."

She also was in the film "Thank God It's Friday" with Jeff Goldblum, Debra Winger and Donna Summer. Fans, she advised, can watch her Princess Leia "Star Wars" audition on YouTube by Googling her name and "screen test."

She found out acting wasn't her thing.

"I realized that it's a craft, a difficult craft," she said. "It looks and sounds easy, but it's not. The hours, having to get up at 4 in the morning to be somewhere so they can put two hours of makeup on me, it got to me. I'm not a morning person."

And she wanted to be a singer. Acting, she said, did teach her how to focus her emotions into a several-minute scene, akin to what a pop song is.

The long view

Soon the real world intervened, and Nunn sounded like any suburban soccer mom. It was time to take Natalie to practice.

"Did you eat? Do you wanna bring a sandwich?" Nunn called down a hallway.

Nunn also has two stepsons -- Dean, 21, and Kenny, 18 -- from her marriage to Paul Spear, who is in family law.

"When I met him, he was a mortgage broker, I was getting a divorce and he showed up to sell the house (in Bel-Air) for me," Nunn recalled. "Somehow, my mom had met him. She told me, 'You gotta go out with this guy, he's a hunk.' And I was like, 'Awww, mom.' Three years later, we were married."

Soccer beckoned. Nunn gazed out a large window looking west past the Santa Rosa Valley. In the distance, the Channel Islands were visible.

"What a view," she remarked. "It's gorgeous here. The weather is great, the people are nice and it's not too crowded. This is my dream house. This is it. I love living out here."

She sounded content -- not that the pop star thing won't intervene now and then. Nunn said she has no grand plans beyond "Animal" and a tour that will start late this year and take Berlin overseas.

"It's hard to say how this ride is gonna go," she said. "If the album hits big, it could be the next two years of my life."

Berlin

The band will perform at the Flashback Jack concert Sept. 21 at Honda Center in Anaheim. The 4:45 p.m. show also will feature Blondie, Rick Springfield, Adam Ant, The Psychedelic Furs, The Fixx and Sugarhill Gang. Tickets are $36-$101 via Ticketmaster, 800-745-3000 or www.ticketmaster.com.

Berlin also will perform at 9 p.m. Dec. 6 at The Canyon in Agoura Hills. Tickets are $25 and $50. Call 818-879-5016 or visit canyonclub.net.

Berlin's website is berlinpage.com.

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(c)2013 Ventura County Star (Camarillo, Calif.)

Visit Ventura County Star (Camarillo, Calif.) at www.vcstar.com

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